May 2006

Savor this collection of works like a box of fine chocolates

Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, edited by Andrea J. Buchanan and Amy Hudock, Ph.D., Seal Press, 2006; $14.95.

This collection is like a box of chocolates—rich, satisfying and full of unexpected treats. Editors Andrea J. Buchanan, author of Mother Shock (Seal Press, 2003) and Amy Hudock, who also edit the Literary Mama Web ’zine (, have concocted a delightful blend of the Web site’s best essays, short stories and poems. The book lets readers sample a bit of this, try out a bit of that until they glance guiltily at the clock and sigh, "I really should have put this down 20 minutes ago, but I couldn’t stop myself."

The book has laugh-out-loud essays such as Jennifer Eyre White’s "Analyzing Ben" in which she compares her daughter to her son. Lizbeth Finn-Arnold’s thought-provoking essay "Into the Woods" is like a creamy caramel, giving readers something to chew on as she reflects on her need for solitude while visiting Walden Pond—with her children in tow. Contrasting her brief visit with Henry David Thoreau’s two-year stay at the famous pond provides food for thought for any mom who’s struggled with the sticky issue of carving out "me" time in her busy schedule.

Literary Mama prides itself in sharing the voices of writers who explore ideas and emotions that may be outside the usual scope of commercial writing. Along these lines, consider an essay such as Heidi Raykeil’s honest recounting of the loss of her infant son, "Johnny," among the dark chocolates of the book.

And then there’s the poetry—the under-appreciated lemon crèmes of the literary world. This collection, however, offers enough variety to satisfy a range of palates.

The short stories are the mystery chocolates. If the reader takes the piece-by-piece approach to this book and digs in without consulting the table of contents, she can easily mistake some of the fiction for personal essays. It’s not bad—it just takes some readjustment. What? Sonya Huber mixed her father’s cremated remains with paint? Oh, phew, it’s just a short story.

It’s tempting to devour the entire book in one sitting, but there is so much to digest that it’s best to savor it over time. Regardless of how long it takes to read, Literary Mama makes a great, low-cal Mother’s Day gift. Kim Moldofsky

Light-hearted account works despite being cliché

Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road (and Other Lies I Tell My Children), by Susan Konig, St. Martin’s Press, 2005; $22.95.

Every parent needs good coping skills. This is a given. How else can you survive the myriad challenges thrown at you—from the toddler’s tantrum to the teen’s tantrum?

As the title suggests, author and mother of three, Susan Konig, has found one coping mechanism she’s not ashamed of—the fine art of lying or, as she states, of "buffering" her children from the "bad stuff." "Right now, their dad and I and the other grown-ups who love them can act as buffers until we just can’t buffer anymore. We’re the ones who are supposed to lie awake at night worrying. … They are supposed to have sweet dreams and visits from the Sandman and no bites from bed bugs."

Konig was a lifelong urban dweller, living just down the street from the New York City apartment in which she grew up and in which her mother still lived. She soon found out, however, that her charming prewar apartment couldn’t handle her growing family. Konig’s tale of moving from New York City to the suburbs as a work-at-home mom (she is a journalist who contributes regularly to Catholic Digest and National Review Online) joins a long line of recent "mommy memoirs." While her writing tends toward the cliché, she does interject some funny stories of motherhood, marriage and home ownership. Konig’s chapters are short and run the gamut from advice on fostering good relationships with your neighbors (especially after your tree falls on their house) to acknowledging that the days of long, romantic dates have been replaced with hurrying through dinner to rush home to your kids.

Lighthearted and a quick read, readers are sure to relate to her (mis)adventures. Konig touches on much of the expected drama of family life, all the while interjecting a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue.

Kim Schmidt


This guide helps parents open door to art appreciation

How to Talk to Children About Art, by Francoise Barbe-Gall, Chicago Review Press; $16.95.

This book provides many ideas to help make that visit to the art museum a pleasant experience for everyone. It suggests that you don’t try to take in the whole gallery in one visit, especially with younger children. It is much better to see a little at a time and visit more often. Let children take the map to select what they want to see and learn their way around the building. Children may have a favorite painting they want to see again before they move on to others. When you are finished, stop in the gift shop and suggest the purchase of a postcard of a favorite painting as a remembrance.

The book is coded in three different colors along the side of the page. Red represents ages 5 to 7; yellow, 8 to 10; and blue, 11 to 13. Small children will like the bright colors and using their imagination to make up their own story when they see a picture. The intermediate ages will like pictures full of color and ones that show conflict where good wins over evil. This is a good age for them to start learning their way around the museum. They will show more interest in materials and technique in the pictures. The older group will start to show interest in the artist’s life. To help parents answer questions, a section is included with background information.

The book contains 30 pictures covering works from 1940 to 1981. For each picture Barbe-Gall devotes a page to help a child in each age group understand the meaning behind the work of art. For instance, when viewing Vincent Van Gogh’s "The Bedroom" younger children can understand that this is a picture of his bedroom, that he didn’t have a lot of furniture and the pictures on the wall are his works of art. A slightly older child will see that this isn’t where he painted and can learn that another painting, "The Yellow House," is the outside of this building. And the older age group will want to learn more about the painter as a person; an index of artists and their works would be helpful.

I hope this book will encourage more families to take advantage of one of Chicago’s many cultural attractions.

Judy Belanger


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