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On families, happy and unhappy in their own ways

It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks: A Memoir of a Mother and Daughter
By Catherine Lloyd Burns
North Point, 240 pp., $23

My Father Married Your Mother: Writers Talk About Stepparents, Stepchildren, and Everyone in Between
Edited by Anne Burt
Norton, 288 pp., $24.95

Chosen by a Horse: A Memoir
By Susan Richards
Soho, 256 pp., $20

Family. That's what these books are about. Each defines family in a different way. All deal with how crucial it is to have one. How much losing your family can cost. And, how finding a new one can heal and transform you.

In ``It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks," Catherine Lloyd Burns writes lovingly and searingly about her difficult mother. Burns' s prose is terrifically engaging and unfailingly humorous. Which is not to say that the protagonist Burns is totally likable. She's human, in the best and worst sense of the word. To her credit, she knows as much. ``I am a slob ( I leave evidence of myself everywhere), I am rude (like my mother), I cut people off verbally and physically, I am mostly unaware of others and my impact on them." By not gilding this lily, she scores points with the reader.

Burns testifies to the difficulty of making peace and caring for her aged mother while raising an infant daughter. It is her devotion to her daughter that is at the very core of this book; Burns is a professional overcompensator, and this child will get everything she didn't -- plenty of parental involvement, plenty of attention, plenty of kudos, and plenty of Mom. Perhaps a little too much, which is another thing Burns is smart enough to acknowledge. Her anxieties about child rearing and her desire to protect and defend her child ring bells. As does her vivid picture of her mother, an intensely preoccupied, self-involved, direct woman who stands as a stark reminder of what can go wrong when a parent fails. Of course Burns's mother has her reasons, ones we sympathize with. She is a widow twice over with an extended family decimated during the Holocaust. However, sympathy is one thing, absolution another; though a mother myself, I found it hard to bestow the latter. As written, this woman is brittle, opinionated , and completely self-protective.

It is Burns' s role to figure her mother out, and make her separate peace, even as she rears her child and strives to make her marriage work. Her journey from troubled teenager to sitcom almost-star to Brooklyn mom and writer is entertaining and, better yet, insightful. This is a book that shows the reader what family really means, and how raising a child of your own can offer insight, patience, and, best of all, the capacity to forgive.

The title of Anne Burt's anthology of essays, ``My Father Married Your Mother , " doesn't say it all. Not by a long shot. Inside you'll find a take on just about every version of a newly extended family. As collections go, this one is stellar.

Roxana Robinson's `` Wicked " is honest and brilliant, a beautifully written take on Cinderella's plight, with the author standing in for the wicked stepmother. Other standouts include Andrew Solomon's ``On Having a Stepmother Who Loves Opera," Jacquelyn Mitchard's ``Losing Janey," Candy Cooper's ``Step Shock," Sasha Troyan's ``A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and Alice Elliot Dark's ``My Room."

As for humor, that can be found in Lucia Nevai's ``Advice to New Stepmothers: On Undertaking the Stepfamily Vacation." According to Nevai, ``There are realists who would advise you new stepmothers that when the time comes to plan your well-earned vacation, you should seek the pleasure and frivolity of an adventure with your girlfriends . . . go anywhere and do anything . . . except undertake a step family vacation. Their reasoning is simple: the stepfamily vacation is this generation's most sobering oxymoron, your new second husband being the ox and you being the moron."

Of course, family is a term that can be used to describe all sorts of deeply charged emotional connections. In ``Chosen by a Horse," Susan Richards writes of a sort of kinship that is poignantly common, the human connection to a beloved animal. For Richards, horses are family.

Lay Me Down, the horse of the title, is a pregnant, gravely ill, Standard bred mare, a broken-down racehorse. Richards, already an owner of three healthy horses, adopts this stray and falls in love with her. Taken from a stable where she's been starved and mistreated, ``she looked like a complicated wire coat hanger draped with a mud-caked brown pelt. Bones protruded everywhere." The horse's temperament gives Richards the biggest surprise -- always patient, always devoted, always expecting the best from people, despite a lifetime of abuse. Recovering from her divorce, from the loss of her parents at an early age, and from a childhood spent being taught all she couldn't be by a grandmother whose grip was firm, Richards is saved from a life of isolation and fear by her devotion to the horse, and the ultimate loss of the animal .

Late in the story, she speaks of the pain of her mother's death. ``A memory surfaced, a memory of a day soon after my mother's death, when I had just gone to live with my grandmother. `Where's my mother?' I'd asked her. `You're not to talk about her anymore,' she'd answered. . . . My mother was a forbidden subject: I'd been bad to bring it up." Richards realizes that she's been schooled to keep emotion hidden, and to mask her vulnerability. Trust is a hard thing to come by. But trust is what Lay Me Down teaches her. This is an inspirational story of what family means, and what the loss of one can do to us, and for us.

Naomi Rand is the author, most recently, of ``It's Raining Men."

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