Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood's Messy Years

Catherine Newman. Little, Brown, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-316-33750-2

Parents might be hoping for a guide to making childhood less messy, but Newman (Waiting for Birdy) will assuredly convince them that chaos is actually the funniest thing that could possibly happen. When the author's two-year-old throws a tantrum because she can't remove her own fingers, anticipate feeling a combination of horror and nostalgia. Newman comes across as a cool and smart mom—most of the time—and her kids, Ben and Birdy, as adorable. Though the metaphor is both beautiful and cloying, she neatly captures the exact kind of anxiety that many parents possess: "First kids are so often sweltering inside a kind of worried parental greenhouse where they get clipped into odd, neurotic topiary children." The main criticism that can be lodged against this book falls into the same bag as a parental judgment: it's undoubtedly valid but not very useful. Readers almost certainly didn't need another parenting memoir, but this one is laugh-out-loud funny. Newman brings tears and laughter and truth to the inexplicable—like the demanding aimlessness of her children's stories—pairing some very effective anecdotes with the boredom, pride, disgust, and joy of child-rearing. Agent: Jennifer Gates, Zachary Schuster Harmsworth. (Apr.)