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What are your dreams for the future?

I am satisfied with my life the way it is now. But I would like to have some more pigs. They're very expensive.

Guo Yuxian, Chinese homemaker and farmer, from "Women in the Material World"


What do you do all day? Who and what do you take care of? Who is your family? What is your trouble? What are the unspoken rules you must follow? What joy do you find? What diversion? How do geography, economics and culture intersect to draw the boundaries of your small space on this planet? How precious is your life? How do you know?

You might not think of a pile of shiny coffee-table books as a springboard for consideration of such existential issues, but a recent crop takes on the nature of women's lives in ways that go beyond the ordinary trajectory of bookstore bric-a-brac.

The most global approach is provided by Women in the Material World, a gorgeously photographed and thoughtfully organized sequel to the Sierra Club's well-known previous project, "Material World." In the first work, 30 "statistically average" families around the world were photographed in front of their houses, surrounded by their possessions. Since then, the authors and photographers returned to spend more time with the mothers of these families, from a hairstylist in Cuba to a pair of co-wives in Mali, from a pharmacist in Mongolia to an elementary-school teacher in Texas. As Naomi Wolf puts it in her foreword, "the beauty on every page is a tribute to the inherent beauty of the subject: the female love, passion and toil that invisibly undergird human societies everywhere."

A similar beauty is lit by the more focused beam of Imazighen: The Vanishing Traditions of Berber Women in which Margaret Courtney-Clarke's photographs and Geraldine Brooks' essays (she also wrote the fascinating "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women") transport us into the lives and arts of women whose physical and cultural landscapes are probably like nothing you have ever imagined. To see such vibrant colors and patterns on a landscape that is virtually lunar is to see female creativity at its most irrepressible. Why the big search for life on other planets, when the Berbers offer a reality this alien and this entrancing?

Closer to home (in fact, real close to my home, as I am one of the interviewees in this book), Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds: 21 Artists Who Are Mothers Tell Their Stories offers intimate, detailed information about how the work of parenting and the work of making art or writing are combined in American women's daily lives. Anne Mayor traveled the country with some very concrete hows, whats and whys on her mind and the refreshingly direct answers she got make this book juicy, eye-opening and inspiring. I remember thinking I was somehow going to be embarrassed when it came out, because how much do people really want to hear about me and my family? Seeing all the interviews and photographs together in the finished book, I understand, and am honored.

Another poignant look at the intertwining of art, family and women's lives is offered by Painted Diaries: A Mother and Daughter's Experience Through Alzheimer's. Louisiana artist Kim Howes Zabbia and her mother, Lou Hendry Howes, kept diaries of their experiences as the family dealt with Howes' diagnosis and eventual decline. Both eventually moved beyond words--the mother, into the silence of her illness; the daughter, into the visceral imagery of her paintings, included in this book.

How do you do your laundry? Who takes care of your aging relatives? What are your dreams for your children? How is your life different in the wintertime? These four books offer images and ideas that re-sensitize the reader to her own daily existence, reinvesting both its complex and simple aspects with new value.


Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

Women in the Material World with an introduction by Naomi Wolf. (Sierra Club: $29.95, 322 pp.)

Imazighen: The Vanishing Traditions of Berber Women by Geraldine Brooks. Photographs by Margaret Courtney-Clarke (Clarkson Potter, $55, 192 pp.)

Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds: 21 Artists Who Are Mothers Tell Their Stories by Ann Mavor. Photographs by Christine Egon. (Rowanberry Books, $24.95, 256 pp.)

Painted Diaries: A Mother and Daughter's Experience Through Alzheimer's. by Kim Howes Zabbia and Lou Hendry Howes. (Fairview Press, $24.95, 207 pp.)

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