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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

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The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her:“I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother.She was one of a large Mormon clan The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her: “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother. She was one of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah who developed cancer as a result of the nuclear testing in nearby Nevada. It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as what she found when the time came to read them.   “They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.” What did Williams’s mother mean by that? In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother's journals. When Women Were Birds is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question “What does it mean to have a voice?” 


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The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her:“I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother.She was one of a large Mormon clan The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her: “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother. She was one of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah who developed cancer as a result of the nuclear testing in nearby Nevada. It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as what she found when the time came to read them.   “They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.” What did Williams’s mother mean by that? In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother's journals. When Women Were Birds is a kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question “What does it mean to have a voice?” 

30 review for When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kristin

    "Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jodi Sh.

    I have two years of class and seminar notes from a recent MFA in creative writing. This book comes up approximately twenty times in those notes, but for the first forty pages I really couldn't figure out why. It's a memoir, written in bits. Fifty-four bits. For the first forty pages I wasn't really impressed, or interested. By the last page I'd dog-eared over a dozen pages, copied down a full-page of quotes (in teeny tiny script) into my journal, and gone online to buy a copy for myself -- I I have two years of class and seminar notes from a recent MFA in creative writing. This book comes up approximately twenty times in those notes, but for the first forty pages I really couldn't figure out why. It's a memoir, written in bits. Fifty-four bits. For the first forty pages I wasn't really impressed, or interested. By the last page I'd dog-eared over a dozen pages, copied down a full-page of quotes (in teeny tiny script) into my journal, and gone online to buy a copy for myself -- I read from the library, and buy only what has changed my life. It's a memoir, a prose poem, an experimental narrative. Williams mother has passed, and she tells her own story, by way of her mother's journals -- two shelves of cloth bound books, neatly lined up on a shelves in the closet. Each one, completely blank. The blank journals tell the story of her relationship with her mother, life as a Mormon woman, her mother's relationship to the world, Williams "outside" religion - all things in nature, particularly birds, and the journey inward to discover who she is, who we are, how we find our way and our voice. It's lovely. Absolutely lovely. Not linear. Not anything you've read before. But lovely.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Diane Kistner

    I have tried to get into this book; really, I have. But there is too much of a creative-writing-class "writing prompt" quality to it that prevents me from becoming engaged: "What would you write if you inherited a bunch of empty journals from your mother? Fill up the first ten pages for the next class." The make-book style of writing is not my cup of tea. I can't help but imagine the author sticking index cards into Scrivener, writing a bit into each of them while multitasking the rest of her I have tried to get into this book; really, I have. But there is too much of a creative-writing-class "writing prompt" quality to it that prevents me from becoming engaged: "What would you write if you inherited a bunch of empty journals from your mother? Fill up the first ten pages for the next class." The make-book style of writing is not my cup of tea. I can't help but imagine the author sticking index cards into Scrivener, writing a bit into each of them while multitasking the rest of her life, then spending a few hours shuffling the sequence before generating—voila!—a book. Alas, it's not the kind of book that encourages my attention, much less interest. Maybe that's just me. I think another reviewer's suggestion to read other works by Terry Tempest Williams before reading this one is a good one. Coming into When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice already feeling a connection to author might make for a more significant reading experience.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    The Hook - No spoilers here as every review I have read gives us this much of a summary. The opening line in itself is enough of a hook. “I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died. Consider that it quickly goes on to explain the following: Terry Tempest Williams mother leaves her a set of journals just before she dies with the instructions that they not be opened until after her death. Terry keeps this promise and when her mother dies a week later she waits for the right time The Hook - No spoilers here as every review I have read gives us this much of a summary. The opening line in itself is enough of a hook. “I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died. Consider that it quickly goes on to explain the following: Terry Tempest Williams mother leaves her a set of journals just before she dies with the instructions that they not be opened until after her death. Terry keeps this promise and when her mother dies a week later she waits for the right time to read them. On the night of the next full moon it’s time. "They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors.” Terry picks one off the shelf and slowly opens it. It is blank. The next, blank. They are all blank, three shelves of blank journals. In fifty-four variations on voice Ms. Williams explore the emptiness of these journals and so do we. The Line – Blank – I’ll leave this blank so you may choose your own passage or segment to mull and hold in your heart. The Sinker – Silence Voice Silence This exquisite book is a cacophony of silence rising to a crescendo. Each reader will find his or her own interpretation of Terry Tempest Williams words. A book to savor, a book to cherish, a book to own, a book to give, a book to read again. When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice was on my list but it wasn’t until I heard Rebecca Schinsky comments about it on Bookriot Holiday Recommendation Extravaganza Bonanza that I dropped everything and picked it up. I knew I had to read it immediately. I’m so glad I did.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    I read some of this book during the 24in48 marathon, but quickly decided I wanted to read it more slowly and spread it out over about a week. I first encountered Terry Tempest Williams in her (1991) essay, The Clan of One-Breasted Women, about all the women in her family struggling through cancer that is connected to testing in the desert. I know she also writes a lot about the national parks and the desert. But I kept hearing about this book, and finally ordered it with a giftcard from the I read some of this book during the 24in48 marathon, but quickly decided I wanted to read it more slowly and spread it out over about a week. I first encountered Terry Tempest Williams in her (1991) essay, The Clan of One-Breasted Women, about all the women in her family struggling through cancer that is connected to testing in the desert. I know she also writes a lot about the national parks and the desert. But I kept hearing about this book, and finally ordered it with a giftcard from the holidays. The impetus for the book is that Williams' mother died, and left her a lifetime of journals... but they were blank. She ruminates on her mother's life (as a Mormon, as a mother, as a wife, as a person with secrets) and also on her own life, her marriage, her art, and most interesting to me - silence. "I am afraid of silence. Silence creates a pathway to peace through pain, the pain of a distracted and frantic mind before it becomes still."I found the form of the book overly fragmented, and pretty repetitive particularly when it came to her mother's journals. Obviously this was a strange situation she wanted to sort out, but I'm not sure there are 54 clear "variations" here. Still, a lot of interesting thoughts, and insights into Williams' internal life. The fact that her family and community are largely Mormon is also an important element, and the reflections on what a woman's voice is are simultaneously from that worldview and struggling against it at times. And it was interesting to read this during and after the international women's marches and rallies that took place on January 21, 2017."In a voiced community, we all flourish."And finally, one more: "My voice is born repeatedly in the fields of uncertainty."

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jill

    "To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power." So says Terry Tempest Williams, whose mother withheld words by bequeathing her three shelves of beautiful clothbound books, all of which turn out to be blank. Are her mother's journals paper tombstones are they eloquent witnesses to who she was? And did Mother give her a voice by withholding hers, in life and in death? Ms. Williams embarks on a journey to trace her own voice's evolution: "To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power." So says Terry Tempest Williams, whose mother withheld words by bequeathing her three shelves of beautiful clothbound books, all of which turn out to be blank. Are her mother's journals paper tombstones are they eloquent witnesses to who she was? And did Mother give her a voice by withholding hers, in life and in death? Ms. Williams embarks on a journey to trace her own voice's evolution: connecting to the harmony of bird song, exploring the language of love with her husband Brooke, discovering her voice in her environmental passions. "I am writing the creation story of my own voice through the blank pages my mother has bequeathed to me," she states. Or, to put it another way, she is writing her own trajectory of life. At the same time, Ms. Williams explores the opposite of voice - silence. "Silence introduced in a society that worships noise is like the moon exposing the night." The headmistress at an ultra-conservative school who pontificates that environmentalism is the Devil's work... the potential axe murderer during her fieldwork time who stunned her into silence...the tumor in the "eloquent" part of her brain...all have the ability to silence her voice. Many times, Terry Tempest Williams' voice soars into lyricism, taking flight as she examines what her natural voice is as a woman, a Mormon, a member of the community and the human race. At other times, I felt as if the voice floundered as the book weaves into feminist ecological and political issues and just skirts becoming "new agey." Although I personally agree with the majority of her stands, the magic - one might say, the voice - seems temporarily off-key. An interesting aside: Terry Tempest Williams' grandmother, Lettie Romney Dixon, was cousins with George Romney - the father of the Republican presumed contender. During this inauthentic time, it might be useful to heed Terry Tempest Williams' guidance: "When it comes to words, rather than use our own words authentic and unpracticed we steal someone else's to shield our fear."

  7. 4 out of 5

    Julie Christine

    My four days with this book began with a reading by the author. Hearing Terry Tempest Williams' words and the story of her mother's journals in her voice was moving and memorable. Her elegant, warm cadence echoed as I opened the book the morning after her talk to read and reread her insights on voice, women, relationships, loss and love. I have been estranged from my mother for twenty years; to be nurtured in the vast love and faith of a mother like Williams' is not beyond my comprehension, but My four days with this book began with a reading by the author. Hearing Terry Tempest Williams' words and the story of her mother's journals in her voice was moving and memorable. Her elegant, warm cadence echoed as I opened the book the morning after her talk to read and reread her insights on voice, women, relationships, loss and love. I have been estranged from my mother for twenty years; to be nurtured in the vast love and faith of a mother like Williams' is not beyond my comprehension, but it is beyond my experience. Yet I rejoiced for her and the beautiful bond she shared with her mother, and continues to share with her father, John. John Tempest was present at the reading and he shared his thoughts on the mystery of Diane Tempest's journals. The two days that followed, as I continued to read these "variations on voice", were days of joyous discovery and exploration of my voice as a writer. The final day was one of dreaded and terrible loss as a woman. "When Women Were Birds" provided inspiration and comfort and will remain a point of reference as I explore the meaning of these days of late June 2012. Not every chapter speaks to me - the essays describing her battles over conservation issues - as vital as these are to the essence of Terry Tempest Williams - feel as if they belong to another time and place; they don't feel central to this book's theme, which is far more intimate. Or perhaps these memories aren't central to MY present theme. Perhaps a different time and state of mind will open my ears to these voices the author is seeking to reveal. This slim, meditative and beautifully presented volume will forever mark a beginning and an end to the truth of my life.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Pam

    This book is so beautiful it almost makes me want to cry to talk about it. This is absolutely required reading for any woman(or really any person) who has ever had to choose when to stay silent and when to speak.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    This was my favorite book from 2012. My breath was taken away in the earliest pages - which to me were nothing short of prayer - and now much of the book has pages folded over for future reference and sentences, underlined, to put in my own quote collections. Through Terry Tempest Williams' variations on voice from the gift of her mother's journals, I find my own variations on my own voice as I believe you will find for yours as well. It is a must read for any writer considering memoir and indeed This was my favorite book from 2012. My breath was taken away in the earliest pages - which to me were nothing short of prayer - and now much of the book has pages folded over for future reference and sentences, underlined, to put in my own quote collections. Through Terry Tempest Williams' variations on voice from the gift of her mother's journals, I find my own variations on my own voice as I believe you will find for yours as well. It is a must read for any writer considering memoir and indeed may also be enjoyed - and used as a reference - by novel writers or any creative non-fiction writers. I visited Utah after reading this book and my entire experience was transformed and existed on a higher level than it would have been had I not read it. I have suggested to my very busy friends this is a book to be read, slowly. A short chapter a day, I recommend, or even a chapter a week and then living the meditation of that particular chapter. I may take this advice for myself in 2013 when I re-read this book!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Star

    Before I even started reading the book I was struck by the physical beauty of it (Picador paperback version). The way it felt to hold it in my hands. I wanted to know which bird feather pattern was on the cover. Is it from an owl? A falcon? It's significance is one of the mysteries that still linger for me. Much like the blank pages in the back of the book are a reminder of her mother's journals and all they said by not saying anything. These are things you would miss on an e-reader. Spoiler Before I even started reading the book I was struck by the physical beauty of it (Picador paperback version). The way it felt to hold it in my hands. I wanted to know which bird feather pattern was on the cover. Is it from an owl? A falcon? It's significance is one of the mysteries that still linger for me. Much like the blank pages in the back of the book are a reminder of her mother's journals and all they said by not saying anything. These are things you would miss on an e-reader. Spoiler alert (this quote is from the last bit of the book) "Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated." There are so many layers to unpack here, I've accepted William's invitation to claim it as my own journal; signed, dog-eared, underlined and nearby long after the first read, it will be a collection of writing I go back to again and again.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Christian

    In recent years, Terry Tempest Williams has written about patriotism and democracy in America, Italian mosaics, the Sundance Film Festival, Rwandan genocide and Hieronymus Bosch's fifteenth-century Flemish masterpiece, The Garden of Delights. Not bad for a so-called “nature writer.” In her latest book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, the author returns to some of the themes found in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, her highly-regarded 1991 environmental In recent years, Terry Tempest Williams has written about patriotism and democracy in America, Italian mosaics, the Sundance Film Festival, Rwandan genocide and Hieronymus Bosch's fifteenth-century Flemish masterpiece, The Garden of Delights. Not bad for a so-called “nature writer.” In her latest book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, the author returns to some of the themes found in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, her highly-regarded 1991 environmental memoir that intertwines reflections on family, mortality and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near her home in Salt Lake City. The opening pages depict Williams’ mother, dying of ovarian cancer, passing on to her writerly daughter her lifetime collection of personal journals. The mother makes Williams promise not to read them until after she is gone. When that time comes to pass, Williams finds a plethora of colorful, clothbound journals: The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth – shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother's journals were blank. When Women Were Birds then is an investigation in to the mystery of all those white, untrammeled pages. As the story unfurls from this startling prelude, Williams explores the power of silence, Mormon culture, marriage, feminism, a supernatural history of birds, relationships between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters and the central question, “What does it mean to have a voice?” The narrative toggles between short, distinct stories from Williams’ life – how her Mormon ancestors came to settle in Utah, learning bird songs as a young girl with her grandmother, meeting her husband Brooke, studying natural history in the Grand Tetons – and more emotive meditations that aren’t bound by conventional logic. Anyone who has read Williams mesmerizing literature before knows to expect a wide-ranging, unconventional and empathic journey. This one touches upon experimental composer John Cage, the extinct Chinese language Nushu, writer Wallace Stegner, Navajo mythology, a battle for wilderness legislation in the US Congress, Richard Strauss’ operas and her beloved Southern Utah red rock wilderness. In a holistic feat similar to Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, the author successfully makes comprehensive and connected what the reader may have previously imagined disparate. This is the kind of book that changes the ways in which we see the world. Still, beneath Williams’ intriguing meanderings, the presence of the blank journals haunt the reader. My mother’s journals are a love story. Love and power. What she gave and what she withheld were hers to choose. Love is power. Power is not love. Both can be brutal. Both dance with control. Both can be intoxicating, leaving us out of control. But in the end it is love, not power, that endures and shows us the consequences of our choices. My mother chose me as the recipient of her pages, empty pages. She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing. But I can imagine. It is an enjoyable feat to behold the nimble mind of Williams dancing across time and terrain, flitting from topic to topic like a bird from branch to branch, her graceful and poetic prose the airborne track of her compassionate inquiry.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I’d long wanted to read something by Terry Tempest Williams, so snapped up a beautiful deckle-edged paperback copy of her 2012 memoir-in-essays on my latest trip to Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland. Raised a Mormon in Utah, Williams navigates between the narrow limits of her religious upbringing and the almost pantheistic feminist spirituality she’s developed as a writer with a deep love for nature, especially that of the American West and, yes, birds. Though not a chronological life story, I’d long wanted to read something by Terry Tempest Williams, so snapped up a beautiful deckle-edged paperback copy of her 2012 memoir-in-essays on my latest trip to Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland. Raised a Mormon in Utah, Williams navigates between the narrow limits of her religious upbringing and the almost pantheistic feminist spirituality she’s developed as a writer with a deep love for nature, especially that of the American West and, yes, birds. Though not a chronological life story, this focuses on her key relationships – her decades-long marriage, and her friendship with her late mother – and charts her transformation into an environmentalist. I especially appreciated her metaphor of birthing books vs. babies. She never became a biological mother, and at family reunions always felt that she was considered inadequate – “Creating a book was not a legitimate pregnancy.” I didn’t always love the New Age bent to the book, but it is chock-full of memorable lines about marriage, writing, and our connection with nature. Some favorites… “To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a weight to them. How you choose to present them and to whom is a matter of style and choice.” “It is winter. Ravens are standing on a pile of bones—black typeface on white paper picking an idea clean. It’s what I do each time I sit down to write.” “harboring regrets is making love to the past” “Death’s cry comes through a ventriloquist, whose lips you never see move until they are howling with laughter.” “Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”

  13. 5 out of 5

    Stacia

    A memoir written in 54 short musings (ranging from less than a page to a few), the age of the author when she wrote this, as well as the age at which her mother died. All 54 pieces are interlinked, sometimes tangentially, to finding one's voice, as a woman in this space we inhabit -- from our inner lives to the wide world as a whole. A love of nature & creativity shine through the work.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sheryl

    Some of her writing was insightful and beautiful, and some just left me utterly confused. Or maybe I'm obtuse. I thought the book was disjointed. There were parts I would definitely have liked to see expanded because there was the potential for some fascinating information, and parts that seemed wholly unrelated. Or, I repeat, maybe I'm obtuse.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Brendan M.

    Five stars is not enough.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Courtney

    It's difficult for me to review this book because my response to it is so personal. Every literary interpretation is influenced by the reader's subjectivity, but some books are just too perfectly matched to one's interior to even contemplate objectivity. When I think about When Women Were Birds, I simply don't know how to step outside of my own mind to carve out some critical distance. To begin with, Terry Tempest Williams (TTW) was defying LDS patriarchal expectations and fighting for her own It's difficult for me to review this book because my response to it is so personal. Every literary interpretation is influenced by the reader's subjectivity, but some books are just too perfectly matched to one's interior to even contemplate objectivity. When I think about When Women Were Birds, I simply don't know how to step outside of my own mind to carve out some critical distance. To begin with, Terry Tempest Williams (TTW) was defying LDS patriarchal expectations and fighting for her own sense of self back when that was still a daring gesture. It seems like there are a lot of contemporary women writers who are very self-congratulatory about their unorthodox relationship to the Mormon church. (Elna Baker, Joanna Brooks, and Martha Nibley Beck are among the worst of this category, in my opinion.)Ooooh, you wore a sleeveless shirt in public? Wait here while I go get your medal!! Wow, you didn't go to BYU even though your mommy wanted you to?! Let me applaud your verve and throw money at your feet! (Yes, I am bitter...but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.) Sure, it's difficult for any person, of any background, to go against the beliefs that were supposed to structure your entire life. But most of the women who are speaking out about their boundless courage are privileged US citizens who didn't have to risk that much to follow their own desires. Basically, they move away from home and do whatever the hell they want. As a woman who was exercising her rights in the 60s and 70s, there was much more at stake for TTW, and fewer role models to emulate. As a consequence, my respect for her self-determinism is only matched by my admiration for the unpretentious way she describes her past. Throughout When Women Were Birds, it is abundantly clear that TTW has nothing to prove. She is poised and self-assured, even when the subject matter delves into intimate or uncomfortable territories. Secondly, I was captivated by the way Williams writes about her mother. Her quest to find answers and process her mother's absence is perfectly rendered. At times, it was a bit of a shock to read a setence I feel I would have written if I had the talent/perspective. I also love how TTW integrates all the seemingly disparate threads of her book. It feels very associative and unstructured at first, but then the recurring themes start to emerge and meld with other motifs, the fragments all seem to speak in collective harmony. Dead, mothers, land, wilderness, religion, activism - somehow, it all fits together in TTW's hands. The mosaic you end up with is simultaneously jagged, lovely, and life-affirming.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Gorgeous prose. I gulped this one down. Some highlights: "These handwritten words in the pages of my journal confirm that from an early age I have experienced each encounter in my life twice: once in the world, and once again on the page." "She was a Coyote, a trickster, a woman deflecting an interest in her to an interest in others. In my mother's presence, you were heard. And she always left knowing a lot more about you than you knew about her. She preferred it that way. She was warm and Gorgeous prose. I gulped this one down. Some highlights: "These handwritten words in the pages of my journal confirm that from an early age I have experienced each encounter in my life twice: once in the world, and once again on the page." "She was a Coyote, a trickster, a woman deflecting an interest in her to an interest in others. In my mother's presence, you were heard. And she always left knowing a lot more about you than you knew about her. She preferred it that way. She was warm and gracious in public, but she was a master at maintaining her privacy. Intimacy was on her terms." "Ravens are standing on a pile of bones–black typeface on white paper picking an idea clean. It's what I do each time I sit down to write. What else are we to do with our obsessions? Do they feed us? Or are we simply scavenging our memories for one gleaming image to tell the truth of what is hunting us?" "How do you contain within a domestic relationship a howling respect for the wild in each other?"

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lucy

    A mother gives her daughter her journals, requesting that they only be read after her death. When posthumously opened, the curious daughter discovers multiple journals are all filled with blank pages. Why? Terry Tempest Williams uses 54 chapters to wonder. I loved the concept and execution of this book more than I loved William's voice and edgy opinions. Partly, that is due to her dismissal and bias against a church she has left and to which I still belong to. All I can say it is akin to having a A mother gives her daughter her journals, requesting that they only be read after her death. When posthumously opened, the curious daughter discovers multiple journals are all filled with blank pages. Why? Terry Tempest Williams uses 54 chapters to wonder. I loved the concept and execution of this book more than I loved William's voice and edgy opinions. Partly, that is due to her dismissal and bias against a church she has left and to which I still belong to. All I can say it is akin to having a cousin bad mouth your own family. Yes, they know them and those might be their opinions of things that happened once upon a time, but it doesn't make them true or current or fair. This referencing of the LDS (Mormon) church certainly is not the focus of the book, but as her mother was a faithful member and the daughter is an unbeliever, Williams' wonderings can't help but delve into the spiritual motives, longings, grudges and aspirations of her mother, many laden with LDS dogma. This quote at the beginning of one of the chapters had me snort out loud. I can't recall it exactly as the book is no longer in my possession but it says something along the lines that all LDS women hold two things sacred: their responsibility to procreate and have offspring and to keep a journal. There certainly is a sacred responsibility and reverence towards motherhood but I have never, ever been told it is part of my job, because I have a uterus, to keep a journal. Certainly, some women do. Lots of LDS women blog, which is sort of modern day journal keeping (plus bragging and showing off) but part of that has to be attributed to a high percentage of them (us) finding a creative outlet and purpose beyond laundry and taxiing. I know that's why I started to write. But, her flippant, know-it-all-because-I-grew-up-in-Utah-and-went-to-BYU attitude towards the church is more self-serving than true. At the very most, it is outdated. Perhaps some of the attitudes and traditions that she saw a child in Utah growing up in the 60s and 70s were present, but she has to give her mother more credit than being a brainwashed LDS woman as a reason for a blank journal. Defense of my religion aside, Williams is a beautiful writer who really evokes strong images and feelings in her poetic phrasing. An environmentalist who knows a lot about birds, she draws images of life and movement from birds and attaches them to human experience and the result is moving and life affirming. We are our world and our surroundings and I liked thinking with her about women: our strengths, passions, limitations and voices. An interesting read for me and one I'm glad I picked up.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Tracy

    I read this for my book club and I am so glad I did. It is absolutely beautiful. A woman searching for her dead mother's voice and finding her own.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Laurel

    I had never heard of Terry Tempest Williams until I stumbled upon an interview with her on NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge. She was reading the first few lines of her latest book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, and I was immediately drawn in to her voice and her story. "...[My mother] was dying in the same way she was living, consciously. `I am leaving you all my journals... but you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.' I gave her my I had never heard of Terry Tempest Williams until I stumbled upon an interview with her on NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge. She was reading the first few lines of her latest book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, and I was immediately drawn in to her voice and her story. "...[My mother] was dying in the same way she was living, consciously. `I am leaving you all my journals... but you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.' I gave her my word... A week later she died. ...[There were] three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books. ...I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth -- shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother's journals were blank." What follows is various interpretations of the mystery and meaning behind these empty journals, as well as an exploration of what it means to have (or not have) a voice. It is deeply reflective, elegant and lyrical -- so beautifully written it often felt like an extended poem. It is the first book in a long time that I read/listened to, then picked up the next day to listen again. A lovely, thoughtful little book.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ryandake

    in ten years, should i still be on the planet, i might begin to get a grip on this book. but even now, i know when i've been told something really really important, and to which attention must be paid. the author sets out in this book to write about what voice signifies for women, and particularly for women writers. in prose sometimes poetic, sometimes elegaic, sometimes with the rolling cadences of a sermon (a rhetorical form with which i have remarkably little experience, but which can be in ten years, should i still be on the planet, i might begin to get a grip on this book. but even now, i know when i've been told something really really important, and to which attention must be paid. the author sets out in this book to write about what voice signifies for women, and particularly for women writers. in prose sometimes poetic, sometimes elegaic, sometimes with the rolling cadences of a sermon (a rhetorical form with which i have remarkably little experience, but which can be immensely powerful), she writes about her mother's journals: three shelves of journals, left to the author upon her mother's death, and all completely blank. where was her mother's voice? Terry Tempest Williams circles this enigma in slow, lazy spirals. the emotional intensity of this book runs like electric current throughout. i do not think it is a book meant to be read once, like a self-help book promising you better prose in 14 days. it's more like a series of koans or meditations, and it's going to take some hard work to follow along. but her writing alone will make it worth the effort. she's one of the rare ones, a writer whose work is as clear as pellucid air in the desert southwest, who invites you to take the long view, to see the entirety of the landscape, and yet to also note the little beetles in the sand by your feet.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn Francis

    I have been utterly captivated by this book. "My mother left me all her journals, and they were all blank." I'm not sure whether this is a memoir, or a meditation, or a environmental journal, or some kind of unconventional feminist manifesto. A woman searches for her voice, silenced by familial expectations, patriarchal religion, and both cultural and personal insecurities. It reads like an exquisite prose poem, but in other ways it's a wild ride between voice and silence, home and wilderness, I have been utterly captivated by this book. "My mother left me all her journals, and they were all blank." I'm not sure whether this is a memoir, or a meditation, or a environmental journal, or some kind of unconventional feminist manifesto. A woman searches for her voice, silenced by familial expectations, patriarchal religion, and both cultural and personal insecurities. It reads like an exquisite prose poem, but in other ways it's a wild ride between voice and silence, home and wilderness, human agency and paralysis. All this against the backdrop of the deserts of Utah and Kenya, while quoting literary heroes from Wallace Stegner to Helene Cixous and Judith Wright. Mesmerizing.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Philip Rice

    Astonishingly rapturous, rhapsodic, and ravishing. Far too poetic to call prose, too full of dreams to call non-fiction... I'm not sure what to call it other than a masterpiece. I was breathless for the entire read... and plan to read it again.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Roxane

    Graceful and wise meditation on womanhood, family, faith, grief, the natural world, and wonder. Quite lyrical and powerful and builds nicely.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lon

    Midway through When Women Were Birds, the author describes a kind of writing she does when she wants to probe her mind's own secrets. She writes a sentence, raw and private, then immediately traces a new sentence over the top of it, and then another on top of that, line after line, layer after layer, until she's left with a multi-textured palimpsest of truth, obscured. She explains: "My own hand, with pen in place, bushwhacks through my psyche, cutting through the dense understory of random Midway through When Women Were Birds, the author describes a kind of writing she does when she wants to probe her mind's own secrets. She writes a sentence, raw and private, then immediately traces a new sentence over the top of it, and then another on top of that, line after line, layer after layer, until she's left with a multi-textured palimpsest of truth, obscured. She explains: "My own hand, with pen in place, bushwhacks through my psyche, cutting through the dense understory of random thoughts. As my black pen circles back on itself, destroying as it creates, hiding what has just been written as another sentence walks across the newly exposed words, I am freed. . . . There is an art to writing, and it is not always disclosure. The act itself can be beautiful, revelatory, and private." (182) For me, this passage was a crucial key towards comprehending the book, the legend for interpreting the cartography presented in these fifty four meditations on voice: She has concealed as much--maybe more--than she has revealed. As a reader, at least as an obtuse male reader, I found myself occasionally disoriented and frequently feeling as if I weren't being entrusted with the entire story. An example of concealing as much as revealing occurs near the end of the book, when she begins her cryptic references to "Louis." In fairness, she signals that we won't be getting the full story ("Here is what I will tell you"). She speaks sometimes in whispers and sometimes the story emerges only in negative space. But this, perhaps, is the point. After all, the conceit of the book centers around interrogating the mystery of her mother's three shelves-worth of empty journals. Williams discovers in this enigma a new insight: "There is comfort in keeping what is sacred inside us not as a secret, but as a prayer." It is the prerogative of all self-empowered women to choose how and when to speak. Williams says she had "thought I would proclaim as a woman that we must speak the truth of our lives at all costs" but came to realize that sometimes that voice can choose to remain silent. It is in that choosing that power lies. "We all have our secrets. I hold mine. To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power." These twin impulses then, sharing and withholding, become her left and right feet in that complicated but beguiling dance between intimacy and privacy. Perhaps another apt metaphor would compare sound and silence to the language of music. To say that music is the artful arrangement of sound is to miss a central truth: without the inclusion of silence--interposed artfully amidst the sounds--there could be no rhythm, no articulation of music. Terry Tempest Williams is a noted naturalist and environmental activist, but most of the terrain covered in the book is interior. This is not a memoir in the sense of presenting a series of self-reflecting narratives. These read more like meditations. They cohere, but not as a linear chain of stories, or even as a patchwork of narratives. As meditations, I think they work beautifully. Occasionally the writing suffers from abstractions, the verbiage of omphaloscopy, but more often the writing yields moments of breathtaking imagery. A favorite and startling image that aptly describe writing-as-discovery greeted me on page 58: "It is winter. Ravens are standing on a pile of bones--black typeface on white paper picking an idea clean. It's what I do each time I sit down to write." By the last of the fifty four variations (her own age, and the age of her mother when she died) I feel like the ideas had been picked clean and a chronic hunger satisfied. The sturdy bones remain--tomorrow's mystery.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Marie-Jo Fortis

    Frankly, I don't know how to describe my feelings about this book. I knew how I felt at the beginning. I fell in love with the poetic and philosophical first steps, the empty pages reflecting the silence of the journals of the author's mother. How daring, how true, I thought. How whimsical. What an adventure this is going to be. And in a way, Williams does take me into some epopee. From one chapter to the next, I don't know where I am going to go or where I am going to land. While the language Frankly, I don't know how to describe my feelings about this book. I knew how I felt at the beginning. I fell in love with the poetic and philosophical first steps, the empty pages reflecting the silence of the journals of the author's mother. How daring, how true, I thought. How whimsical. What an adventure this is going to be. And in a way, Williams does take me into some epopee. From one chapter to the next, I don't know where I am going to go or where I am going to land. While the language is always clean and simple--and when at its best, pure-- the author's mind travels from the abstract and complex to the tactile and familiar, and back. There are descriptions of nature, of difficult and/or colorful personalities as well as references to thinkers like Barthes and Cixous. It is a bit like a buffet of tastes and ideas. It reminds me somewhat of Rousseau and his mind wanderings, for When Women Were Birds is also impregnated with ecology. Unlike Rousseau, however, Williams puts her money where her mouth is. Although it is presented with numbered chapters, its eclectic content reads like a journal. And I wish it had been called so. When Women Were Birds, A Journal by Terry Tempest Williams. Or: When Women Were Birds, A Mind Voyage by Terry Tempest Williams. When Women Were Birds, Fifty-Four Variations on Voice leads to confusion. I'll tell you why in a moment. Here and there, Williams attempts to unify the book with two basic themes: giving women a voice; extracting the meaning of her mother's empty journals. In her attempts to give women a voice, she fails because that's not what the book is about. Furthermore, these returns, as in the recapitulations from the movements of a sonata (and she refers to music as well), are occasionally discordant. Her variations are not so much variations as they are separations. This is a book not so much about giving a voice to others as it is about re-defining one's own. Her own. In her attempt to fill out her mother's blank pages, to give these pages a reason to be, she has spent time in the desert, somewhat lost. This is a book about seeking, not finding. We all face empty pages, existential pain. And Birds is ultimately a treaty about existential pain--albeit accompanied with a very real, brain related angst, as the author explains. Even the title reflects a wound, a damaged --or broken?--wing. Although the prose is in itself highly pleasurable as well as profound for the most part, I wouldn't recommend this to the confused person trying to find her way and her voice, for this might confuse her further. Like the bird who skips here and there, flies from one tree to the next, sings now and stays quiet a minute later, the writing is graceful, beautiful scattering. But it is still scattering.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    What am amazing book. The form of this book is spirals and a seeming chaos of ideas, but what emerges is a deep, textured whole. What is this book about? Mothers, daughters, women, birds, intuition, voice, ecology, silence, wilderness, death and life and growth. As I was listening I felt at first that Terry was picking wildflowers that come together to make a beautiful bouquet, but then i revised this perception; it is more like she is planting a meadow of wildflowers one at a time randomly. What am amazing book. The form of this book is spirals and a seeming chaos of ideas, but what emerges is a deep, textured whole. What is this book about? Mothers, daughters, women, birds, intuition, voice, ecology, silence, wilderness, death and life and growth. As I was listening I felt at first that Terry was picking wildflowers that come together to make a beautiful bouquet, but then i revised this perception; it is more like she is planting a meadow of wildflowers one at a time randomly. Coming back upon places visited to add a new idea and then standing back at the end to view the end result. Because what Terry creates is alive, living growth, not momentary beauty plucked from the ground soon to die. I have already started listening to this book again, and it is already richer as the stories at the beginning are enriched by the ideas at the end, spirals. I plan on buying this book for my daughter in the hopes that one day when she becomes a woman she will have such beautiful ideas of women at her fingertips.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Janice

    When Terry Tempest Williams’s mother was dying, at only 54 years of age, she told her daughter, Terry that she was leaving to her all her journals. Terry later found all the journals stacked on shelves in her mother’s closet, and as she began to examine them, she found that volume after volume was full of blank pages. In this book the author begins to find meaning in all those blank pages, as she ponders her mother’s life, and reflects on her own life as well. Ms. Williams is a searcher, a When Terry Tempest Williams’s mother was dying, at only 54 years of age, she told her daughter, Terry that she was leaving to her all her journals. Terry later found all the journals stacked on shelves in her mother’s closet, and as she began to examine them, she found that volume after volume was full of blank pages. In this book the author begins to find meaning in all those blank pages, as she ponders her mother’s life, and reflects on her own life as well. Ms. Williams is a searcher, a writer, an occasional activist, and a naturalist. Her prose is a great pleasure to read, full of poetry and wisdom. I could not help contrasting the way Terry’s mother, and possibly the author herself, treasures privacy and silence, versus our modern trend to post where we are and what we are doing on an almost constant basis. As a writer Ms. Williams obviously believes in giving voice to her thoughts and in leaving behind words that speak of her most heartfelt values. In this book she also gives us a message that speaks of the value of the unspoken.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Patti Barber

    I heard this author (Terry Tempest Williams) on "Radio Times" and was mesmerized by her story. As Terry was comforting her mother dying with cancer, her mother tells her she has been keeping journals all her life (unbeknownst to Terry) and she would like to leave the journals to her. Her only request was for Terry to wait until she had passed away before she read them. A month later Terry decided it was time to look through her mother’s journals. The journals were right where her mother told her I heard this author (Terry Tempest Williams) on "Radio Times" and was mesmerized by her story. As Terry was comforting her mother dying with cancer, her mother tells her she has been keeping journals all her life (unbeknownst to Terry) and she would like to leave the journals to her. Her only request was for Terry to wait until she had passed away before she read them. A month later Terry decided it was time to look through her mother’s journals. The journals were right where her mother told her they would be. Each shelf was filled with beautiful colored books. Terry reached up and took the first one from the shelf. She opened the book only to find each page was blank. She took down each and every journal only to find they were all blank! What were the blank journal pages trying to tell her? Why did her mother leave them to her? This book is a reflection on silence her mother’s lifetime of silence as well as Terry’s own silence. What an interesting book to discuss in a book club!

  30. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    Intriguing premise, one could decide this book is brilliant and just over one's head or one could decide this book is a bit pompous and poetically overwritten. Guess which one I chose? There are some beautiful phrases in this book, but the flowery prose only served to keep this reader at a distance. There are some genuine feelings behind this excessive language usage, but one has to work too hard to find it. I may be being totally unfair since I have never read this author before, but this is Intriguing premise, one could decide this book is brilliant and just over one's head or one could decide this book is a bit pompous and poetically overwritten. Guess which one I chose? There are some beautiful phrases in this book, but the flowery prose only served to keep this reader at a distance. There are some genuine feelings behind this excessive language usage, but one has to work too hard to find it. I may be being totally unfair since I have never read this author before, but this is how it seemed to me. I am rating this a three because there is some interesting information to be found and in places there are some wonderful tidbits. ARC from publisher.

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