When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

4.2 9
by Terry Tempest Williams
     
 

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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

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Williams, the sensitive author of Refuge, is shocked to discover her deceased mother’s unwritten memoirs—shelves worth of blank pages. Under such unpromising circumstances commences a kaleidoscopic celebration and palimpsest—all metaphorical clichés but apt—on finding a voice and woman’s identity beyond the silenced, selfless existence informed by children and a husband—even a family brimming with love. The empty pages of a journal manifest a hermeneutics of suspicion: the white upon which to project a lifelong journey of self-discovery. In 54 meditations (one for each year of her mother’s life, and of Williams’s life to date), we learn about an unusual (patriarchal) Mormon background and an upbringing that included a season of homeschooling in Hawaii, encounters with a husband-and-wife team of John Birchers while teaching high school biology , a job at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the meeting of her future mate over a discussion of books and birds. Among deep influences are Nobel Peace Prize–winner and environmentalist Wangari Maathai; Hélène Cixous; Clarice Lispector; the secret-women’s language of China, Nüshu; and the soaring operas of Richard Strauss. “If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently,” Williams declares in her bighearted, deliberative hymn: old themes newly warbled. Agent: Carl Brandt, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“The writing of Terry Tempest Williams is brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder. She’s one of those writers who changes peoples’ lives by encouraging attention and a slow, patient awakening.” —Anne Lamott, author of Imperfect Birds

“Much more than a brave and luminous memoir, When Women Were Birds is a set of blueprints for building one of America’s most impassioned and audacious writers, as well as a transcript of the moment when she stepped determinedly into the full power of her own voice. In Terry’s magical equation, rage + confusion + grief + accountability = love. At some point I realized I was reading every page twice trying to memorize each insight, each bit of hard-won wisdom. Then I realized I could keep it on my bedside table and read it every night.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted

“Somehow, miraculously, Terry Tempest Williams has done it again: written a book that no one else could have, that tells the truth about our lives. If you want to understand how a writer finds her voice, read this gorgeous book.” —Sue Halpern, author of Can’t Remember What I Forgot

When Women Were Birds is a wise and beautiful and intelligent book, written for the women, men, and children of our times. It vibrates with the earned honesty of a great soul. It is a gift, passed on to readers with the same spirit of love and generosity with which it was first given to the author by her mother. A remarkable journey, a remarkable story.” —Rick Bass, author of The Wild Marsh

“Williams narrates stories that range wide and run deep . . . Here, readers get a Terry Tempest Williams who is at the top of her game, the master of her craft . . . a gift from a writer who knows how to split the world open.” —Cheryl Strayed, Orion

Kirkus Reviews
An elegiac exploration of nature, creativity and Mormon female family relationships. After her mother's death from cancer, Williams (Finding Beauty in a Broken World, 2008, etc.) discovered that the journals she had left behind did not contain what she expected. This prompted the author to conduct a reflective search. In numbered sections of varying lengths, memories intersperse with mentions of the journals, whose "harmony of silence" haunt her as a poetic refrain. Williams recalls her bird-watching grandmother, Mimi, her mother's originality, and events that would guide her toward becoming a writer and a naturalist. Declaring that "Mormon women write. This is what we do, we write for posterity, noting the daily happenings of our lives," Williams considers the work of, among others, Gustave Courbet, Robert Walser, John Cage and Wangari Maathai ("People like Wangari don't die, that's how irretractable and resilient she was to me"); music and birdsong; poetry; creation myths; birth; personal accounts of marriage and work; and the importance of empowerment both as a woman and as a wildlife advocate. She draws intelligent connections between varied subjects, with emphasis on voice and silence and how the two richly inform one's inner life. Over the course of several decades, the ability "to speak through our vulnerability with strength" became a hard-won realization. A graceful examination of how grief inspires a writer to merge private and public interests.
San Francisco Chronicle

Williams displays a Whitmanesque embrace of the world and its contradictions....As the pages accumulate, her voice grows in majesty and power until it become a full-fledged aria.
The Boston Globe

This poetic memoir continues the work Williams began in Refuge....Williams explores her mother's identity--woman, wife, mother, and Mormon--as she continues to honor her memory....A lyrical and elliptical meditation on women, nature, family, and history.
The Daily Beast Susan Salter Reynolds

Williams is the kind of writer who makes a reader feel that [her] voice might also, one day, be heard….She cancels out isolation: Connections are woven as you sit in your chair reading---between you and the place you live, between you and other readers, you and the writer. Without knowing how it happened, your sense of home is deepened.
The Seattle Times

Time, experience, and uncanny coincidence spiral through these pages….When Women Were Birds is an extraordinary echo chamber in which lessons about voice--passed along from mother, to daughter, and now to us--will reverberate differently in each inner ear.
Book Riot Rebecca Joines Schinsky

A beautiful, powerful, important book….Nothing I've ever read has done this to me. Is this what religious people feel when they pray, I wonder? ...Terry Tempest Williams has written something that has revealed me and affirmed me and changed me. In sharing her voice, she has summoned mine.
The Salt Lake Tribune

In some ways When Women Were Birds functions as a detective story, an attempt to solve a mystery. But it's also a realization that often there are no answers…there's only the present.
The Huffington Post

A lyrical, timeless book that rewards quiet, attentive reading--a rare thing.
author of Contents May Have Shifted Pam Houston

At some point I realized I was reading every page twice trying to memorize each insight, each bit of hard-won wisdom. Then I realized I could keep it on my bedside table and read it every night.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374288976
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/10/2012
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
5.46(w) x 7.71(h) x 0.85(d)

Meet the Author

Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Refuge, Leap, An Unspoken Hunger, The Open Space of Democracy, and, most recently, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. The recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Fellowship in creative nonfiction, she divides her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyoming.

Read an Excerpt

When Women Were Birds

Fifty-four Variations on Voice
By Terry Tempest Williams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Terry Tempest Williams
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374288976

WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS (Chapter 1)

I AM FIFTY-FOUR YEARS OLD, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother's tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in thesame way she was living, consciously.

"I am leaving you all my journals," she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. "But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone."

I gave her my word. And then she told me where theywere. I didn't know my mother kept journals.

A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.

On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. 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 Copyright 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams



Continues...

Excerpted from When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams Copyright © 2012 by Terry Tempest Williams. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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