When women were birds : fifty-four variations on voice

by Terry Tempest Williams

Paper Book, 2012




New York : Sarah Crichton Books, c2012.


In fifty-four chapters that unfold like a series of yoga poses, each with its own logic and beauty, Williams (beloved author of "Refuge") creates a lyrical and caring meditation of the mystery of her mother's journals .. and what it means to have a voice beyond a selfless existence informed by children and a husband.

User reviews

LibraryThing member detailmuse
In Mormon culture, women are expected to do two things: keep a journal and bear children. Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and the future.

So what did it mean when Williams -- a writer, “in love with words” -- took custody of her mother’s 35 journals upon her death ... and found them all completely empty? Williams reels from the discovery (“her blank journals became a second death”), and 24 years later, processes it via vignettes here.

I should have loved this book. I’m the age of the author and of her mother when she died. My own mother recently died. I love explorations of voice and stillness, I love narratives structured as vignettes (e.g. Touch, Einstein's Dreams, The Incident Report). So I began slowly, savoring the passages and giving them time to arrange themselves. When little seemed to accumulate, I read them without breaks.

In the end, I'm left adrift. There’s evocative language; family, feminism and nature; being heard and being silenced. But while I was interested enough to finish, I never much grew to understand or care about Williams. I suspect readers already familiar with her (e.g. via Refuge) will have a much different, better reading experience. Perhaps I'll read that, and come back to this in a year.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
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LibraryThing member staciec
Beautiful and moving. I found myself rereading sections so that I could chew on them later.
LibraryThing member Beamis12
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member cabockwrites
When Women Were Birds, is a slim lyrical meditation, about writing, about loss of a mother, about change in mid-life. The author, an ex-Morman, deals with the death of her mother, by focusing on what she has left behind -- blank journals, and what this means in a philosophical sense. Why hasn't her mother filled these journals -- a mandate for every Morman woman-- what did this mean to her, and know what does it mean for them to be left to her daughter, a writer. I read this book on a train trip, and it was the perfect book to go in and out of as the train lurched through the ice and snow from DC to New York. It was probably the only way I could have read a mournful book like this ... Caroline

PS look for BEFORE MY EYES...2.11.14
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LibraryThing member lacy.lee
Stunning, beautifully-written, book--snippets of scenes into Williams' life. I could re-read individual lines and paragraphs over and over. The book's cohesion as a whole felt somewhat lacking, though. Still, an amazing piece of literature!
LibraryThing member bookwren
An exquisite, at times brutally honest, autobiographical account by the author of Refuge. Terry Tempest Williams has given herself and other women strong, compasionate voices, especially in the fields of conservation and feminism. Her language is vivid and mystical (see quotations in Common Knowledge). She reveals episodes in her life that she is ashamed of, as well as her triumphs. Through it all, I admired and shared in her vision of celebrating the natural world. This is a book to read over and over, understanding more nuances each time. I recommend this highly to both women and men.… (more)
LibraryThing member eachurch
A breath-taking book full of exquisitely beautiful writing about voice and what it means to live authentically. Terry Tempest Williams seamlessly weaves together history, memoir, and nature to produce a rare kind of extraordinary contemplative writing. I read more than one passage out loud to whichever family members happened to be nearby. There is no doubt that I will read it again.… (more)
LibraryThing member qoe
This is a wonderful, poetical, lyrical, highly personal book. You have to take the author where she is, while she tries to fathom who her departed mother was. What does one make of a pile of journals (left to the next generation) empty? Was this a voice frozen or free? This book talks about parents and children and legacy, meeting or missing. An overarching message is that when we realize we really cannot fully know someone else, we started thinking about what we know of ourselves. Ultimately, this book is thought provoking, and whether this was one of the author's intentions or not, it can certainly provide a valuable (non-didactic) stimulus to anyone who wants to sit in a guided (by reading) meditation on family and other relationships.… (more)
LibraryThing member BookNeurd
I received this book as a suggestion on a gift card from a women's secret gift exchange I joined on Facebook. I would not have bought myself this book, thought I did take some women's studies classes in university. Frankly, I find the modern definition of words like 'voice' grating... but I ordered it anyway, after all, I didn't have anything to lose!

After I completed my order, I read some reviews online and grew concerned that I'd made a big mistake. But since it was on it's way, I decided to forget about it.

I started to read it a couple of days after it came, and I would say that it took me a while to like it. I think around page 50, or so, I finally committed finishing it; the writing wasn't as feministy as I imagined, and her descriptions of nature weren't as poetic as I feared. Reading the book was sort of like being interrupted by someone chatty sitting down next to me on the ferry: I was annoyed at first (always by my own preconceived notions), but over time I felt endeared to her, and by the end I wanted to keep in touch.

In the book there is a mix of story telling, activism, poetry and significant damage to the fourth wall. Because of the way she writes this book, without drama or pretence, I imagine Terry Tempest Williams as a genuine and honest person. If what she writes is true, what she shares makes her vulnerable and raw, a quality by which I can't help but be captivated. I'd like to read more of her work and learn more about her life. (I'm still surprised I am so pleased by this book)

I'm not a giver of five stars, but I would give this book 4.5 if I could. When Women Were Birds opened my mind and refreshed (and challenged) my perspective on how I live. I can think of many many women in my life, and men for that matter, to whom, for many reasons, I would recommend this book. And honestly, I would rather buy them a copy than lend out my own, in case it doesn't come back.
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LibraryThing member Iudita
The thoughts and feelings expressed by the author in the pages of this book are quite beautiful. It is therefore difficult to be critical. However, I think you need to be in a certain presence of mind to really appreciate it, and I unfortunately was not. Although the expressions of her ideas, experiences and feelings are lovely, they did not make for an enjoyable or interesting or engaging read for me and I had to push quite hard to the end.… (more)
LibraryThing member BobVTReader
Part autobiography, part political part religion, etc. The book is non-fiction; however, however it tells the story (journey) of a person who comes to terms with her mother and her grandmother. It also tells about her discoveries about herself and her complex relationship with the Mormon Church, Politics, the environment and with members of the opposite sex.

The subtitle of the book is Fifty Four Variations on Voice. So there are 54 essays of varying length ranging from a paragraph to several pages. One of the essays is essentially blank pages. Do not skip one essay as one many be confused by one essay only to see the light in a later essay. Once I got to the end I reread the whole book again.

These who enjoy good writing will toughly enjoy this book, she is a more environmental Rebecca Solnit. This is the second of her books that I have read and it will not be the last
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LibraryThing member msf59
“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.”

“When we don't listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don't, others will abandon us.”

Shortly before the author's mother dies, she tells her that she has left her several journals but that she is not to look at them until after she has passed. They were beautifully bound volumes but as Williams flipped through them, every page was blank. She uses these empty pages to examine her life, various meditations on being a woman and finding your voice. This may sound a bit dry but Williams is a wonderful writer and the reader will gladly follow her along, as she makes these discoveries. I suggest reading Refuge first, where that one looks at her mother's battle with cancer and the shocking way she contracted it.
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LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
Amazing read recommended by a local librarian - so glad!


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