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.
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.)
PS look for BEFORE MY EYES...2.11.14
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.
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
“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.