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137 of 144 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2011
It is common for a reader who enters an Annie Proulx novel or short story to find that it grows on you page by page, layer by layer, as her sure carpentry builds a fine and strong effect. That was my experience with the non-fiction "Bird Cloud." If in her best fiction Proulx carpenters untold stories into life, this new work finds Proulx retelling old stories, resurfacing tales of history, geology, geography, climate, biology. Her evident pleasure in doing so means that many readers will be pleased with the telling.

Take note of the book's cover, a photograph well-selected by Proulx herself, for it is a true harbinger of what the 234 pages inside will bring. It is not a mistake that you cannot see the house whose three-year construction (2004-2006) some publicity material and some reviews mistakenly suggest is the main subject of the book. You are right to imagine the sky and the rangeland extending to the horizon hold multitudes.

"Bird Cloud" is not a Wyoming version of "House," Tracy Kidder's 1985 book that meticulously recounted the planning, design and construction of a New England custom home. Proulx offers us no blueprints, no floor plans, no budget details, no additional photos. Yes, she parcels out a few practical "how-to's" and a selection of vignettes (mostly about construction snafus and disappointments), but the house-related material occupies less than half of the book's content.

The building is not where Proulx fixes her emotional energy. Her heart lies elsewhere: in side-tales about her family's genealogy; in stories of the "rapacity and venal grasping" of all too many of Wyoming's founders; in the terrible legacy of insults to the land, its game animals, its Indian inhabitants; in a child-like delight she takes in the "archeological possibilities" of her 640 acres; and in her experience of the raw power of nature at 7000 feet above sea level, where hurricane-force winds and isolation-inducing snowdrifts are routine. The book's emotional apogee is the final, and longest, chapter -- a narrative tracing an arc of 12 months through the lives of the site's abundant bird life. In these pages Proulx, an amateur as a birder but first-rate as a raconteur, unleashes a warm observational humor.

The book is vulnerable to two criticisms. One is that "Bird Cloud" lacks an overarching theme. It hosts lots of little stories but does not have a big story, and readers who demand a pointedly consistent narrative experience may be disappointed. Another criticism is that the book's subtitle -- "a Memoir" -- is misleading. That is true. This is not a "memoir" as that label is understood today, in our era of no-holds-barred confessional outpourings. Anyone expecting Proulx, a famously private author now in her eighth decade, to lay bare the intimacies of her personal diary, to expose her emotional core, or to explain, for example, how her three divorces have shaped the woman she is today, will come away empty-handed. Proulx is one author unlikely to appear on Oprah's couch.

If you see yourself as a potential reader of "Bird Cloud," consider first reading a rare and lengthy interview conducted at her Bird Cloud Ranch, published in the Spring 2009 issue of Paris Review. It is available for free online; just Google the three words, Paris Review Proulx. The interview is a useful companion piece, especially since "Bird Cloud" itself contains surprisingly little material about Proulx's writing habits.

A set of 24 color photos the property appear on the website of photographer Wayne Thom (Google the four words, Wayne Thom Bird Cloud). As of April, 2013, it appears the property is still available for purchase (Google "Bird Cloud Ranch" and Sale).
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50 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2010
I find the writing of Annie Proulx compelling; her characters are real and the settings ring true. This book is primarily her description of the process of building a very expensive custom house on a section in rural Wyoming and an abbreviated account of the history of the setting, the native peoples, and its wildlife. One gets to know something about Annie Proulx as a person by reading this book. It details her aesthetics, her love of the land, her response to frustration, her search for the "perfect home," and her naivete about construction. The tone is somewhat whiny, as the expenses mount up, the architect's vision is not practical, and she discovers that the county actually does not plow the road as far as her gate (she didn't confirm this before she bought the land and built the house.) Some sections read like a narrative of her birdwatching and wildlife spotting journal. If you want to know more about Ms. Proulx or if you do not know anything about the environmental history of Wyoming, you may find this interesting.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2011
Having read all of Annie Proulx's previous writings, I was expecting, I had to force myself through Bird Cloud. There were brief "hooks" when she began to describe the geology, the natural beauty, the wildlife, the weather. However, she lost me in the long passages about choosing cabinetry, the angst over flooring, the wish to build yet another house which was not too noisy, the need to catalog all her books, the need for a place that allowed her to plant a garden, the hardship of driving long distances to Whole Foods. I hope her next book dissects unnecessary consumption. I hope she analyzes the need for those with money to build in untouched places. Perhaps she could write a set of directions on how to live lightly and wisely.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
I have been a fan of Annie Proulx for years ... ever since discovering her with one of her wonderful stories in The New Yorker. I have bought every one of her hardcovers since then, (short of How To Make Apple Cider!), and have enjoyed them, especially her Wyoming stories, since I come from and went to high school and College in Wyoming and worked at Eatons Ranch, out of Sheridan, for many years. Her last two books I was disappointed with: the dark and gloomy. "Accordian Crimes", and now the hopeless "Bird Cloud", which I so looked forward to, I bought it in advance. Here Annie buys land in southeastern Wyoming, without surveying it's year-round weather conditions ... the County doesn't plow her road in the winter, so she's either snowed-in or out! Then she endeavors to build a glitzy, fussy home more suited to the Hamptons than the North Platte, and spends the balance of the book whining about it's cost over-runs, and construction difficulties in the boondocks. Luckily, she's wealthy from her literary output, so she pours hundreds of thousands to tart the place up with hopelessly fussy accutrements and deluxe furnishings, a Japanese soak tub, polished concrete floors she keeps changing the colors of, amid countless architectural mistakes ad nauseum, to where I just didn't care any more. Her main descriptive largesse involves the bird population thereabouts, worrying about the eagles nesting, as well as the neighbors' cattle marching down the creek onto her property. Some of her descriptions are wonderful, and vintage Proulx, but she lost my interest when the basic story (if there even IS one) of a wealthy single woman pissing-away millions of dollars building an inappropriate luxe house in a country more suitable to a nice log-cabin. Now I hear the place is up for sale for $3.7 million. Good luck to her in this market! I hate to think that Annie Proulx, in her eighties, may have her best material behind her.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2011
She has really stepped into it this time. I guess we expect that someone who has written beautiful stories, that transport our imaginations, yet seem grounded in something essential (The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain) would somehow be grounded herself. This is far far from the case. A sense of "I deserve it at any cost" runs strongly through the book. Her false environmental ethic is pitifully exposed as she tells the story of building a monstrosity of a house in the middle of nowhere, for one person, with materials trucked in from all corners of the globe. Awkwardly woven into the house chronicle are half-hearted attempts at natural history, geology, archaeology and native American history. All of which left me with the feeling that I was in the clutches of an amateur. I'm not anti-wealth, but I am anti-arrogance, and this book seems quite arrogant to me. Even cashing in on her name in this way to finance the project seems somehow wrong. How many of her readers can relate to a quarter million dollar cost overrun, and the $40,000 it costs to repair the designer concrete floor because it just didn't look right? The final insult to God's good Earth is the discovery that the road to the house is impassible during the long Wyoming winters, so Proulx's mansion becomes instantly transformed into a seasonal cottage. I'm gaging again.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
This is the first review I've written for Amazon. I would have hoped for my introductory offering to be a positive one, but I simply cannot find much to recommend in this book. I couldn't quite bring myself to give Bird Cloud one star--Proulx's descriptions are elegant, as always. But to give it more than two would not do justice to the sense of disappointment I feel in reading such sloppy and basically self-serving prose from one of my favorite writers.

Other critics have done a fine job of describing the sheer arrogance (mixed with not a small measure of stupidity) in Proulx's determination to build a highly complex and impractical "dream" house hundreds of miles from the suppliers and craftspeople needed to complete such a project. That she found a small crew of local builders who were willing and able to do most of the work was nothing short of a miracle. That they not only stuck with her but apparently chose to spend significant off-time with Proulx seems to contradict even her own self-description as a loner who sometimes had difficulty in working and personal relationships. It does seem somewhat petty, then, for her to continually complain about cost overruns, which apparently ran to an amount that would for most people build a very nice home indeed.

Perhaps because I have been such an long-time admirer of Proulx's who understands that it can sometimes take a few chapters to get into her rhythm, it took me a while to come to terms with what was really going on. It almost felt like Proulx was delving into a grab bag of Montana and family history, geology, wildlife and weather observations, and concepts of architecture and construction, and pretty much plunking them down in globs called chapters. At about the half-way point, where she went into another rant about the cost and difficulty of bringing her dream into being, it just hit me: Sales of this book will cover the cost overruns. Heck, for a writer with her reputation, it'll probably pay for the entire boondoggle.

I can't say I blame her. She's got tremendous talent that SELLS. If this had been the kind of book she's capable of I wouldn't mind, but as it stands it feels almost like a betrayal.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Having enjoyed Annie Proulx's fiction for years I was eager to dig into this "memoir." But early on I lost steam and developed a strong dislike for the author herself. I'm not interested in minute details of her family history, and the saga of her efforts to impose her will on a section of Wyoming left me cold. Finally I realized that she must have written this so-called memoir to pay for the cost over-runs on her mansion and then I got mad. I'm angry and I feel used by someone I once respected as a great author. So yeah, I'd advise those shopping to buy this one used, if at all. It should come pretty cheap and at least you won't feel like you've been had!
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 16, 2011
The best books teach us something new and cause us to contemplate our own connections to the subject matter.

Here veteran author Annie Proulx shares with us her search for an inspirational place to live and to write. She eventually purchases the "Bird Cloud" property in the grasslands of southeastern Wyoming and proceeds to have a house built there. But before she delves into its construction details, she considers the myriad and variety of houses she has lived in during her lifetime. Her lengthy list is enough to stir the reader to think about his/her own history and the decisions that led to choosing those residences. It's a trip down memory lane on the page for Proulx as well as a similar review for us as we invisibly compare our paths with hers.

We quickly learn that even Pulitzer Prize-winning authors can have their share of challenges when faced with architects, builders, specialty sub-contractors, and the harshness of Wyoming weather. Being famous and well off are no guarantees that Proulx's project will be either swift or smooth. (Those of us who watch home improvement shows on television may not be surprised by the kinds of glitches she runs into, however.) She's fortunate to have found the local "James Gang" to help her with her immense and expensive undertaking. At various points she (and in turn, we) have to wonder if the new house will ever get finished and if the result will ever be as perfect as she had hoped. We root for both.

Being an outsider to the area, Proulx feels compelled to research the people and the wildlife that have been historically present on her land. We get the impression that she wants to honor that past as best as she can. She also learns to live and work with the raw elements of the region: the mud, the snow, and the ever-present wind. Once she moves into the house and that chapter of her life is complete, Proulx turns her attention to the world outside of those walls. She offers us a year's worth of animal sightings, with special attention paid to the amazing birds that live in the neighborhood. She might often be the only human on that acreage, but she is far from alone.

Readers who enjoy Ms. Proulx's construction chronicle may want to find other tales of writers in search of their own creative yet livable spaces. Options abound. Two compelling books that come to mind are Michael Pollen's A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams and Kate Whouley's Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved: A Woman Moves a House to Make a Home. Both projects are smaller by comparison but are filled with their own special building quirks and peculiarities.

And of course, if you are intrigued by Proulx's descriptions of Wyoming and want to continue living there through the eyes of others, you could turn to John McPhee's Rising From The Plains, any book by Rick Bass, or the Wind River Reservation mystery series by Margaret Coel.

In the end: "Bird Cloud" -- as both a book and as a tangible site -- leaves Proulx and her readers pondering the true meaning of the word "home."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon May 14, 2011
There have been other memoirs dealing with ill-conceived building projects, but this project- and the book documenting it- are more ill-conceived than any other I know.

The author decides to build a very expensive and ambitious house in a remote area, and then is surprised when it proves to be far more difficult and expensive than she imagined. Which is a perfectly fine topic for a book, but the whole book is tainted with an air of entitlement and unacknowledged privilege, and the author blames everyone else when things go wrong. Was virtually everyone she dealt with that incompetent, corrupt , and lazy, or was she just asking the impossible? And all this for a house that turns out to be impractical to live in for almsot all of the year.

The book is padded with unrelated narrative strands, and the good qualities of her fiction are absent here. This is a story of extravagance ill- suited for our times, and unfortunately boring to read.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2011
I usually love Annie Proulx, but not this time. The whole notion of spending scads of money and several years to build the perfect house (and then of course it ends up being far from perfect) is getting tiresome indeed. I should have paid more attention to the reviews before buying this one. It is wonderfully written, of course, and for nature lovers, the descriptions of the wildlife are well worth reading. But do we really need another book about rich, supposedly environmentally conscious people using up scads of resources on a ridiculously fancy house that is only a part time home?
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