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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice Hardcover – April 10, 2012

4.5 out of 5 stars 170 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“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

About the Author

Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Leap, An Unspoken Hunger, Refuge, and, most recently, Finding Beauty in a Broken World. She divides her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyoming.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books (April 10, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374288976
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374288976
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (170 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #204,938 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
As a guy who loves women, I hesitated a bit before diving into this book. But once I did, there was no turning back. The idea of blank journal pages (and actual blank pages in the book) forced me to think about my role in silencing women and what I may have missed as a result. I also wondered about the self-silencing I've done in order to toe the line, be 'part of the team', or not make waves. The full spectrum of settings for Terry's use of voice, not using her voice, or having her voice squelched, misinterpreted, or ignored--from the most intimately personal to the halls of congress--suggest that this issue is multidimensional and epidemic. In fact,the current 'war on women' being staged during the republican primaries seems to be one more (hopefully, last ditch) effort to silence women as a means to more power and control. The depths to which our country seems to be plummeting (pulling the entire planet along with us) suggests that we try something new: let women run things. When Women Were Birds, what were men?(Trees? Rivers?) Letting women be birds once again may be our best hope.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there to hear it does it make a sound?

What does it mean to have a voice?

Terry Tempest Williams has delivered a testament with "When Women Were Birds." It's a tiny little book; very subtle; very polite; very powerful. This is non-fiction. This is not a memoir yet we travel through her life with her; this is not religious, though we are given a cat's eye view of the Mormon home; this is not a love story, though it overflows with love. This is an edict. This is a decree; a proclamation. Finally this is a manifesto. I have never come away from a book feeling so filled, fulfilled, fiercely powerful and fiercely empathetic. Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" is a spiritual book for which I've never seen or heard a harsh or even ambivalent review, professional or otherwise. "When Women Were Birds" is more powerful than that. (Williams quotes Campbell at one point. In fact, she quotes poets, philosophers and authors throughout). It falls to me now to summarize this book and then to urge you with the power of my words to buy this book. Yet I feel less than equipped to do this because my writing is to Terry Tempest Williams as Roseanne's singing is to Barbra Streisand or Audra McDonald.

See my problem?

Part of solving my problem is that I shall write in first person. An atypical book requires an atypical review: an essay is needed. Chapter one begins: "[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 clothbound books. "The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves.
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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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"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 liked the book more than loved it. 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.
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