When Women Were Birds: Book summary and reviews of When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were Birds

Fifty-four Variations on Voice

By Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were Birds
  • Readers' rating:

  • Published in USA  Feb 2013,
    256 pages.

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Book Summary

A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year

"I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won't look at them until after I'm gone." This is what Terry Tempest Williams's mother, the matriarch of a large Mormon clan in northern Utah, told her a week before she died.

It was a shock to Williams to discover that her mother had kept journals. But not as much of a shock as it was to discover that the three shelves of journals were all blank. In fifty-four short chapters, Williams recounts memories of her mother, ponders her own faith, and contemplates the notion of absence and presence art and in our world. When Women Were Birds is a carefully crafted kaleidoscope that keeps turning around the question: What does it mean to have a voice?

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Some of the recent comments posted about When Women Were Birds. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

Empty or silent?
I also agreed with everyone above, I thought that her journals were silent, and not empty. But I think that silence was so much more powerful than her writing could have been. At the start of the book, Terry tells us that Mormon women were expected ... - alexandras

Favorite Quotes from When Women were Birds
My mother came alive for me as I read this book...she spoke to me thro this quote from Mimi... "once at Bud Lake, I looked at my mother's face, and I felt a deep message was inside her. She was staring out at the lake and I guessed she was thinking... - nancy f.

Has reading this book changed your perceptions or perspectives?
I finished reading this book several weeks ago and I'm sorry to say it didn't leave a permanent mark. It is for me, today, like her mother's journals: blank. The quotes I enjoyed most were from others quoted in the book, not the author's. It was ... - joanr

How does Terry's definition of love change throughout her lifetime?
I believe Terry's definition of love changed, as does everyones, thru maturity. The love of a 21 year old is not the same love as that of a 71 yr old. Love grows, deepens and expands as a person is enriched and is able to share. - carolea

How does Terry's relationship with her father compare to your own relationship with your dad?
My father treated me nearly the same as my brother. He did not see gender as an excuse not to achieve whatever I set out to do. We spent a great deal of time pursuing outdoor interests...fishing, gardening, animals. He would have been happy to ... - jww

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder." - Ann Lamott, author of Imperfect Birds

"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." - San Francisco Chronicle

"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." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Daily Beast

"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." - The Seattle Times

"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 Salt Lake Tribune

"A lyrical, timeless book that rewards quiet, attentive reading - a rare thing." - The Huffington Post

"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

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Reader Reviews

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Lynn
This book is...
This book is a memoir.
This books is poetic.
This book is a plea for open lands.
This book is about the power of words.
This book is about the mystery of the blank page.
This book is disjointed.
This book is connected.
This book is about living.
This book is about a life remembered.....
I am going to choose this book for my book discussion group because it is many things in one small volume.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Colleen L.
A poetic memoir...
Anne Lamott, author of Imperfect birds, describes the book as " Brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom and wonder". I concur and would add poetic, moving and introspective. Initially, I did not like the book as the author does seem to jump from subject to subject. As I relaxed, however, and let the author take me along her journey, I began to enjoy the wandering and felt a connection with the author. I had no idea how influential the author was in helping to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument. Living in New England and traveling to this beautiful area, I can tell you I am eternally grateful for the conservation minded individuals who saved this awesome territory. I was so moved, that I purchased the book "Testimony" that Terry mentions in her memoir. It is a place that should be seen by everyone. I also was impressed by the way the author interpreted or tried to interpret the message of her mother's journals. It is clear she loved her mother deeply. I do not think this is a book that will appeal to everyone. For the right reader, though, it is a gem of a book to read quietly and slowly so you can savor each sentence. If I had rated the book midway and stopped, I would rated the book a "2" but the sum of the book moved me. I encourage all women to give this memoir a chance. I believe it has the ability to touch you deeply.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Christina C.
A quick, insightful read
I was nervous to begin this book, described on the cover, by the author, as "fifty four variations on voice." I was afraid it would seem disjointed and I wouldn't "get it." Surprisingly, the pages just flew by and before I knew it, I had finished from cover to cover in just 3 hours!

I have never read any of Williams' prior works, including the precursor to this, "Refuge." Because of my unfamiliarity, it took me a bit to realize where she was going. I was unsure if this was a novel, fiction, biography, or a combination of the three. Once I stopped trying to put a label on it and just enjoyed it, I stopped caring.

As included in the book, it's about: Great Salt Lake, Bear River Bird Refuge, Flood, Division of Wildlife Resources, Mother, Family, Cancer, Mormon Church. The author realized none of these had anything to do with one another. Until she realized, they all had to do with her. With the author as the common denominator, she does manage to weave all of these subjects together in one story.

The only part of the book which felt slow to me was the part about Congress and lobbying and board meetings with male chauvinists. I felt this had a political agenda vibe and also had a few hypocrisies. That's just not my cup of tea.

The rest of the book with quotes, poetry snippets, personal recaps, historical and cultural lore, is quite captivating. It feels a bit like Wikipedia, in that information is presented in an encyclopedic way, but at the same time it's approachable and not overly scholarly and pretentious.

Overall, it left me with the feeling that I'd enjoyed a really diverse, interesting conversation with a bright woman.

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More Information

More Information

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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