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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  4,951 ratings  ·  869 reviews
The beloved author of Refuge returns with a work that explodes and startles, illuminates and celebrates

Terry Tempest Williams’s mother told her: “I am leaving you all my journals, but you must promise me you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.”

Readers of Williams’s iconic and unconventional memoir, Refuge, well remember that mother. She was one of a large Mormon clan
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published April 10th 2012 by Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Randi Samuelson-Brown What you are touching on, is something I noticed in this book. Beautiful, poetic language that if dissected doesn't stand up directly to how I…moreWhat you are touching on, is something I noticed in this book. Beautiful, poetic language that if dissected doesn't stand up directly to how I (personally) view it. I'm not saying that the sentence has no meaning BUT I don't believe it means much to the average reader (like me). She explores Native American and Navajo beliefs and the meaning might come in that way. I also like what Susan had to say below about women in the past. That seems like a likely element too.


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4.14  · 
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 ·  4,951 ratings  ·  869 reviews

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Apr 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
"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."
Jodi Sh.
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jodi Sh. by: Everyone
Shelves: non-fiction, memoir
I have two years of class and seminar notes from a recent MFA in creative writing. This book comes up approximately twenty times in those notes, but for the first forty pages I really couldn't figure out why. It's a memoir, written in bits. Fifty-four bits. For the first forty pages I wasn't really impressed, or interested. By the last page I'd dog-eared over a dozen pages, copied down a full-page of quotes (in teeny tiny script) into my journal, and gone online to buy a copy for myself -- I rea ...more
Diane Kistner
Oct 28, 2012 rated it liked it
I have tried to get into this book; really, I have. But there is too much of a creative-writing-class "writing prompt" quality to it that prevents me from becoming engaged: "What would you write if you inherited a bunch of empty journals from your mother? Fill up the first ten pages for the next class."

The make-book style of writing is not my cup of tea. I can't help but imagine the author sticking index cards into Scrivener, writing a bit into each of them while multitasking the rest of her lif
Dec 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The Hook - No spoilers here as every review I have read gives us this much of a summary.
The opening line in itself is enough of a hook.
“I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died.
Consider that it quickly goes on to explain the following:
Terry Tempest Williams mother leaves her a set of journals just before she dies with the instructions that they not be opened until after her death. Terry keeps this promise and when her mother dies a week later she waits for the right time
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I read some of this book during the 24in48 marathon, but quickly decided I wanted to read it more slowly and spread it out over about a week.

I first encountered Terry Tempest Williams in her (1991) essay, The Clan of One-Breasted Women, about all the women in her family struggling through cancer that is connected to testing in the desert. I know she also writes a lot about the national parks and the desert. But I kept hearing about this book, and finally ordered it with a giftcard from the holid
Apr 30, 2012 rated it liked it
"To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power."

So says Terry Tempest Williams, whose mother withheld words by bequeathing her three shelves of beautiful clothbound books, all of which turn out to be blank. Are her mother's journals paper tombstones are they eloquent witnesses to who she was? And did Mother give her a voice by withholding hers, in life and in death?

Ms. Williams embarks on a journey to trace her own voice's evolution: connectin
Julie Christine
My four days with this book began with a reading by the author. Hearing Terry Tempest Williams' words and the story of her mother's journals in her voice was moving and memorable. Her elegant, warm cadence echoed as I opened the book the morning after her talk to read and reread her insights on voice, women, relationships, loss and love.

I have been estranged from my mother for twenty years; to be nurtured in the vast love and faith of a mother like Williams' is not beyond my comprehension, but i
Feb 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is so beautiful it almost makes me want to cry to talk about it. This is absolutely required reading for any woman(or really any person) who has ever had to choose when to stay silent and when to speak.
Jan 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, feminism, family
This was my favorite book from 2012. My breath was taken away in the earliest pages - which to me were nothing short of prayer - and now much of the book has pages folded over for future reference and sentences, underlined, to put in my own quote collections.

Through Terry Tempest Williams' variations on voice from the gift of her mother's journals, I find my own variations on my own voice as I believe you will find for yours as well.

It is a must read for any writer considering memoir and indeed
Mar 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Before I even started reading the book I was struck by the physical beauty of it (Picador paperback version). The way it felt to hold it in my hands. I wanted to know which bird feather pattern was on the cover. Is it from an owl? A falcon? It's significance is one of the mysteries that still linger for me. Much like the blank pages in the back of the book are a reminder of her mother's journals and all they said by not saying anything. These are things you would miss on an e-reader.

Spoiler aler
Jun 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
In recent years, Terry Tempest Williams has written about patriotism and democracy in America, Italian mosaics, the Sundance Film Festival, Rwandan genocide and Hieronymus Bosch's fifteenth-century Flemish masterpiece, The Garden of Delights. Not bad for a so-called “nature writer.”

In her latest book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, the author returns to some of the themes found in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, her highly-regarded 1991 environmental mem
Feb 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Recommended to Stacia by: shukriyya
A memoir written in 54 short musings (ranging from less than a page to a few), the age of the author when she wrote this, as well as the age at which her mother died. All 54 pieces are interlinked, sometimes tangentially, to finding one's voice, as a woman in this space we inhabit -- from our inner lives to the wide world as a whole. A love of nature & creativity shine through the work.
Brendan M.
Jun 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Five stars is not enough.
Aug 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I’d long wanted to read something by Terry Tempest Williams, so snapped up a beautiful deckle-edged paperback copy of her 2012 memoir-in-essays on my latest trip to Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland. Raised a Mormon in Utah, Williams navigates between the narrow limits of her religious upbringing and the almost pantheistic feminist spirituality she’s developed as a writer with a deep love for nature, especially that of the American West and, yes, birds. Though not a chronological life story, th ...more
It's difficult for me to review this book because my response to it is so personal. Every literary interpretation is influenced by the reader's subjectivity, but some books are just too perfectly matched to one's interior to even contemplate objectivity. When I think about When Women Were Birds, I simply don't know how to step outside of my own mind to carve out some critical distance.

To begin with, Terry Tempest Williams (TTW) was defying LDS patriarchal expectations and fighting for her own se
Jun 24, 2012 rated it liked it
Some of her writing was insightful and beautiful, and some just left me utterly confused. Or maybe I'm obtuse. I thought the book was disjointed. There were parts I would definitely have liked to see expanded because there was the potential for some fascinating information, and parts that seemed wholly unrelated. Or, I repeat, maybe I'm obtuse.
May 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
A mother gives her daughter her journals, requesting that they only be read after her death. When posthumously opened, the curious daughter discovers multiple journals are all filled with blank pages. Why?

Terry Tempest Williams uses 54 chapters to wonder. I loved the concept and execution of this book more than I loved William's voice and edgy opinions. Partly, that is due to her dismissal and bias against a church she has left and to which I still belong to. All I can say it is akin to having a
I read this for my book club and I am so glad I did. It is absolutely beautiful. A woman searching for her dead mother's voice and finding her own.
May 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, non-fiction
I had never heard of Terry Tempest Williams until I stumbled upon an interview with her on NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge. She was reading the first few lines of her latest book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice, and I was immediately drawn in to her voice and her story.

"...[My 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 wor
Jan 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing
in ten years, should i still be on the planet, i might begin to get a grip on this book. but even now, i know when i've been told something really really important, and to which attention must be paid.

the author sets out in this book to write about what voice signifies for women, and particularly for women writers. in prose sometimes poetic, sometimes elegaic, sometimes with the rolling cadences of a sermon (a rhetorical form with which i have remarkably little experience, but which can be immen
Carolyn Francis
Jun 19, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I have been utterly captivated by this book. "My mother left me all her journals, and they were all blank." I'm not sure whether this is a memoir, or a meditation, or a environmental journal, or some kind of unconventional feminist manifesto. A woman searches for her voice, silenced by familial expectations, patriarchal religion, and both cultural and personal insecurities. It reads like an exquisite prose poem, but in other ways it's a wild ride between voice and silence, home and wilderness, h ...more
Marie-Jo Fortis
Jun 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 i ...more
Sep 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
When Terry Tempest Williams’s mother was dying, at only 54 years of age, she told her daughter, Terry that she was leaving to her all her journals. Terry later found all the journals stacked on shelves in her mother’s closet, and as she began to examine them, she found that volume after volume was full of blank pages.
In this book the author begins to find meaning in all those blank pages, as she ponders her mother’s life, and reflects on her own life as well. Ms. Williams is a searcher, a write
Patti Barber
Sep 17, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2012
I heard this author (Terry Tempest Williams) on "Radio Times" and was mesmerized by her story. As Terry was comforting her mother dying with cancer, her mother tells her she has been keeping journals all her life (unbeknownst to Terry) and she would like to leave the journals to her. Her only request was for Terry to wait until she had passed away before she read them. A month later Terry decided it was time to look through her mother’s journals. The journals were right where her mother told her ...more
Philip Rice
Aug 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Astonishingly rapturous, rhapsodic, and ravishing. Far too poetic to call prose, too full of dreams to call non-fiction... I'm not sure what to call it other than a masterpiece. I was breathless for the entire read... and plan to read it again.
Book Riot Community
This has been a stunning meditation on being a woman and the relationship between mothers and daughters.
–Nikki Steele

from The Best Books We Read In February:
Mar 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Graceful and wise meditation on womanhood, family, faith, grief, the natural world, and wonder. Quite lyrical and powerful and builds nicely.
Dana Olbrantz
Jan 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
At first I struggled to connect with the voice from the beginning smattering of pages. With time and intention, however, the author develops a complex, dynamic narrative. I became more invested in the unfolding of story, as well as more deeply involved with the poetic structure of the text. I ended marking many instances in this text as marveling in their depth and truth.
Mar 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I can’t write a coherent review about this book just yet, as I’ve only just closed it, but know this: if I could give it five, ten, twenty more stars, I would.
Mar 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
Up against the voices of Terry Tempest Williams in WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS, FIFTY-FOUR VARIATIONS ON VOICE my articulation wants to fly away to somewhere safe. It wants to find a place where it can hide --- maybe like an owl inside a tree. So my words in this review shouldn't be compared to hers. She is a study in voice, in language, in storytelling. Her book is inspirational in the way scripture can be.

There is a nice story arc to WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS. It is a hero's journey, although somehow I
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Play Book Tag: When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams 3 stars 1 10 Jun 02, 2019 10:28AM  

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Terry Tempest Williams is an American author, conservationist and activist. Williams’ writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah in which she was raised. Her work ranges from issues of ecology and wilderness preservation, to women's health, to exploring our relationship to culture and nature.

She has testified before Congres
“For far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes. . . .

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.”
“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.” 100 likes
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