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'When Women Were Birds' by Terry Tempest Williams: The Book We're Talking About

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"When Women Were Birds" by Terry Tempest Williams
Sarah Crichton Books, $23
Published April 10th, 2012

What is it about?
After her mother's death, Terry Tempest Williams opens her mother's journals - and finds that they are all blank. This book is a meditation on what information they could have contained, as well as a fragmented memoir of Williams' own life, mixed in with reflections on womanhood, her Mormon upbringing, and environmentalism. It contains 54 short pieces, labeled as "variations on voice" - her mother was 54 when she died, and Williams is 54 years old now.

Why are we talking about it?
It's a lyrical, timeless book that rewards quiet, attentive reading - a rare thing in today's publishing marketplace. It also contains a simple flickbook of a bird flying, next to the text. We like that.

Who wrote it?
Terry Tempest Williams is an author and conservationist who has been highly decorated for her work in wilderness preservation, in particular in Utah, where she was raised. She is a member of the Ecology Hall of Fame. She has previously written books about the essays, and children's books.

Who will read it?
Fans of Williams' work; people who enjoy lyricism and strong feminine themes; teenage girls and older women, possibily together.

What do the reviewers say?
Kirkus Reviews: "A graceful examination of how grief inspires a writer to merge private and public interests."

Seattle Times: It 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.

Impress your friends
There are a lot of legends that contain a relationship between women and birds, including in Greek mythology, in which the King's two daughters Philomela and Procne are turned into the swallow and the nightingale.

First line
I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died.

Notable passage
If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently. What a woman never forgets is when she allows a man to make love to her, she enters a pact with angels that should a child be conceived in that moment, she holds the life of another. A man can come and go, he pulls out and walks away. But a woman stays and remains tender. She wants to be held. She wants to talk. She wants to revisit that motion made inside her because in the lovemaking, a woman is remade - because until she bleeds, she knows that man is the father of her child, whether she ever tells him or not. Because until she bleeds, her body has been rearranged through his ecstasy and hers, which will become theirs. Because until she bleeds, repeat it again... repeat and repeat because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibilty from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds.