Friday, April 6, 2018

Sinking into the Prose


One of the things I like best about PaperBackSwap.com is that the Wish List has an auto request feature. You add the book to your Wish List, click "Auto Request On," and someday in the indeterminate future, after someone lists the book for swapping, and if you're first on the waiting list, it shows up in the mailbox. When this happens, I've often forgotten that I wanted the book, so it's a truly delightful surprise.

Such was the case with When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams, which arrived in unread condition just before the holidays last year and went immediately onto the top of my TBR stack. I've had my eye on it ever since, and used it as a reward for finishing up a recent novel that I didn't much like. 

And what a reward it was! I've read short essays by Williams and they intrigued me -- hence the Wish List entry -- and this book, in a sense, continues that reading, divided as it is into journal-ish entries that span subject matter at once new and familiar: natural history encounters in memorable places, writing dilemmas, the challenge of navigating relationships, the mother-daughter bond, early experiences with education as student and teacher, and overall the on-going work of finding one's place in the world and learning to tell about it.

Williams takes as her starting point her mother's unique approach to the journal-keeping required of her by her Mormon religion. As Williams' mother drew close to death, she encouraged Williams to read her journals, but extracted a promise that Williams wouldn't do so until after her mother's death. Williams kept that promise and was astonished to discover that the journals that filled three shelves in her mother's house were blank, every one.

That fact provides the mysterious touchstone to which Williams returns again and again, exploring what it means to be herself -- woman, writer, wife, environmentalist -- and to learn her truth and ultimately, to speak it. The result is a finely crafted book in which every word tells: nothing extra, nothing wasted. Reading it is a meditation of sorts, sinking into the prose and finding the memorable phrases one by one, sifting the subject matter for confluences and insights, matching Williams' impressions with one's own experience, and tilting them toward the light to discover new facets. This is a book to keep, to quote from, to return to again and again. 

Because Williams is a reader as well as a writer, it also provided me with additional books for the Wish List -- and so the cycle continues. 

Excerpt (a photograph like the one described is here, along with a good article, if you care to look):

My voice rises again and again in beauty within the wonder and awe of the spectacle: an exaltation of larks; the murmuration of starlings; a murder of crows; a parliament of owls. And then in the privacy of truth, there is still the repeating courage of one hermit thrush, hidden in the woods, singing between intervals of thunder. It is not in sorrow that I am moved to speak or act, but in the beauty of what remains. An albatross on Midway Atoll, dead and decomposing, is now a nest of feathers harboring plastic from the Pacific gyre of garbage swirling in the sea. We can kneel in horror and beg forgiveness. Or we can turn away. But the albatross crying overhead, buoyed up by the breeze, is suspended in air by her vast bridge of wings. She is the one who beckons us to respond.

Note: This book counts toward the Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2018.     

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