Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: Refuge

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and PlaceRefuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes there seems to be a certain magic in how a book comes to you. While I was reading Williams’s words on land use, transformation, & the bonds between land & families, the armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve (a site mentioned briefly in the book) played out, giving the conflict in Refuge a new urgency as I read it. Williams’s story: the Great Salt Lake is rising, threatening man-made development & forcing the birds of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to seek out other nesting sites. Paralleling the conflict between nature & man is the insidious blight of cancer slowly affecting the women in Williams’s family & community. The book focuses on her efforts to navigate these crumbling environments in search of hope & regeneration.

While I do feel that this book came to me at a charmed moment, I do wonder if I should have read this before When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. While Birds was certainly strong enough to stand on its own, Refuge felt like the missing piece that was eluding me when I read the previous book. I also mentioned that the standoff at Malheur lent a certain angle to my reading–I also think that I would not have synced up so well with Williams’s environmental concerns if I had not been more aware of Virginia’s own wetlands endangered by the rising sea & the efforts of the waterside community to negotiate with the changing conditions. I don’t mention this to suggest that readers must have some prerequisite interest in environmental activism. I’m just trying to convey the sort of awareness & wakefulness that Williams’s writing inspire in me as a reader. Her attempts to encompass multiple levels of experience & seek out the connections in direct, honest way keeps me coming back to her work.

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Books, Thoughts

Off the Shelf: When Women Were Birds

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on VoiceWhen Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A powerful, restrained series of essays on finding and articulating one’s voice. The topics cover a number of intensely personal experiences in Williams’s adult life: uncovering the meaning of her mother’s blank journals found after her death, Williams’s experiences as a teacher and activist, & her struggles to reconcile her life’s choices with what is expected of her. Despite the individual nature of these events, Williams is focused on what all good writers try to define, which is how to survive and prosper amid the messy circumstances of life.

Much of what I could cobble together of a plot summary would come more in the form of a list but would not convey the power of Williams’s writing or the depth of her thoughts. Or perhaps I simply use this as an excuse not to discuss how much this book moved me. Williams’s ability to make substantive connections between her perspective and the environment that has shaped it is poignant and something special to be experienced by readers. As an aspiring writer myself, this book is now among those I venerate with prose that is vital, aware and knowledgeable of it’s own borders. Recommended to all nonfiction writers as well as readers interested in meditations on aging, living an unconventional life, or women’s activism.

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