an artful readers club blog

Book Review: When Women Were Birds Fifty Four Variations on Voice

BirdwomanWhen Women Were Birds Fifty Four Variations on Voice
Terry Tempest Williams
Sarah Crichton Books,
Copyright: 2012
ISBN: 978-0-374-28897
Memoir / Spirituality / Woman’s Studies
Rating – 4.7 out of 5 stars. A compelling read. A 2013, 37-Day Book Club Choice.

Picture this. Your mother’s dying and her last words shared with you are a surprise, a request with a caveat. She’s left you her journals, the ones you never knew she kept, but you can’t open them until she’s gone.

You think you know this woman who birthed you, raised you, taught you, instilled your core values deep inside you. You respect her last wish. You believe you will always have a part of her, her voice written, her thoughts collected on the page. You discover ‘three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors.” All fifty-four are blank. She’s left it up to you to figure out what she meant, what defined her, your relationship, and yourself.

I’m not going to tell you anything more about the narrative. I want you to read it, pencil in hand, to circle the lyrical phrases that capture your attention and resonate. I think you’ll find something on almost every page, echoing sentiments you may not realize you felt or even wanted to say.

The book is labeled memoir, spirituality, and women’s studies. It’s all of them. It’s also a writing lesson from an exemplary author. It’s a philosophy, a view of our world—how and why we need to protect it and speak out for it. It’s worth reading, not once or twice, but annually, as a tribute.


The artwork is a picture I found online. It references the title, and the opening epigraph, the mystical idea of birds being “armed for action, like daughters of the spirit…On the white page with infinite margins, the space they measure is all incantation.” (St. –John Perse)

I glued a blank white, glossy photo paper onto a 5 x 7 heavy card stock. It provided a line, a horizon effect which gave me the distance I wanted to create, the effect of a bird-woman looking across emptiness, leaving open to interpretation what she sees. The white space.

I tried to locate the picture to give credit to the artist, but was unable. Perhaps, it’s a gift from some one out there listening, a slight smile on her lips.


10 Responses to “Book Review: When Women Were Birds Fifty Four Variations on Voice”

  1. abby lazar

    I’m definitely going to take a look at this book, Michelle. Sounds mysterious…great review. Love your writing style!!

  2. Jez Eden

    Your artwork is very mystical and makes me think of questions I want to ask the bird/woman.
    My daughter gave me a book in which she wanted me to write about my life. I tried, and then realised the things I had written were just little anecdotes, and would not tell her anything about me she did not know.
    I could not write anything else – the past is the past, and so much of it involvers other people who may not wish to be written about. So I like the idea of the journals with blank pages. I might leave her a book like that when I know I am at the end.
    Enjoyed your post.

  3. Gina

    The picture you created is just fabulously thought provoking! Sounds a truly inspiring book 😀 XXX

  4. Janet Van Rossen

    Sounds a very intriguing book. I think I might like this one! Interesting artwork, thought provoking.

  5. shirley

    Seems like I am going to have investigate your book for this month, it sounds really intrigueing. Your artwork is fabulous.

  6. San @ Made in Hem

    Wonderful mysterious artwork! Well done!
    The book sounds very interesting but being at a point where I don’t talk to my mom I don’t think I can handle it right now…

  7. Kelly M. Myers (@kellymariemyers)

    Obviously, you have the double gift of art and writing. Your review piques my interest…and the nakedness of your illustration feels almost as if I shouldn’t be looking. Funny, in this day and age, I still feel squeamish about nudity at times…maybe it’s because you’ve chose a raw, uncensored body…


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