WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS by Terry Tempest Williams

here on earth: when women were birds

Here on Earth: When Women Were Birds by Beth Conklin

I recently read “When Women Were Birds” and it’s superb. The book starts out with the death of her mother – who bequeaths her collected journals – only the daughter finds the journals are all blank. Every page, shockingly empty. From there she contemplates her mother’s life – her words, spoken and unspoken. It’s not a connected story, but small gathered thoughts and memories and personal reflections on the women in her life – her mother, her grandmother, teachers, women in the church – and also on women in general – the voice of women. It’s very powerful and thought provoking and hauntingly moving… apt for Mother’s Day. It has an intimacy in its honest portrayal of women, their secret lives, their silences, their many voices.  Like a cacophony of birds, it’s unified in that it’s loud and a thousand cries into the sky but not necessarily melodious. Don’t go into this book expecting a unified plotline, it’s more of a unified theme.

Tempest was raised Mormon in Utah – her mother and grandmother both lost to cancer caused by the nuclear testing in the 50’s – something the government didn’t own up to until the 80’s. It’s a unique book in which you can tell the author took pains to express some of the most difficult emotions. I admire anyone willing to dig so deep. 

Anyways, I loved it. But like bird song, I don’t treasure it. It felt universally beautiful but did not connect with me personally. 

When Women Were Birds : NPR

RATING: FOUR STARS

Title: When Women Were Birds
Author: Terry Tempest Williams
Originally published: April 10, 2012
Genres: Biography, Autobiography

JUST KIDS by Patti Smith

When I finished Just Kids by Patti Smith, I started crying. For Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS, for Sam, his patron and lover who also died of AIDS. For all the artists and patrons before them, who lived and worked restlessly, many of which walking the same streets, living in the same building, drinking coffees in the same cafes. William S. Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Allan Ginsburg, Jim Carroll, Lou Reed. The misfit icons and legends, their stories mixed in with those who did not become famous – but whose lives were just as bright, just as fleeting. The hazy storm of memory always breaks into bright points of precision – lightning strikes of details – moments burned into your mind.

Image result for patti smith

Reading of Patti’s Smith youth – of the sharp, wild years of her late teens and early twenties – I felt as if I’d fallen into the past. A world of second hand stores and records, of poverty and purpose, of obsessions and confusion. The struggle to find authenticity against the reflections of others, if I am not this then perhaps I am that. Drastic actions and bold decisions made in an instant, real fear something only known through abstraction. Nothing can really touch you when you have your hands full of everything within reach. And every song and work of art is a special message written just for you.

I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence lately. The passage of time, of human lives always rising up and ebbing out, over and over. I’ve finally entered into the comfortable stage of life, my once frantic mind now more of a slow but steady churn. Sometimes I feel a deeper understanding and other times I feel as if meaning is too elusive a goal.

I don’t read many autobiographies because, honestly, I prefer the cryptic autobiographies of fiction. By that I mean that all storytellers reveal themselves through the stories they tell, and I prefer the charade of costumes and imagined characters. Dozens of imagined lives stemming from one. Autobiographies always strike me as somewhat arrogant, for who can really remember their lives accurately, let alone the details of others? Still, some people have a gift for it. And some lives are practically theater already, their experiences and situations so far from the norm you can’t help but separate them into a fantasy genre all their own. Artist with a capital A and the like.  Even if you discover Andy Warhol ate the same breakfast cereal you do, you’ll never quite feel connected with him, you know? But now I feel a connection to Patti… and to Robert Mapplethorpe.

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Robert Mapplethorpe & Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s book makes you feel young again. She’s brought the stars down from the sky and blown on them, revealing dusty, pock-marked rocks in her hands. They were beautiful in the blinding light of fame, but she revels in showing the reader how desperately fragile, how flawed and horribly delicate their hearts were.

I read this book and spent hours looking at pictures of the old Chelsea Hotel in its decades of decline and decadence. I listened to Patti Smith songs, now feeling the life behind her wispy voice and the strong spirit behind her thin frame.  I was already familiar with Robert’s work – but now I saw the sensitivity behind the photos, felt the pacing self-inspection of each piece, caught meaning in details that before meant nothing to me – the feathers and beads, the religious iconography, the small smile.  This book has brought these two artists closer to me – made their strange lives more accessible. Small vignettes of other artists, writers, and performers I was already familiar with now got caught in a wider web – the human one – showing how people come and go, sometimes only for a instant, into others lives. A sandwich, a kind word, a bet, a dare, a jealous contempt or sincere admiration. Big pictures became smaller, and small moments became as wide as the sky, the colors changing depending on where you stand.

Highly recommended.

Rating: Five Stars.

Originally published: January 19, 2010
Author: Patti Smith
Title: Just Kids
Page count: 278
Genre: Biography
Awards: National Book Award for Nonfiction
Nominations: Goodreads Choice Awards Best Memoir & Autobiography