Friday, August 29, 2014

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

I was sure I was going to like this book. First of all, it came highly recommended from sources I trusted. Plus, the way the memoir was set up seemed to be fail-proof: the author juxtaposes her narrative of the rising of Utah's Great Salt Lake and the effect it has on the birds in the Bird Refuge alongside the narrative of her mother's slow death from cancer. Brilliant. Even more, it's by a Utah author, so I really had no choice but to like it.

...Except that I didn't. I hate to say that. I really do. This is possibly the biggest reading disappointment I've ever had because I just really wanted to like it. 

In the first half, Williams failed to make me care about the birds. The parts about her mother were the most interesting, but they were only snippets in the longer, much more technical narrative about the birds. I felt more like I was reading a newspaper article than a personal memoir. Williams made it clear how much she cared about the birds, but she didn't express this in a way I could understand. The birds were her job, and she left out no solitary technical detail. It was hard to keep my eyes from glazing over. 

But I thought, it'll get better. It has to. Everyone loves this book; it simply must get better. Well, unfortunately, it was actually downhill from there. In the second half of the book, I started to realize just how distant I felt from Terry Tempest Williams. Like her photograph on the back of the book--a black and white picture of a young woman on a boat, clasping her hands as her luxurious hair billows in the wind, looking toward the camera with a mystical half-smile that says, Oh, I didn't see you there--Williams paints herself as a mysterious, wise woman. Frankly, I didn't like this portrayal at all; I thought it was inappropriate for a memoir. Memoirs are a place to connect with your reader, to say, Look, I have these problems just like you, and I'm going to lay them out in front of you so we all can acknowledge that we're not alone. At least, those are the kinds of memoirs I like to read. Williams, instead, seemed condescending, as though she knew something the rest of us don't about nature and life and the universe. It didn't help that she started calling everything she did--driving, vacuuming, whatever--a "meditation." Oh, please. I progressed to the eye-rolling stage. 

Terry Tempest Williams just didn't seem like a real person to me. She related dialogues and I would think, "You said that? An actual person would ever say that?!" She had a sensual fascination with nature that bordered on the erotic, which was both strange and uncomfortable. She was Mormon, as I am, but this served only to puzzled me more, because she practiced Mormonism in such a way that I've never even heard of, yet she seemed to think it was completely normal. (I wasn't offended--just very confused.) Even when she did admit to feeling guilty about something, it was something that was clearly not a real fault, like "I want to spend some time away from my mother because it's so painful to be around her when I know she's dying." Come on...that's really not a big deal. It doesn't make you more real. Or she subtly gives herself compliments in the form of other people being angry at her, like when her father gets mad at her for being a "Pollyanna" and saying that it's such a great blessing to take care of her dying mother. Oh, yeah, it's such a problem that you're too saintly. 

I could probably go on for longer, but instead of chipping away further at this book I so wanted to love, I'll try to take the high road and admit that I really didn't like the book for reasons of personal preference. I had nothing to fault in the writing, the structure, or most things about the book; it just wasn't my cup of tea. I certainly don't think it's a bad book. It just wasn't for me, unfortunately. Maybe it's just the time of life I'm in. Maybe in thirty years I'll pick it up again and like it. 

Or maybe I just need to admit that it's okay not to like a book just because, even if everyone else and their dog likes it. 


  1. It's completely alright not to like every book you read. After all, what would our purpose as bloggers be if everyone liked every book? This doesn't really sound like a book I would have picked up, but I know how you feel. The worst part is trying to decide whether or not you can continue to trust the literary judgment of everyone who recommended it to you. Don't feel guilty!

    1. Very true...not feeling guilty is certainly easier said than done, though. I always tell other people it's okay to not like a book--I should cut myself the same slack!