Friday, September 11, 2009

Finding Beauty in a Broken World, by Terry Tempest Williams

I am fairly certain that Terry Tempest Williams and I are members of the same species. But her mind works so differently from mine that, when I read her work, I feel like I must be part of an inferior subspecies. Williams can focus on one topic in great detail; a large portion of this book is devoted to prairie dogs and the ecosystem they anchor. But she also makes connections that I would never see--the prairie dogs, a course she takes in the art of mosaic, her family's business, her brother's death, and her participation in a project to rebuild Rwanda after the genocide (this section of the book makes clear that she not only thinks differently, she acts differently--all in all, she's a better person than I). She finds patterns in seemingly disparate subjects and events and encourages us to think differently about those patterns.

Her recognition of patterns may explain her gift for metaphor. In this book, the central metaphor is the mosaic, which "celebrates brokenness and the beauty of being brought together." Finding Beauty in a Broken World, she says "becomes more than the art of assemblage. It is the work of daring contemplation that inspires action." The image of the mosaic helps tie together the apparently unrelated topics she deals with in the book.

As the quotes in the previous paragraph suggest, Williams uses language beautifully. With some of the books I have reviewed so far in this blog, I have had to search for a favorite passage. This book has numerous hot pink Post-its adorning its pages, marking particularly effective and affecting passages. While the prose is often lyrical (at times, I was moved by the beauty of the words without fully understanding what Williams was trying to convey), the book is also informative, at times to the ponit of information-overload. While I recognize (or at least suspect) that the piling on of details is a piece of carrying the metaphor of the mosaic into the creation of the book, her detailed descriptions are not always a joy to read. I did find myself skimming over some of her notes on the prairie dog colony and her examination of prairie dog mummies. The section on Rwanda might have benefited from some tightening, too (the editor in me pretty much always wants to cut!).

These criticisms notwithstanding, I recommend the book. For a book group that has difficulty focusing on writing (rather than plot or characterization), this might be a good challenge, since style and content are in some ways one. Certainly there is much to talk about and admire in Williams' work.

Favorite passage:
The evidence of life is preserved through stories. Find the storis. Tell the stories. Theorder of animals is the organization of narratives. Natural histories create a patterned landscape and a mosaic of nuanced minds.

Isn't that lovely (even though I'm not sure what the last sentence means)?

Other favorite passage:
The masterminds of all genocides count on our complicity. They plan, calculate, and execute their intent, trusting in our refusal to acknowledge what they are doing. And in the case of America, instead of inervention, our government debated for months whether the mass killings in Rwanda fulfilled the definition of genocide. The manipulation of extinction is done most efficently through bureaucracies.

And still one more favorite passage (I could go on and on):
But every day, I watch women walking the steep, winding roads of Rwanda carrying their burdens on their heads so they can continue to feed their children. Even under the most severe circumstances, we adjust and find our way. it is more than survival; it is how we ground our dignity and purpose in the mundane occurrences of a day.

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