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BOOK REVIEW

A mosaic from shattered pieces

Finding Beauty in a Broken World; Terry Tempest Williams; Pantheon: 420 pp., $26

November 30, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

Terry Tempest Williams is full to the brim. When she was younger, she wrote books about her life with and separation from her Mormon family and the church itself; about our distance from nature; about democracy, freedom and responsibility; about communicating with stones. Williams is an ecosystem writer -- concepts in her world are joined together by physical and spiritual threads. For some, she can be too much. No vessel, least of all a book, can contain her.

A lot has happened to Williams in the last decade. Her beloved brother, Steven, died. She watched damage to the western landscape (particularly Utah and Wyoming) increase violently and exponentially. She fought for parts of that environment and got, for her efforts, front row seats to the Greed and Power Show. She went to Rwanda and heard survivors' stories of the genocide that will make every reader want to bury his or her head in disgrace. These things dropped like boulders into her cup and caused it to spill over.

What can a writer do when her world is splintered and her heart is full

Make mosaics. On the page.

"Finding Beauty in a Broken World" is a book written in tiles, in tesserae. Williams went to Ravenna, Italy, to apprentice in a mosaic workshop. She studied with a woman named Luciana: "Her work is unsigned, anonymous. . . . She has no belief in invention or innovation. 'It has all been done before,' she says. 'There are rules.' "

This humility (as well as the techniques she learned) informs Williams' method throughout the book. In Italy, Utah and Africa, she tries to expand her ability to understand the fragmented world. She tries to make a mosaic of it in her mind and on the page. The tools are difficult to master: humility, eloquence, dignity, grace. You can feel will in there too -- the raw effort to insist on beauty, even as others try to destroy it.

The book requires some effort, yes. The mind is not always ready to connect pieces for itself, especially in a world that is more than happy to make connections for you. But Williams fills "Finding Beauty in a Broken World" with so many glinting surfaces that the mind wants to connect them: the wide-open eyes of the prairie dog, and those of the mother watching her 5-year-old daughter raped and discarded; the bones in the American Museum of Natural History, and the bones in the church where 10,000 Rwandan people were murdered; the dignity of Lily, the artist who invited Williams and others to Rwanda to build a wall of names of the victims of the genocide, and that of William's own father, "direct and unapologetic in the losses he has suffered."

As she notes, "Dignity is a presence, a suffering withheld, a reserve and a patience learned through difficulty, a broken heart held together through acceptance, not bitterness."

It is too much, at least for Williams, to make a cozy narrative, a story out of what she sees. Reporting the world in fragments through the eyes of suffering animals and humans seems more honest. It is more personal and more respectful -- or selfless. Only Williams could place these tiles before us, gently, not aggressively, and ask us to connect them in our own ways.

Williams adopted a son from Rwanda, a young man named Louis who came to Salt Lake City to live with the author and her husband and attend college. "[T]o commit to a child," she writes, "even a man-child, is a journey of vulnerability that remains unknown to me. I am learning. I am coming to understand that saying yes to Louis is about engagement, a reconfiguration of everything I have known. He has become a safe harbor I could not have imagined."

As to what this means, "Finding Beauty in a Broken World" offers its answers in fragments, pieces -- as a mosaic must. "Rwanda is changing me," Williams writes. "To see steep green hillsides plowed by women, eroding, as they feed their families, to feel the fragments of war lodged in every story told, to smell death trapped in walls, and taste dust, even in rain, is to hear a very different rhythm in the way people live. The backdrop and context of genocide is flooding my imagination."

And yet, there is always beauty. "It feels good to walk," she continues, "to rest my wild eyes on lizards, trogons, and colorful unknown birds, all of them new species for me. Beauty is not a luxury but a strategy for survival."

--

susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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