It's been five years since Jamie's collection 'Findings', so I looked forward to this with eager anticipation; nor was I disappointed. She dedicates this collection of pieces to "the island-goers", even though the settings include Bergen, Central Scotland, and a Pathology Lab at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee; happily islands such as Rona, St Kilda and Shetland also appear.
These essays, or perhaps 'meditations' is a better term, range in length from two to about 30 pages, long, and each are beautifully illustrated by stylish b & w photos. Whether describing the synchronised,shining curves of a pod of orcas, the eyes of gannets, "round and fierce, with a rim of weird blue", or the irregular surface of a cancer tumour, named "for the crab, because a cancer tumour sends claws out into the surrounding tissue", her eye continues to offer unusual poetic or challenging perspectives, especially when she pictures parts of the human anatomy as a landscape of land and river margins, mud-flats et al.
Her eye extends to an archaelogical dig, "the bite on the point" of her trowel, and the discovery of the woman in the cist burial. Although her sharp eye also catches the "glowing marshmallow pink" of icebergs in the morning sun during an Arctic cruise, her ear also delights in the charm of the "di-diddle-ditted" of a petrel in its burrow on Rona, responding to the tape recording played at its burrow mouth. There's also the account of her determined attempts to overcome the ocean's might, to finally describe the isolation of St.Kilda at her third attempt, and an almost hypnotic encounter with the curving power of cetacean skeletons in the 'Whale Museum' in Bergen.
Overall, this is an insightful and largely inspiring set of writings, with the marvels of the natural world predominant. I confess to feeling that the piece on 'Pathologies' was not to my taste, and felt it sat rather uneasily amongst the other writing, though I can see the link with other pathologies, including the cist burial. Hats off to 'Sort Of' books for some lovely paperback production values: clear typesetting, gorgeous cover art, illustrations, and the book's 'feel' in your hand.
Having absolutely loved Findings, Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie's previous collection of essays, I was very excited to read Sightlines. Also inspired by the natural world, it is just as quiet and contemplative, and revisits some of her previous subjects - sea birds, islands, pathology - as well as the aurora borealis, a lunar eclipse, archaeology, whales' jawbones and a dead storm petrel she finds on St Kilda.
But as with Findings, this is more than just `nature writing'. Jamie uses each of her closely observed subjects as a jumping-off point for a meditation on our relationship to the object in question, its position in time and in the world, and its personal significance for her. The result is a series of spare yet lyrical essays that continue to resonate long after you have put the book down. Wonderful.
I'm a great fan of the increasingly popular genre of 'nature writing', with recent favourites including Robert Macfarlane's 'The Wild Places' and Philip Connors' 'Fire Season'. However, although it is not a genre that tends to produce terrible books, it can tend towards mediocrity; good descriptive writing abounds but truly exceptional work is rare. That's why I was delighted to discover this marvellous book of essays - and sad that I hadn't come across Kathleen Jamie's work earlier. ('Findings', her first collection, has shot right to the top of my to-read list).
These essays are an eclectic mix, spanning place, subject, and length - some are only a few pages long, others much longer. But nearly all are outstanding in one way or another. Jamie opens the collection with 'Aurora', a description of a journey towards the northern lights that is possibly the best piece she presents here, and certainly my favourite. What Joanna Kavenna struggled to do in hundreds of pages in her turgid 'The Ice Museum', Jamie manages in less than twenty, moving evocatively from a description of the 'colossal, witless indifference' of the surrounding icebergs themselves, to the radar screen that marks them out as a 'rash of green dots'. She is also not above humour, which conveys a vital sense of herself and avoids the overly-stylised journalistic tone that sometimes afflicts travel writing. Reporting that some suggest that you can hear your own nerves working in the Arctic silence, she goes on to say that 'Some people say you can smell icebergs, that they smell like cucumbers. You can smell icebergs and hear your own nervous system. I don't know.'
I have reviewed this first essay in such depth because its strengths are, largely, the strengths of the other essays in this collection. As well as being a wonderful writer, Jamie is also superb at structure. This is demonstrates most strongly in a later piece, 'The Gannetry'. Her sighting of the fin of a killer whale and race to follow the animal's path around the island is infused with tension; you don't expect nature writing to be page-turning, but this is. However, a structural choice that is, in my opinion, even more effective, is her juxtaposition of the description of the gannetry with reflections on her relationship with her son. This is initially frustrating when a seemingly irrelevant description of a text conversation between them interrupts the description of the killer whale chase, but is brought full circle when she reflects at the end of the essay that killer whale packs are matriarchal, meaning that grown sons remain with their mothers. There's no need to spell out her own feelings about her son growing up and moving away from her, as she's done it all already.
As is probably obvious, I could quote endlessly from these essays, especially my other favourites, 'The Woman in the Field', 'Pathologies', 'On Rona', and 'Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda', but this review is already long. The only pieces that didn't quite work, for me, were the shorter ones, but I think this was because Jamie did not give herself space for the full development of ideas that she manages in the longer essays, and not because they were in any way badly-written. I recommend this collection wholeheartedly, and can't wait to read more of Jamie's work.
Kathleen Jamie is a Scottish poet. This book is a series of essays roughly grouped round the concept of 'the natural'. This is a wide field encompassing such subjects as Aurora, Pathology, the Hvalsalen (the Whale Hall at Bergen Museum). Natural doesn't necessarily mean living or sentient, but Jamie pulls them all together so that we can appreciate the connections.
These essays are in prose and I hesitate to say that the language is poetic because that term is frequently used damningly (and wrongly) to summon up ideas of flowery epithets and a generally precious and pretentious form of writing. Kathleen Jamie's writing is crystal clear. It is sharp and vivid and when she does use figures of speech they are apt and to the point. I think my favourite was her description of icebergs:
"Some people say you can smell icebergs . . . I smell nothing but colossal, witless indifference."
I really enjoyed this book and I was not sure I was going to. It is a book that I shall revisit, because I think it has a lot more to give than a first reading would discover. She made me consider at things I had largely ignored before and look at them in a way that I would not have thought of doing myself. Highly recommended.
I read this book and was moved to tears at times, her sensitivity towards Nature is to be read to be understood. Actually, I felt this book was hard to describe as such, if you like poetry and Nature, you will get it, if you don't you will not. My husband didn't - his loss, so it depends on where you're coming from. If you know the particular areas mentioned around Scotland and the Isles it helps too, don't think you could fail to be moved in that case, unless you're some sort of android. Will now go back and read other work by the author and possibly re-visit some of the sites again.
This is an unusual book of essays, taking as its core theme the way we perceive the natural world; when we look at something, what do we see?
This sounds like it would be self-indulgent mind-gabble, but it isn't, these are beautifully crafted pieces of work that delight you with their insight and their use of language.
The description of parts of the human body under the microscope as landscape, was a completely original take on a grimly fascinating subject. It isn't all meditation, there's a lovely recollection of an archaeological dig as a teenager and these slivers of biography add to the human interest within the book.
If I hadn't known that Kathleen Jamie was a poet, I would have probably guessed it from her prose. She has an absolute mastery of language but this never distances you from her writing. I enjoyed her humorous description of the (non)trips to St Kilda as much as the more deeply meditative pieces.
Kathleen Jamie's prose output may be relatively sparse, but masterpieces aren't created overnight. Highly recommended, not just to those who enjoy the natural world, but to all who enjoy good writing.
I loved reading this book and some of its images will stay with me for a long time. The writing style is low key and unselfconscious and at the same time poetic and lyrical. The sea and islands are the predominant subjects with whales and whale bones providing a theme like a red thread running through fabric. Here is nature as a poet and writer sees it. Gannets nest on impossible cliffs, Orcas swim around remote Scottish islands, abandoned crofts and birds which fly at night to avoid predators are all the subjects of this collection of essays.
The desire in some humans to experience remoteness and separation from fellow human beings is well described. At times many crave that silence and isolation which can only be provided by uninhabited lands. But animals and birds are never far from us wherever we go and all are surprisingly well adapted to their living conditions. This is nature writing at its best and it brings everything to life as do the black and white pictures which accompany each essay.
This is a moving and memorable book which brought home to me how interconnected we all are. We don't just live on the earth we are an integral part of it just as animals and plants are. One of the images which will stay with me is that of the author rescuing a moth from a stream and helping it to dry out on a stone and then realising with the aid of a magnifying glass that one of its fragile legs was glued at a strange angle to its wing by a drop of water. Having unglued it the author had to leave the moth to dry out and fend for itself. Did the moth live or did a predator snap it up? Who knows?
It is a pertinent question for modernity perhaps: "what is it that we're just not seeing?" If Jamie offers anything resembling an answer in this collection of essays, it might be a move towards transparency, towards an imperfect understanding, towards different points of view. Whether she is contemplating the aurora borealis exploding over the skies, musing on the provenance of whalebone arches, or counting rare petrels on the island of Rona, Jamie's writing invites us to look again at the world--a place at once familiar and unexpected.
Not surprisingly considering her quality as a poet is the precision and magnetic beauty of the writing contained in Sightlines. Icebergs are "driven by some sort of life force, flickering and green"; gannets "glitter" and are "[l]ess patrician poet, more bargain-hunter"; the power of the wind is such that "one just finds oneself on one's knees, as if beholding a miracle." Much of the pleasure comes from the way these "meditations" are written, eschewing the rigour of an all-knowing approach for a freeform series of observations and interactions. Personal memories and interest are as important in driving this writing as the facts and data to be gleaned from her amateur and professional companions. This makes the author seem a very unpretentious guide.
I especially enjoyed those essays which focussed on landscape and nature, although my favourite was about the Hvalsalen or "Whale Hall" in the Bergen Natural History Museum. Kathleen Jamie is fortunate enough to spend a few days working with a team restoring some of the whale skeletons. There is something "ancient and fairy story" about cleaning the bones but we are not allowed to forget that these whales have endured the "full gamut of human attention--from the exploding harpoon ... to the soft sponge".
This collection contains 14 essays the vast majority of which are concerned with natural history or landscapes. (There are deviations into pathology, archaeology and cave painting which I found less compelling, but that's my personal taste.) Jamie is at her best, for me, when she is exploring the idea of the natural world and our place within it. Never romantic or sentimental, her encounters with the wilderness are just that, wild. The gannets and killer whales and dramatic island vistas spring from the pages in a frenzy of existence and it is for their very power to offer up this natural world, raw and often unknowable, that these essays excel.
I feel certain that a book of essays will rarely become a bestseller and will not appear in the top ten listings in the sunday papers. The essay, as a literary form has an academic anchor, a school chore, an exam question all weighing it down as far from "light" reading and yet every day in newspapers we take on board (or on breakfast table) the journalist's take on the essay as modern information.
Kathleen Jamie is a poet and as we know poets, like policemen, are never off duty. Poets see the world differently; they can not help but see it more lyrically, a world that has more language in it.
In this collection of essays her range is quite extraordinary from the "smell of icebergs", the whale bone museum to the joy of her children playing in the February light and the unexpected beauty in the path lab as she regards a cancerous tumour on the inside of an excised colon. Her poetic choice of language elevates these often rather simple experiences to the level of meditations on life and life and especially on the debt we owe to the natural world that keeps our own ever changing.
Jamie does not shy away from the immediate experience she is undergoing, whether dealing with the grief, as relief, at the death of her mother or sharing the midnight experience of the moon's eclipse with her children; she finds sufficient words to share with the reader the effect that her environment both physical and mental has upon her.
Unearthing history in an autobiographical and symbolic manner fuses her past and her present in the central essay "The Woman in the Field" revealing as , for all of us, that you can never go back. Memory is really our only history. We are all authors of our own fate.
This is a book I will return to time and again as it has a command, an extremely powerful effect on the reader; it is calming. The hush of the sea between the fjords, the wonderment of the enormity of the bones of the whales, gannets glittering the sunlight. This is a book of Images, a book of enduring words; shared memories.
I have long admired Jamie's poetry, but in the essay form, I think she has found her true métier. The previous volume of short prose pieces, Findings, was a delight from start to finish: Sightlines is better. Both titles give a clue as to what is contained within - these are essays of observation and reflection, mostly, but not completely, of the natural world. What strikes the reader is the originality of the observations, particularly of the relatively mundane. She has a knack of seeing things from a startlingly original perspective, and she is able to communicate that vision in clear, sinuous language that delights and entertains.
As well as the treatment of landscape, particularly of her native Scotland, the book chronicles Jamie's investigation into the strange landscapes of cell biology seen through a hospital microscope, the Aurora Borealis, and the sight of a group of killer whales on the hunt, as well as many more examples of the strange and the ordinary.
Her journey to Greenland, detailed in the first essay in the book, was occasioned by a carpe diem realisation that she had reached middle age without seeing an iceberg. Her account of the journey takes in both the natural beauty of the land- and seascape, as well as the trials of a rough sea voyage.
Possibly the most dramatic account in the book conncerns the sighting of killer whales off the coast of Rona, the island forty miles of the coast of Scotland, once inhabited, but now deserted, like St Kilda. In this essay, Jamie moves seamlessly from the ominous description of the whales' arrival to the almost slapstick scene where the members of the groups she is with run around the headland chasing the whales as they hug the coastline below in search of prey.
The book is a delight, the photographs complementing the vivid writing. Each essay leaves the reader feeling that something has been illuminated in a rare and poetic way. This will sit on my shelf next to George Mackay Brown, than which I have no higher praise.