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4.5 out of 5 stars
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 2 December 2013
This is a really rather remarkable book. Normally I would recommend a book on the basis of the majority of its pages. But this one is different.

Even if the rest of the book were poor - which it most certainly is not - it would be worth reading Sightlines just for the observation about sheep in a winter landscape. Clearly, I'm not going to tell you what that line is - but it made me stop, put the book down and wonder just how acute your observations would have to be to come up with a line like it.

The rest of the book is excellent and just as in Findings, some of the best sections are based indoors rather than outside. Time spent in a pathology lab, and a museum (maybe mortuary?) for whales produced wonderful essays.

The prose in the book is neither flamboyant nor self-consciously clever, but it is wonderfully well constructed - there is barely a word out of place, and each one seems to add to the sense of place that this book is about.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough - and you may be pleased to know that the line about the sheep come early in the book!
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on 6 May 2015
A different view of how we look and feel about things in the natural world. Things we take for granted Jamie makes us take more notice.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 March 2012
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I can only concur with the praise heaped on Jamie. This is writing about the natural world of a very high order indeed, engaging with beautiful and precise descriptions of what she sees and experiences in a very satisfying way, but, even more pertinently, taking off into other philosophical and thoughtful areas. It is far more than beautiful descriptive prose about birds wheeling against the skyline or the majestic loneliness of mountains against the horizon.

So, for example, one essay about gannets on a gannetry beyond the Shetlands, has her musing (this being a nursery after all) about her own children, and the different relationships between mother and child in other species.

Another, highly unusual 'natural world' examination, is under the lens of a microscope, looking at tumours in biopsies, and at Helicobacter. She equates this microscopic world to the known world of landscape, seeing inlets, sandbanks, gullies, and bacteria like 'musk oxen on tundra,seen from far above' Pastoral bacteria, feeding on the gorgeous turf of stomach lining. And, for me, that heart stopping sentence in this essay: "That's the deal: if we are to be alive and available for joy and discovery, then it's as an animal body, available for cancer and infection and pain"

Whether it is the delights of cleaning a long dead whale's ribs with a toothbrush (!) or going into the earth as if walking inside its body, to visit Paleolithic cave paintings, Jamie is thoughtful, and thought provoking

She embraces the obviously poetic and the mundane, and, like a true poet, sees the poetry in the mundane, using language which is the antithesis of the fey. This is nature writing which engages with the viscera and with sinew

I now have her earlier work, Findings, waiting to be read
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VINE VOICEon 21 June 2012
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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on 25 August 2012
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I don't usually like nature writing, preferring to read about humans and their creations. I was converted, however, by the enjoyable, evocative, and thought-provoking essays in "Sightlines".

Jamie comes across as a warm, fun person and I greatly enjoyed her company, whether on an archaeological dig as a teenager, recording cleits (stone and turf storehouses) on St Kilda, or cleaning whalebones in Norway. Jamie is a poet and it shows in her beautifully crafted language which is pleasingly seasoned with Scottish dialect. In these essays an iceberg smells of 'colossal, witless indifference', schoolchildren darting through a museum of whalebones are 'a quick bright shoal', and we find the following description of the moon during an eclipse:

"Then a smirr of cloud drifted across. Cloud is not like shadow: it passes like a silly thing, without the shadow's cold deliberation. Under the drift of cloud the remaining moonlight and the colours were abolished and the moon was a disc beaten into the sky like a rivet, horrible and annulled. Then the cloud passed."

Jamie is a thoughtful writer, eschewing an overly romantic or sentimental view of nature and questioning, examining, and qualifying words such as 'natural' and 'remote'. This clear-sightedness gives the book its edge and makes each essay, long or short, a pleasure.
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VINE VOICEon 2 April 2012
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 17 April 2012
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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on 8 September 2014
Exquisitely beautiful prose and the whole book is an exercise in mindful looking and then a fearless paring back so that what is shared with the reader is considered and worked. I will be using some of this in therapeutic writing settings and it's partly KJ's total control over the material that makes it so useful. The chapter on the Whale Hall I found literally breath-taking in its metaphorical possibilities. Genius.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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