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Sightlines : A Conversation with the Natural World by Kathleen Jamie

As a nature writer, Kathleen Jamie sparkles.

In her native Scotland, she is knownsightlines primarily as a poet.  As an essayist, it would be great if she does more.  In Sightlines, Jamie takes an intense interest in all that she observes, and her places of interest range from the microscopic renderings of the human body to the fjords of Greenland.

Jamie’s essays cover the otherworldly, too.  In “Moon”, I think she’s put together a most excellent narrative about a lunar eclipse; she sees an event of high drama in the earth’s encroaching shadow.  During her visit to Greenland, Jamie takes on the Northern Lights, about as otherworldly a thing as anything we’ll ever see.

Her essays take in great swaths of the natural world, with a focus on the maritime climes of the northern Atlantic.  The sea and its effect on remote island settlements play a major part in several pieces here.  Whales are also a particular fascination – one essay is about her visit to the Hvalsalen, a museum in Norway with an extensive collection of whale skeletons.  There she is able to work with a restoration crew on a cleanup of the most significant specimens of the museum.

I found Jamie’s writing and scope of interest comparable to Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, Landmarks), another British author who writes some amazing nature essays.  As with him, her writing begs the reader to slow down and to stretch one’s attention span.  If you’re willing, you’ll be glad you did.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Opposite of Fate; A Book of Musings by Amy Tan

opposite of fateMany readers know Amy Tan as the author of novels exploring life in China and the lives of Chinese immigrants to the United States.  These are based in part on her own family history.  In The Opposite of Fate, she has collected her autobiographical writings and her essays about her writing.  Much of what people have written about her life is incorrect, and she gives us the real story.

Tan’s life has had tragic elements: the death of her father, the murder of a close friend, and her struggle with Lyme’s Disease.  Her relationship with her mother, an immigrant from China, has sometimes been difficult.  However, her life is not, by any means, entirely sad.  In addition to her great success as an author, she’s enjoyed playing in a rock band made up of authors, including Dave Barry and Stephen King, and had a very happy experience when she played a major part in script-writing and decision-making during the filming of her first blockbuster novel, The Joy Luck Club.  I read many portions of this book out loud to my husband, and he remarked many times, “Amy Tan is funny!”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Dimestore by Lee Smith

Although the award-winning writer Lee Smith grew up in the mountains of Virginia, shedimestore has lived in North Carolina, most recently in Hillsborough, for many years.  These essays about her life and writing are good reading, especially for fans of her fiction.  If you grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s, you’ll especially enjoy sharing her memories of these years.  If you’re familiar with Chapel Hill, you’ll want to see it through Lee Smith’s eyes.

Smith grew up in a rather dysfunctional but loving family and often spent time in the small-town dime store that her father owned.  There she observed the lives of many people and listened to their conversations, gaining insights that would later provide material for fiction.  She began writing as a child, getting into trouble with a neighborhood newspaper with editorials such as “George McGuire Is Too Grumpy” and “Mrs. Ruth Boyd Is a Mean Music Teacher.”  In her college writing classes, she wrote about alternative universes, stewardesses in Hawaii, and other topics far from her own life, ignoring her teachers’ advice to “write what you know” until the fateful day when she attended a reading by Eudora Welty and realized that good stories could come from a relatively uneventful life.  Smith’s first novel was somewhat autobiographical, and her mother, thinking that local folks might believe that every detail about the fictional characters was true of their family, made sure that no one in the small town where the family lived would find that book in a local store or library!  Smith has broadened her choice of topics, having long ago “used up” her childhood and adolescent experiences, but her own experiences still inspire her fiction.

Smith writes about the deaths of loved ones and the mental illnesses of family members, but her memories also include humorous events and times of great joy.

I could select a delightful quotation from almost any page, but I’ll choose just one, which describes her parents’ support for anything she wanted to do with her life: “I believe if I had told my mother that I wanted to be, say, an ax murderer, she would have said, without blinking an eye, ‘Well, that’s nice, dear, what do you think you might want to major in?’  My daddy would have gone out to buy me the ax.  Though my parents might feel – as Mama certainly said later – that they wished I would just stop all that writing stuff and marry a lawyer or a doctor, which is what a daughter really ought to do, of course, the fact is that they were so loving that they gave me the confidence, and the permission, early on, to do just about anything I wanted to do.”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)