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Surfacing

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“[Kathleen Jamie’s] essays guide you softly along coastlines of varying continents, exploring caves, and pondering ice ages until the narrator stumbles over — not a rock on the trail, but mortality, maybe the earth’s, maybe our own, pointing to new paths forward through the forest.” —Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing, “By the Book” in The New York Times Book Review.


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“[Kathleen Jamie’s] essays guide you softly along coastlines of varying continents, exploring caves, and pondering ice ages until the narrator stumbles over — not a rock on the trail, but mortality, maybe the earth’s, maybe our own, pointing to new paths forward through the forest.” —Delia Owens, author of Where the Crawdads Sing, “By the Book” in The New York Times Book Review.

30 review for Surfacing

  1. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I’m a big fan of Kathleen Jamie’s work, prose and poetry. Like her two previous essay collections, Sightlines and Findings, both of which I read in 2012, this fuses autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by males. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me, too. The bulk of Surfacing is given over to three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. She was drawn to Quin I’m a big fan of Kathleen Jamie’s work, prose and poetry. Like her two previous essay collections, Sightlines and Findings, both of which I read in 2012, this fuses autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by males. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me, too. The bulk of Surfacing is given over to three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. She was drawn to Quinhagak, Alaska, a village that’s about the farthest you can go before crossing the Bering Sea into Russia, by her fascination with the whaling artifacts found along the UK’s east coast. Here she helped out on a summer archaeological dig and learned about the language and culture of the Yup’ik people. Alarmingly, the ground here should have been frozen most of the way to the surface, forcing the crew to wear thermals; instead, the ice was a half-meter down, and Jamie found that she never needed her cold-weather gear. On Westray, Orkney (hey, I’ve been there!), there was also evidence of environmental degradation in the form of rapid erosion. This Neolithic site, comparable to the better-known Skara Brae, leads Jamie to think about deep time and whether we’re actually much better off: Being on site often left me freighted with thoughts about time, how it seems to expand and contract. I kept having to remind myself of the ages that passed during what we call the Neolithic or the Bronze Age. How those people’s days were as long and vital as ours. … We all know it. We can’t go on like this, but we wouldn’t go back either, to the stone ploughshare and the early death. Prehistory fits the zeitgeist, as seen in two entries from the recent Wainwright Prize shortlist: Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a necessary corrective to the kind of short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis. A cancer biopsy coincides with a dream memory of being bitten by a Tibetan dog, prompting Jamie to get out her notebook from a trip to China/Tibet some 30 years ago. Xiahe was technically in China but ethnically and culturally Tibetan, and so the best they could manage at that time since Tibet was closed to foreigners. There’s an amazing amount of detail in this essay given how much time has passed, but her photos as well as her notebook must have helped with the reconstruction. The depth and engagement of the long essays are admirable, yet I often connected more with the very short pieces on experiencing a cave, spotting an eagle or getting lost in a forest. Jamie has made the interesting choice of delivering a lot of the memoir fragments in the second person. My favorite piece of all is “Elders,” which in just five pages charts her father’s decline and death and marks her own passage into unknown territory: grown children and no parents. What will her life look like now? There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition: What are you doing here anyway, in the woods? … You wanted to think about all the horror. The everyday news … No, not to think about it exactly but consider what to do with the weight of it all, the knowing … You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on. Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck. (Releases on the 19th [UK] / 24th [USA].)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    Nice WSJ review: https://www.wsj.com/articles/surfacin... (paywalled). Excerpts: "At an archaeological dig in coastal Alaska, where Ms. Jamie is helping to excavate a buried village settled by natives some five centuries earlier, she thinks she smells “mince and tatties,” a hearty Scottish dish of meat and potatoes. Is she having some sort of olfactory hallucination evoked by her childhood? The scent, Ms. Jamie discovers, is from a part of the freshly unearthed site where seals and walruses were once skinned. “The air is so clean Nice WSJ review: https://www.wsj.com/articles/surfacin... (paywalled). Excerpts: "At an archaeological dig in coastal Alaska, where Ms. Jamie is helping to excavate a buried village settled by natives some five centuries earlier, she thinks she smells “mince and tatties,” a hearty Scottish dish of meat and potatoes. Is she having some sort of olfactory hallucination evoked by her childhood? The scent, Ms. Jamie discovers, is from a part of the freshly unearthed site where seals and walruses were once skinned. “The air is so clean and sharp,” she writes, “you can smell seal-meat from five hundred years ago.” . . . Listening to an Alaskan tribal member tell of the uncanny homing instinct of sled dogs, Ms. Jamie confesses that “I was unsure whether the event [he recounted] happened to him, or his grandfather, or someone else entirely. I don’t know whether it matters.” For a student of nature, she hints, time becomes a casual continuum, much like the fabled temporal stream in which Henry David Thoreau went a-fishing. Ms. Jamie appears more gregarious than Thoreau and most other nature writers. While the genre is deeply populated by solitaries, her essays brim with people. “Surfacing” also chronicles her travels in Tibet, but some of the book’s most memorable essays grow from her native soil in Scotland, including “Elders,” an affectionate portrait of her aged father, who passes away in a “chair turned toward the window.”

  3. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Life feels like one headlong rush at times. The phone squeaks constantly with notifications, demanding attention now, the 24 hour news fills our lives with politics and despair and yet time goes no faster than it did 5000 years ago. It grinds ceaselessly on, covering memories and objects with its gossamer-thin seconds. To go back in time, we need to unearth our landscapes and memories. Time is a spiral. What goes around comes around. The book opens with her in Alaska helping at an archaeol/>Time Life feels like one headlong rush at times. The phone squeaks constantly with notifications, demanding attention now, the 24 hour news fills our lives with politics and despair and yet time goes no faster than it did 5000 years ago. It grinds ceaselessly on, covering memories and objects with its gossamer-thin seconds. To go back in time, we need to unearth our landscapes and memories. Time is a spiral. What goes around comes around. The book opens with her in Alaska helping at an archaeological dig in a Yup’ik village. The site is normally frozen most of the year, but in the summer the cold relents, normally allowing the top four or five inches to be uncovered, however, climate change means that the permafrost is thawing to a depth of half a metre allowing more secrets of its hunter-gatherer past to be revealed. The objects that they are finding are enabling the village to re-discover their past. They found dance masks that were discarded after missionaries told them it was devil worship and for the first time in a very long time performed a dance that was pieced together from the elder’s memories. The landscape was astonishing. There was nothing I wanted to do more than sit quietly and look at it, come to terms with its vastness. Her next excursion to the past is at the Links of Noltland, up in Orkney. This Neolithic site has been covered by dunes and what they have found here was last seen by human eyes thousands of years ago. The need to excavate and understand just what is there, is urgent as it is subject to erosion from the storms that the Atlantic brings, as well as the other pressure of funding to carry out the work being stopped because of budget pressures. These people were only a step away from the wild and had short brutal lives and yet they were skilled enough to have devised a method when they built their homes to keep out the relentless wind. They fill your hands, these fragments, these stories, but with a wide gesture, you cast them back across the field again. Jamie writes of time spent in Xiahe in Tibet in her younger days, at the time of the student protests and the clampdown of martial law in the region and the palpable tension in the area. They explore as much as they can, but because they are foreigners, they have an undue amount of attention directed towards them, including the inevitable night raid by the police. There are other essays in here too, almost short interludes between the longer pieces. She stops her car to watch the mastery an eagle has over the air and consider the timelessness of a woodland. Some of the essays are more personal too, she recalls the moment of her fathers passing and struggles to hear her mother and grandmothers voices in her mind. A new Kathleen Jamie book is a thing of joy, and Surfacing does not disappoint at all. Her wonderful writing is layered, building images of the things that she sees, until you the reader, feel immersed in the same place that she inhabited. Some of the essays are very moving, Elders in particular, but also The Wind Horse where you sense the tension in the town from what she observes. Her skill as a poet means, for me at least, that her writing has a way of helping you seen the world around in a new and different light, revealing as much from the shadows as from the obvious and this book is no different.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jillian Doherty

    With a need for calm and focus, that only quality nature writing can offer, Jamie shares ecology insight through a poets voice. Opening with her daydreaming on train, reflecting on artifacts she's seen in local museums and how they transform you back to her original experiences with them. It's an effortless transition to beautiful passages about landscape, discovery, and awakening, with a deep cultural and climate understanding. Jamie characterizes herself in Robert Lewis Stevenson words 'a stro With a need for calm and focus, that only quality nature writing can offer, Jamie shares ecology insight through a poets voice. Opening with her daydreaming on train, reflecting on artifacts she's seen in local museums and how they transform you back to her original experiences with them. It's an effortless transition to beautiful passages about landscape, discovery, and awakening, with a deep cultural and climate understanding. Jamie characterizes herself in Robert Lewis Stevenson words 'a strong Scott's accent of the mind'. Galley borrowed from the publisher.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ruth Brookes

    An astonishing book, Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing is a collection of essays predominantly about our collective past and the objects which shape & bind us to our land and homes. Roaming from archeological digs on an Alaskan shore and a Scottish island, to travels through China, a woodland walk and thoughts on a train. Overarching all this is a book about looking and seeing; examining space, light, nature, pondering history and the remembering of that which has been forgotten. Jamie takes e An astonishing book, Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing is a collection of essays predominantly about our collective past and the objects which shape & bind us to our land and homes. Roaming from archeological digs on an Alaskan shore and a Scottish island, to travels through China, a woodland walk and thoughts on a train. Overarching all this is a book about looking and seeing; examining space, light, nature, pondering history and the remembering of that which has been forgotten. Jamie takes everyday objects, our own and archeological finds, she takes the quiet moments of her days, aging, the loss of parents, children grown, memories of youthful travels, fleeting moments of freedom, life and all its precious, transitory rush. Throughout is conveyed a deep rooted sense of connection and the weight and passage of time. Aware of our place in the world, Jamie holds both the fragility and resilience of humanity up to view with a clear eyed patience. Tactile, visceral, and grounded in place Surfacing is a kind of homecoming, fascinating, powerful and moving.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    3.75 stars I found this book of mostly nature & anthropology essays to be quite pleasant, but not particularly satisfying. I wanted more, especially from the third essay on Tibet. I did appreciate the way Jamie ties all of her essays together with the overarching theme of what can surface when we dredge up the past, as well as connecting her topics to climate change. I realized that I already have one of her poetry collections on my Goodreads TBR shelf, and I really would like to 3.75 stars I found this book of mostly nature & anthropology essays to be quite pleasant, but not particularly satisfying. I wanted more, especially from the third essay on Tibet. I did appreciate the way Jamie ties all of her essays together with the overarching theme of what can surface when we dredge up the past, as well as connecting her topics to climate change. I realized that I already have one of her poetry collections on my Goodreads TBR shelf, and I really would like to get to that sooner rather than later because I think her writing is best when she's digging into poetic language. Recommended if you're interested in archeology, indigenous peoples reclaiming their culture, and/or nature writing.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Florence Lacey

    I loved Findings and Sightlines but this is even better. Surfacing follows the same format of beautifully crafted essays that link in unusual, almost subterranean ways but the frame of the collection is vast, spanning millennia and taking us from the edge of the Bering Sea to the borders of Tibet, to the sand dunes of the Orkneys to a window in Fife. And the last essay, ‘The Voice of the Wood’ is so moving, quietly so. This is a book that will linger long in the mind. I know now what I’m giving I loved Findings and Sightlines but this is even better. Surfacing follows the same format of beautifully crafted essays that link in unusual, almost subterranean ways but the frame of the collection is vast, spanning millennia and taking us from the edge of the Bering Sea to the borders of Tibet, to the sand dunes of the Orkneys to a window in Fife. And the last essay, ‘The Voice of the Wood’ is so moving, quietly so. This is a book that will linger long in the mind. I know now what I’m giving everyone for Christmas.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen Gray

    It's hard to characterize this- it's a memoir, it's nature writing, it's a call to make changes in how we treat the world- but it's beautifully written. It's also educational. There are three settings- Alaska, Orkney, and Tibet- and each proves important to Jamie's life. There are also smaller essays which touch on a variety of issues but which tie the major essays together. In Alaska, Jamie worked on an archeological dig and learned not only about the Yup' ik people, but also the effects of cli It's hard to characterize this- it's a memoir, it's nature writing, it's a call to make changes in how we treat the world- but it's beautifully written. It's also educational. There are three settings- Alaska, Orkney, and Tibet- and each proves important to Jamie's life. There are also smaller essays which touch on a variety of issues but which tie the major essays together. In Alaska, Jamie worked on an archeological dig and learned not only about the Yup' ik people, but also the effects of climate change. In Orkney, she worked on a neolithic site. I was most interested in Xiahe, ethnically Tibetan but technically in China but most affected by "Elders". Thanks to Edelweiss for the ARC. I'd not read Jamie before but I'll look for her writing in the future.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Robin

    My favorite of all the books I’ve read in 2019, Surfacing engages both heart and senses, and does so without pretension. This series of essays can be categorized as memoir or travelogue, but also informs us both historically and on very current events. Jamie uses language beautifully and directly, with no wasted words. She filled my imagination with vivid images and told stories that I easily related to, even though I’ve never been to any of the places she describes. “In Quinhagak,” my favorit My favorite of all the books I’ve read in 2019, Surfacing engages both heart and senses, and does so without pretension. This series of essays can be categorized as memoir or travelogue, but also informs us both historically and on very current events. Jamie uses language beautifully and directly, with no wasted words. She filled my imagination with vivid images and told stories that I easily related to, even though I’ve never been to any of the places she describes. “In Quinhagak,” my favorite essay, takes place in Alaska where the author assists archaeologists on a unique quest to save and catalog artifacts from a 500 year old civilization. Buried for centuries, climate change is thawing the site and exposing it to ocean waves. As native Yu’piks examine the artifacts, elders remember, and children experience for the first time their antecedents and traditional ways of life. “Links of Noltland” describes a decades-old archaeological dig in Jamie’s native Scotland. In brilliant contrast to the Quinhagak dig, funding is drying up for Noltland. Workers exhaust themselves, working long hours excavating as much of the Bronze Age and Neolithic Era civilizations as possible, knowing the probability that their work will necessarily end soon. Other stories include an attempted trip to Lhasa during a time when the Chinese government oppressed both its citizens and foreigners, poignant visits with family elders, and the simple observation of an eagle in flight. Arranged in a pleasing order, these stories form a satisfying whole. Highly recommend for fans of memoir, short stories, archaeology and culture, and poetic language that is direct and non-flowery.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Vicki Husband

    Jamie's ability to write in-the-moment, to describe, even replicate, slow-time, is remarkable, and is what sets her essays apart. In this collection especially, the months spent on archaeological digs are the perfect time and territory for Jamie's acute observations and reflections, placing the here-and-now within the deep time of human history. The collection is bound together as a whole with short contemplations on family life and death, tying the personal to the collective experience of our s Jamie's ability to write in-the-moment, to describe, even replicate, slow-time, is remarkable, and is what sets her essays apart. In this collection especially, the months spent on archaeological digs are the perfect time and territory for Jamie's acute observations and reflections, placing the here-and-now within the deep time of human history. The collection is bound together as a whole with short contemplations on family life and death, tying the personal to the collective experience of our short time on this earth.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Fantastic collection of essays from poet Kathleen Jamie. The title, "Surfacing", nicely summarises recurrent ideas in several of the essays, with time taken to observe people and places honing the vision and seeing what was not there before. Whether at archaeological digs in Alaska or Orkney, sheltering in a cave in the West Highlands of Scotland, or in a hotel in China her careful observation and openness to listen , and to learn from other people makes these words hit home with some heft. Slow Fantastic collection of essays from poet Kathleen Jamie. The title, "Surfacing", nicely summarises recurrent ideas in several of the essays, with time taken to observe people and places honing the vision and seeing what was not there before. Whether at archaeological digs in Alaska or Orkney, sheltering in a cave in the West Highlands of Scotland, or in a hotel in China her careful observation and openness to listen , and to learn from other people makes these words hit home with some heft. Slow down, observe, learn. It'll never catch on.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Katy Wheatley

    I was so pleased to see a new volume of writing by Kathleen Jamie, I even bought it in hardback. Jamie writes about the natural world in such an interesting way. A poet and essayist, she has a way of making the landscape come to life on the page. This is a series of pieces, some long, some very short. There is the personal, a tiny excerpt about her dad's death, and the more observational, about archeological sites and reflective pieces, about the time she went travelling in China. It's all beaut I was so pleased to see a new volume of writing by Kathleen Jamie, I even bought it in hardback. Jamie writes about the natural world in such an interesting way. A poet and essayist, she has a way of making the landscape come to life on the page. This is a series of pieces, some long, some very short. There is the personal, a tiny excerpt about her dad's death, and the more observational, about archeological sites and reflective pieces, about the time she went travelling in China. It's all beautiful and thought provoking. I love it.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Roxani

    There are many bright moments in Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing, often coalescing around descriptions of light. The essay that cut straight through me, however, illuminated the space that opens up in a woman’s life when she contemplates no longer having to be a caregiver. I will be returning to "Elders" for years. For those newer to Kathleen Jamie, I recommend starting with the book Findings and then making your way through her other essay works.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bronwen Griffiths

    I perhaps did not love this book as much as Kathleen Jamie's previous books - perhaps in part because one of the longest sections is set in the Arctic tundra, a place I know so little about - but it crept up on me. Jamie's sense of place, the way she uses language - these are essays to dip into time and time again. Beautiful.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Clyde

    Beautiful, lyrics prose that transports you to the sites that Jamie visits, exquisitely shares with you the profound relationships between people, people and nature with a deep sense of our history on this planet.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Richard Thorn

    A delightful collection of essays. Not sure they completely hang together but the luminosity of the writing of the individual pieces overcomes any minor reservations about the integrity of the collection.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Doug Beagrie

    There are not enough stars for 'Surfacing'. Kathleen Jamie is brilliant.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Layla

    Everything she writes is beautiful and evocative.

  19. 4 out of 5

    j andrews

    Delicate, prosaic and insightful.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Angela

  21. 4 out of 5

    Stefanie

  22. 4 out of 5

    Curt Langston

  23. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  24. 5 out of 5

    Emma

  25. 5 out of 5

    Simon

  26. 4 out of 5

    Fredrik

  27. 4 out of 5

    Grahambryson

  28. 4 out of 5

    Joanna Taylor

  29. 4 out of 5

    Ms6282 Slater

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Brenner

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