of toads and Kathleen Jamie

I often get to write book reviews on new(ish) releases, but was a few months late coming to Kathleen Jamie’s new collection of essays, Sightlines.

When I was preparing to write A Prickly Affair, my agent, Patrick Walsh, suggested I read Jamie’s previous offering in this form, Findings. I was left feeling nervous that he was expecting me to reach such a level of precision and beauty. Luckily I am in no way tempted to ape her style – her words capture scenes with a high-resolution camera – whether it is the weathered bones of whales or the forensic examination of human organs, she deftly paints scenes with apparent ease.

Her run around the island of Rona, chasing the fins of killer whales, had me reading at a similar breathtaking pace, just to keep up. But the moment that I thrilled most was when, talking about whale-bone iconography (and if you don’t believe it exists, I suggest you read the book) she says. “Toads were said to have a jewel in their heads; render down a whale and what do you find but the arch of a church door.” Just that passing mention was enough – I have come across so few people familiar with the mythology of the toad-stone, it was a delight.

And to cap it all, a few hours later I was gifted a visit from my very own jewel of a toad – Gordon Maclellan, aka Creeping Toad – environmental educator and story-teller beyond compare (and character in The Beauty in the Beast). It was thanks to Gordon that I am now adorned with my own personal toad – he is becoming a work of art himself, a personal bestiary on his skin – and there were new things to show.

Which is all rather delightfully circular, because the next book I am to review is the wondrous creation by Caspar Henderson, ‘The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, A 21st Century Bestiary‘ – which has as its first chapter, a brilliant digression on the improbable axolotl.

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