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New Leaf September 2019 Discussion • The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks
#11  Victoria 09-15-2019, 10:41 PM
Gmw & CRussel I had the same reaction you to the opening of the book. The excuses he used to justify the thuggish behaviour in school weren’t very convincing, so it made the a rough start for me as well.

Great points about the subsidies, and dismissiveness about official interventions to save the herds, etc. Some of his pronouncements do have a chippy flavour of entitlement about them. I also wondered if some of the opinions he offered were exaggerated for effect.
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#12  Victoria 09-15-2019, 11:28 PM
Quote Bookpossum
For me, the down side of the book was Rebanks' writing style, which should have been sorted out, at least to some extent, in the editing process.

For example, he writes of pulling W H Hudson's book A Shepherd's Life out of the bookcase "like it was a piece of junk". He several times uses the word "disinterested" when he means "uninterested".

Perhaps this is deliberate, with Rebanks wanting to emphasise to the reader that he is a shepherd, not one of those patronising people who write books and fuss about grammar. I think it is a pity if that is the case, because it jarred and spoilt some of my enjoyment of the book.
Well said! A lot of energy in the book seems tied up in demonstrating he’s still a shepherd, and not a person who writes books.

I wonder if writing the book when his father was ill and dying influenced the tone. It may have brought up old issues of loyalty/disloyalty to his family, etc. Losing a parent can be so momentous. It’s hard to recognize and have perspective on how you’ve been affected until later.

I read an interesting interview with him, published a year or so after the book was published. He was more self-reflective and mentioned feedback from some of the online reviews from Amazon. I’ll post the web address if I can find the site again.
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#13  Dazrin 09-16-2019, 12:00 AM
I think I'm glad I read this as an audiobook. I don't think I would have made it through an ebook.

I agree with most of what has been said so far. It was interesting to learn about the shepherd's lives in a general sense but his specific situation was less interesting to me.
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#14  CRussel 09-16-2019, 12:55 AM
Quote Dazrin
I think I'm glad I read this as an audiobook. I don't think I would have made it through an ebook.

I agree with most of what has been said so far. It was interesting to learn about the shepherd's lives in a general sense but his specific situation was less interesting to me.
I read perhaps 35% of the book as an Audible book, and read the rest on my Kindle. Both had their virtues, but being able to switch back and forth allowed me to get through some parts I wasn't thrilled with.
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#15  Bookworm_Girl 09-16-2019, 02:01 AM
I really enjoyed this book. It's one of my favorite books that the club has selected. I'm surprised people found it so difficult to read. I thought that his personal experiences made the book more interesting and relatable, and I liked that he shared his honest struggles within his family (he even apologies to his mother in the Acknowledgments for being public). My friend who grew up on a sheep farm in this same area of the Lake District says the book was "spot on," and she plans to buy copies for her adult children (all born & raised in the US). I'm looking forward to chatting with her about it.

I chose to read the hardcover book. I'm not sure it would have worked as an audiobook for me. I appreciated the photos sprinkled throughout the book. I also liked the quotes. Reading rather than listening helped to delineate each segmented section. I took the entire time to read the book by keeping it next to my chair and periodically reading in small doses. I also purchased a hardcover copy of The Shepherd's View: Modern Photographs From an Ancient Landscape, which is more of a general explanation of shepherding life and the people in the community to supplement a variety of beautiful color photos. I also enjoyed looking at the photos of the sheep and the land on his Instagram feed.

I think the various accolades it received when published were deserved.
A New York Times Top Book of 2015
A Guardian Best Book of the Year
A Telegraph Best Book of 2015
A Daily Express Best Book of 2015
Shortlisted for the Portico Literature Prize
Shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year Award
Shortlisted for the 2016 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize
Shortlisted for the 2016 Wainwright Prize
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#16  Bookworm_Girl 09-16-2019, 02:08 AM
Quote gmw
I think he lays it on a bit thick at times. Which is not to say any particular incident is exaggerated, but the sheer concentration of incidents obscures the real payoff that exists in farming, the reason why people keep doing it. I think he does try to convey that, but it's not as clearly presented as the hardships.
Quote gmw
Given his education and wider experience, I suspect cleverness. This book is a neatly put together assembly of linked essays that mingle time in a way that never really gets confused but contrasts different parts of his life while still offering a forward progression. That much, I think, is real and intentional, and very well done.
Quote Bookpossum
For me, the down side of the book was Rebanks' writing style, which should have been sorted out, at least to some extent, in the editing process.
I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars, marking it down for the points that both of you make. I really liked the format and how it was structured in a creative take on time (one of the main themes of the book). I think that Rebanks had enough talent that with the publisher's help he could have taken the book to an even greater level of writing than it achieved. While Helen MacDonald said "It's Bloody Marvelous," I don't think that the book was on the same quality level as her memoir, H is for Hawk.
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#17  Bookworm_Girl 09-16-2019, 02:33 AM
gmw and Victoria, thanks for sharing your personal experiences! My grandparents had a small farm in the Eastern US where they raised pigs and cows which they sold for food purposes. We only visited annually in the summer, and I was mostly scared of the animals so I did not spend much time in the barns or pastures. I stayed inside the farm house with a book and being with my grandma in the kitchen. My brother, on the other hand, liked to follow my grandpa around outside. A missed opportunity that I now wish I had experienced more of the outdoor activities or could even remember more about those days.
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#18  gmw 09-16-2019, 03:00 AM
Quote Bookpossum
I have mixed feelings about this book also. On the plus side, I was interested to read about the life the farmers in Cumbria lead. Also, some of Rebanks' descriptions of the natural world are lovely:
Yes, these were definitely some of my favourite parts. It has to include, too, his father catching the leveret (baby hare). They are gorgeous creatures.

Quote Bookpossum
I also enjoyed the sense of a way of life being handed on through the generations:
I felt as though he laid this on pretty heavily, but then it goes along with thoughts about memory being 3 generations (a conversation with issybird on another thread), and about traditions being quite fluid. So as he speaks of using antibiotics he has on hand (to be misused as antibiotics so often are), and of the quad-bike and more, the idea of carrying on the good old days felt a bit stretched to me.

And I can see that previous paragraph comes over excessively critical. I do like that they are attempting preserve as much of this lifestyle as is feasible, and I do like that he makes connections to the past ... but a little bit acknowledgement of reality would be good too.

Quote Bookpossum
As for his behaviour as a boy at what sounds to be a pretty horrendous school, I find more fault with a system that labels children as non-achievers, and apparently turns a blind eye to violent bullying, than with the rebellion of those children to being so labelled. Tell people they are stupid and worthless and should "aim to be more than just farmworkers", and they believe it and behave accordingly.

While I don't condone his bad behaviour, I can understand it.
The 13yo I can (now that I'm well past school age) forgive. I am much less forgiving of a 40yo trying to blame his behaviour on the teachers. Maybe it was an awful school, but I'm not about to take the word of a 13yo thug, nor a 40yo adult who won't allow that at least some of the teachers might have meant well even if his 13yo self couldn't see it.

James might have been the only son of a generation that left things only to sons, and so his future may have been secure (although he learned later it wasn't), but didn’t he know any kids that were the youngest of many sons? Kids who were always going to have to find a living somewhere outside the shelter of this tiny community? Surely he must have known some. And what if James had had an accident as a young man and could no longer work the farm? (It almost happened to his grandfather.) So his 13yo self was not just selfish, but stupid too. That’s okay, most 13yos are, but how can the 40yo James not look back and see this, and accept that maybe the families of the area should own up to their responsibilities. Generations of ignorance and prejudice is no reason to perpetuate the problem.

In fact he does seem to make it part way there near the end, as he talks about his own children, but if he truly does see this, I wonder why he left the start of the book as it was. There is quite a lot that feels like personal development between the start and tend of the book, which again has me wondering if this was an intentional progression - if so it ran (and hit with me) the risk of alienating the reader from the start.
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#19  gmw 09-16-2019, 03:53 AM
Quote Bookworm_Girl
gmw and Victoria, thanks for sharing your personal experiences! My grandparents had a small farm in the Eastern US where they raised pigs and cows which they sold for food purposes. We only visited annually in the summer, and I was mostly scared of the animals so I did not spend much time in the barns or pastures. I stayed inside the farm house with a book and being with my grandma in the kitchen. My brother, on the other hand, liked to follow my grandpa around outside. A missed opportunity that I now wish I had experienced more of the outdoor activities or could even remember more about those days.
The trouble will be getting me to shut up about it. (Like James Rebanks, I'm proud of my rural upbringing even if I didn't remain on the farm.)

I think we all have missed opportunities from our childhood. My father used to take us around the places where he grew up and tell us stories of what farming was like in those days, and what it was just being a kid in the country of those times ... and now he is gone and so are most of those stories. But I remember enough of them to recognise how different it was for me - which, perhaps unfairly, has me distrust claims of following too closely in the footsteps of our fathers. Times change and we change with them, even if we don't always see it in ourselves.

I said "perhaps unfairly" because one of the drivers of change where I grew up is in trying to make a living from the farm. But if you're farming in a protected enclave then I suppose it may be possible to retain more of the past in what you do. But even then, change never really stops, and we see that quite clearly revealed in this book.
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#20  Bookpossum 09-16-2019, 09:30 AM
Quote gmw
Yes, these were definitely some of my favourite parts. It has to include, too, his father catching the leveret (baby hare). They are gorgeous creatures.

-----

The 13yo I can (now that I'm well past school age) forgive. I am much less forgiving of a 40yo trying to blame his behaviour on the teachers. Maybe it was an awful school, but I'm not about to take the word of a 13yo thug, nor a 40yo adult who won't allow that at least some of the teachers might have meant well even if his 13yo self couldn't see it.

James might have been the only son of a generation that left things only to sons, and so his future may have been secure (although he learned later it wasn't), but didn’t he know any kids that were the youngest of many sons? Kids who were always going to have to find a living somewhere outside the shelter of this tiny community? Surely he must have known some. And what if James had had an accident as a young man and could no longer work the farm? (It almost happened to his grandfather.) So his 13yo self was not just selfish, but stupid too. That’s okay, most 13yos are, but how can the 40yo James not look back and see this, and accept that maybe the families of the area should own up to their responsibilities. Generations of ignorance and prejudice is no reason to perpetuate the problem.

In fact he does seem to make it part way there near the end, as he talks about his own children, but if he truly does see this, I wonder why he left the start of the book as it was. There is quite a lot that feels like personal development between the start and tend of the book, which again has me wondering if this was an intentional progression - if so it ran (and hit with me) the risk of alienating the reader from the start.
Yes, that was a lovely passage about the leveret. I think the contrast between the early part of his life and his thoughts about his children was indeed to show his development.

Indeed, if you go back and look at the early pages, he is acknowledging very early in the book that, for example, tourism is hugely important to keeping the place going: "More than half the employment in the area is reliant upon tourism ..." Later in the book of course he talks about "... the upside to new people coming into a community ...", though of course he also writes that "two worlds that didn't understand each other were colliding".

At the same time, his 13 year old self felt that the teacher was looking on the lives of his family and the families of his fellow students with a lack of respect. And really, if someone shows no respect for you and your way of life, why would you respect her different value system?
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