Book Club: Fargate from the Madding Crowd

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This fortnight sees my first Fargate From The Madding Crowd celebrity interview, with the incredible ‘Yorkshire Shepherdess’ Amanda Owen. Owen is coming to Sheffield for a book signing event on April 7.

She is looking forward to returning to the steel city, and whether you have already read the her hilarious autobiography A Year In The Life Of The Yorkshire Shepherdess or not, I urge you to go along and say hello. This lady is a real-life Wonder Woman.

Get in touch via email or twitter @AnnaCaig with your Sheffield literary city connections, or with a reader review of The Book Of Strange New Things.

Read of the fortnight

The Book Of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

This book reads like a gospel. The gospel according to Peter, our protagonist who travels light years to act as preacher to the native population of ‘Oasis’, a distant planet being colonised by a shadowy corporation.

We have the creation of a church, in both the congregation and the physical building sense; we have a period of temptation in the desert, and even a resurrection of sorts. Many of the ‘Oasans’ embrace Christianity wholeheartedly, for reasons we don’t fully understand until the end of the book.

And what struck me is how unusual it is to read such a sympathetic depiction of Christianity in fiction.

Maybe it’s just in the books that I read. But corruption within large religious institutions, and church authority figures abusing their power, seem much more frequently visited and attractive literary fare than well-intentioned Christian people with real faith.

Peter’s wife Bea has remained back on a troubled and violent Earth, and the only communication between them is essentially email with no attachments allowed.

What emerges through these epistles is that this book is really about language; specifically the limitations of language in our communication with each other. When we can’t see each other, or indeed if we’re talking to an alien with no discernible features, words are often insufficient. In the beginning was the word. But the word isn’t enough.

I don’t know if it’s relevant that Faber writes in English, which is not his mother tongue. It is true that using another language does open you up to the way we construct our surroundings through words. Faber covers a whole spectrum of communication problems in this book, from the great challenge of conversing with an alien race that has no faces and no vocal chords, to the inadequacy of words to describe what God means to different people, to a husband and wife annoying each other with poorly chosen phrases in emails.

Reading this book is like dreaming whilst awake.

The pace is slow and steady, with a mesmerising quality that creeps up on you.

The star of the show is Faber’s convincing, and engrossing, creation of the strange new world on Oasis. The Book Of Strange New Things is a gentle tale of God, language, and the limitations of both. Impressive stuff. But even if all you take away is a renewed appreciation for the importance of thinking carefully before you press send on that email, it’s still worth a read.

Reader Reviews

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Ginny says: I came tentatively to The Goldfinch. In fact it would be languishing still on my to-be-read pile had it not been chosen for the book club read, and my hand forced.

This tentative feeling was a hangover from Tartt’s second novel The Little Friend, which I found to be an ordeal of a read, moribund and wearisome, with a conclusion so frustrating it still tops my ‘books I’d like to throw across the room’ list.

The frustrations of The Little Friend felt almost like a personal affront, coming as it did after 10 years of waiting for a successor to the sublime The Secret History.

I was so happy therefore to lose myself in the amazing story of The Goldfinch.

The world Tartt creates is so vivid that I was completely transported throughout; her erudition and artistry make every sentence a pleasure to read.

Completely lacking in unnecessary sentiment and mawkishness, it captures perfectly the intense emotional and even physical pain of loss, a loss which reverberates through the story, driving the protagonist Theo’s choices and shaping his reactions, feeding a spiritual bleakness which almost annihilates him.

This is carried along by a gripping plot which meant ‘just one more page then sleep soon gave way to ‘oh well, who needs sleep anyway.’

In the end this book tells us that the veneration of beauty, and the permanence of beauty in art, is redemptive.

I urge you to venerate the beauty of this novel without delay.

Literary City: The Sheffield Connection

The Yorkshire Shepherdess is coming to Sheffield

In the words of John Reilly’s song dedicated to South Yorkshire’s Women of Steel ‘There’s nothing much tougher than a Northern girl’.

And this was the thought I was left with after speaking to the ‘Yorkshire Shepherdess’ Amanda Owen.

She may not work in a steel factory, but Owen runs a remote 2,000 acre hill farm in North Yorkshire, and takes care of 1,000 sheep as well as her nine (yes, nine) children.

The day before our conversation she had helped one of her ewes give birth to twins in an unexpectedly heavy March snowfall. She has grit, determination and indomitable spirit in bucket loads.

Owen is coming to Sheffield on April 7 to sign copies of her book A Year In The Life Of The Yorkshire Shepherdess. Growing up in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, she remembers coming to Meadowhall not long after it first opened. “I am looking forward to coming back to Sheffield,” says Owen.

“It wasn’t a long train ride from where I grew up.

“But to be honest, I prefered getting on my bike and out into the hills.”

Reading has played a huge part in Owen’s life.

It was her childhood love of James Herriot, the fictionalised alter ego of Yorkshire Dales vet Alf Wight, that inspired her ambition to become a shepherdess. “I have always loved books.

“They can really influence the direction your life takes.

“I used to troll the second hand bookshops in Huddersfield. When I found James Herriot’s If Only They Could Talk, that was a big one for me.”

“I am standing here today in the middle of untidy bookshelves.

“The precious ones are out of reach on the top shelf. But I like my children to be able to pick up any book they fancy. I don’t mind them being dropped or getting a coffee stain on them. I have learnt not to sweat the small stuff.

“When I get chance, I read more non-fiction these days. I like books on farming and the environment. I like to know what I’m reading about really happened.

“But I don’t get much time to read at the moment. My life is pretty busy,” Owen admits.

Which is an understatement.

She is now a successful writer, on top of taking care of her flock and her family. A Year In The Life Of The Yorkshire Shepherdess is a joyful but frank description of the challenges of life on one of the most inaccessible farms in the UK.

So, how does she manage it all? “I embrace a challenge.

“And I have learnt to juggle and prioritise. It will be great to come and see Sheffield again. But then it will straight back to the rear end of a sheep.”

Amanda Owen will be at the WH Smiths store in Meadowhall shopping centre on Friday April 7 at 1pm.