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About the Reading the Western Landscape Book Club
The Book Group explores the portrayal of western North American landscape in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The group generally meets the 4th Wednesday of the month at 7:00 p.m. at the Arboretum Library. There are some exceptions. Check the date to be sure. The group uses the Shared Inquiry™ method developed by the Great Books Foundation. The chosen book of the month must be read in order to participate. New members welcome. When the weather is good, the group meets outside in appropriate places in the gloriously beautiful grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden
Book Club Picks 2010
The Meadow by
Set along the Colorado/Wyoming border, [it] follows a peculiar cast of men and women who are trying to create lives out in this sparse and lonely territory [...]. [...A] poet by trade, [...] stay[s] intimate with the people and with the land. [...] There is love at work here. Love of a place, of a time, and of a people. […]This is a book of weather and atmospheres, of dreams born and dashed and born again[ ;…] of personal history and geographical history, an homage to an uncommon people from whom we can learn much [;...] a slow book, simultaneously serene and heartbreaking, and it derives its quiet power from this tension. -- Brad Rhoda, Torrey House Press
Here are the questions discussed February 4, 2010:
- How does the narrator feel about what happens to, or in or around the meadow?
- Why does the narrator use a non-linear plot format?
- Why are there two different parts to the book?
- How do we get Ray the boy into Ray the man?
- How did Lyle, Frank and Ray know each other? Why does the narrator juxtapose the three?
- Do you think the narrator heard all these stories and wanted to put them down? What's your reasoning?
- What is the role of the two dreams?
- Does Galvin’s language/structure make for clarity or ambiguity? Why? Why not?
- How do pages like p. 142 contribute to the story?
- What do the diary entries tell us? How do they add? Why are they diary entries?
- What does it add to Lyle to know how much he read?
- Do you believe the stories?
- What “west” are we seeing here?
From the Ground Up by
Amy Stewart had a simple dream. She yearned for a garden filled with colorful jumbles of vegetables and flowers. After she and her husband finished graduate school, they pulled up their Texas roots and headed west to Santa Cruz, California. With little money in their pockets, they rented a modest seaside bungalow with a small backyard. It wasn't much--a twelve-hundred-square-foot patch of land with a couple of fruit trees, and a lot of dirt. A good place to start. From the Ground Up is Stewart's quirky, humorous chronicle of the blossoms and weeds in her first garden and the lessons she's learned the hard way. From planting seeds her great-grandmother sends to battling snails, gophers, and aphids, Stewart takes us on a tour of four seasons in her coastal garden. Confessing her sins and delighting in small triumphs, she dishes the dirt for both the novice and the experienced gardener. Along the way, she brings her quintessential California beach town to life--complete with harbor seals, monarch butterfly migrations, and an old-fashioned seaside amusement park just down the street. Each chapter includes helpful tips alongside the engaging story of a young woman's determination to create a garden in which the plants struggle to live up to the gardener's vision.
Here is what we discussed on March 4, 2010:
- Tell me some parts of this book that resonated for you in terms of landscape.
- Tell me some parts of this book that resonated for you in terms of gardening
- Did any of the gardening adventures seem to feel especially western or “not” western?
- Tell me about Amy Stewart’s growth as a gardener.
- Tell me you favorite line or image from the story.
Coming Home to Eat by
We really are what we eat. Eating close to home is not just a matter of convenience it is an act of deep cultural, emotional, and environmental significance. Gary Nabhan's experience with food permeates his life as a third-generation Lebanese American (with Irish and Lithuanian mixed in), as an avid gardener and subsistence hunter, as an ethnobotanist preserving seed diversity, and as an activist devoted to recovering native food traditions to promote the health of Native Americans in the Southwest. To rediscover what it might mean to "think globally, eat locally," he spent a year trying to eat only foods grown, fished, or caught within two hundred miles of his home with surprising results. In Coming Home to Eat, Nabhan draws these experiences together in a book that is a culmination of his life's work and a vibrant portrait of the essential human relation to the foods that truly nourish us, affirming our bonds to family, community, landscape, and season.
Here are is what we discussed April 1, 2010:
- Tell me some parts of this book that resonated for you in terms of landscape.
- Tell me some parts of this book that resonated for you in terms of gardening.
- Did any of the adventures seem to feel especially western or “not” western?
- Tell me about Gary Paul Nabhan’s growth as a gardener/eater.
- Tell me you favorite line or image from the story.
- Tell about some of things you consider ambiguities in the book. How did you resolve these ambiguities?
The Control of Nature by
While John McPhee was working on his previous book,Rising from the Plains, he happened to walk by the engineering building at the University of Wyoming, where words etched in limestone said: "Strive on--the control of Nature is won, not given." In the morning sunlight, that central phrase--"the control of nature"--seemed to sparkle with unintended ambiguity. Bilateral, symmetrical, it could with equal speed travel in opposite directions. For some years, he had been planning a book about places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature, about (in the words of the book itself) "any struggle against natural forces--heroic or venal, rash or well advised--when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods." His interest had first been sparked when he went into the Atchafalaya--the largest river swamp in North America--and had learned that virtually all of its waters were metered and rationed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project called Old River Control. In the natural cycles of the Mississippi's deltaic plain, the time had come for the Mississippi to change course, to shift its mouth more than a hundred miles and go down the Atchafalaya, one of its distributary branches. The United States could not afford that--for New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and all the industries that lie between would be cut off from river commerce with the rest of the nation. At a place called Old River, the Corps therefore had built a great fortress--part dam, part valve--to restrain the flow of the Atchafalaya and compel the Mississippi to stay where it is. In Iceland, in 1973, an island split open without warning and huge volumes of lava began moving in the direction of a harbor scarcely half a mile away. It was not only Iceland's premier fishing port (accounting for a large percentage of Iceland's export economy) but it was also the only harbor along the nation's southern coast. As the lava threatened to fill the harbor and wipe it out, a physicist named Thorbjorn Sigurgeirsson suggested a way to fight against the flowing red rock--initiatingan all-out endeavor unique in human history. On the big island of Hawaii, one of the world's two must eruptive hot spots, people are not unmindful of the Icelandic example. McPhee went to Hawaii to talk with them and to walk beside the edges of a molten lake and incandescent rivers. Some of the more expensive real estate in Los Angeles is up against mountains that are rising and disintegrating as rapidly as any in the world. After a complex coincidence of natural events, boulders will flow out of these mountains like fish eggs, mixed with mud, sand, and smaller rocks in a cascading mass known as debris flow. Plucking up trees and cars, bursting through doors and windows, filling up houses to their eaves, debris flows threaten the lives of people living in and near Los Angeles' famous canyons. At extraordinary expense the city has built a hundred and fifty stadium-like basins in a daring effort to catch the debris. Taking us deep into these contested territories, McPhee details the strategies and tactics through which people attempt to control nature. Most striking in his vivid depiction of the main contestants: nature in complex and awesome guises, and those who would attempt to wrest control from her--stubborn, often ingenious, and always arresting characters.
On May 6, 2010 we discussed the chapter "Los Angeles Against the Mountains."
Farewell to Manzanar by
Jeanne Wakatsuki was seven years old in 1942 when her family was uprooted from their home and sent to live at Manzanar internment camp--with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. Along with searchlight towers and armed guards, Manzanar ludicrously featured cheerleaders, Boy Scouts, sock hops, baton twirling lessons and a dance band called the Jive Bombers who would play any popular song except the nation's #1 hit: "Don't Fence Me In." Farewell to Manzanaris the true story of one spirited Japanese-American family's attempt to survive the indignities of forced detention . . . and of a native-born American child who discovered what it was like to grow up behind barbed wire in the United States.
On June 3, 2010 we were joined in our discussion by the plein air artists from the Midvalley Arts League
who make an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar.
Angle of Repose by
Wallace Stegner's Pultizer Prize-winning novel is a story of discoverypersonal, historical, and geographical. Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents' remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America's western frontier. But his research reveals even more about his own life than he's willing to admit. What emerges is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American family.
Here are the questions discussed July 7, 2010:
- Beyond the superficial aspects of change through the centuries how do the parallel stories complement and contrast each other?
- Give us an example where Susan seems “authentic” or not “authentic.”, how about Lyman?
- Lyman says this book is not “history”, but a book about relationships. If this is a book about relationships between husband and wife, what examples can you give that seem to make sense. Is that pretense or real? Why?
- Is there solace or forgiveness in this book. Do you have an example?
- Examples of a male writer understanding a woman’s point of view or are their more examples of a male trying to understand the female? Show a passage?
- As I was reading the book, I wasn’t really engaged until they got to the canyon. Was that deliberate on Stegner’s part? Is there a switch from “Eastern” behavior to “Western” behavior?
- How did all of Stegner’s emphasis on her Eastern aristocratic ties contribute to the story? Did that have something to do with the Lyman/Ellen story? Or was it just part of the Lyman/Susan story? How do the aristocratic ties fit in with the western part of the story? Why?
Lift: A Memoir by
Novelist and nature reference author O'Connor crafts a lyrical tribute to the spiritual connection between humans and birds in this memoir of the excruciating, transformative process of training a peregrine falcon: "Falconry is a religion, a way of thinking, a means of experiencing life." […]Despite [...her] icy-clear voice, her descriptions of training a young male falcon are fascinating for bird lovers and civilians alike […] Surprisingly, periodic flashbacks to a troubled childhood—[…]-bolster her story rather than distract, turning a falcon's "serious and unmerciful" eye back on her own life, and discovering inexplicable wells of generosity and forgiveness for the family who wronged her. [She] packs a lot of intelligence, poise and feeling into a few pages, making this a consistently rewarding read.- Publisher’s Weekly
The culmination of a ten-year career in falconry, Lift
is a memoir that illustrates the journey and life lessons of a woman navigating a man's ancient sport. Captivated by a chance meeting with a falconer's peregrine as a child, the indelible memory eventually brings the author's life full circle to flying a peregrine of her own. Exploring themes of predator and prey, finding tribe, forgiveness and femininity, the memoir asks universal questions through a unique backdrop. Lift
illustrates the beauty and meaning the sport of falconry can add to a falconer's life, echoing the challenges and triumphs of being human.
Here are the questions discussed August 4, 2010:
- What about falconry helps the author reach peace or control, or …..?
- Is this an inspirational story?
- How does the land/Southern California fit into the story?
- How did falconry help the author?
- Is there anything false about the memoir?
- What happens to the grandfather?
- What happens to the father?
- Is there anywhere in the book that helps with the steps from sexually abused to stripper to bird rehabilitator, bird show person?
This Time Tomorrow by
Winner of an International Latino Book Award for Best Novel! Gilbert Gaeta, a forklift operator in a dairy, can barely make payments on the house where he lives with his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ana. When a month of overtime shifts comes his way, he begins to envision a new life, one in which he can save enough money for an engagement ring and finally propose to his girlfriend, Joyce. He works the night shift, exhausted but making good money, and it's looking like his plan will work. Then Ana is chased home from the Laundromat by bullies, and she begins pushing him to buy a washer and dryer. Gilbert tries to stay firm, but when Ana's trouble follows her to school, the pressure mounts to put her first, and delay his future with Joyce. Joyce, who at thirty-six has never lived on her own, can't move out of her father's traditional Mexican house until she is married. Feeling her life with Gilbert slipping away, she starts to despair. And then one day, standing before her impressive collection of vintage purses, she sees a way to take control of her future. But it won't be easy. Writing from three distinct and equally moving perspectives, award-winning author Michael Jaime-Becerra tells a story about the painful balance between love and responsibility. An intimate and poignant first novel,This Time Tomorrow
casts a new light on Southern California's working class and its struggles for happiness.
Here are the questions we discussed, September 1, 2010:
- What purpose did it serve to have Ana appear to be the cause of the tragedy of the book?
- What does this story tell us about love? Be specific.
- How does the contrast in the styles of single parenting show about a transition to modernism?
- How did the author make it feel like Southern California?
- Who is your favorite character?
- What did the trip to the flower market show?
- How does economics serve as a character?
- Tell me about their community?
The Lady in the Lake by
A couple of missing wives—one a rich man's and one a poor man's—become the objects of Marlowe's investigation. One of them may have gotten a Mexican divorce and married a gigolo and the other may be dead. Marlowe's not sure he cares about either one, but he's not paid to care.
Here are the questions we discussed, October 6, 2010:
- What did Raymond Chandler use his plants for?
- Were there any parts of the plot that didn’t make sense for you? If so, what and why?
- What insights into human character did the story illuminate? Or was it just a good puzzle?
- What were some ways Chandler tried to have you understand his characters? Or what made it seem superficial?
- What is the particular strength of his language?
- Could you empathize with anyone? Did he want you to?
- What was Marlowe’s compulsion to keep telling his observations?
- What else did Marlow hide besides the scarf?
Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights by
I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots
was widely acclaimed as one of the most notable books of 1992. The author now explores the life of a straight and narrow black man in the working-class world of Rio Seco. A firefighter and nature lover struggles with dark desires that would lead him astray.
Here are the questions we discussed November 3, 2010.
- What was it about “fire.”? Just a compulsion?
- What was it about the mountains? Solace in nature?
- What did the story tell about fathers and sons? Fathers and daughters?
- What did his father do that Roscoe didn’t? Or is that too easy?
- How did the parents (including his mother-in-law and grandmother) keep from losing Darnell?
- Why all the lies?
- After Louis was killed why did Darnell want to hear his father’s stories?
- Was there really a twin, Antoine?
- Does Darnell reach “peace” with his father? Show me where.
Between Grass and Sky by
Acclaimed nature writer Linda M. Hasselstrom sees herself as a rancher who writes - a self-definition that shapes the tone and content of her writing. Now owner of the cattle ranch where she grew up in western South Dakota, she lives in daily intimate contact with the natural world. As she says, Nature is to me both home and office. Nature is my boss, manager of the branch office - or ranch office - where I toil to convert native grass into meat....If I want to keep my job as well as my home, I pay attention not only to Nature's orders, but to her moods and whims. The essays in this book reflect Hasselstrom's close attention to her homeplace and the depth of her sympathy with the world around her. She writes knowingly of the rancher's toil and of the intelligence and dignity of the animals she tends, especially the much-maligned cow, as well as of the wild creatures - the owls and antelope and coyotes and others - that share the prairie grassland she calls home. Hasselstrom's voice rings with the ardent common sense of one who knows and loves the land, who appreciates the concerns of environmental activists but also knows the role that responsible ranchers can play in nurturing land.
Here are the questions discussed on December 1, 2010:
- What was the effect of changing the story about the fawn in the grass while mowing?
- Tell us about a time when your opinion of an animal changed after you observed it in nature.
- Tell about passages that resonate for you in terms of her “environmentalism” beyond preserving the prairie… hunting, rendezvousing?
- Did any passages change your opinion about cows? What were they?
- What was she saying in the story about the tipi pools and how the men and women had such different task, etc.
- What is she trying to tell us about birthdays?
- There were two distinct styles of writing in this book, one surrounded by facts and opinion and another based in storytelling. What were the strengths or challenges in each. Give examples.
- Can she ever reconcile an “us” and “them?”