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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 2011
The Solace of Open Spaces by
“Like many before her, poet Gretel Ehrlich discovered the therapeutic qualities of the West. In 1976, a time of personal crisis, she moved from the East to a small farm in Wyoming where she ultimately found peace of mind and inspiration. Originally, she had gone west to make a film for PBS; she returned to work with neighbors at cattle- and sheep-ranching, taking pleasure in open spaces. Ehrlich writes with sensitivity and affection about people, the seasons and the landscape. Whether she is enjoying solitude or companionship, her writing evokes the romance and timelessness of the West.” -- Publishers Weekly.
A stunning collection of personal observations that uses images of the American West to probe larger concerns in lyrical, evocative prose that is a true celebration of the region.
Here are the questions discussed January 5, 2011:
- Give some examples of Ms. Ehrlich’s vision of this new place that she was immersed in for the first time.
- What are some details that someone who has lived there a long time might take for granted and not tease out into a story?
- Tell us about how her characterizations of communication styles helped you understand the community.
- Do you agree with her generalization that those communication styles make it “western” or are they just “rural?”
- This book was published in 1985. What kind of change has there been in those generalizations?
- How did Wyoming help her mourning?
- What did you find astonishing about the ranching life?
- What does she mean by a “Nabokovian invention of rarified detail?”
- How do the essays create a whole?
Tales of Burning Love by
[...]”Romantic love, religious ecstasy, the strange mixture of devotion and misunderstanding that runs through families -- all are steeped together. [...W]e are firmly placed in the bleakly beautiful landscape surrounding Argus, N.D. [...M]any […] are Native Americans with a fading connection to the reservation, confused Roman Catholics on the lookout for miracles, lonely women searching for that thing called love.[...]The stories pop up seemingly at random, overlapping, circling back and forth through time and crossing one another in ways that are often ingenious […]. Drunk and alone in his unpaid-for dream house, [Jack] allows a small fire to blaze out of control when he realizes that his death -- or, at least, the appearance of his death -- could be a major problem solver.” By Mark Childress, New York Times.
Louise Erdrich's Tales of Burning Love
is a darkly humorous novel of wild romance and heartbreak set against a raging North Dakota blizzard as five Native American women bond over their shared connection to one man. Stranded in the storm just outside of Fargo, Jack Mauser's former wives pass the night by remembering how each came to love, marry, and ultimately move beyond Jack. Painful and comic by turns, the women's tales bind them together. National Book Award-winning and bestselling author Louise Erdrich's characteristic powers of observation and poetic prose combine in a tale that is another tour-de-force from one of America's most formidable writers. This edition of Tales of Burning Love
includes a P.S. section with additional insights from the author, background material, suggestions for further reading, and more.
Here are the questions discussed February 2, 2011:
- What is this novel about?
- This novel seems to tell about the choices people make about “love” or companionship in a small town setting or am I extrapolating too much?
- What do the narrative devices do to drive the story?
- In the mini-reviewsof this book there is lots of “liking” or “not-liking” Jack. Does the story hinge on that? What is a more subtle interpretation of Jack’s role in the story.
- What did you learn about relationships from this book?
- How does the weather become a character?
- If you followed the novel in a concrete literary sense, many of the activities would seem incomprehensible or incredible. How does this enhance our understanding of the characters?
In a Desert Garden by
“Biologist Alcock calls Arizona home, and that is where he tends a desert garden that provides a working laboratory for observing and appreciating insect behavior. Alcock's limitless curiosity about all manner of bugs propels his latest book--beginning with the story of how he converted an unappealing front lawn area into a minidesert environment. Although Alcock makes no bones about mosquitoes that cause malaria and other dreaded pests that color the way most of us see insects, he nevertheless has written an ode celebrating those small creatures. Whether commenting on the fascinating mating rituals of various mantids, spiders, and beetles, or wondering at the camouflagic accomplishments of grasshoppers, butterfly larvae, and caterpillars, Alcock writes with a wry humor that appears as well in reflections on growing vegetables and cultivating compost. Graced with lively line drawings and color photographs, Alcock's engaging, illuminating text offers delightful reading for all who appreciate the natural world.” Alice Joyce -- Booklist
When John Alcock replaced the Bermuda grass in his suburban Arizona lawn with gravel, cacti, and fairy dusters, he was doing more than creating desert landscaping. He seeded his property with flowers to entice certain insects and even added a few cowpies to attract termites, creating a personal laboratory for ecological studies. His observations of life in his own front yard provided him with the field notes for this unusual book. In a Desert Garden draws readers into the strange and fascinating world of plants and animals native to Arizona's Sonoran Desert. As Alcock studies the plants in his yard, he shares thoughts on planting, weeding, and pruning that any gardener will appreciate. And when commenting on the mating rituals of spiders and beetles or marveling at the camouflage of grasshoppers and caterpillars, he uses humor and insight to detail the lives of the insects that live in his patch of desert. Celebrating the virtues of even aphids and mosquitoes, Alcock draws the reader into the intricacies of desert life to reveal the complex interactions found in this unique ecosystem. In a Desert Garden combines meticulous science with contemplations of nature and reminds us that a world of wonder lies just outside our own doors.
Here are the quQuestions discussed March 2, 2011:
- Which of his insects made the biggest impression on you? Why?
- Did the insects help you understand the landscape of Phoenix better? How?
- Did the insects make you think anything differently about humans? What?
- There seemed to be an emphasis on procreation in the book? Do you think that was just the author’s point of view or is that the overriding question of insect behavior? And does that reflect on other animal life?
- He seemed inordinately interested in his vegetable-insect interactions. Did that draw in the city or accentuate the lost of the desert? Or show how desert insects can adapt to vegetable production even in the desert?....
- What about his writing helped tell the stories?
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by
"[Maclean] would go to his grave secure in the knowledge that anyone who'd fished with a fly in the Rockies and read his novella on the how and why of it believed it to be the best such manual on the art ever written--a remarkable feat for a piece of prose that also stands as a masterwork in the art of tragic writing."--Philip Connors, Nation.
Just as Norman Maclean writes at the end of A River Runs through It
that he is "haunted by waters," so have readers been haunted by his novella. A retired English professor who began writing fiction at the age of 70, Maclean produced what is now recognized as one of the classic American stories of the twentieth century. Originally published in 1976, A River Runs through It and Other Stories
now celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, marked by this new edition that includes a foreword by Annie Proulx. Maclean grew up in the western Rocky Mountains in the first decades of the twentieth century. As a young man he worked many summers in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service. The two novellas and short story in this collection are based on his own experiencess the experiences of a young man who found that life was only a step from art in its structures and beauty. The beauty he found was in reality, and so he leaves a careful record of what it was like to work in the woods when it was still a world of horse and hand and foot, without power saws, "cats," or four-wheel drives. Populated with drunks, loggers, card sharks, and whores, and set in the small towns and surrounding trout streams and mountains of western Montana, the stories concern themselves with the complexities of fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, and a father. By turns raunchy, poignant, caustic, and elegiac, these are superb tales which express, in Maclean's own words, "a little of the love I have for the earth as it goes by." A first offering from a 70-year-old writer, the basis of a top-grossing movie, and the first original fiction published by the University of Chicago Press, A River Runs through It and Other Stories has sold more than a million copies. As Proulx writes in her foreword to this new edition, "In 1990 Norman Maclean died in body, but for hundreds of thousands of readers he will live as long as fish swim and books are made."
Here are the questions discussed on April 6, 2011.
- Tell about the women in this book? Tell a passage about women that don’t seem objectified.
- What is the reason for the way he portrayed women?
- What does this book say about familial relationships?
- What is Maclean generally trying to tell?
- How does the last line fit with the rest of the story?
- What can Maclean cherish in the story?
- Give some examples of how nature relates to the people for better? Or worse?
The Blue Plateau by
[His] mission in this strikingly beautiful testimony to the power of place is to convey the texture and ambience of the Blue Plateau, & his spangled sentences glide like creeks around mighty eucalyptus, humble homes, & rough terrain marked by his neighbors' stories of hard work, deprivation, stoicism, miraculous survival, and tragic death. [He] is an ardent listener & observer, attentive to animals, people, and weather as he reads deep time in the "narrative arc of stone," immerses himself in old photographs and diaries, senses that the land "wants to be known," and muses over the dream of belonging. In this exquisite meshing of landscape and language, [he] gives voice to the spirit of a place where longing and change are writ large.--Donna Seaman , Booklist.
Located in the Blue Mountains southwest of Sydney, the Blue Plateau is a contrary collection of canyons and creeks, cow paddocks and eucalyptus forests, the first people and ranchers. This book reveals the plateau through its inhabitants: the Gundungurra people who were there first and still remain; the Maxwell family, who tried, but failed, to tame the land; the affable, impoverished, often drunken ranchers and firefighters; and the author himself, a poet trying to insinuate his citified self into a rugged landscape defined by drought, fire, and scarcity. Like the works of Peter Mathiessen, Barry Lopez, and William Least Heat-Moon, The Blue Plateau is a deep examination of place that transcends genre, incorporating poetry, people's history, ecology, mythology, and memoir to reveal how humanity and nature intertwine to create a home. Elegiac and intimately composed, this vivid portrait of a rugged wilds expands readers' sense of the place they call home.
Here are the questions discusses on May 4, 2011:
- Why entwine the people and the land?
- By framing his story with these people is he romanticizing the land?
- How does landscape shape the characters?
- Tell some passages where geology has shaped the character of the book.
Curse of the Starving Class by
A highly original and affecting play which blends past and present, through the imaginative use of parallel action, as a young man tries to reconcile his troubled present and his emotionally deprived childhood.
THE STORY: The setting is a farmhouse in the American West, inhabited by a family who has enough to eat but not enough to satisfy the other hungers that bedevil them. The father is a drunk; the mother a frowzy slattern; the daughter precocious.
Here are the questions discussed June 1, 2011:
- Who were the cat and the eagle?
- What was the function of having the names so closely related?
Ella, Emma, Wesley, Weston
- How does it relate to Southern California landscape?
- Avocado, sheep ranching, frost, artichokes? Where?
- Are there other author’s who work with transience as much as S. Shephard does?
- Tell me about Emma? Can you believe she is a young teenager?
- How do the children deal with their parents?
- Is Wesley really hungry? For what?
- Was Taylor really the gentleman who sold both plots of land?
The Land of Little Rain by
A stunning tribute to the savage beauty of the area known as Death Valley. To most travelers it is a parched, empty territory, unwelcoming and forgiving. In a collection of essays that date back almost a century, naturalist and writer Mary Austin (1868-1934) breathes life into the desert landscape, describing its savage beauty, its plants and animals, and the occasional human visitor.
Here are the questions discussed, Wednesday, July 6, 2011:
- Do the chapters create architecture for the structure of the book? If so, what is that architecture?
- What was Mary Austin trying to achieve with this writing?
- Some of her plant names are hard to follow and figure out what plants she really meant, such as “buckthorn”. For those that aren’t reading it as a piece of natural history, how do these plant names read, just as sounds?
- What is she yearning to understand?
- There was an awful lot of talk about water in a book title Land of Little Rain. How do you interpret that?
- Are there any parts of the book that you have to frame a context around?
Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World by
"Whether she is writing about bats, bees, porcupines, or wolves, contemplating the mysteries of caves, or delving into the traditions, beliefs, and myths of Native American cultures, Linda Hogan expresses a deep reverence for the dwelling we all share--the Earth." from Goodreads.com
Award-winning Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan explores her lifelong love of the living world and all its inhabitants. "We want to live as if there is no other place," Hogan tells us, "as if we will always be here. We want to live with devotion to the world of waters and the universe of life." In offering praise to sky, earth, water, and animals, she calls us to witness how each living thing is alive in a conscious world with its own integrity, grace, and dignity.
Here are the questions we discussed, September 7, 2011.
- Give some examples of author’s portrayal of nature that resonant for you. Or didn’t seem quite authentic? And why.
- We’ve now read many portrayals of landscape. Give some examples of the author’s point of view that were new.
- The author is trying to make clear ideas about how when humans are disconnected from nature they are less caring and things like the Holocaust, Rwanda, etc. happen. Can you give examples of how the author balances that with her other portrayals of nature?
- Can you give examples in this book that seem to be of the time it was written and not necessarily viewed that way now?
- Has anything gotten better in ways the author suggested? Give examples from the book.
- I was intrigued about how landscape shapes thought. Can you give some of her examples or some from your own life?
The Secret Knowledge of Water: Discovering the Essence of the American Desert by
Deserts are environments that can be inhospitable even to seasoned explorers. Craig Childs has spent years in the deserts of the American West, and his treks through arid lands in search of water reveal the natural world at its most extreme. -- Jacket.
Here are the questions we discussed, October 5, 2011.
- In this book of striking images what was the most striking for you?
- Is this a memoir? What story is he telling about himself?
- How does Childs create drama?
- Give examples of his descriptions of the desert landscape?
- Can you give examples of hyperbole in his writing?
- Has this changed your view of the desert? How? With what passage?
- Which of his experiences were you most interested in? Why?
- Were any of the experiences troubling for you? Why?
Mildred Pierce by
"Then Michael Tolkin, making a guest appearance in the class I teach, looked at me like I was crazy when I said I hadn't read Cain. " 'Mildred Pierce,'" he said, "is one of the best American novels. Period." All I thought of was Hollywood diners, Pasadena swells, decaying mansions, a brutal winter storm exactly like the ones we had this year, and Mildred's insecurities. She gets picked up at her waitress job by a rich guy who drives her to Lake Arrowhead, and all she can think of is that her hair smells like bacon grease. She hides soap, dives casually into the lake and scrubs her hair while holding her breath." -- Susan Straight, Los Angeles Times
, May 1, 2011.
Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter. Out of these elements, Cain creates a novel of acute social observation and devastating emotional violence, with a heroine whose ambitions and sufferings are never less than recognizable.
Here are the questions we discussed on November 2, 2011:
- What do you make of this passage at the end of Chapter 8, “There came torrential, shaking sobs, as at last she gave way to this thing she had been fighting off: a guilty, leaping joy that it had been the other child who was taken from her, and not Veda.”
- Can you give example of passages that created authenticity for you?
- Can you give example of passages that created authenticity for you?Examples of ones that may not have seemed as authentic?
- What were you thinking during his description of the rain storm?
- Were there any gender issues for you in this book? A man writing from the point of view of a woman?
- Are there any examples of how Southern California affected the book in ways that other places wouldn’t?
- Can you fathom why he called them “Orange Grove Ave. and Huntington Ave.” rather than boulevard.
- Is the ambiguity something that resonates in our times?
East of the Mountains by
[…] the bold and beautiful story of a retired heart surgeon with cancer who heads toward the wooded territory of eastern Washington intending to commit suicide. […]he is sidetracked by a succession of fortuitous events that draws him into an altogether unanticipated journey […] From Goodreads.com.
From the author of Snow Falling on Cedars comes this bestselling novel about a dying man’s final journey through a landscape that has always sustained him and provided him with hope and challenges. When he discovers that he has terminal cancer, retired heart surgeon Ben Givens refuses to simply sit back and wait. Instead he takes his two beloved dogs and goes on a last hunt, determined to end his life on his own terms. But as the people he meets and the memories over which he lingers remind him of the mystery of life’s endurance, his trek into the American West becomes much more than a final journey.
Here are the questions we discussed December 7, 2011:
- How does the landscape augment his journey?
- What is transformative?
- The author’s language is not very embellished (or is it?). How does this shape the story? Examples?
- How does the interlude about the war change/embellish the story?
- What did you learn about his personal relationships?L/li>
- Was the resolution easy?
- What is the benefit of the ending as it stands?
- What is the difference between his view of life and the woman’s at the end?