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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 2012
When the Killing's Done by
"Principally set on the wild and sparsely inhabited Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, T.C. Boyle's powerful new novel combines pulse-pounding adventure with a socially conscious, richly humane tale regarding the dominion we attempt to exert, for better or worse, over the natural world." from Goodreads.com
T.C. Boyle's most powerful and fully realized work yet-"terrifically exciting and unapologetically relevant" (The Washington Post). Principally set on the wild Channel Islands off the coast of California, T.C. Boyle's new novel is a gripping adventure with a timely theme. Alma Boyd Takesue is a National Park Service biologist spearheading the efforts to save the islands' native creatures from invasive species. Her antagonist, Dave LaJoy, is a local businessman who is fiercely opposed to the killing of any animals whatsoever and will go to any lengths to subvert her plans. As their confrontation plays out in a series of scenes escalating in violence, drama, and danger, When the Killing's Done relates a richly humane tale about the dominion we attempt to exert, for better or worse, over the natural world.
Here are the questions discussed on January 7, 2012:
- How does Alma’s pregnancy effect the story?
- Where do the characters’ backstories lead us?
- What does the raccoon and the rattlesnake do for the reader?
- What happens to Anise’s mother?
- Could the protagonists have done anything differently to resolve with a more positive interaction?
- Why was LaJoy so angry?
Among Friends by
“Among Friends is M. F. K. Fisher's fascinating memoir of her childhood in Whittier, California. In sharing these memorable and moving portraits of her family and of the town, we are given an enchanting glimpse into the early life of one of our most delightful and best-loved writers.” from Goodreads.com.
In Among Friends M. F. K. Fisher begins her recollections in Albion, Michigan, but they soon lead her to Whittier, California, where her family moved in 1912, when she was four. The "Friends" of the title range from the hobos who could count on food at the family’s back door to the businessmen who advertised in Father’s paper--but above all they are the Quakers who were the prominent group in Whittier. Mary Frances Kennedy found them unusual friends indeed, in the more than forty years that she lived in Whittier she was never invited inside a Friend’s house. Her portraits of her father, Rex--her mentor, himself the editor of the local newspaper--her mother, Edith, and the other members of her family are memorable and moving. Originally published in 1970, Among Friends provides a fascinating glimpse into the background and development of one of our most delightful and best-loved writers, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.
Here are the questions discussed on February 1, 2012:
- What do you think Fisher’s reasoning was for reiterating several times about how Anne didn’t really like MFK as an adult?
- Besides a childhood memoir, what other stories is she trying to tell.
- How does her breezy, conversational writing style affect the story?
- How does this language also affect her statements about death and disease?
- Is it possible to give examples where this style, might help you see it from a child’s viewpoint?
- What are some of the truths that she tells us?
- What was the effect of MFK Fisher not stretching to tell the story beyond what “she” saw, such as never clearly describing all her parents absences to LA, etc.
- Tell about an incident from your childhood that resonates from something MFK sparked by her writing.
Publication Date: 1992-09-01
As Utah-born naturalist Terry Tempest Williams records the simultaneous tragedies of her mother's death of cancer & the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Sanctuary, she creates a document of renewal and spiritual grace destined to become a classic in the literature of nature, women, & grieving.
from Goodreads.com .
In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mother, and Terry herself, had been exposed to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. As it interweaves these narratives of dying and accommodation, Refuge transforms tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace, resulting in a work that has become a classic.
Here are the questions we discussed March 7, 2012:
- Does the last chapter change the tenor of the book?
- What do the birds tell us?
- How does her religion fit in? How does her grandmother’s religion differ from her mother’s?
- Is her father his mother’s son? What do you draw about their relationship from the book?
- How does the juxtaposition of the nature story and the medical story interrelate?
- What couldn’t she tell about the survivors?
- Was there a reason she concentrated on her story, her mother’s story and her grandmother’s story?
- There were some odd edges, such as her move to the foothills or her archeological expedition. How did these odd edges relate to the tight juxtaposition of the birds and water levels and the illnesses?
Sea of Cortez by
[…]”But Steinbeck took the world on its own terms then, as he would do if he were alive and writing today. […]And it is this clear-eyed view of the world in both its fecundity and its ongoing destruction that makes Steinbeck’s work such an absorbing account of a time long past. In an age when ocean-dwelling, and for that matter, land-dwelling, creatures are being depleted at an ever-increasing rate, Log […] remains an enriching and indelible document.” from Michael Antman, Bookslut.com.
The collaboration of two friends-one a novelist, one a novelist, one a marine biologist-produced a volume in which fascinating popular science is woven into a narrative of man's dreams, his ideals, and his accomplishments through the centuries. Sea of Cortez is one of those rare books that are all things to all readers. Actually the record of a brief collecting expedition in the lonely Gulf of California, it will be science to the scientist, philosophy to the philosopher, and to the average man an adventure in living and thinking. Sea of Cortez is a book to be read and remembered on two levels. It is a journey through a remote and beautiful corner of the world, a diary filled with the daily excitements and triumphs of skillful and energetic men. It is also an invitation to see the world anew from a fresh vantage point and perhaps with a broader and more understanding spirit.
Here are the questions we discussed on April 14, 2012:
- What did you think when you learned that his wife accompanied them on the trip?
- How did his alternating between philosophical musings and descriptions of the littoral fauna influence the narrative?
- What did you learn about the Sea of Cortez during their trip that you found the most interesting, revolting, whatever, etc.?
- Steinbeck’s language is often “tongue in cheek,” such as the joke about the “crabs” collected on shore. How does this influence your reading of the book?
- What did you make of the chapter that took place on Easter?
- What did you make of his trying to put human behavior into the swirl of animal behavior?
The Book of Dead Birds by
"Winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, an award in support of a literature of social responsibility, The Book of Dead Birds is an intimate portrait of a young woman at a defining moment in her life, who stands at the intersection of two cultures and races. […H]aving just finished her graduate work, Ava leaves her native San Diego for the Salton Sea, where she volunteers to help environmental activists save thousands of birds poisoned by agricultural run-off.” — GayleBrandeis.com
Ava Sing Lo has been accidentally killing her mother's birds since she was a little girl. Now in her twenties, Ava leaves her native San Diego for the Salton Sea, where she volunteers to help environmental activists save thousands of birds poisoned by agricultural runoff. Helen, her mother, has been haunted by her past for decades. As a young girl in Korea, Helen was drawn into prostitution on a segregated American army base. Several brutal years passed before a young white American soldier married her and brought her to California. When she gave birth to a black baby, her new husband quickly abandoned her, and she was left to fend for herself and her daughter in a foreign country. With great beauty and lyricism, The Book of Dead Birds captures a young woman's struggle to come to terms with her mother's terrible past while she searches for her own place in the world.
*We were privileged to have the author, Gayle Brandeis, join us for our discussion of her book on May 2, 2012. Ms. Brandeis joined us to discuss the process of writing her novel and answer any questions about the book. She also discussed the recent release of The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds.
Wisdom Sits in Places by
“For more than thirty years, Keith Basso has been doing fieldwork among the Western Apache, and now he shares with us what he has learned of Apache place-names -- where they come from and what they mean to Apaches. "This is indeed a brilliant exposition of landscape and language in the world of the Western Apache. But it is more than that. Keith Basso gives us to understand something about the sacred and indivisible nature of words and place. And this is a universal equation, a balance in the universe. Place may be the first of all concepts; it may be the oldest of all words."-N. Scott Momaday, Publisher’s website.
This remarkable book introduces us to four unforgettable Apache people, each of whom offers a different take on the significance of places in their culture. Apache conceptions of wisdom, manners and morals, and of their own history are inextricably intertwined with place, and by allowing us to overhear his conversations with Apaches on these subjects Basso expands our awareness of what place can mean to people. Most of us use the term sense of place often and rather carelessly when we think of nature or home or literature. Our senses of place, however, come not only from our individual experiences but also from our cultures. Wisdom Sits in Places, the first sustained study of places and place-names by an anthropologist, explores place, places, and what they mean to a particular group of people, the Western Apache in Arizona. For more than thirty years, Keith Basso has been doing fieldwork among the Western Apache, and now he shares with us what he has learned of Apache place-names--where they come from and what they mean to Apaches. "This is indeed a brilliant exposition of landscape and language in the world of the Western Apache. But it is more than that. Keith Basso gives us to understand something about the sacred and indivisible nature of words and place. And this is a universal equation, a balance in the universe. Place may be the first of all concepts; it may be the oldest of all words."--N. Scott Momaday "In Wisdom Sits in Places Keith Basso lifts a veil on the most elemental poetry of human experience, which is the naming of the world. In so doing he invests his scholarship with that rarest of scholarly qualities: a sense of spiritual exploration. Through his clear eyes we glimpse the spirit of a remarkable people and their land, and when we look away, we see our own world afresh."--William deBuys "A very exciting book--authoritative, fully informed, extremely thoughtful, and also engagingly written and a joy to read. Guiding us vividly among the landscapes and related story-tellings of the Western Apache, Basso explores in a highly readable way the role of language in the complex but compelling theme of a people's attachment to place. An important book by an eminent scholar."--Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.
Here are the questions we discussed on June 6, 2012:
- Basso is very explicit about how to interpret the Apache conversations. Was his explicitness illuminating the simple? What simple?
- Do some of the Western Apache proscriptions relate to those of a western European heritage? Is there a connection between this sort of wisdom and the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, etc. or the oral myths that help create society?
- What did you think about the speech on 126-127?
- Does the big cottonwood resemble a woman? p. 142-143.
- It was interesting that most of the place names described geologic rather than what was on top of the geology? What do you make of that?
- Can you give an example of “Wisdom sitting in a place in your life?”
- Do you have a story you can tell about a place name in your life?
- Can we apply some of the “wisdom” to a contemporary lifestyle?
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by
"[…]for many noir aficionados, [this book] remains one of the most evocative and subversive novels of its time. […]The book does read like James Cain filtered through Thomas Pynchon. Although Knight's first person narrative begins in typical tough-guy fashion, with Dick Dempsey, an Oklahoma-born AWOL Marine hopping a freight in Texas for Southern California in pursuit of his wife and son, it soon moves off in another, wilder direction — more like a noir Alice in Lotus Land than a cool and conventional hardboiled novel.” — Woody Haut , Los Angeles Review of Books
You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up
, a novel of luck and irony, follows the wayward meanderings of a Depression drifter (Dick) as he bums his way from Oklahoma to Los Angeles in search of his son and runaway wife. There he commits one crime, plans another, and gets arrested for something he didn't do. He is befriended by characters as lush and crazy as L.A. Deco: Quentin Genter, film director, decadent, collector of beauty and poison. Mamie, an indestructibly loving divorcee. Patsy, who gilds her sandals with radiator paint and becomes an adored evangelist. And a procession of crooks, shysters, rueful temptors and loopy saints. "You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up" was a bestseller when originally published in 1938, a lost noir classic.
Here are the questions we discussed on July 11, 2012:
- Is the narrator reliable? What is the evidence for why or why not?
- Do all the pieces fit together in the descriptions?
- Why does the narrator worrying over the minutiae of what Mamie knew or didn’t know?
- What do you make of his lack of engagement with the people surrounding him?
- Why did he love Sheila? And not the other women?
- Are his relationships with people indicative of the time period?
- Why is he so aloof with everyone but Sheila?
- Is the story straightforward? Give some examples for your answer.
- Where is the place of the golden mountain that his father had the tire flat on?
- What makes the novel seem so “surreal?”
Where I Was From by
“[…] is a kind of bookend to her earlier musings on California, a reassessment and reappraisal of her thinking about her home state. It is a love song to the place where her family has lived for generations, but a love song full of questions and doubts. ''This book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California,'' she writes, ''misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.'' — Michiko Kakutani, New York Times Book Review
In her moving and insightful new book, Joan Didion reassesses parts of her life, her work, her history and ours. A native Californian, Didion applies her scalpel-like intelligence to the state’s ethic of ruthless self-sufficiency in order to examine that ethic’s often tenuous relationship to reality. Combining history and reportage, memoir and literary criticism, Where I Was From explores California’s romances with land and water; its unacknowledged debts to railroads, aerospace, and big government; the disjunction between its code of individualism and its fetish for prisons. Whether she is writing about her pioneer ancestors or privileged sexual predators, robber barons or writers (not excluding herself), Didion is an unparalleled observer, and her book is at once intellectually provocative and deeply personal.
Here are the questions we discussed on August 1, 2012:
- How did the stories she chose to tell tie in with each other? Or not? Examples?
- Give examples of the ties or lack of flow from one story to another?
- How does the Lakewood story relate to the Sacramento Delta story?
- Do the individuals she tells about have characteristics in common?
- Do the California gyrations she describes differ from the rest of the nation?
- How does her mother’s death fit with the stories she tells?
- Which story resonated for you the most or made you the most mad or upset you the most? Why?
- Do you have a relationship to any of the stories?
Train Dreams by
“I first read [the book] in a bright orange 2002 issue of The Paris Review and felt that old thrill of discovery . . . Every once in a while, over the ensuing nine years, I’d page through that Paris Review and try to understand how Johnson had made such a quietly compelling thing. Part of it, of course, is atmosphere. Johnson’s evocation of Prohibition Idaho is totally persuasive . . . The novella also accumulates power because Johnson is as skilled as ever at balancing menace against ecstasy, civilization against wilderness. His prose tiptoes a tightrope between peace and calamity, and beneath all of the novella’s best moments, Johnson runs twin strains of tenderness and the threat of violence . . . it might be the most powerful thing Johnson has ever written.” —Anthony Doerr, New York Times Book Review
A New York Times Notable Book, An Esquire Best Book of 2011, A New Yorker Favorite Book of 2011, A Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of 2011 Denis Johnson's Train Dreams
is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions. It is the story of Robert Grainier, a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century---an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime. Suffused with the history and landscapes ofthe American West, this novella by the National Book Award--winning author of Tree of Smoke
captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.
Here are the questions we discussed on September 5, 2012:
- What story/stories is/are he trying to tell?
- Book reviews talk about how this book is “perfectly” written as if it were a poem. Can you give any examples of that? Do you agree?
- What do you make of his visions and how they changed over time? The wolf-child?
- What do you make of the dog?
- How does the beginning relate to the rest of the story?
- How did the story change for you when you knew he was going to live into old age?
How did the pacing of the story influence it?
Come in and Cover Me by
"Ren has devoted her career to discovering the history of the Mimbres culture, which flourished about 1,000 years ago in the American Southwest. […] Phillips’s writing [is] brimming with imagery. [...] her greatest talent is her ability to create the world of the story. [The book] moves us into the earth. The dusty landscape serves as both setting and metaphor, a beautiful but dangerous place where a sudden loss of footing can prove fatal. [...] Still, this is ultimately a novel about recovery. In that way, the fragmentation of image and memory seems realistic. For most of us, like Ren, healing from tragedy arrives in little pieces and over time". — Brunonia Barry, Washington Post.
When Ren was twelve years old, she lost her older brother to a car accident. For twenty-five years he's been a presence in her life, appearing with a song or a reflection in the moonlight. Her connection to the ghosts around her has made her especially sensitive as an archaeologist, understanding the bare outline of our ancestors, recreating lives and stories, and breathing life into those who occupied this world long before us. On the cusp of the most important find of her career, it is the ghosts who are guiding her way. But what they have to tell Ren about herself, and her developing relationship with the first man to really know her since her brother's death, is unexpected--a discovery about the relationship between the past and the future, and the importance of living in the moment.
Here are the questions we discussed October 2012:
- Why ghosts? Were you able to suspend your disbelief? How? Do you need to?
- Did you believe the archaeology?
- What insights did our characters have about the landscape? About people?
- Do you have any thoughts about how the author could have changed anything for more depth in the characters or the action in the book? Or what are the best parts of this book?
- A recent study about reading Jane Austen done by Natalie Phillips of Michigan State University found that certain kinds of reading, as stated in Shankar Vedantam’s NPR article on the study “activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.” What parts of this book did that for you?
An American Provence by
"I have talked about luscious wines and succulent fruit and exquisite dinners. But there may be no more evocative experience of the two valleys than the smell of new-mown hay in the fields at dusk. If a person were to close their eyes, they could not tell if they were in Provence or the North Fork Valley. That sweet, earthy odor is part of the beauty of these places." -From An American Provence In this poetic personal narrative, Thomas P. Huber reflects on two seemingly unrelated places-the North Fork Valley in western Colorado and the Coulon River Valley in Provence, France-and finds a shared landscape and sense of place. What began as a simple comparison of two like places in distant locations turned into a more complex, interesting, and personal task. Much is similar-the light, the valleys, the climate, the agriculture. And much is less so-the history, the geology, the physical makeup of villages. Using a geographer's eye and passion for the land and people, Huber examines the regions' similarities and differences to explore the common emotional impact of each region. Part intimate travelogue and part case study of geography in the real world, An American Provence illuminates the importance sense of place plays in who we are.
Klee Wyck by
Publication Date: 2004-03-11
The legendary Emily Carr was primarily a painter, but she first gained recognition as a writer. Her first book, […], was titled Klee Wyck ("Laughing One"), in honor of the name that the Native people of the west coast gave her as an intrepid young woman. The book […] won the prestigious Governor General's Award […]. [She] wrote these twenty-one word sketches after visiting and living with Native people, painting their totem poles and villages, many of them in wild and remote areas. She tells her stories with beauty, pathos and a vivid awareness of the comedy of people and situations. — Goodreads.com
Douglas & McIntyre is proud to announce definitive, completely redesigned editions of Emily Carr's seven enduring classic books. These are beautifully crafted keepsake editions of the literary world of Emily Carr, each with an introduction by a distinguished Canadian writer or authority on Emily Carr and her work. Emily Carr's first book, published in 1941, was titled Klee Wyck
("Laughing One"), in honour of the name that the Native people of the west coast gave to her. This collection of twenty-one word sketches about Native people describes her visits and travels as she painted their totem poles and villages. Vital and direct, aware and poignant, it is as well regarded today as when it was first published in 1941 to instant and wide acclaim, winning the Governor General's Award for Non-fiction. In print ever since, it has been read and loved by several generations of Canadians, and has also been translated into French and Japanese. Kathryn Bridge, who, as an archivist, has long been well acquainted with the work of Emily Carr, has written an absorbing introduction that places Klee Wyck
and Emily Carr in historical and literary context and provides interesting new information.
Here are the questions we discussed December 5, 2012:
- How did her writing style shape what she was saying?
- Why were all the places abandoned?
- Could you envision the landscape? What stayed in your mind?
- How old to you think she was throughout the memoir?
- How did her work as an artist affect her work as a writer?
- How did the length of the stories shape what you read?
- Were the stories “haunting?” Why? Why not?