Reading the Western Landscape Titles and Questions 2011

January 2011 – The Solace of Open Spaces

The Solace of Open Spaces, by Gretel Ehrlich; New York: Viking ©1985.  Find it at your local library.
From Publishers Weekly: 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. Copyright 1985 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Specific questions for this book include:

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?

 
February 2011 – Tales of Burning Love: A Novel

Tales of Burning Love: A Novel, by Louise Erdrich; New York: HarperCollins ©1996.  Find it at your local library.
Four women share their secrets after the funeral of their ex-husband. It happens when they decide to ride back together and the car becomes stuck in a snow storm. They all agree he was a good-for-nothing, so why did they marry him? The setting is North Dakota. From the WorldCat summary.

Specific questions for this book include:

What do the narrative devices do to drive the story?

In the mini-reviews on things like Amazon.com or Goodreads.com I have read 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 follow the novel in a concrete, tangible way, many of the activities would seem incomprehensible or incredible. How does this enhance or take away from our understanding of the characters?

 
March 2011 – In a Desert Garden: Love and Death Among the Insects

In a Desert Garden: Love and Death Among the Insects, by John Alcock; New York: W.W. Norton ©1997.  Find it at your local library.
From Booklist: 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
Specific questions for this book include:

Which of his insects made the biggest impression on you?  Why?

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?

After reading this book have you paid more attention to the insects that surround us? What have you noticed?

What about his writing helped tell the stories?

After reading this book have you paid more attention to the insects that surround us? What have you noticed?

April 2011 – A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories

A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories, by Norman Maclean; Chicago: University of Chicago Press ©1976.  Find it at your local library.
From a review: “[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)

Specific questions for this book include:

Talk about the women in this book.  Describe a passage about women where they don’t seem objectified.

What is the reason for the way the author portrays women?

What does this book say about familial relationships?

What is Maclean generally trying to say?

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?

 
May 2011 – The Blue Plateau: an Australian Pastoral

Discussion on Wednesday, May 4, 2011, 7:00 p.m.
The Blue Plateau: an Australian Pastoral, by Mark Tredinnick; Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed Editions ©2009.  Find it at your local library.
The Blue Plateau is located in the Blue Mountains southwest of Sydney. This book reveals the plateau through its inhabitants: the Gundungurra people, the Maxwell family, the ranchers and firefighters; and the author himself. This book incorporates poetry, history, ecology, mythology, and memoir.  From the WorldCat summary.

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.

 
June 2011 –  Curse of the Starving Class

Curse of the Starving Class: a play in three acts, by Sam Shepard; New York: Dramatists Play Service ©1976.  Find it at your local library.
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?

 July 6, 2011 - Land of Little Rain

Land of Little Rain  By Mary Hunter Austin, Boston, New York, Houghton, Mifflin, 1903.
“Beautiful, poetic study of the Southwestern desert. Fourteen sketches describe plants, animals, mountains, birds, skies, Indians, prospectors, towns, other features in serene, beautifully modulated prose. Desert seen as a place of rare, austere beauty that weaves a lasting spell over its inhabitants.”  Preface of Penguin, 1997 publication.

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? 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?

September 7, 2011 – Dwellings

Dwellings : a spiritual history of the living world by Linda Hogan. New York : W.W. Norton, ©1995.

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?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011 – The Secrete Knowledge of Water

Secret knowledge of water : discovering the essence of the American desert by Craig Childs.  Boston, Mass. : Back Bay ; London : Little, Brown, 2000.
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.
 

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?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011 – Mildred Pierce

Mildred Pierce by James M Cain, New York : Knopf, 1941.
“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.

What do you make of this passage at the end of Chapter 8, “There came torrential, shaking sobs, as a t 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?

Examples of ones that may not have seemed as authentic?

What were you thinking during his description of the rain storm?

We 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?

What is the significance of cars in the story?  Money?

 
Wednesday, December 7, 2011 – East of the Mountains

East of the Mountains by David Guterson; New York: Viking ©1985.
“From the award-winning author of Snow Falling on Cedars comes 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. Along the way, he is sidetracked by a succession of fortuitous events that draws him into an altogether unanticipated journey — and rekindles his appetite for life.” — Goodreads.com
 
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?
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?

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© 2014 Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens

301 N. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA, 91007

Site Design by Kirk Projects