Reading the Western Landscape 2010 Books Read with Questions

December 2010 – Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work

Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work, by Linda Hasselstrom; Reno: University of Nevada Press ©2002.  Find it at your local library.
From Booklist: There are those who would argue that the viewpoints of a rancher and those of a nature lover are incompatible. Hasselstrom would not be among them, for she embraces Nature-with-a-capital-N as her home, her workplace, her inspiration, and her mission. Self-described as a “rancher-slash-writer,” Hasselstrom, in these personal essays, details with pragmatic honesty economic, environmental, educational, and ethical issues confronting today's independent rancher. Beleaguered by the plagues of modern society, ranching is endangered as much by the inflamed rhetoric of ersatz environmental groups as it is by land developers intent on suburbanizing America's open spaces. With impassioned eloquence, Hasselstrom takes on all comers, from animal-rights activists to agribusiness conglomerates and eco-terrorists to militant vegetarians, patiently explaining facts, refuting arguments, defending opposing philosophies in logical, sensible, rational terms. “You don't know what it's like,” she cautions and invites those quick to condemn to walk a mile in her rattlesnake-repelling high-top boots before castigating a way of life on which this country once thrived and must protect in order to do so again. Carol Haggas Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Specific questions for this book include:

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?”

November 2010 – Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights

Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights, by Susan Straight; New York: Hyperion ©1994.  Find it at your local library.
The life of a “straight and narrow” black man, a topic rarely treated in contemporary fiction. The protagonist is Darnell Tucker, a firefighter, and the setting is a racially mixed community in a volatile quarter of Los Angeles. By the author of I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. From the WorldCat summary.
Specific questions for this book include:

What was it about “fire.”?  

What was it about the mountains?   

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?

October 2010 – Lady in the Lake

The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler (originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1943).  Find it at your local library.
Here is the original New York Times Book Review blurb about our October choice.
“October 31, 1943, by Isaac Anderson, Lady in the Lake By Raymond Chandler
Private Investigator Philip Marlowe is given the job of finding an errant wife who has been missing for more than a month. He finds a dead body and evidence of murder, but that does not end the matter for the body is identified as that of another woman. While digging deeper into the affair Marlowe encounters a very tough cop who resents interference in police matters and who is to learn that Marlow can be as hard-boiled as the next man when the occasion requires it. By the time two other people have been murdered Marlowe begins to understand what has been going on and is ready to point out the killer. A fat country Sheriff who is not such a fool as he looks gives help at a critical moment. This is a fine example of the type of fiction of which Raymond Chandler is a master. ”
Specific questions for this book include:

What did Raymond Chandler use his descriptions of plants for? 

Was there any part of the plot that didn't make sense for you? 

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? 

What is the particular strength of his language? 

Could you empathize with anyone? Did he want you to? 

What was Marlow's compulsion to keep telling his observations?  This question led us to thinking about juxtaposing all the times he told his story and how they compared. 

What else did he hide besides the scarf?

September 2010 – This Time Tomorrow

This Time Tomorrow, by Michael Jaime-Becerra; New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, ©2010.  Find it at your local library.
It's the naturalistic, deeply empathetic tale of a forklift driver, Gilbert Gaeta, and his quest to fulfill his modest vision of the American immigrant dream, with his girlfriend, Joyce, and willful 13-year-old daughter Ana in tow. (from the Los Angeles Times review by Reed Johnson)
Specific questions for this book include:

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?

What does the contrast in styles of single parenting show us about a generational transition?

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.

August 2010 – Lift

Lift, by Rebecca K. O'Connor; Los Angeles, CA: Red Hen Press, ©2009.  Find it at your local library.
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. Capitvated by a chance meeting with at 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.
Specific questions for this book include:

How did falconry help the author?

What about falconry helps the author reach peace or control,or …..?

How does the land/Southern California fit into the story?

What happens to the grandfather?

What happens to the father?

What are the places in the book that help follow the steps from abandoned, to abused, to stripper, to bird rehabilitator, to bird show person, and falconer?

July 2010 – Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stengner; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, ©1971.  Find it at your local library.
Wallace Stegner's Pultizer Prize-winning novel is a story of discovery—personal, 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.

Beyond the superficial aspects of change through the centuries how do the parallel stories complement and contrast each other?
Give me 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?
Is there solace or forgiveness in this book.  Do you have an example?
Does this book have examples of a male writer understanding a woman’s point of view or are there 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?

June 2010 – Farewell to Manzanar

Farewell to Manzanar : a true story of Japanese American experience during and after the World War II internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston; James D Houston. Boston: Houghton/Mifflin,1973
During World War II a community called Manzanar was hastily created in the high mountain desert country of California, east of the Sierras. Its purpose was to house thousands of Japanese American internees. One of the first families to arrive was the Wakatsukis, who were ordered to leave their fishing business in Long Beach and take with them only the belongings they could carry. For Jeanne Wakatsuki, a seven-year-old child, Manzanar became a way of life in which she struggled and adapted, observed and grew. For her father it was essentially the end of his life. At age thirty-seven, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston recalls life at Manzanar through the eyes of the child she was. She tells of her fear, confusion, and bewilderment as well as the dignity and great resourcefulness of people in oppressive and demeaning circumstances. Written with her husband, Jeanne delivers a powerful first-person account that reveals her search for the meaning of Manzanar. — Powells Books
For the discussion of the book the group was delighted by a visit of the plein air artists from the Midvalley Arts League ( who make an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar.  Their visual interpretation of the landscape will enrich the author’s own experiences.
May 2010 -The chapter “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” from The Control of Nature by John McPhee 

The chapter “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” from The Control of Nature by John McPhee, New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989.
“Some of his passages left me gasping for breath…This book gave me more pure enjoyment than anything I've read in a long time.” –Christopher Shaw, The Washington Post Book World
April 2010 – Coming Home to Eat

Coming Home to Eat : the Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods by Gary Paul Nabhan.  New York: Norton, ©2002
Issuing a “profound and engaging…passionate call to us to re-think our food industry” (Jim Harrison, author of “The Raw and the Cooked”), Gary Paul Nabhan reminds us that eating close to home is not just a matter of convenience it is an act of deep cultural and environmental significance. Embodying “a perspective…at once ecological, economic, humanistic, and spiritual” (“Los Angeles Times”), Nabhan has dedicated his life to raising awareness about food as an avid gardener, as an ethnobotanist preserving seed diversity, and as an activist devoted to recovering native food traditions in the Southwest. This “inspired and eloquently detailed account” (Rick Bayless, Chefs Collaborative) tells of his year-long mission to eat only foods grown, fished, or gathered within two hundred miles of his home. “A good book for gardeners to read this winter” (“The New York Times”), Nabhan's work “weav es] together the traditions of Thoreau and M. F. K. Fisher in] a soul food treatise for our time” (Peter Hoffman, Chefs Collaborative). —

Tell us what parts of this book that resonated for you in terms of landscape.
Tell us what 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 us about Gary Paul Nabhan’s growth as a gardener/eater.
Tell us your favorite line or image from the story.
Tell about some of things you consider ambiguities in the book.  How did you resolve these ambiguities?

March 2010 – From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up : The Story of a First Garden by Amy Stewart. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, ©2001.
When [Amy Stewart] and her husband finished graduate school, they headed west to Santa Cruz, California. With little money in their pockets, they found a modest seaside cottage 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—but it was a good place to start.[The book] is Stewart's chronicle of the seedlings and weeds, cats and compost, worms and watering that transform a tiny plot of earth into a glorious garden. From planting the seeds her great-grandmother sends to battling snails, gophers, and aphids, Stewart takes us on a tour of her coastal garden and shares the lessons she's learned the hard way. Delighting in triumphs and confessing to a multitude of gardening sins, Stewart dishes the dirt for both the novice and experienced gardener. With helpful tips in each chapter, [It] tells the story of a young woman’s determination to create a garden in which the plants struggle to live up to the gardener’s vision. —

Tell about parts of this book that resonated for you in terms of landscape or gardening.
Did any of the gardening adventures seem to feel especially of the west or “not” western?
Tell about Amy Stewart’s growth as a gardener.
Tell your favorite line or image from the story.

February 2010 – The Meadow

The Meadow by James Galvin. New York : H. Holt, 1992.
In discrete disclosures joined with the intricacy of a spider's web, James Galvin depicts the hundred-year history of a meadow in the arid mountains of the Colorado/Wyoming border. Galvin describes the seasons, the weather, the wildlife, and the few people who do not possess but are themselves possessed by this terrain. In so doing he reveals an experience that is part of our heritage and mythology. For Lyle, Ray, Clara, and App, the struggle to survive on an independent family ranch is a series of blameless failures and unacclaimed successes that illuminate the Western character. The Meadow evokes a sense of place that can be achieved only by someone who knows it intimately. —

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?
Has the narrator heard all these stories and wanted to put them down?
What is the role of the two dreams?
Does Galvin’s language/structure make for clarity or ambiguity?
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?


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© 2015 Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens

Phone: 626.821.3222

301 N. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA, 91007

Site Design by Kirk Projects