Reading the Western Landscape Community Book Discussion - The Arboretum
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Wednesday, April 24; 7:00PM - 8:00PM

Reading the Western Landscape Community Book Discussion

About the Community Book Discussion

The Arboretum Library’s book group explores the portrayal of western North American landscape in fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry, letters, graphic novels, etc.  The group generally, but not always, meets the last Wednesday of the month in the Arboretum Library or out on the Arboretum grounds, weather, sunlight, and pandemic permitting. When the weather is good and the mosquitos are less active, the group will meet outside in appropriate places in the gloriously, beautiful grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. At other times the group will meet in the Arboretum Library with social distancing and masking if desired. The group leader will decide each month whether the meeting will be in-person (in the Arboretum Library or outside on the Arboretum grounds) or on Zoom.

The group uses a modified version of the Shared Inquiry™ method developed by the Great Books Foundation.  The discussion is greatly enhanced if the chosen book of the month is read, although we welcome those who just want to listen. Let the host know you want to listen. New participants are always welcome!

Click here to see the questions already asked for this year’s past books and check out the history of the book club by hovering on the tab and explore the books from previous years.

For more information and to be added to the e-mail reminder list about the Community Book Discussion Group, please contact, Arboretum Librarian Emeritus, Susan Eubank, at  You must RSVP to Susan for the discussions you would like to attend.

January 24, 2024, 7:00 p.m.

Renaissance Man of Cannery Row by Edward F. Ricketts; introduction and edited by Katharine A. Rodger. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

ISBN: 9780817311728

“[…] Ricketts. […] whose […l]aboratories in Monterey was often the center for philosophical musing & lengthy discussion by a bohemian group of liberals during the 1930s […including John] Steinbeck. […The letters] suggest […] a great impact not only on Steinbeck but also on other important figures of the time. […Rodger] wisely uses her editorial voice sparingly[…and] lets [the] letters reveal his multifaceted interests that range from Oriental philosophy to music, art, literature, psychology, and philosophy. […They] are convincing proof that, […] he was an individual whose influence on others is just beginning to be known and whose life is deserving of far more attention.” — Michael J. Meyer, Western American Literature

This portrait of one of John Steinbeck’s closest friends illuminates the life and work of a figure central to the development of scientific and literary thought in the 20th century. Marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts is perhaps best known as the inspiration for John Steinbeck’s most empathic literary characters Doc in Cannery Row, Slim in Of Mice and Men, Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath, and Lee in East of Eden. The correspondence of this accomplished scientist, writer, and philosopher reveals the influential exchange of ideas he shared with such prominent thinkers and artists as Henry Miller, Joseph Campbell, Ellwood Graham, and James Fitzgerald, in addition to Steinbeck, all of whom were drawn to Ricketts’s Monterey Bay laboratory, a haven of intellectual discourse and Bohemian culture in the 1930s and 1940s. The 125 previously unpublished letters of this collection, housed at the Stanford University Library, document the broad range of Ricketts’s interests and accomplishments during the last 12 and most productive years of his life. His handbook on Pacific marine life, Between Pacific Tides, is still in print, now in its fifth edition. The biologist’s devotion to ecological conservation and his evolving philosophy of science as a cross-disciplinary, holistic pursuit led to the publication of . Many of Ricketts’s letters discuss his studies of the Pacific littoral and his theories of “phalanx” and transcendence. Epistles to family members, often tender and humorous, add dimension and depth to Steinbeck’s mythologized depictions of Ricketts. Katharine A. Rodger has enriched the correspondence with an introductory biographical essay and a list of works cited.

February 28, 2024, 7:00 p.m.

The Last Friend by Tahar Ben Jelloun; translated by Kevin Michel Cape and Hazel Rowley, New York: New York Press, ©2006.

ISBN: 9781595580085

“[The book] focuses on the close relationship formed between Ali and Mamed, who meet as teenage boys growing up in Tangiers in the late 1950s. For thirty years, their relationship thrives, only to experience an abrupt ending. Half of the book is allowed for Ali’s depiction of this friendship, followed by Mamed’s portrayal of the same period.[…]The reader […] gets to ‘meet’ each character twice – once in first-person form, with access to all of his thoughts and emotions, and then again in third person, through the eyes of another. Jelloun masterfully shows […] how subjective reality is. […The book] is a beautiful meditation on being human. It reads almost like an allegory or fable[…]” — Eva Kay, Curled Up With A Good Book

The Last Friend, the new novel from internationally acclaimed author Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the 2004 International Dublin/IMPAC award, is a Rashamon-like tale of friendship and betrayal set in twentieth century Tangier. Written in Ben Jelloun’s inimitable and powerfully direct style, the novel explores the twists and turns of an intense thirty-year friendship between two young men struggling to find their identities and sexual fulfillment in Morocco in the late 1950s, a complex and contradictory society both modern and archaic. From their carefree university days through their brutal imprisonment and ultimate release, the two rely on each other for physical and psychological survival, forging bonds not easily broken. Each narrator tells his version of the story, painting a vivid portrait of life lived within and in opposition to the moral strictures of North Africa. Set against a backdrop of repression and disillusionment, The Last Friend is a tale of loss of innocence and a nation’s coming of age.

March 28, 2024, 7:00 p.m.

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton, [Montréal, Québec]: Drawn & Quarterly, 2022. 

ISBN: 9781770462892

“[…T]he book is a chronicle of the three years following the author’s college graduation[…As s]he[…] recounts her time through several jobs, companies, and locations, she alternates the narration between the daily grind of the workers and the vistas of startling beauty surrounding them. […]Beaton captures numerous poignant, sometimes heartbreaking moments throughout the book, but the cumulative effect of her many stories is even more impressive. She creates an indelible portrait of environmental degradation, fraught interpersonal relationships among a workforce largely disconnected from home, and greedy corporations that seem only vaguely aware of the difficult work’s effect on their employees. A fascinating, harrowing, unforgettable book about a place few outsiders can comprehend.—Kirkus Reviews

New York Times Notable book! One of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2022! Winner of Canada Reads 2023! “An exceptionally beautiful book about loneliness, labor, and survival.”–Carmen Maria Machado. Before there was Kate Beaton, New York Times bestselling cartoonist of Hark! A Vagrant, there was Katie Beaton of the Cape Breton Beaton, specifically Mabou, a tight-knit seaside community where the lobster is as abundant as beaches, fiddles, and Gaelic folk songs. With the singular goal of paying off her student loans, Katie heads out west to take advantage of Alberta’s oil rush–part of the long tradition of East Coasters who seek gainful employment elsewhere when they can’t find it in the homeland they love so much. Katie encounters the harsh reality of life in the oil sands, where trauma is an everyday occurrence yet is never discussed. Beaton’s natural cartooning prowess is on full display as she draws colossal machinery and mammoth vehicles set against a sublime Albertan backdrop of wildlife, northern lights, and boreal forest. Her first full length graphic narrative, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is an untold story of Canada: a country that prides itself on its egalitarian ethos and natural beauty while simultaneously exploiting both the riches of its land and the humanity of its people.

April 24, 2024,  7:00 p.m.

Francisco by Alison Mills Newman; Foreword by Saidiya Hartman, Afterword by Alison Mills Newman, New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 2023. Originally published 1974.

ISBN: 9780811232395

  […The novel] is a lush narrative of a young Black woman’s love affair with a filmmaker. […]They crash in guest rooms and living rooms up and down California, living a bohemian life, making love, listening to James Brown, and arguing about who has sold out. The prose, […] envelops readers in the narrator’s funkified quest for meaning, love, and freedom, and whether they can all coexist (“its not so much behind every great man is a great woman, as much as a great man is a great man and a girl is a girl”). In an afterword, Newman admits she struggled with the rerelease, luxuriating as it does in a lifestyle she no longer endorses. — Publishers Weekly

Alison Mills Newman’s innovative, genre-bending novel has long been out of print and impossible to find. A “fluently funky mix of standard and nonstandard English,” as the poet and scholar Harryette Mullen once put it, Francisco is the first-person account of a young actress and musician and her growing disillusionment with her success in Hollywood. Her wildly original and vivid voice chronicles a free-spirited life with her filmmaker lover, visiting friends and family up and down California, as well as her involvement in the 1970s Black Arts Movement. Love and friendship, long, meaningful conversations, parties and dancing–Francisco celebrates, as she improvises in the book, “the workings of a positive alive life that is good value, quality, carin, truth … the gift of art for the survival of the human heart.”

May 22, 2024, 7:00 p.m.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, New York: Viking, 1995.

ISBN: 9780670850532

[…] The tradition was once to keep those personal histories sealed tight […]. But Karr’s refusal to bottle herself up, her refusal to lie, lets us know that era is over. Henceforth, the light will pour in.[…] She is a poet, and so she has a poet’s ease of language, slapping certain words where they oughtn’t traditionally be and creating brand spanking new uses for them. […] And Mary is insightful beyond measure, recalling childhood with the clear-eyed generosity of someone looking down from a possible heaven. Therefore, her truthful book is a beautiful deception: she makes it look easy to do what is hardest, and that is to tell your own story and have it be heard. Mary’s family couldn’t hide their most sacred business from their neighbors. Now Mary doesn’t want to. Neither do we.–Lena Dunham, The Paris Review

“The Texas refinery town of Leechfield, perched on the swampy rim of the Gulf, is famous for mosquitoes and the manufacture of Agent Orange – a place where the only bookstores are religious ones and the restaurants serve only fried food. A handful of the Leechfield oil workers gather regularly at the American Legion Bar to drink salted beer and spin long, improbable tales. They’re the Liars’ Club. And to the girl whose father is the club’s undisputed champion mythmaker, they exude a fatal glamour – one that lifts her from ordinary life.” But there are other lies. Darker, more hidden. Her mother’s unimaginable past threatens the family’s very sanity. Mary Karr looks back through younger eyes to exorcise those demons: a mad, puritanical grandmother; a vast inheritance squandered in one year flat; endless emptied bottles; and the darknesses inflicted on an eight-year-old girl. This voice explodes with antic, wit, stripped of self-pity. Miraculously, it makes a journey into joy. Here is a “terrific family of liars redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.””–Book jacket.

June 26, 2024, 7:00 p.m.

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through by Editer by Joy Harjo (Editor); with LeAnne Howe and Jennifer Foerster, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

ISBN: 9780393356809

With 161 authors, 400 pages of poetry, over 300 years of coverage (1678–2019), and more than 90 nations represented, the [book] is the most inclusive and the most comprehensive anthology of Native American poetry to date.[…The editors] have done a marvelous job demonstrating how Indigenous poetry is a not a banner but a quilt[…T]his collection is organized by region. […] To me, this book is a cartography of how Native writers have turned to poetry for centuries as a way of marking, naming, and preserving external and internal landscapes. […] Rather than an assemblage of solos, [the book] is a chorus..— Dean Radar, Los Angeles Review of Books

United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo gathers the work of more than 160 poets, representing nearly 100 indigenous nations, into one momentous volume. This landmark anthology celebrates the indigenous peoples of North America, the first poets of this country, whose literary traditions stretch back centuries. Opening with a blessing from Pulitzer Prize winner N. Scott Momaday, the book contains powerful introductions from contributing editors who represent the five geographically organized sections. Each section begins with a poem from the massive libraries of oral literatures and closes with emerging poets, ranging from Eleazar, a seventeenth-century Native student at Harvard, to Jake Skeets, a young Dinéh poet born in 1991, and including renowned writers such as Natalie Diaz, Tommy Pico, Layli Long Soldier, and Ray Young Bear. In When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, Harjo offers the extraordinary sweep of Native literature.

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