Reading the Western Landscape Community Book Discussion - The Arboretum
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Wednesday, July 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 4th 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.

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.

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

Last Water on the Devil’s Highway by Bill Broyles; Gayle Harrison Hartmann; Thomas E. Sheridan; Gary Paul Nabhan; and Mary Charlotte Thurtle, Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2011. 

ISBN: 9780816529643

“… [The book] is the story of a waterhole that…has kept travelers from death as they passed through the desert. Tinajas Altas…is a series of potholes filled with murky, smelly water in extreme southwestern Arizona… Five authors chronicle the history and ecology…from the days when Native Americans ground mesquite pods on the granite surrounding the water hole, to the Gold Rush, when the tinajas were a stopover on the infamous…prospectors’ trail from Mexico to California. Today, …the silence, the scorching heat and the thirst that drive people to the spot continue.”— High Country News

The Devil’s Highway–El Camino del Diablo–crosses hundreds of miles and thousands of years of Arizona and Southwest history. This heritage trail follows a torturous route along the U.S. Mexico border through a lonely landscape of cactus, desert flats, drifting sand dunes, ancient lava flows, and searing summer heat. The most famous waterhole along the way is Tinajas Altas, or High Tanks, a series of natural rock basins that are among the few reliable sources of water in this notoriously parched region. Now an expert cast of authors describes, narrates, and explains the human and natural history of this special place in a thorough and readable account. Addressing the latest archaeological and historical findings, they reveal why Tinajas Altas was so important and how it related to other waterholes in the arid borderlands. Readers can feel like pioneers, following in the footsteps of early Native Americans, Spanish priests and soldiers, gold seekers and borderland explorers, tourists, and scholars. Combining authoritative writing with a rich array of more than 180 illustrations and maps as well as detailed appendixes providing up-to-date information on the wildlife and plants that live in the area, Last Water on the Devil’s Highway allows readers to uncover the secrets of this fascinating place, revealing why it still attracts intrepid tourists and campers today.

August 28, 2024, 7:00 pm


Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen by Larry McMurtry, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

ISBN: 0684854961

“…Better to view him here, I think, as a memoirist — and more just, the majority of the book is devoted more to his history and to that of his grandparents, first-generation Texas pioneers, than to the bricks and mortar of analysis. …McMurtry’s thin book glitters: His recollections of Texas ranch life — of cowpokes puzzling over why a local farmer milked his cows before committing suicide, of his own ineptitude as a cowboy, of his childhood fears of poultry and shrubs and, most of all, of his early forays into reading — are gorgeously drawn and rife with the sort of nimbly vigilant details that have long elevated (and occasionally salvaged) his novels. —Jonathan Miles, Salon

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author presents a memoir of his odyssey from rancher’s son to critically acclaimed novelist, in a reminiscence set against the backdrop of the Lone Star State.

September 25, 2024, 7:00 pm

Soil by Camille T. Dungy, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.

ISBN: 9781982195304
“… In 2020, Dungy, an English professor at Colorado State, located in the majority-White city of Fort Collins, received a Guggenheim fellowship, allowing her to take a break from teaching and focus on documenting her project of transforming what had been a conventional suburban lawn into a pollinator garden full of native plants…Instead of the conventional nature narrative, [she] offers a more complex, nuanced story in which the experience of nature is vital but is also entangled with race, national and family history, motherhood, and more. The text is the literary equivalent of the garden Dungy gradually coaxed into being: lively, messy, beset by invasive weeds, colorful, constantly changing, never quite under control, and endlessly interconnected. — Kirkus Reviews

A seminal work that expands how we talk about the natural world and the environment as National Book Critics Circle Criticism finalist Camille T. Dungy diversifies her garden to reflect her heritage. In Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, poet and scholar Camille T. Dungy recounts the seven-year odyssey to diversify her garden in the predominately white community of Fort Collins, Colorado. When she moved there in 2013, with her husband and daughter, the community held strict restrictions about what residents could and could not plant in their gardens. In resistance to the homogenous policies that limited the possibility and wonder that grows from the earth, Dungy employs the various plants, herbs, vegetables, and flowers she grows in her garden as metaphor and treatise for how homogeneity threatens the future of our planet, and why cultivating diverse and intersectional language in our national discourse about the environment is the best means of protecting it. Definitive and singular, Soil functions at the nexus of nature writing, environmental justice, and prose to encourage you to recognize the relationship between the peoples of the African diaspora and the land on which they live, and to understand that wherever soil rests beneath their feet is home.

October 23, 2024, 7:00 pm

Sugar by Bernice L. McFadden, New York: Dutton Adult, 2000.

ISBN: 9780525945314

“I just love the way that right from the first pages…[the] characters jump off the page and in this case Sugar Lacey makes her grand entrance, dragging her suitcase, strutting through the small town of the deep south, Bigelow, Arkansas (1950’s) in her high heels, tight dress, brightly coloured wig and nonchalant attitude, peering through the window of the hairdresser knowing that would be where all the talk happens, and on to number 10 Grove Street, her new abode, right next door to Pearl and Joe….McFadden is an author who I will happily read all her work, there’s something reliable and comforting when you sit down with one of her works, knowing you’re not going to want to put it down until it’s finished, but forcing yourself to do so, because you want the experience to linger.”— Claire Mcalpine,,

“In a debut novel that blends the rich, earthy atmosphere of the deep South and a voice imbued with spiritual grace, Bernice L. McFadden tells the story of two women: a modest, churchgoing wife and mother, and the young prostitute she befriends.” “When Sugar arrives in 1950s Bigelow – waltzing down the main square of the sweltering tiny Arkansas town as if she has every right to be there – no one tosses out the welcome mat or invites her in for a Coke. The Bigelow women hate her from the minute they lay eyes on her – on the bouncing blond wig and red-painted lips that tell them she has never known a hard day’s work. All they know is they want her gone, out of their town, and away from their men.” “But Sugar has traveled too far and survived too much to back down now. She parks herself in the house at #10 Grove Street, even though she feels there is something about Bigelow that is calling up the past she prayed she’d left behind.” “Deep in her soul, Pearl Taylor knows what it is that Sugar feels, because it happened to her. It was the day her world shut down, the day the devil himself murdered her young daughter, Jude. It wasn’t that Pearl stopped believing in God, exactly; she just couldn’t trust him the way she used to. Then Sugar moves in next door, and Pearl’s life irrevocably changes. Over sweet potato pie, an unlikely friendship begins, transforming the lives of two women – and an entire community.”–Book Jacket

November 20, 2024, 7:00 pm

Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1934.

[W]e are thrown right into the action with no explanation of who anyone is or what exactly they are doing. The novel is a rollercoaster… And then book two starts and we find out how Dick and Nicole met. And it’s calm, beautiful reading that reminds us that those characters once had an easier and happier life. This is where Fitzgerald shines and really introduces you to the most beautiful sentences in literature. [The book]is not as accessible as The Great Gatsby, but once you break through, it’s also more beautiful. The story of a couple having and losing love is heartbreaking and Fitzgerald masters the language as no one else to tell this story.”— Emma Holtrust, The Beauty of Literature

Set in the south of France in the late 1920s, Tender Is the Night is the tragic tale of a young actress, Rosemary Hoyt, and her complicated relationship with the alluring American couple Dick and Nicole Diver. A brilliant psychiatrist at the time of his marriage, Dick is both husband and doctor to Nicole, whose wealth pushed him into a glamorous lifestyle, and whose growing strength highlights Dick’s decline. Lyrical, expansive, and hauntingly evocative, Tender Is the Night was one of the most talked-about books of the year when it was originally published in 1934, and is even more beloved by readers today.

December 18, 2024, 7:00 pm

Not a Thing to Comfort You by Emily Wortman-Wunder, Iowa City, IA, University of Iowa Press, 2019.

ISBN: 9781609386818

…[This] should be added to this growing cannon of writing by women that reexamines women’s relationship to nature…[T]he … protagonists are not so much struggling against nature as coming to terms with the possibility that their fundamental humanness is inseparable from the … the natural world. T]he collection pivot[s] on misperception, both of self & of others, & on betrayals, some purposeful, some accidental…[She] … reveals the interior mechanisms, the psyches, that drive her … protagonists to make the choices they do. [S]he … creates characters whose personalities & choices seem at once very human & clearly woven into the fabric of a larger natural order…[and] … are always gripping, near perfect in their construction, and often wondrous..”— Hasanthika Sirisena, Fiction Writers Review

From a lightning death on an isolated peak to the intrigues of a small town orchestra, the glimmering stories in this debut collection explore how nature–damaged, fierce, and unpredictable–worms its way into our lives. Here moths steal babies, a creek seduces a lonely suburban mother, and the priorities of a passionate conservationist are thrown into confusion after the death of her son. Over and over, the natural world reveals itself to be unknowable, especially to the people who study it most. These tales of scientists, nurses, and firefighters catalog the loneliness within families, betrayals between friends, and the recurring song of regret and grief.


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