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Charlotte Pomerantz, Inventive Children’s Book Author, Dies at 92



Her first children’s book, “The Bear Who Couldn’t Sleep,” was published in 1965.

“I started writing because it was the only thing I was ever good at,” Ms. Pomerantz said in the Alchetron interview.

Her books reflected all sorts of influences, including James Joyce: One book, “Here Comes Henny” (1994, illustrated by Nancy Winslow Parker), was inspired by a passage in “Finnegans Wake,” her daughter, Dr. Marzani, said. Ms. Pomerantz’s son, Daniel, had asthma problems as a child that led the family to spend winters in Puerto Rico, and some of her stories were set there or incorporated Spanish.

Dr. Marzani said that her mother had also once written a play, “Jonah and the Humpback Whale,” and that she had recently been arranging a performance of it in her apartment building in Charlottesville — to be held at high tea on her birthday

“The group had been practicing for months,” she said, “meeting weekly, with Mom directing from her wheelchair.”

Her mother, she said, had lapsed into unconsciousness in the days before her death, but the group performed the piece for her at her bedside anyway the day before her death. She died a few minutes after midnight on her birthday, but the group also carried out her wish and performed it again later that day at high tea.

Carl Marzani died in 1994. In addition to her daughter, Ms. Pomerantz is survived by her son, Daniel Marzani; her domestic partner, Robert Murtha; a stepson, Anthony Marzani; Jason Olivencia, a longtime member of the family whom she considered a son and who aided in her end-of-life care; a grandson; and two step-grandchildren.


Unlikely Allies, They Spread the Gospel of Tree-Hugging



GUARDIANS OF THE VALLEY: John Muir and the Friendship That Saved Yosemite, by Dean King

It’s a brave thing, to write about John Muir.

First, you run the risk of contrasting your own writing with his, and whose can compare? Muir shaped his words into piercing, lyrical prose about everything from wildflower meadows to pack burros to San Francisco. More than a century later, his writing is still transporting: When he arrived in California, after leaving his home and timber mill work in Wisconsin, Muir wrote that his walk across the Yosemite Valley was “all one sea of golden and purple bloom, so deep and dense that in walking through it you would press more than a hundred flowers at every step.”

Thankfully, Dean King’s poetry is a match for Muir’s: “He saw God in the fragmentation of the stream and in rays of the sun passing through to make vivid rainbow beads,” he writes of Muir. “He saw God in the rebirth of the stream suddenly expelled from earth, as death and a new life, a new journey, were simultaneously manifest.”

It’s also bold to take on the subject of Muir because so much has already been published; how much more can be said about the exploits and advocacy of America’s most revered conservationist? But “Guardians of the Valley” adds a compelling perspective: an examination of Muir’s relationship and friendship with the editor Robert Underwood Johnson, who brought Muir’s work to the masses.

As such, this is also a book about the power of storytelling. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Muir wrote about the Yosemite Valley and Johnson delivered that work to the (mostly Eastern, urban) readers of his magazine, Century. It is Johnson, King writes, who with Muir “ignited a quarter-century of legislation and environmental activism that would change the shape of the nation and stewardship of nature everywhere.”

King frames Johnson and Muir’s relationship as “unlikely” — Johnson was an “urbane” Manhattan-dweller, from a well-connected family, albeit socially awkward and with a “nervous stomach.” Muir, although he had many friends, preferred solitude in the woods, ate an almost comically austere diet and hated the city. When Johnson joined Century (previously Scribner’s Monthly), he was tasked with persuading Ulysses S. Grant to write for the magazine (which he did), and staying “on top of John Muir.”

Their relationship provides a compelling narrative that guides the reader through decades of what might otherwise have read as dense statecraft and legislative history. Instead, King deftly contrasts Johnson’s lobbying with Muir’s exploits. We tag along with Muir to timber mills and on hikes to backwoods huts; we stand with Johnson as Chicago burns in 1871. We ford streams with Muir as he herds sheep; write letters to Muir from a New York City magazine office.

We encounter Muir as a dashing explorer and scientific investigator, hammering stakes into the Nisqually Glacier and weathering storms on Mount Shasta. But when Johnson travels west to develop a special issue of Century about the California Gold Rush, Muir is thrust into his editor’s world, starting with his first meeting with Johnson at an ornate San Francisco hotel. Muir, who had been writing regularly for publications like The Oakland Ledger, The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin and even The San Francisco Real Estate Circular, would in turn take Johnson on an excursion into the Yosemite Valley. The stories Muir told along the way led Johnson to adopt preservation of the valley as his cause.

Johnson returned to New York and started lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. And he began to pester Muir for more articles, which he used as a tool to influence politicians to establish a national park around Yosemite. Muir was a procrastinator who had to be reminded numerous times to submit his essays, letters and maps. Based on Muir’s eloquent writing, other Eastern journalists at larger publications jumped on board to advocate the valley’s preservation. Johnson had swiftly mastered the manipulation of legislation and power, in which the media played a large part.

King’s book adds much-needed perspective on the power of the press in lobbying for conservation. Journalism became the issue’s battleground, with California newspapers (some owned by timber magnates) arguing against Muir’s assertions and Johnson lobbying for government intervention. An East-West divide was stoked in the pages of these newspapers — and would not fade with the formal recognition of Yosemite National Park in 1890.

Indeed, King explains that preserving Muir and Johnson’s success required constant vigilance. We follow as Johnson and Muir become founding members of the Sierra Club, whose first campaign was in response to ranchers who lived around the park, lobbying to redraw the park’s boundaries to increase lumber, mining and grazing revenues. A bill in support of the locals was introduced by a California congressman and Johnson would, according to King, “work the press,” placing stories to successfully oppose the shrinking of the park. “You of course know that this whole policy has grown out of your three articles printed in the Century, which in turn grew out of our talk by the campfire in the upper Tuolomne,” Johnson wrote to Muir.

The battles continued as the Sierra Club fought to protect California’s redwoods. King follows Muir and Johnson’s work in protest of the Hetch Hetchy dam outside San Francisco, which would come to be known as one of the country’s first environmental controversies. City officials wrote editorials suggesting that idealistic nature lovers would negatively impact daily life for city residents — not Eastern tourists. The Sierra Club, for its part, released fliers that made liberal use of all-caps; Johnson decried the “rape of Hetchy” — before being fired for his activism.

These battles are far from over. More than a century later, King argues that, now firmly in the climate crisis, we can take motivation and strength from Muir’s writing and activism. Followers of conservation politics will note that there has been fierce debate surrounding Muir’s legacy in recent years. In 2020, the Sierra Club called out his racist statements and acknowledged their own troubled history of bias. King refers to these larger discussions, pointing out that while Muir appeared to be reverent and respectful of Native American knowledge of the land, he rarely acknowledged the country’s violent displacement of Indigenous peoples.

We see through this book the immense power of language to sway, the ability for selectively chosen words to convey awe and power, resentment and raw anger, to change the minds of lawmakers and tourists alike. To effectively draw strength from Muir’s writing, as King suggests we do, we might reconsider which stories are told around the campfire.

Lyndsie Bourgon is the author of “Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods.”

GUARDIANS OF THE VALLEY: John Muir and the Friendship That Saved Yosemite | By Dean King | Illustrated | 437 pp. | Scribner | $30

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Three Novels Where Love Takes Center Stage



Madelaine Lucas’s debut novel, THIRST FOR SALT (Tin House, 262 pp., paperback, $16.95), opens by describing a photograph that shows a man and a child. The narrator sees, for the first time, a picture of her former lover Jude with what she presumes to be his daughter. Confronting bad news about her fertility and nearing the same age Jude had been during their relationship, the unnamed protagonist is ripe for reminiscence, and the photograph sends her deep into the act of remembering.

The description of their love affair has much of the same feeling as the photograph, a static moment held captive and mined for meaning. The focus of the novel, ultimately, is the act of remembering itself. (“You’re hung up on the past,” the narrator’s mother unsubtly points out.) Jumping back in time, the narrator revisits her first encounter with Jude on an Australian tourist beach the summer she is 24 and he is 42. What follows is a quick, hot love affair bracketed by “I remembers” and glimpses of later conflicts, constant reminders that the relationship is long finished and absorbed into the narrator’s personal mythology.

But the retrospective voice is also lush and gorgeous. As Jude shifts from calling the narrator “Sharkbait” to calling her “love,” their sun-soaked fling turns to winter domesticity, and she leaves behind the bare beginnings of an adult life with her college friends to hole up with Jude in his lovingly restored A-frame near the ocean. The scenes at Jude’s home have a luxurious physicality, a sensual attention focused on homey objects laced with a languid nostalgia for the romance’s most vivid scenes, such as Jude using rotting fruit to lure tropical birds to the narrator’s bare arms. The result is a story with a pristine, time-capsule-like feeling. The cost, however, is an inability to fully sense the effects of the relationship on the rest of the narrator’s later, more cosmopolitan life — a flaw the book tries to remedy by having the narrator indulge at times in some heavy-handed meaning-making, her purpose and message bearing down on the reader. But “Thirst for Salt” is a delicious read, beautifully written and emotionally satisfying.

The title of Keiran Goddard’s novel, HOURGLASS (Europa, 199 pp., $25), makes sense if you think about the different ways we measure time. Every clock or watch belongs to a network of timekeepers, their usefulness derived from collective agreement. An hourglass, however, is a closed system built of trapped particles. Unless it has been calibrated to a clock, a turn of an hourglass is a unit of measurement that refers only to itself.

To read the incredibly spare writing of “Hourglass” is to be trapped with a consciousness struggling to point to or refer to anything in the outside world. This is an accurate representation of solipsistic masculine heartbreak, but it is, by its nature, extremely frustrating to read. The narrator, who writes essays like “People Bloody Love Astrology Right Now Because They Fear We Have Funneled the Entirety of Our Collective Divinatory Power Into Predictive Algorithms!,” meets an editor at one of the magazines where he insistently sends these pitches. We don’t learn much about this editor, who is addressed throughout as “you” and is described as the author of several “slim books about Restoration drama.” But we do learn that “all of the things happened again and again” (translation: they had a lot of sex) and that these two people fall in love.

The substance of the book is so general that it becomes essentially nothing, empty universality punctuated from time to time with a vaguely gross detail, like the narrator eating balls of his love object’s hair (“object” is the right word, since the editor never seems like a distinct individual) or, later, the narrator’s drunken attempt to run a marathon while dressed in a sweater, collapsing less than a mile in. Sometimes the writing is funny, but often it’s just deliberately opaque. Instead of dialogue, the reader gets, “We started telling each other all of the things that people who are falling in love tell one another.” Instead of specifics about the editor, the reader gets, “You were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.” This should be considered a great compliment, the narrator declares, because there are more things in the world than there are people. But that explanation works only if the reader is willing to live inside the narrator’s cyclical reasoning, a herculean task. Outside of this logic, in a world where people are at least trying to agree on a shared reality, you’re left with someone calling the person he loves a thing.

Originally published in 1974 and too long out of print, Alison Mills Newman’s FRANCISCO (New Directions, 117 pp., paperback, $14.95) is a dazzling book written with the immediacy of life. The novel’s sharp, funny, first-person narrator makes her way through the Black Arts movement of the 1970s, searching for her own way of seeing and describing the world. The sentences brim with rebellion and pleasure, creating a sensual odyssey of self-discovery and experience.

The narrator is, as Mills Newman was in real life, a young Black actress who is tired of working in white-dominated Hollywood. She falls in love with an intense and driven independent filmmaker, the titular Francisco. Francisco becomes a sort of anti-muse, their relationship inspiring the narrator not to create, but to experience. (Francisco himself finds lust detrimental to work, frequently shutting himself away from the narrator to finish his film.) In this novel, the creative impulse is cut off from the urge to create products for consumption. Instead, this energy is funneled into the sheer exuberance of being alive.

The result is a loose narrative written with keen observations and driven by the narrator’s own hunger for Francisco, food and connection. (Some of the best writing takes the form of descriptions of meals, demonstrating how the narrator and Francisco seduce and care for each other through their stomachs.) Each scene is wonderful on its own and refuses to build into a traditional narrative structure: a filmed dance party in a borrowed mansion for one of Francisco’s movies, a naked confrontation with the “madness” of the ocean, sex in other people’s beach houses, a drawn-out battle with a waiter for just one more bowl of guacamole. This delightfully smart and funny protagonist is a reminder of the difficulty and beauty of a life lived on its own terms.

Alyssa Songsiridej is the author of “Little Rabbit,” a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.

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Refugees, Ghosts and a Story About Stories




There’s a Vietnamese superstition: If you die away from home, your soul will become restless and won’t leave for the afterlife. Instead, you will be cursed to roam the earth as a ghost, hungry and cold, left without the closure to move on. This folk belief is the starting point of Cecile Pin’s debut novel, “Wandering Souls.”

In 1978, three years after the fall of Saigon, a Vietnamese teenager, Anh, packs for an escape from Vietnam with two of her six younger siblings. The plan: Sail by boat to Hong Kong, where the three will wait for the rest of their family, and once reunited, they’ll all relocate to the United States. Anh and her brothers Minh and Thanh successfully land in Hong Kong, but the wait for the rest of their family stretches longer than expected.

Eventually, bodies are found on the beach of a refugee camp. Among them is the rest of their family, who are buried on foreign ground. From then on, the three siblings are one another’s only family, a bond that is tested once they relocate to Britain, where they must not only survive but thrive because “if the three of them did not achieve success here, their family’s demise had no meaning, no overarching resolution.”

“Wandering Souls” begins very much like other novels about refugees. At its center are loss and the difficulties of starting over, the drudgery of survival and the necessity of assimilation. Pin is observant of how immigration shuffles families. Left without their parents, Anh becomes the de facto mother of the household. At 16, she sacrifices her education to work as a seamstress so her brothers can go to school and, she hopes, become prosperous. “She thought their success might make her own sacrifices worthwhile,” Pin writes, “that it would give deeper meaning to the labor she’d done to provide for them over the years.”

But who is Anh beyond her surrogate motherhood? Unfortunately, Pin gives us little opportunity to find out. We see Anh making her siblings’ favorite dishes and we’re with her as she stays up late worrying over the whereabouts of Minh, her delinquent teenage brother, but we know very little about her desires and the dreams she has for herself.

Yet “Wandering Souls” is more than a story of sacrifice and familial duty. The author has greater ambitions, first signaled in the intricate story structure she builds. Slowly, the novel takes wayward paths into the lives of the family’s lingering ghosts who invisibly observe the three siblings, and Pin mixes in fictionalized documents (like a newspaper article revealing Margaret Thatcher’s xenophobic attitudes toward Vietnamese refugees) that showcase the very real conservative politics of the 1980s. And most surprisingly, as the story unfolds, the voice of a new narrator begins to creep in, one that pulls from the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum, the “Iliad” and Joan Didion. Soon it becomes apparent the voice belongs to a writer, one preoccupied with loss: what it looks like, the grief it creates and the meaning — however tenuous — we give it. This narrator shares a telling quote by Didion: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.”

What emerges is something special — a polyvocal novel, an essay on inherited trauma and a quiet metafiction about telling stories we don’t own. At times, it’s unclear exactly where Pin is going — for instance, there’s a superfluous thread about American soldiers serving in Vietnam — but we follow because Pin’s novel is less about the story and more about how the story is made. Reading it is like watching a writer at work as she tries to give loss a plot and make meaning out of details. This proves to be more fascinating than the story of three siblings acclimating to their new home.

“Wandering Souls” asks: How should we tell refugee stories? Why should we tell them? And to whom? And, most important, what should we do with refugee stories, especially when years have passed and those who lived them are gone?

Eric Nguyen is the author of “Things We Lost to the Water.”

WANDERING SOULS | By Cecile Pin | 226 pp. | Henry Holt & Company | $26.99

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