Professors’ new book tells the story behind the vast and mysterious Death Valley National Park

One of Professor Char Miller’s latest books, Death Valley National Park: A History, is a co-authored volume based on the manuscript drafted by late UNLV history professor Hal K. Rothman. Hal was an editor for the Environmental History journal and was a prominent writer, public speaker and environmental historian; he died from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2007 at the age of 48. Death Valley National Park: A History is the first comprehensive history of the park, from its beginning as a national monument in 1933 to its present day prospects and conflicts. The book discusses the three-million-acre park’s founding, evolution and early people, and it also examines the past and current impacts of mining, solar power, politics and urban development on this arid landscape. Here, Professor Miller, director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College, discusses the book in an abridged and edited interview.

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Aaron Becker ’96 enchants kids and critics with his richly-illustrated Journey

As a boy growing up in Baltimore, Aaron Becker ’96 knew a trick: when he drew pictures, he became all-powerful. “Drawing was a way of making sense of what life was about,” Becker says, “On a piece of paper I could make all the rules that I wanted to.” This year, with the release of his debut children’s book, Journey, Becker has created a world that invites its audience to follow the spirit of that child of years ago. Journey features a girl who uses a magical pen to slip from her distracted family to a rich world of her own timbre. With not a single word of text, Journey unfolds over 40 pages of captivating illustrations, detailed but not busy. The book has won widespread positive notice. Amazon included it among its “Best Books” for young readers in summer 2013 while the New York Times called it a “masterwork.” School Library Journal placed the book on its list of contenders for the Caldecott Medal, the most notable award for picture books.

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Sagehen surprise in Lethem’s new book; Pynchon’s latest tome mentions Pomona, too

dissident1Though it is set in Queens, Pomona College Professor Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens, contains a fun little nod to his SoCal college home. Deep in the novel about “three generations of All-American radicals,” as Lethem is unspooling a bit of background about purist music teacher Harris Murphy, we learn that Murphy was part of the short-lived duo which contributed one song to the anthology LP Live at the Sagehen Cafe.

For those who are decades away from campus life, the Sagehen Cafe is the sitdown eatery in the Smith Campus Center, adjacent to the Coop Fountain.

Lethem says it is the only Pomona allusion he dropped into the book (available Sept. 10), but he did pass along the news that Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge (available Sept. 17), also set in New York, contains a brief reference to Pomona College in its first few pages.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Pomona was recently named to Flavorwire’s list of the most literary colleges …

More from the magazine about Jonathan Lethem, Pomona’s Roy Edward Disney ’51 Professor in Creative Writing.

City views: Sagehens take fresh looks at San Francisco, Seattle

A pair of new tomes from Pomona people take fresh looks at two of the West Coast’s top cities. Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community & Identity in San Francisco, by Pomona College Professor Tomás F. Summers Sandoval Jr., is “among the first books detailing the experiences of Latin American immigrants and their descendants in San Francisco over the course of a century and a half … ,” according to the web story. A state or two to the north, Bill Mullins ’68 has written Becoming Big League: Seattle, the Pilots and Stadium Politics. He tells the “story of Seattle’s relationship with major league baseball from the 1962 World’s Fair to the completion of the Kingdome in 1976″ focusing on “the acquisition and loss, after only one year, of the Seattle Pilots.”

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Scientific American touts Sagehen authors

allnatural1animalwise1Update on 07/24/13: Animal Wise by Virginia Morell ’71 was one of the top three picks in the SciAm Summer Reading Poll! Join Morell in a Google Hangout with the other two authors on Friday, July 26, at 9 a.m. PST.

The editors of Scientific American are offering readers a chance to vote for their favorites among 50 new science books that were recommended by the magazine’s staff and contributors, and a pair of Sagehen authors appear side by side on the online ballot. All Natural by Nathanael Johnson ’01 is right next to Animal Wise by Virginia Morell ’71. Fortunately, you are allowed to vote for up to three tomes.

More about Animal Wise
More about All Natural
Scientific American ballot

Hollywood and the White House

In his new book, The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton Peretti ’82 explores how Tinseltown and the U.S. presidency are sometimes strange, sometimes highly compatible bedfellows that build a relationship based on mass communication. “It may seem surprising to claim that a president or other politician could cross over to the fantasy world of the movies, but it has happened,” Peretti writes in his introduction. “Such transformations have, in fact, been a major development in American political history.” So did Hollywood seek out presidents or did presidents seek out Hollywood? Peretti says the answer is yes and yes. The attraction was mutual. “Presidents were fascinated by the cultural power wielded by the movies, while moviemakers were drawn to the dramatic realm of power in the real world,” says Peretti.

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The Midwife’s Tale by Samuel Thomas ’91 mixes, history, fiction and murder mystery.

A determined midwife and her knife-wielding servant set out to solve a murder mystery in Samuel Thomas’ first novel, The Midwife’s Tale, released in January. Thomas, a historian and former professor focused on Reformation England, weaves together fact and fiction to tell the story of Bridget Hodgson, the midwife and her servant Martha, both real women living in 17th century England. Thomas (Pomona College Class of 1991) takes his readers into Bridget’s world during the siege of York, not only creating an exciting mystery story but also revealing the complex political and religious issues of the era. The Midwife’s Tale has been met with positive reviews and is the first release in what is to become a four part series. Thomas now resides in Ohio and teaches high school history in addition to writing novels. He talks midwives, mystery, writing and more in the abridged and edited interview below.

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The guide to South America’s hidden gem

. Romy Natalia Goldberg ’02 spent four years exploring Paraguay by foot, bus, train and VW camper van, gathering information for a travel guide recently released by Other Places Publishing. Along the way she found community and adventure in the South American nation’s busiest cities and its most remote spots, traveling through fields of sugar cane to stunning waterfalls and on flooded roads to vibrant local carnivals. Goldberg’s travel guide complements her website and blog on Paraguay, making her research efforts some of the most comprehensive for prospective visitors.

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“All Natural” living gets a closer look in new book from Nathanael Johnson ’01

Nathanael Johnson ’01, who wrote an interesting piece for PCM about C-sections a few issues back, has a new book out. The award-winning journalist who has written for Harper’s and produced stories for NPR says he spent his whole life preparing for  All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest for Health and Happiness in An Age of Ecological Anxiety. Raised in an “all-natural” family, Johnson is drawn to the controversies over natural birth, diet, the environment and alternative medicine—all ultimately as a way to understand his family and early childhood. In All Natural he examines both the polarization and nuances involved in determining whether the natural approach to living really is best for humankind.

 What inspired the book?

 I grew up in a family that really believed that many of humanity’s attempts to protect itself from nature were misguided. For instance, my dad insisted that I go diaper free as a baby because he thought that the natural perfection of my developing pelvis would be deformed if I constantly had a big wad of absorbent material between my legs for two to three years. Part of me starts to scoff, but then I’d think, “That actually is a plausible hypothesis.” It’s hard to assess because stories in the popular press written about the all-natural constellation of concerns are usually utterly dismissive, or utterly credulous.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing it?

I had no idea how to organize it at first, and if I’d been lazy it would have just been a series of essays without any narrative through-line, and without any larger argument. So I resolved to build the book around the development of my thinking – to tell stories from my all-natural childhood, then bring the reader along as I fact-checked the family ideology. I spent days cutting chapters apart with scissors and moving the sections around. The process is like working on a big puzzle, but all the pieces are invisible – you have to hold them in your mind. And to complicate things even more, you can change the shape of any piece, or decide that it’s actually part of a different puzzle.

Were there are startling realizations during your research?

Lots! I was surprised to learn that childbirth is getting more dangerous in this country, and that more U.S. citizens are killed by unnecessary medical care than the numbers who die because they can’t get access to care. I was shocked and bemused by the way the demands of modern America have reshaped the bodies (and the mating habits) of pigs. I expected to find at least one blind spot in the orthodoxy about vaccination, because so many intelligent, admirable people are worried by shots, so I was amazed when every fear and theory about the dangers of inoculation led to scientific dead ends.

Are you working on any writing projects now?

I started keeping a journal when my daughter was born and I was struck by how often I was writing about her our adventures with the urban wildlife of San Francisco. So I’m playing with the idea of starting with these toddler’s-eye-view stories from my journal, and then researching our observations and writing down the most interesting bits to produce a father’s field guide to the urban ecosystems that so many of us walk through without ever noticing.



The Fire Chronicle: John Stephens ’94 on writing the second book in his fantasy trilogy

Veteran TV writer John Stephens’ (Pomona College Class of ’94) first foray into children’s fantasy books, The Emerald Atlas, was a hit in a hot publishing genre. Now he is back with The Fire Chronicle, the second in the Books of Beginning trilogy. Kirkus Reviews gave the new book, released this fall a starred review: “Irreverent humor and swashbuckling adventure collide in a fetching fantasy.”

Stephens’ stories follow three children who have been hidden by the wizard Stanislaus Pym at the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans, but are soon discovered by their enemies. In Chronicle, Kate is chased 100 years into the past to a dangerous and enchanted New York City and left searching for her brother and sister, Michael and Emma, who are following clues into a hidden world to find the legendary book of fire.

Stephens ’94 is already well-established in television, where he spent 10 years as executive producer of Gossip Girl and a writer for Gilmore Girls and The O.C. And while The Emerald Atlas was highly sought after among publishers, Stephens found writing the follow-up brought a new set of challenges, as he describes in this abridged interview:

Is it easier or harder to write the second book in a trilogy? 

Writing the second book is both harder and easier. On the easier side, you already have your main characters. You know who they are, their strengths and weaknesses.  Also, in a trilogy such as this, you have a certain level of story momentum.  There are specific plot points which have to happen. Granted, you want to get to them by unexpected paths, but you know that sooner or later you have to get to them.  That said, writing the second is in many ways more difficult than the first. The first I wrote more or less in private, almost on a lark. There was no deadline, no one waiting for the book. I could write in my own time, and if the book ended up stinking, well, no one ever had to know.  With the second book, there was a deadline.  People were waiting.  The pressure was totally different.  When you write a first book that ‘works,’ it feels like you somehow managed to pull a rabbit out of your hat in the privacy of your own office. Writing the second book, you’re suddenly on stage in front of a thousand people, and there’s a worldwide rabbit shortage. And you’re naked.

Did you start The Fire Chronicle soon after the first book? How long did it take you to complete it? 

I started The Fire Chronicle when I was in the process of selling The Emerald Atlas, which in some ways meant going from one book right into the other. You have to understand, I was kind of terrified. I had managed to write one book, but to me, all that proved was that I could write one book. Who was to say I could write two, much less three? But I’d signed a contract promising three. I had this image where angry publishers would come to my house and take my dog when I failed to produce the books. From my first notes to the locked book was almost exactly two years. Two wonderful, wonderful panic-filled years.

Have you completed book three? What are you working on now?

I have not completed book three. I have done a rough outline and begun writing. Though right now, I’m taking a little bit of a break to direct a couple episodes of television. After two years alone in a room, I worried I was getting a little weird, and I felt it’d be a good idea to venture out into the world before I descend again into my hobbit hole.

–Sneha Abraham

More about John Stephens in PCM


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