Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Salton Sea

I always try to visit the places I depict in my novels--realism matters to me personally, and has also become a key aspect of my brand as a novelist. This is why I have a Photos and Places page on my website, and more importantly a Mistakes page--people won't trust you to get it right if you don't own up to getting it wrong (media, take note).

But occasionally a place eludes me, forcing me to rely only on books, articles, and online images, maps, and videos. This was the case with the Salton Sea and All The Devils. I came close several times, most notably on a monster 350-bookstore, cross-country-and-back 2006 book tour, but I never made it all the way there.

Happily, last week I finally managed the trip. It was surreal--both because of the place itself, and also because after all the research and writing, I felt like I'd already been there. Here are some photos. I think I got my depicitions right, but of course that's for readers to decide.

If you looked up “desolation” in the dictionary…

“He opened the door and stepped out, his boots crunching on what sounded like gravel but what he knew instead were the pulverized bones of a million poisoned fish…”

The view of the town, Salton Sea Beach, with my back to the water

The path Livia and Little walked in on from Desert Shores

Around him stood a few derelict structures glowing faintly beneath a low crescent moon: A broken-down trailer. A windowless storefront. The skeletal frame of a roofless house…” 

“'I’ll tell you why they like this place,’ she said. ‘All the deserted structures. Garages, burned-out trailers, abandoned houses…They have their pick of places to take their victims, and then take their time. Rusted-out vehicles, decaying furniture…it’s like a postapocalyptic junkyard…”

Parts of the town are still inhabited

Some additional resources (more in the notes of All The Devils)

A brief history of the Salton Sea:

And some haunting photos, too. Careful of the Lost America site—it’ll suck you in.

Great six-minute documentary film about the Salton Sea:

And the 2002 Tony Gayton noir film The Salton Sea is wonderful and surprisingly not well known.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Putin Looms Perennially Large For The Economist

Sometimes I can almost hear The Economist whispering, "Vlad, I wish I could quit you..."


Thursday, March 11, 2021

Walter LaFeber: A Great Light Has Gone Out

Yesterday I learned that a great and good man I was fortunate to study under in college and later to have as a friend, Walter LaFeberhad died. As I emerged from my initial shock and distress, I remembered a line from Shakespeare in Love, uttered when the stunned Admiral’s Men hear of the death of Kit Marlowe: “A great light has gone out.”

That’s what happened yesterday.

I first got to know Walt in the fall of 1985, when I took both his legendary History 313 History of US Foreign Policy lecture (continued in the spring with History 314) and a small graduate-level seminar, also on the history of US foreign policy. I was 21 then, and it’s strange for me to consider now that Walt would have been 51—six years younger than I am today.

The reasons 313 and 314 were legendary, and the reason I was so fortunate to take them, were threefold: Walt’s command of the subject matter; his deep insights; and his masterful delivery, always involving a 50-minute talk—without ever resorting to notes—to a room of hundreds of spellbound people. 

In one lecture, I noticed a student in the row in front of me doodling in the margin of his notes: Walter es Dios. I doubt anyone in the room would have argued, though Walt himself tended to shrug off the praise he regularly received, always quickly departing rather than reveling in the applause that inevitably erupted at the end of his lectures.

History 313 and 314 met on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings. The lecture hall was always filled. Saturday might have been even more crowded, because students liked to bring visitors to experience Walt in person.

From the vantage point of 2021, it might not seem like much of an innovation, but Walt was ahead of his time in tape-recording all his lectures for any students unlucky enough to miss the live performance (by coincidence, yesterday Lou Ottens, the inventor of the audiotape cassette, also died). My brother and I used to bootleg the tapes at the library and mail copies to our dad, a voracious reader and amateur historian, who would avidly listen and then enthusiastically discuss the content with his sons. My dad died in 1997, and knowing how much he, too, learned from Walt and relished listening to him is bound up in my sadness today, although that connection also gives me a lot of happiness.

If you’d like some flavor of what it was like to listen to Walt, this was his retirement lecture, attended by over 3000 people in New York City in 2006. The whole talk is wonderful, but if all you want is the foreign policy discussion, it begins at about the 30-minute mark.

Another of Walt’s special qualities was his wry kindness. I could give many examples, but just one: when I turned in an essay for History 313 that included an elaborate explanation of why General Lafayette didn’t attack the Colonial forces, Walt wrote in the margin, “Another—and better—reason is that Lafayette fought with the Colonial forces, not against them.”

Despite a few missteps like that one, Walt wrote me a recommendation that I’m sure was instrumental in gaining me admission to law school. I managed to acquire a copy afterward; in it, Walt said that had I been interested in history instead of law, he immediately would have accepted me as a PhD candidate. I’ve wondered since whether I made the right choice.

Before studying with Walt, I was pretty insular in my outlook and while I read a lot, I wouldn’t say I was doing anything particularly useful with the information. But as the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher appears, and Walt’s insights into the nature of US foreign policy were hugely eye-opening and motivating, and provide an intellectual framework that has served me ever since. I don’t think his politics would be easy to classify, and in some ways I think he was amused by some of my more radical critiques of the status quo, which made discussions a pleasure even when we didn’t see eye to eye.

After I graduated from undergrad, we started getting together for lunch periodically, usually at Rulloff’s in Collegetown. He told me I had to stop calling him Professor LaFeber and start calling him Walt. It was a strange transition, but eventually he did become Walt for me, though part of me will always think of him as Professor LaFeber, too. My mom, who died in 1987, once told me how delightful it was to have her children grow up and then, while remaining her children, also become her friends (I have since experienced this joy as a parent myself). Growing up and becoming friends with a former teacher is, I think, something similar.

Even after I graduated from law school, my wife Laura and I have had numerous opportunities to visit Ithaca, and on almost every one of those occasions we’ve gotten together with Walt and his delightful wife Sandy. The last time we saw them was in the fall of 2019. The last time we were in touch was by email, almost a year ago at the start of the pandemic. Of course I’m upset now that I wasn’t in touch more—having lost people before, I generally know better. But somehow this year slipped away, and now Walt has, as well. I’m comforted by knowing how rich a life he lived, and how many hearts he touched and minds he influenced in his 87 years. “No one here gets out alive,” my dad would sometimes say, but still there are a few immortals, and Walt LaFeber was one of them.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Fundraiser for a Tragic Loss to Cancer

This fundraiser is for a friend of Laura's and mine who just lost her 35-year-old husband to cancer. They have small kids and anything anyone is inclined to do right now would be a big help.

Thank you.

Monday, October 12, 2020

How To Write A Killer Opening

This past weekend I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the annual Japan Writers Conference, which was of course held virtually because of Covid. If you want to learn more about how to write an effective story opening, here are my 50 minutes worth of thoughts. Enjoy!

Friday, October 09, 2020

That Rarest Breed: Leftist Political Thrillers

Recently I had a fun discussion with Praveen Tummalapalli about why there are so few leftist thrillers, and of course we talked about much more, too.

The discussion was for an article Praveen is writing for Current Affairs Magazine, but it wound up working well in its own right, so I'm posting it here. Had I known we were going to use the interview not just for background, I would have lit our Zoom call better and used an external mic, too. I might even have combed my hair! And apologies also because, having listened to some of the talk after the fact, I was horrified at how much I was saying "um." I work hard to avoid verbal tics, but that morning the Ums got the better of me.

I've addressed some of these issues before, particularly in the context of the tendency to denigrate as "political" only those storylines that don't jibe with one's own political views. As I sometimes like to ask when people criticize my novels as "too political," "You do know they're political thrillers, right?"

Anyway, regardless of any technical shortcomings, I hope you'll enjoy the discussion. When the article's out, I'll post that, too. And who knows? Maybe some of this will encourage other novelists to depict the thrills inherent in leftist politics.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Vincent Bevins's The Jakarta Method

Okay, time for another book I've listened to during the pandemic (and now the wildfires). Last up was Barton Gellman's Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State; this time it's The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade & The Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World.

The Jakarta Method recounts the US-backed extermination campaign that murdered something like one million Indonesians. If you're unfamiliar with this history, it's partly because the program was a "success," and partly because the details are so disturbing--disturbing both for the horrors and human suffering the book recounts, and because the horror and suffering were both the effect and the intent of US policy.

If you found yourself recoiling from that last clause, don't worry. The reaction is natural. It's hard to look in the mirror and see something terrible staring back. This is just an axiom of human nature. So when faced with evidence of atrocities committed by one's own in-group, it's extremely psychologically tempting to deny them, memory hole them, or to marginalize them as aberrations or "a few bad apples" (see for example Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, putting the Mai Lai massacre into its proper, larger context).

But if there's one thing I know about humans, it's our tendency to give ourselves and our in-groups the greatest possible benefit of the doubt (for more on this, I recommend looking into something called the Fundamental Attribution Error). From the earliest age, Americans are fed a steady diet of American Exceptionalism, American benevolence, the Indispensable Nation...the whole notion of a Light Unto Nations and the City Upon a Hill. You don't have to seek out American apologia and hagiography; they're impossible to avoid. Our national anthem is a celebration of war and slavery; stadium flyovers are part of the cultural firmament; we carve likenesses of revered politicians into the face of mountains; as children, we're made to recite a Pledge of Allegiance proclaiming that we have achieved liberty and justice for all; politicians decree that America is the greatest nation in the history of mankind and that there's not a country on Earth that wouldn't gladly trade places with us.

Imagine for a moment how the media would treat, and how we would perceive, these sorts of things if they were occurring in, say, China or Iran or Russia. Can you believe Iran puts "In Allah we trust" on their own currency, or that they have developed a weapon intended to burn people to death and that they celebrate such a horrific weapon in the weapon's very name? That Russia believes in Russia's "manifest destiny" of dominion over an entire continent from sea to sea? That China has something called the "Xi Doctrine" declaring separate eastern and western spheres of influence and making all of Asia a Chinese protectorate?

And of course you could write an entire book on how their wars are aggression and conquest while ours are merely interventions or police actions; how their nuclear weapons are destabilizing and provocative while ours are simply defensive; how they meddle in elections while we merely assist; how theirs is terrorism and ours is Shock and Awe (actually, I really do need to write a post just on the propaganda buried in our reflexive nomenclature. There's so much of it).

Part of the reason propaganda is so pervasive is because it's so pleasurable. We all want to feel good about ourselves and our in-groups, and propaganda helps achieve that. What's the expression? "Flattery is the art of telling people exactly what they want to believe about themselves." Coke and Pepsi don't dominate the world because they're good for human health; they dominate because sugar tastes good. What tastes good gets widely consumed, regardless of what it might do to your body (or your mind).

To put it another way: ego distorts accurate perception. Books like Bevins's are corrective lenses. For anyone interested in seeing more clearly, The Jakarta Method is a great place to start.