July newsletter: The Cicada

So, there I was, stalking the East Aegean cicada*.

Its insistent, gearbox cough rose out of the electric pulse of the other insect life on the hillside behind the restaurant in northern Greece.

When the buzzing stopped, I knew I was close, but it still took me another minute of looking before I picked it out against the bark of a sycamore**. The bug’s spotted olive-gray shell matched the tree perfectly, but its symmetry gave it away.

I called over Maggie and her cousin and pointed the cicada out to them. They went off to find a half dozen cast-off molts. I showed them the folded, piercing mouth-parts, telling the girls how the nymphs suck sap from tree roots until they climb out of the ground and molt into adults with wings but no mouths. If that’s a metaphor, I don’t want to use it.

And I don’t have to! Doing research for this newsletter, I found out that at least some adult cicadas do feed.

Anyway, so do I. The reason we were at this restaurant in the first place is because I was able to ask the saleswoman at the Alistrati Cave gift shop for recommendations. No hiding in a corner with my phone. No googling as I reinforced my fear of human interaction by imagining that she’d probably be a jerk anyway. I bought some pomegranate liquor to sweeten the deal, then just asked the woman for lunch recommendations.

“On the back of your ticket there are three restaurants,” she said in English. “I recommend two of them. Do you have children?”

Boy, did I ever. Two daughters, a niece and a nephew. And don’t forget all the adults, who just wanted a moment’s peace.

“Then go to Achilleas. It has a garden with a gate that shuts. The other place is on the road. You have to spend your whole meal worrying that the children will run into traffic.”

Yes, there’s google maps, but google helpfully calls Achilleas “Taverna.” I don’t think we’d have found it without a human’s directions, and we might have been scared off by the lack of air conditioning.

Instead, we had a real experience. The staff (two owners plus one friend) were delighted to see us and my sausage was great. We could indeed take our eyes off the children without worrying. They explored the garden and found a drowned cicada nymph. I had a conversation with the owners in a mixture of English and Bulgarian about how their son used to be a doctor in Plovdiv.

When they asked where I was from, I said, “Bulgaria.” Knock on wood, but I’m getting the hang of this vacation thing.

 

No, there’s not much news this month. I’m on vacation. I sent Wealthgiver to beta readers (contact me if you want to be included). Then, rather than try to muscle writing time into my family’s enthusiastic beach schedule, I just made sure I ate, drank coffee, and slept sufficiently.

I swam, I sketched, I went along for the ride. While my kids picked up kittens and put them down again, I watched the sunlight fade from the juniper-blanketed hills and listened to the soft, moronic cooing of the collared doves. (Guh!!)

 

I did read a whole lot, though.

Warrior Mom, by J.J. Virgin – heart but no theory

This is the autobiography of the mother of a critically injured teenage boy. It so happens that the author was a somewhat famous dieting guru before her son’s accident, and she had a lot of the skills and infrastructure in place to give us a detailed look at her experience. Most powerful is the author’s  examination of herself, and the changes she needed to make in order to give her son the best chance of recovery. The medical details are anecdotal, though. I think Virgin probably did something right, but I’m skeptical about the fish oil. I would have liked to see her team up with a doctor or hospital administrator to give an analytical balance to the emotional story. The emotional story, though, felt real.

The Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway – what I did on my summer vacation

Hemingway starts this book with a foreword telling the reader that this book was an experiment to see if he could write an autobiography as interesting as his fiction. I haven’t actually read anything else by Hemingway yet, but now I plan to.

The Green Hills of Africa is as fun as a lot of novels. We follow Hemingway as he gets frustrated trying to shoot kudus, grumpy about other authors, envious of other hunters, and thoughtful about himself. I wouldn’t want to go on a safari with the man, but I do respect the hell out of him. Writing, he says, puts you somewhere you’ve never been, and nobility is treating someone else as if they are part of your tribe. I’ll remember that.

Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich – cautiously-worded but nonetheless honest

This is a fascinating book about what improvements in DNA sequencing have revealed about the history of our species. Populations today are mixes of ancient populations, which themselves were mixes of even more ancient populations and so on, all the way back to when the earliest humans hybridized with other hominids, not just twice but many times. Inspiring for any writer of speculative fiction 😉 I also appreciate the finicky job Reich does with his talk about modern human evolution, including IQ. He argues against both racism and censorship, arguing that prejudice is bad, and facts are precious.

Dreadgod by Will Wight – a pleasure as always

What a great summer read! I by the pool while the kids played and let myself get carried away by Lindon’s Big Problems.

Structurally, this book was unbalanced. I would have liked to see more of the main bad guy (a tiger who controls dreams) before his climactic battle. And then, after the battler, there’s still a whole lot of book left to read. The Big Problem, though, is good and chewy. What do you do when the most powerful people in the world are causing the danger from which they protect us?

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin – lacking depth.

The thesis of this book is that one kind of life-organization strategy does not fit all people. Instead, there are four, defined by how a person relates to internal and external discipline. I appreciate the attempt to get a nuanced view of the lives of different kinds of people, but I’m not convinced that the four tenancies described by the author are the best ways to do so. I would have liked either more empirical evidence or deeper personal stories.

Reality 36 by Guy Haley – a virtual world that I almost cared about

I first found Haley with A Champion of Mars, which I loved. Reality 36 is fun and out there in a similar way, but much more scattered. Like many books about the middle-near future, it tries to show us what the whole world is like, occasionally losing track of characters and plot. Haley does have something interesting to say about different ways of being a legal person (human, AI, brain-scan, and more). I ended up more interested in the back-story of the real-feeling virtual worlds and their embargo than in the main story, itself.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt – is 10 years old

If one excised all the psychological studies that failed to replicate in the 2010s, how much of The Righteous Mind would be left? Something, I think, but we’d need more.

The author’s central messages are that the conscious mind is a rider on an elephant (the much more powerful forces of moral intuition), and these intuitions come in five “flavors.” It seems like a good model to me.

More unsatisfactorily, Haidt spends a lot of time talking about how people are not moved by evidence and reason, as the reader is supposed to reason based on the evidence he provides. That seems like a problem.

If you’re interested, I recommend the thorough and entertaining review I read on ACX.

The Vindication of Man by John C. Wright

I have to say, I was disappointed in this book, the 5th in the Count to the Eschaton series. That’s because book 4 was very, very good, balancing personal and historical stories and keeping its promises in a way that book 5 did not.

Reading the book, I wondered often at it’s alarming lack of editing. Someone needed to tell the Wright that certain events of series-defining import had to occur on screen. And there were several obvious typos. It’s as if Tor took the rough draft of the manuscript and published it as is.

I think I’ll still read the next book though.

*Cicada mordoganensis. I can’t be certain of this identification, but the song and color seem to match.

**Platanus orientalis, also called a plane tree. In Bulgarian, chinar.

See you next month, everyone.

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