An Audio-Book Review: The Secret is to Bang the Rocks Together, Guys!


Earth’s Children Book 1:
The Clan of the Cave Bear

By Jean M. Auel

Published by Brilliance Audio in 1986

Read by Sandra Burr

The Book:

I suppose I ought to review the entire series, but to tell the truth I have not read the entire series yet, nor listened to it on audio. I’m only missing the final book which is sitting on my Kindle, but I just have been too busy lately writing my own stuff to find the time to read someone else’s. Maybe after the New Year…

The Clan of the Cave Bear is the story of a young Cro-Magnon girl. Maybe she is not classically Cro Magnon since she does not appear to have lived in what is now Southern France, although exactly where she is from is a mystery, She is, however, what is now referred to as an anatomically modern human – and doesn’t that just trip off the tongue along with a lot of other politically correct phrases?

Her name is Ayla and shortly after the start of the book she loses her parents in an earth quake. Wandering around, helpless and ignorant (she is only 5 years old) she barely escapes being killed by a cave lion and dehydration and is found near death by a band of Neanderthals, also currently homeless as their cave had been destroyed in that same quake.

Ayla is adopted and raised by the medicine woman of that band and the story is about how Ayla struggles to fit in and be accepted by that band and the entire Clan of the Cave Bear as a whole. It’s a coming of age story in an age that is alien to most of us.

Ms. Auel wrote an engaging and interesting story and did it very well with a lot of research into lifestyles during the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. She went on of a few thin limbs, however, and more recent theory refutes some of what she does present that was considered fact at the time. For example, there is no evidence whatsoever that Neanderthals had racial memory that was inherited from one’s parents, but this is a key plot points in the story. According to her, Neanderthals were born knowing everything they had to know and only had to be reminded instead of actually taught.

That was an interesting way to handle the differences in skull and brain morphology between the Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, but it stretches credulity to the breaking point. If she had not written such a good story, I would have never finished the first book as I have little patience for pseudo-science.

Other bits, however are not her fault. For example, at the time The Clan of the Cave Bear was written, it was widely accepted that Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) were genetically close enough to interbreed with modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens). Now there is strong evidence that they were a separate and distinct species (Homo neanderthalensis). Anyone who has studied even first semester biology can tell you that part of the definition of species is that is cannot breed with and produce genetically viable offspring. Very close species can interbreed to produce non-fertile mules, but that’s it and there is no clear evidence of any Neanderthal and modern human mix. Maybe we just have not found the right fossils… In any case, this is still being debated by the experts and opinion tends to go back and forth.

More likely is the current theory that the Neanderthals, being completely adapted to the cold, glacial climate of Europe may well have been blond, blue-eyed and fair-skinned. Well, maybe they had a lot of red-heads too and it it not impossible that some may have had dark hair, but almost definitely their skins would have been light in color. In contrast, the modern anatomical humans, recently having moved up from the tropics were probably relatively dark-skinned with brown eyes and dark brown and black hair. This, of course, flies in the face of  a century of picturing the Cro-Magnons are tall and blond, which Ms Auel accepted and used.

And why should she not have? That was not under debate at the time she wrote The Clan of the Cave Bear. Having already established her modern humans as fair (although she does have a dark-skinned young man from Africa in the third book and a single blond Neanderthal woman in the fourth) it would have been hard to retcon the series after that.

Fortunately, the story holds up even against the wave of shifting anthropological theory. It is a good story and I admit to enjoying the next two books. After that, the series falls to literary bloat for which I blame the publishers who seem to be insistent on filling the shelves with big fat books. The problem is that each book only has so much plot and to make them as fat as the publishers want there is a lot of unnecessary fluff (and gratuitous sex scenes).

I should review the whole series in more detail, but the case can be made that The Clan of the Cave Bear stands out from the rest of the series almost as if written by an entirely different author. Certainly it was written by an author who had not yet been impressed by the need to fill a best-selling mainstream book with oodles of sex scenes. I don’t have a problem with the characters making love, but most of the time it has nothing to do with the story and such scenes in the later books mostly serve to say “They’re young, they’re in love and they go at it like bunnies.” By the time one gets to the fourth book in the series there is never really any case in which sex has any plot value at all. Maybe I shall review the others more closely in time.

A quick word about the movie starring Daryl Hannah. Oh come on, folks. It was not as bad as all that. Oh the movie got panned and the fans did not like it, but I honestly think they did not know what to expect. Allowing for the fact that it is never easy to adapt a full novel into a two hour movie, I think it told the story fairly well. It covered the major plot points and if it was difficult to convey what was going on in Ayla’s mind, keep in mind that that sort of thing gets cut out of most novel adaptations. I admit that they could have handled the Neanderthal substitute for full speech better, but aside from that, it was as good as an adaptation could get with only two hours to work in. If made today it would have even less plot and be half cinematically gorgeous shots of mountains and glaciers and other scenery. It would probably win awards and be entirely bereft of Ms. Auel’s real story.

However, do not watch the movie without reading the book. The book is just so much more.

The Audiobook:

It seems to me that picking the right reader is critical to the quality of an audiobook. I do not mean that it must be someone who read well, although that is important too. The reader’s voice and mannerisms must match the tone and content of the book as well. For example I enjoyed the readings of the Harry Potter books by both Jim Dale who read the American editions and Stephen Fry who read the British editions, but neither gentleman, I think would have been the right choice for this book.

That reminds me, I have not yet reviewed any of the Harry Potter books…. Oh well another time…

In any case, it would seems to me that in a story in which the protagonist is female, then it is probably best to be read out loud by a woman.  I believe there is also a version read by Alan Sylvestri, although I have not heard it, so I stand by my assertion that this book should be read by a woman. I must wonder, however if Sandra Burr was the right woman for this book. I don’t mean that I did not enjoy  she reading, but I guess I prefer  listening to alto, rather than soprano voices and Ms Burr definitely has a high-pitched voice.

Is that bad? Well, no, probably not, but it does put me in a spot in which I must try to shove personal bias aside in the name of fairness. Soprano voices set me ever so slightly on edge when I listen to them read. Altos relax me and I tend to read and listen to books to relax.

However, she does not do a bad job of reading this book. I could complain that she puts a lot of emotion even into the most mundane sentences, however. I have complained that some readers might be reading a military report, but there is a vast distance between emotionless and too emotional readings. Some of her phrases seem just a bit off here and there; she sometimes puts an inappropriate emphasis on sentences. Not always and not too often, really, but just often enough that I notice those cases all the more.

One other flaw that is probably not the fault of the reader.  I have accused the producers of other audiobooks of speeding up the tracks so they could save a few cents per copy by squeezing the tracks so they will fit on one fewer tapes or disks. I suspect this happened here too, because MS Burr is reading the book so fast I have trouble speaking the same sentences as she does. So, yes I fully believe some cheapskate producer or director or whoever makes that decision sped the track up and played a bit of digital magic so she would not sound like one of a chipmunks… although “My Friend the Witchdoctor” might not have been an entirely inappropriate sound track.

All told, I think Ms Burr reads the book fairly well, however and none of my reservations should stop anyone from enjoying her reading of this book.

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