Review: The Land of Painted Caves by Jean Auel · 5 May 2011
In middle school, my favorite time of the year was when the “2000 Page Read” happened. For the period of the event, we were allowed to read whatever we wanted, during class, as long as we finished 2000 pages by the end.
Even at that age, I had always had a pile of books ready to be picked up at any moment, but when my teacher introduced The Clan of the Cave Bear as “a book that will teach you how to survive in the wilderness” and added “but you need your parent's written permission to read it,” it cemented my first selection for “The Read.”
It's been years since I first read The Clan of the Cave Bear, and quickly followed it up with The Valley of Horses and The Mammoth Hunters but I remember enjoying them thoroughly. Ayla's independent spirit and rebellion against custom appealed to the teen-age idealist in me as did her tempestuous romance with Jondalar.
While I felt The Plains of Passage (Earth's Children, Book Four) (or the Plains of Passion as it's become known to my circle of friends) lacked the excitement of the first three books, I wasn't yet ready to abandon Ayla's world. I had high hopes for The Shelters of Stone, which were dashed and I only read The Land of Painted Caves because it's the last in the series.
I wanted closure. I wanted to know if Auel was going to add more to the narrative of Ayla's glimpse of the future. I wanted to see growth and development of the characters and to say a final goodbye.
Instead, I was reminded of why I rarely enjoy long series and of all the reasons it's so challenging to write one. A great majority of the book indulged in reminiscence. I appreciate that some background is required for readers who aren't familiar with the series, but the backstory overwhelmed the plot.
The book is structured in three parts and in the first two parts, the plot (such as it is) stands as a thinly constructed frame on which to bring up all the major conflicts and achievements from the previous books in the series. When not indulging in nostalgia, Auel dedicates most of the time to describing the scenery and the paintings in the caves of the title. If you've read the previous books, I'd recommend skipping directly to part three, where the conflict is introduced.
Ayla looking over The Valley of Horses
Sadly, even the new plot feels recycled (jealousy, misunderstanding, and alienation sound familiar?) and Ayla's moment of enlightenment is just a rehash of thoughts and visions she's experienced before. What could have been an interesting exploration of the effects of Ayla's revelation seems breezed over in comparison to the glacial (pun intended) pace of the first two segments and comes off as a bit of a lecture on the hazards of anti-environmentalism and some ominous foreshadowing of the patriarchal shift to society we all know is coming.
The plot is further overwhelmed by the constantly shifting cast of characters surrounding Ayla and Jondalar. There are probably more than fifty characters mentioned, but few of them are given enough attention to form any impression on the reader. Most characters warranting more than a formal introduction are provided solely as ways for Ayla to show off her healing, hunting or animal domestication skills.
I started to wonder if Auel was trying to convey the wealth of the Zeladonii by bringing up their wealth in numbers, but most modern readers are commonly surrounded by people we've never met and not impressed by introductions to strangers. In contrast, many of us turn to reading because hordes of humans are so commonplace and tidbits of information are the norm of communication. Fiction provides us the slower pace and rare treat of getting to know someone intimately, even if they exist only within the pages of the story.
In fact, this was one of the reasons I enjoyed the first books in the series, the feeling of walking inside Ayla's head and experiencing her internal and cultural conflicts, a feeling which was missing from this latest and last Earth's Children book.
Did I miss yours? Email me or comment to be added.
I’m Back! · 15 October 2007
What a great trip it’s been. I’m now slightly less crazed than before I left. Never underestimate the power of a good vacation to make you feel like you can do the impossible.
Even though one of my stated purposes of this blog is to help concentrate on the important things in life, and not the nit-picky everyday “chores” we have to do, I was dangerously close to stressing out a bit about stuff that shouldn’t bother me prior to leaving. On vacation, I dropped it all.
I had coffee and pastries for breakfast, I “forgot” I wasn’t a morning person and woke up early to walk the streets of London, Venice, Florence, and Rome while most of the tourists were still in bed. I saw amazing art, architecture, and landscapes, and had an awesome time catching up with my sister and two friends we grew up with. Every day since I’ve been back, I remember a little something from the trip and smile, so my vacation buzz is still running strong.
I took 272 pictures, quite a feat for someone who is rather horrible at documenting events. Many of them have been uploaded to my Flickr account, and I’ll probably put up more next month, as I’ve just about maxed out the upload space Flickr will give me for the month.
And, of course, I had plenty of time to read during the plane and train trips. Even though I got a bit of ribbing from my travel companions about my first choices as being inappropriate “fluff” vacation material, I finished:
Reading "Lolita" in Tehran - As suggested by a dinner adventure shortly before I left, I’ll talk about this book in the much-hyped forthcoming pizza post.
City of Pearl So good it deserves, and will have, it’s own review.
Invisible Monsters - By the author of Fight Club , the work dealt with the same underlying themes using different characters and life circumstances. The main character, a former model living under the name Daisy St. Patience, is recovering from an accident that has left her face grossly disfigured. The story is narrated by Daisy in a series of non-linear vignettes and memories spanning her childhood to the present day. By using the main character’s recognition that her life has only been a performance for the camera, Palahniuk decided to present many of the scenes by having the Daisy narrate who each character is playing to, and what emotions the photographer in their head is commanding they show the lens.
I really liked how Palahniuk used a minimalistic writing style to make it seem as if all the action was fresh, even the memories. This is the first book I’ve read by Palahniuk, though I’ve seen the movie Fight Club, so it’s quite possible that all his works feature the gusty, over-exposed first-person narrative that he uses in Invisible Monsters, but it was new to me. Unfortunately, his material wasn’t as fresh as his style, and at times I felt like I was reading Fight Club re-hashed. Invisiable Monsters was worth the read, but after scanning his other titles and seeing that they deal with similar themes I don’t know that I’ll pick up more by Palahnuik in the near future.
I Just Want My Pants Back - A fun, chick-lit-esque book told from the perspective of a twenty-something, pot-smoking, hard-drinking, girl-loving, lost Jewish man in New York City. This one received the thumbs up as appropriate vacation material by the group. Fun and believable, and deemed “fluffy enough”.
Party Girl - I picked this one up from the lending library in one of the hotels. It was there; I was there. It was set in London; I was staying in London. There was nothing horrible or wonderful about the book and at the end, it was pretty predictable. If the bookstores hadn’t been closed, I’d have gone and bought something else but I kept on to the end because it was neat to hear the characters talk about a neighborhood and then walk to the same neighborhood the next day.
Going Postal - One of the latest in the Discworld series. Going Postal’s main character is Moist von Lipwig, a man who believes in hope and angels, and has therefore been appointed by Lord Ventinari as Ankh-Morpork’s newest Postmaster. Moist is a scammer by trade and tackles the job as only a scammer would. I always enjoy Pratchett, and this book was no exception. Plenty of puns, plenty of Ventinari, and interesting commentary about words, messages, and our expectations for modern communication made Going Postal one of my favorite Discworld novels yet.
I’ll slowly be making my rounds of all the blogs that I normally read, catching up on what you all have been up to in the last month, and getting back into the swing of the RIP Challenge. It was nice to get away and experience new things, but it’s also good to be home.
Speaker For The Dead by Orson Scott Card · 12 October 2007
OK, I lied about the pizza post coming up next. I planned to post about pizza, but when I got around to it I found the site down and myself unable to post. Then in talking to Kim, who is back home safely and overwhelmed by school work put off by her vacation, I agreed to do a post about Speaker for the Dead and let her have the pizza post as the first in her next series. So, pizza lovers, bear with me for a post and you shall soon have your pizza.
Now to speak the death of Speaker for the Dead, which I'm sure must be the absolute most common way to start a review of the book. :) I won't keep you in suspense: I liked the book a lot. As the sequel to Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, which I read last year, Speaker does a great job of not simply riding the coat tails of its predecessor and really tells a story of its own. What you get in Speaker is almost something you could read without having read Ender's Game. I say almost because it would be such a shame to spoil Ender's Game so thoroughly with all that's revealed in Speaker. Speaking of spoilers...
Spoilers begin here. Beware, Ender series newbies!
Early on in the book I was disappointed to find out that it takes place 3000 years in the future of Ender's Game. I felt such a disconnect to the events for the first book, which I liked so much. I thought I'd be coming into the sequel getting to live in the same world of Ender I lived in the first time around. This is no The Empire Strikes Back though! What you get in Speaker is a story with a couple of the character's from Ender's Game (mostly Ender) technically in the universe of the first book, but with a plot almost entirely disconnected from that of the first book. While I realized this a few dozen pages into the book, only at its conclusion was I pleasantly surprised to find that Card had done it again and produced a whole new great story in the universe.
The basic plot, as any good summary will tell you, is that Ender has been traveling around from planet to planet at "relativistic" speeds. At each planet he learns about a deceased person, speaks their death as he did that of the race of the buggers, and moves on well within a year. Hence, Ender is now 3000 years old and looks 35. This book begins with the humans' discovery of a new race, the pequeninos, on a planet shared by a human colony. The humans quickly begin studying the newfound species in as discreet a manner as possible (think of Star Trek's Prime Directive here), until the piggies, as they call them, up and kill one of the xenobilogists doing the studying. Ender is called in to speak the death for that killing and, upon arriving, learns that another xenobiologist has been killed. Secrecy surrounds the meaning of these killings and Ender has a bona fide mystery on his hands. Add on to that what is pretty much the only remaining plot element from Ender's Game, the hive queen of the buggers that Ender is carrying around, and you've got 300 pages of more fun reading in store for you!
I'm not going to delve into the central mystery of the book-- the meaning of the murders-- as I don't think that could do much but rehash it for those of you who have read the book and spoil it for those of you who haven't and brazenly ignored my above spoiler warning. Suffice to say, Card makes unwrapping such a mystery a lot quicker work than 300 pages suggests, at least to this reader. His character's are clearly defined, separated, and of interesting makeup, his dialog is smart and realistic, and his plot moves along quickly without lingering long enough to have the reader guessing what's coming next. And while that's the central focus of the book, it wasn't my favorite part.
This is no place to be ashamed of one's sci-fi enjoyment. I'm the kind of guy who likes to take in a good episode or movie of Star Trek. If you're that kind of person as well, or even just know anything about the show outside of that Picard is bald and Kirk talks funny, you'd know that the franchise introduces alien races at a pace that very few others can match. Unfortunately, I think TV is a bit too quick of a pace for the writers sometimes and you end up with what fans refer to as the "forehead of the week". Here, you get a species that is oh-so-alien, but they are pretty much human with pretty much one twist. This happens a lot, and not just in Star Trek.
Well, this did not happen in Speaker. The pequeninos are about as original a species in the sci-fi landscape as I've come across. The book uses its xenobiological characters as a device to go really in-depth into the race of the piggies. The reader gets to learn all about them and the myriad ways they differ from humans, or the buggers if you will. The piggies, while vaguely like humans, differ so profoundly in their life cycle that, after thinking about it for a while, I can't recall any species in any sci-fi that's anywhere near them. Yes, their culture, behavior, technology, and so forth are pretty standard alien fare, but their life cycle is amazing to me. I'm not going to spoil it here, even if this is within a spoiler warning section. Suffice to say, you're in for a really unique treat with the piggies!
Spoilers end here.
OK, so in summary I thought Speaker was great. It didn't survive on good memories of its predecessor, the character, dialog, and plot were spot-on, and it featured one truly amazing alien species that readers have the pleasure of getting to know in depth throughout the entirety of the book. If you haven't read Ender's Game, go read it and then read Speaker. If you've read Ender's Game and haven't read Speaker, I recommend you get crackin'. In closing, a link to a comic from the great XKCD.