Tag Archives: George R.R. Martin

The Re-Reading Project: The Clan of the Cave Bear

The naked child ran out of the hide-covered lean-to toward the rocky beach at the bend in the small river. It didn’t occur to her to look back. Nothing in her experience ever gave her reason to doubt the shelter and those within it would be there when she returned.

She splashed into the river and felt rocks and sand shift under her feet as the shore fell off sharply. She dived into the cold water and came up sputtering, then reached out with sure strokes for the steep opposite bank. She had learned to swim before she learned to walk and, at five, was at ease in the water. Swimming was often the only way a river could be crossed.

The girl played for a while, swimming back and forth, then let the current float her downstream. Where the river widened and bubbled over rocks, she stood up and waded to shore, then walked back to the beach and began sorting pebbles. She had just put a stone on top of a pile of especially pretty ones when the earth began to tremble.

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel is the first book in the Earth’s Children series and was published in 1980, two years before I was born. I must have read the first four books in the series sometime between 1990 (when the fourth, Plains of Passage was published) and 1995, because only the last two books in the series appear on the record I started keeping at thirteen. And yet, my copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear is battered and heavily creased, so I must’ve read it a few times before I started recording my reading. I took the picture below before I started re-reading my original copy. It’s even more messed up now, in that way that well-thumbed and well-loved books are:

The Clan of the Cave Bear

It’s a dense book, almost 500 pages, and because the subject matter is both academic and mature, it’s strange to think of my child  self reading it. I can’t imagine any of the kids I know who are around that age reading this book, but I can recall reading and loving these books, taking the things I read in stride, but possibly not understanding quite a bit of it. My precociousness when it comes to reading is what makes me more open-minded about kids reading outside their age range, I imagine, because I don’t think I was damaged by the experience of reading this book so young.

But I’m absolutely positive I was influenced by it, even the parts I didn’t fully understand or absorb. The same kid who loved reading about how the siblings set up their new home in The Boxcar Children consumed the highly detailed story of how a traveling group of Neanderthals adopted Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon girl, and made a new cave their home. This same kid became a woman who loved the world-building of excellent fantasy novels like The Song of Ice and Fire books.

The series is categorized as historical fiction, but it seems to me that it would be more appropriately labeled speculative fiction, as it contains some of the same elements. I think people think of a future setting or sci-fi or fantasy tropes when they think of speculative fiction and Auel has instead speculated on the lives of our ancestors. With each book, she took the “known” information and relevant theories of the time and wove this research into a long, engrossing tale of how imagined characters would live during a period of significant advancement for the human species.

There was a significantly longer gap in publication with each book (two years between the first two, three for the next book, then five for the fourth). Our understanding of our early ancestors changed deeply over the ten-year period that the first four books were published. It took twelve years for the fifth book to be released, which represents another giant leap in what archaeologists and anthropologists understood about people and the Earth during the time Auel was writing about. My own life also made a significant leap. I was eight when the fourth book was published in 1990 and when I finally read The Shelters of Stone in 2003 (over a year after it was published), I was 21 years old. I had changed radically, but not so much that I didn’t feel the need to know what happened to Ayla and Jondalar, the man she heals and falls in love with in the second book, The Valley of Horses. When the last book of the series, The Land of the Painted Caves, was published nine (more) years later, in 2011, I had been living in New Orleans for four years and my life once again looked very different. I have literally grown up with these books. When I read The Land of the Painted Caves in 2011, I had just written one of my first bragging on posts and would, a few days after finishing it, change the name of my blog.

Re-reading The Clan of the Cave Bear this month (and it took me most of the month: you can see the book in two of the photos in this collage from my writers’ retreat, which took place at the beginning of the month) was almost akin to time travel. I felt like the pre-teen version of myself was cuddled against me, reading along from under my arm. I often felt like asking her, “Didn’t it scare you, the way that Ayla loses her family and her people and is on her own?” and “What did you think about all of the rigid rules that Clan women had to follow?” I wondered what she made of the occasions when Ayla is raped, in a way that is clearly rape, but depicted as happening in a social structure without a concept for sex without consent. I knew that those scenes (relatively few, near the latter half of the book and not especially graphic after the first time) stuck with me as something that I remembered when I thought of the book. While it’s an important plot point and it says a lot about the social norms of the people that are depicted in the book, far more words and pages are devoted to details about the plant and animal life that the clan people harvest for medicine and food.

While there is far more sex (almost exclusively romantic and consensual) in the rest of the series (particularly the third book), this would have been one of the first times I would’ve read about sex. I would’ve read the third book, the most romance novel-ish of the series up till that point, around the same time I read my first actual romance novel, clandestinely from my mother’s bookshelf (I’ll re-read that too, later this year).

I thought I would find The Clan of the Cave Bear really boring (some of the later books are a bit), the writing banal and bland, but that wasn’t the case at all. I was engrossed from the first page, sucked back into this world that captured my imagination so vividly so early in my life as a reader (before I knew I wanted to be a writer, in fact). I suspect, having re-read it now at age 32, that I owe a lot of my interest in archaeology  and anthropology (I almost minored in college) to this series. Not only that, but a lot of my feminist philosophy and social politics probably began forming while I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear as a young girlI found myself referencing the book in numerous conversations as I was re-reading it, which also helped me realize how incredibly influential the book was to me.

Reading The Clan of the Cave Bear so young might’ve most influenced what I would love to read for the rest of my life. I could see that the Earth’s Children is a series that required as much complex world-building as George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire books (and perhaps waiting for the last two EC books prepared me for my wait for The Winds of Winter now). Moreover, I enjoyed that total immersion in a new world that the best fantasy series provide. I could see in Ayla some of what I later loved about Katniss in The Hunger Games, or Ellie Linton from the Tomorrow books. Perhaps because I had just finished reading Ronlyn Domingue’s The Chronicle of Secret Riven for review, I found parallels between the Utopian society depicted in that speculative fiction and the early socialism and mysticism depicted in Auel’s historical/speculative fiction series.

Most of all, what I felt re-reading The Clan of the Cave Bear was a desire to re-read the rest of the books in the Earth’s Children series, to delve once more into The Song of Ice and Fire books, and The Hunger Games, the Tomorrow books and Harry Potter. I wanted to stay immersed in a fictional world that felt real and vital, that made me think and made me care deeply for the characters. The Earth’s Children series are the only books Jean M. Auel is known to have published, but I’m glad to say that The Clan of the Cave Bear has stood the test of time for me.

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The Re-Reading Project: Dragon Sword and Wind Child

In her dream, Saya was always six years old. Long fingers of flame rose up against the darkness, lighting the sky above. Fire blazed spiteful and triumphant above what she had once thought most secure–her home, that safe, warm refuge that she was so sure would always be there. The glowing hearth; the single room in which her family lived permeated with the smells of cooking and familiar people; her own wooden bowl; her mother’s soft, plump lap covered in rough-woven cloth–all were consumed by the flames. The child Saya had somehow managed to find her way to the marsh at the edge of the village, but with no one there to lead her by the hand, she could go no farther. Crouched in a clump of dying reeds, she trembled with terror, choking down the hard lump of fear in her throat, unable even to cry.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara. I know it was before I started keeping my reading record at age 13, because the first time this book appears on the record is in 2004 when I re-read it while staying with my parents, at age 22. While I don’t know how old I was when I first read it, I do know that I discovered this book at the Cobb County Public Library, at what is now the main branch, what was at the time the massive new building that replaced my beloved little library in the town square where the children’s books were housed in an attic alcove you had to climb several staircases to get to. Judging by the comments on Goodreads and also on Tales of Magatama, a fan blog, my experience with Dragon Sword and Wind Child is not unique. Many of the comments reference chancing upon the book at the library as a child, as I did.

The original cover is striking and I imagine that it’s what first drew my attention, all those years ago. Translated into English by Cathy Hirano, the book is a retelling of a Japanese creation myth, a story that centers around fifteen year old Saya. While it contains a lot of the familiar tropes and imagery common to mythic tales, it was a mythology completely foreign to me. Though it’s told in the relatively flat tone also common to mythology, it resonated personally with me. The familiar comforted me and the foreign thrilled me. A lot of it would’ve sailed over my head on my first reading, but I always remembered it as a favorite book.

dragon sword and wind childFor many years, copies of the English translation were almost impossible to find, selling for over $100 online. When I wanted to re-read it ten years ago, I discovered that the Cobb County library still had the same copy I read as a child. In 2007, it was released in a new paperback edition with new cover art. While I think the new cover is beautiful, it doesn’t really strike me as relevant to the story as the original.

new dragon sword and wind childThe book never felt open-ended to me, so I was surprised to learn that it was the first in a trilogy, Tales of the Magatama or The Jade Trilogy. The English version of the second book was released in 2011 as Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m curious, but reluctant, too. So far, the third book hasn’t been published in English and I think this is part of what makes me hesitate to read the second book.

By chance, I was visiting my parents at the beginning of February, when I planned to re-read Dragon Sword and Wind Child, so even though I own a copy of the reprint, I decided to check out the original from the Cobb County library and compare them side by side. Unfortunately, I learned that the book had been officially discarded from the library system. Because I’ve been volunteering with my local library, dealing with discards for the book sales, I can understand why this happened, why it was probably necessary, and yet I have to say I was emotional about it regardless. It probably happened shortly after the 2007 reprint. The original hardcover was no longer as valuable and probably had suffered a significant amount of wear over the years. Probably the new cover appeals to today’s children and teenagers more because it looks very manga-like.

Unable to compare the two copies, I dove into my copy of the reprint, which nicely contains an Afterward written by Ogiwara in 2005. It was a weird experience, something like recovering memories after amnesia, I imagine. As I read, I would remember characters and elements of the story right as or right before they were revealed. As an adult, I felt impatience with Saya that I probably didn’t feel as a child. She’s very passive, in fact it’s an integral part of her character: it’s her job to “still” the dragon sword. She’s surrounded by people who know more about the eternal battle between the Light and the Darkness than she does and she constantly looks to them for answers and protection. I had to remind myself that this is true of most children—they have less information than the others around them, they look to others for guidance and they have to make mistakes in order to learn.

One thing that I very much enjoyed about the story, and I’m sure this drew me as a child too, is that the standard Western tropes are often reversed. If there is a “bad guy,” it’s the side of Light, not Darkness (though the Western standard of male = sun and female = moon analogy is present here). Princess Teruhi is the more fierce of the two twin children of the God of Light. Her brother, Prince Tsukishiro, is the more conciliatory of them. There is a hint of the maiden-mother-crone triumvirate at work in the story and (SPOILER!) they all die.

Someone with an expertise in Japanese mythology and literature, as well as world mythology, could probably write a book about Dragon Sword and Wind Child’s place within Japanese literature and the larger mythological canon. I’d love for there to be an annotated edition of the trilogy for Western readers one day – that would be simply incredible. In the meantime, what I know is that Dragon Sword and Wind Child, being the complex and beautiful book that it is, finding me when it did, helped influence my love of fantasy and myth. It’s a big reason why I love books that unite fantasy and mythology, books like George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, The Neverending Story, Kai Meyer’s books, Ronlyn Domingue’s Keeper of Tales trilogy and at least one book I’ll re-read later this year. Dragon Sword and Wind Child remains a beloved book from my childhood.

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2013 Q4 Reading Report

My last quarterly reading report of 2013! I read so many great books this year and I’m in the middle of several more amazing books, so I know the first quarter of next year will be strong. Plus, I have plans for an awesome reading project, which I think you’ll all like.

October

Son of a Gun, Justin St. Germain – This book, about St. Germain’s emotional investigation into his mother’s life and death, as well as gun violence and machismo, was absolutely haunting. St. Germain takes an intensely personal story and turns it into a revelation about human heart. But the most impactful part is his willingness to say, “After all of these questions, I don’t really have answers.”

Poison Princess, Kresley Cole – I was completely surprised by this first book in a new series for teens. It spends such a long time as a relatively “normal” tale of teen life and then becomes a stunning post-apocalyptic tale.

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward – This book is another example of how to transform personal stories and history into a universal revelation, putting personal faces to the argument that systematic poverty and criminalization haunts young black men, their families and communities. Ward’s writing is evocative, emotional and convincing. Everyone should read this book.

Too Good to Be True, Benjamin Anastas – I was blown away by Anastas’s ability (and willingness) to depict his rock-bottom experiences so bravely, with humor and openness. For a student of the memoir genre, which is what I’ve been this year, I couldn’t have asked for a better example of turning a small, humble recovery into brilliant revelation.

I Can’t Complain, Elinor Lipman – After some pretty dark reading this month, Lipman’s funny and short essays were the perfect remedy.

November

The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson – There are a few people who, when they recommend that I read something, I immediately put it on the top of my list. Okay, there’s 3 people. One of them, Maurice, recommended that I read this ridiculous, hysterical, searing book about an odd family of performance artists. I didn’t read much fiction this year, but I’m glad I made room for this book.

Endless Knight, Kresley Cole – I’m always impressed by authors who can take what seems to be a relatively limited premise and create a series of twists and redirects that feel both surprising and inevitable.

I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman – Funny, dark, twisted and thought-provoking, these essays take a very open, blunt look at the nature of evil, the faces of it and our perceptions of it. I was continually impressed by the mental gymnastics Klosterman leads his reader through.

Mud Show, Edwin Martin & Don E. Wilmeth – During NaNoWriMo, I found this book an invaluable resource to help jump-start me back into the world of my novel. The book includes an essay and a collection of photos from several tent circuses during the 80s.

Carry On, Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton – If there’s a theme to the nonfiction books I’ve read this quarter (and maybe all year), it’s “when things aren’t all right, here’s how I figured out how to be all right.” That’s pretty much this book. Doyle Melton does what the other authors on this list have done, bares her personal shames and mistakes and shows how she turned them around for herself. Despite some dark subject matter, the tone is light and humorous.

Coming Clean, Kimberly Rae Miller – I was absolutely blown away by Miller’s honesty, her ability to discuss being raised by hoarders, her ability to write about her parents and the way they lived with compassion and love, for them and for herself.

Innocence, Dean Koontz – I got my hands on an ARC of Koontz’s newest and dug straight in. I’ve been a Koontz fan since I was 10 years old – I credit him and his books with being my first teacher/lessons in writing. This novel reminded me so much of the early Koontz books that I loved as a kid, but conscious that the world has been influenced by Law & Order and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

December

“The Princess and the Queen, or the Blacks and the Greens,” George R.R. Martin, in Dangerous Women –  I’m desperate for the next book in the Song of Ice & Fire series, so I ripped right into this novella at the end of Dangerous Women, edited by Martin. The rest of the stories in the collection look very good, but I had to make this one my priority for the moment. The story is a prequel to the events in the Song of Ice & Fire series, written like a history text, and absolutely consuming.

Survival Lessons, Alice Hoffman – I’ve been a fan of Alice Hoffman most of my formative years, so I was intrigued to read this short text on grief and recovery. All of the “advice” is coming straight from a writer, so creativity in the wake of devastation is the real point, in my opinion.

I Am An Emotional Creature, Eve Ensler – These monologues are directed toward young women/girls, using their own voices. Sometimes I found them blatantly melodramatic, but I reminded myself that I’m not the ideal audience for these. My 12-14 self is, though, and I found much of this book spoke to her directly.

To be continued in the new year…

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