The Last Neanderthal and Sourdough

It’s almost December — can you believe it? I hope everyone has finished as many books as they wanted to this year. I’m shooting for 60 books completed in 2017, but who knows if I will make it there. It depends how crazy this month gets. ‘Tis the season of Christmas parties and events that can often consume a person. Meanwhile after a couple weeks of mild temps for these parts, most of the snow has melted away and there’s no storms on the horizon — just blue skies and leftover ice on the ground. I’ve been trying my best not to wipeout while walking the dog, but it’s dicey in places. As for books, I will leave you with two reviews of what I finished lately.

The first one is Canadian author Claire Cameron’s novel “The Last Neanderthal,” which alternates chapters between the stories of two female protagonists 40,000 years apart. One character is a Neanderthal girl who’s part of a small depleted family that comes to interact with early Homo Sapiens, and the other is an archaeologist who unearths the girl’s bones in the modern day. As the stories go on, parallels between the two through time and space become evident: both are navigating difficult pregnancies and both are brave and independent at times, also both contemplate the interactions between the species.

I enjoyed the story as it took me far away into a prehistoric world and gave me a different view of Neanderthals perhaps than I had remembered them from my school days. They probably weren’t as vastly different from humans than we once thought. This novel makes you realize how close and similar Neanderthals were to early humans. In fact the author says she wrote the book after reading an article in 2010 about the Neanderthal genome that found that people of European and Asian descent have between 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA in them. Wow we’re all a little bit Neanderthal, which means the species overlapped during a portion of time on the planet and they interbred.

It’s a fascinating scenario: just conjuring the interaction between the two similar beings some 40,000 years ago. The story touches a little bit about the hypothesis of why Neanderthals died out and humans didn’t, but mostly it brings to light their similarities. And I’m not sure I fully recalled that like us Neanderthals: made and wore clothing, controlled fire, used tools, lived in shelters, hunted animals for food but also ate plants, and occasionally made ornamental objects. There’s even some evidence they buried their dead and might have marked graves with offerings. But their physical features were different from ours: their skulls included a large middle part of the face with bigger noses and their bodies were shorter and stockier for living in colder environments.

Do you remember all this? Anyways, I was caught up in both segments of the story and wondered what would happen to the Neanderthal girl, and what the archaeologist from the modern day would find out, or whether she would lose control of her dig site and the upcoming exhibit of it due to her pregnancy.

There’s points that I probably felt the story of the Neanderthal girl — and her interactions within her family and her cognition about the world around her — was perhaps total conjecture and maybe goes out on a limb beyond science, but I don’t think you have to believe every smidge of it to be engaged by the possibility of the story and have your thoughts piqued about Neanderthals and their interaction with early Homo Sapiens. The author I think did quite a lot of research into it (apparently 5 years worth she recently told me), which was evident when I heard her speak about the book at our city’s book festival back in October. It was enough for me to be taken away by her story to these beings in prehistoric times. The inner-archaeologist/paleontologist within me liked it quite a bit.

ps. I admit I haven’t read any of Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” novels, which were so hugely popular back in the late 1970s and ‘80s. Like Cameron’s book, they explore prehistoric times and the interactions between early modern humans and Neanderthals. From what I’ve heard, they seem like lively sagas with ongoing characters in the books. Apparently there’s a huge market for all things prehistoric as Auel’s books have sold more than 45 million copies worldwide, Oh my. Have you read any of hers? I’m not sure how they compare exactly to Cameron’s book, but Auel’s are apart of a six-part series. Surely, more findings and science about early humans have come to light since the 1980s, which Cameron has picked up on for her book “The Last Neanderthal.”

Next up, I finished the audiobook of Robin Sloan’s second novel “Sourdough,” which came out in September. Oh my, I don’t even know how to explain this whimsical story, though I’ll try to take a stab at it. It’s about Lois Clary, a programmer at a robotics company in San Francisco, whose working life has left her exhausted and joyless. But then one day after work she orders some spicy soup and bread from a take-out place and she flips over how good it is. Night after night, she keeps ordering from the place, which two brothers own, but not long after they have to flee the country due to visa issues and end up entrusting her with their sourdough starter mixture.

Though Lois has never spent much time making food in her kitchen, she begins to bake using the mixture, creating pretty great sourdough loaves. She soon finds she excels at it and begins giving her loaves out to her co-workers who encourage her to try out for the local farmer’s market. Instead she gets involved in an underground secret market that wants her to use her robotics knowledge to help with her sourdough creation. Oh it gets a bit crazy as it goes on.…

In other words, the story is sort of about a magical sourdough mixture that transforms this girl’s life and leads her in various directions. It’s a bit “out there,” for sure, or far-fetching at times but also a bit of a hoot. At times I thought how did the author think this up?! It must be his ode to the taste of great bread and food or something. I found it pretty entertaining and light-ish fun and the narrator of the audio quite excellent.

What a kooky story it is, but now I’m looking to get a hold of the author’s first novel “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” which seems to have some of the same magical and amusing sensibilities to it. I remember that it had been a bit of a hit when it came out in 2012 but somehow I missed it.

When I checked out the author’s website I see that it says: “When not writing, I dork around with technology,” which apparently means he’s a bit of a programmer and has done experiments with machine learning, according to his site. He also makes olive oil from a leased grove not too far from where he lives in Oakland, Calif., so he’s a bit of a renaissance man it sounds like.

I plan to keep an eye for what he writes next as I sort of like how his stories get a bit crazy and are out there. Perhaps he’s a cross between authors Daniel Handler and Dave Eggers — two other Bay Area writers who he seems to share some things with. “Sourdough” feels a bit like Lemony Snicket infiltrating “The Circle,” ha!

What about you — have you read any of these novels, and if so, what did you think?

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28 Responses to The Last Neanderthal and Sourdough

  1. I doubt I’d be getting much reading done these days if it weren’t for audio books.

    I don’t usually like historical fiction but you’ve made The Last Neanderthal sound intriguing. Sourdough sounds wonderful!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Kathy, yeah it’s going to busy in Dec. — we’ll all need a few days of rest by the end. These books were sort of nice escape kind of stories. Enjoy your week.

  2. Carmen says:

    The Last Neanderthal sounds fascinating, but it is such a stretch to think about both species interactions given the time it’s been since they walked the earth. I haven’t read Sourdough, but I read Mr. Penumbra’s… and I can’t recommend it enough. It is laugh out funny and bubbly; I think that kookiness that you talk about from Sourdough is there too.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Wonderful Carmen: I’m so glad you liked Mr. Penumbra’s … I seem to love funny stories. And this author seems to be a hoot. I hopefully will get to it early in 2018. As for Neanderthals and early humans, it’s quite mind-boggling to me their long-ago co-existence. Indeed it is a stretch to imagine exactly.

  3. I’ve been really curious about The Last Neanderthal because I loved Cameron’s debut novel, The Bear. I also like historical fiction, but somehow this one just isn’t luring me in. I have to admit that I did read a couple of Auel’s novels years and years ago. I’d put them in the category of prehistoric chic lit. Fun, but after a couple I’d had enough!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Susie, thanks for stopping by and for telling me about the Auel books; I heard they were sort of chick lit things. But Cameron’s book is less so. Though there’s not really any dialogue in the Neanderthal parts so it can be a little laborious in that regard. Just straight: She did this, then did this prose etc. But I still found it took me away for a while. I need to read The Bear — as I live here near Bear country. Glad you liked it.

  4. Vivien says:

    The Last Neanderthals sounds very interesting – I’ll have to add to my list. Thanks Susan – wishing you & Robert a wonderful & festive Christmas holiday!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Vivien! Thanks. You have a great Dec. too. I hope you & Nick are well. Will you be traveling for the holidays? We will be in Calif for about 10 days towards the end of the month. Should be fun. How is your tennis? Cheers.

  5. Brian Joseph says:

    The last Neanderthal sounds so interesting. Duel timeline stories are very popular these days. However, setting one timeline in Pre – History seems unique. I am not sure is I agree with him, but I have read fair amount of Daniel Dennett’s writing on consciousness. He hypothesizes that what we call sentience is actually a product of culture and memes and thus primitive humans may not have been sentient as we tend to use the word.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Brian : that’s an interesting hypothesis by Daniel Dennett. It’s hard to say exactly what primitive humans thought or felt, but their brains seemed on average as large or larger than ours today – though a bit different. I’m not sure I totally agree with Dennett but he could be defining his terms of cognition in narrow or specific ways that seem to make his point. Hmm it’s all food for thought. I’m sure scientists argue about these things a lot. Thx for stopping by.

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    Two great novels! I want to read Neanderthals, especially because I read an early William Golding novel (Lord of the Flies author) called The Inheritors about why Homo Sap beat out the Neanderthals. I have read the first two Auel books in her series and remembering enjoying them immensely.
    I had not realized that Sloan wrote Mr Penumbra. I loved that book! Lemony Snicket invading The Circle–love it!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Judy. I do like all anthropology/archaeology kind of stuff. Blending a novel to it can be hard but make for rewarding reading. Neanderthals sort of rock to me, ha. Glad to hear you liked the Penumbra novel — I’m definitely looking forward to it. Carmen said she liked it too. This author seems to be a hoot, which makes for good escape reading in times like these. 🙂

  7. I’ve been eyeing The Last Neanderthal for a while. I’m hoping the library will acquire it. As for the sour dough book, I’m torn. I can’t make up my mind if I really want to read it. Maybe I’ll start with Mr. Penumbra. I had no idea that it was the same author, so thanks for pointing that out.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi TJ: From what I hear people love the Mr. Penumbra book — so you probably won’t go wrong there. I plan to read it in 2018. I’m glad I gave the author a try for sure, seems to be a creative guy. I hope you like The Last Neanderthal too if you find it at the library. Cheers.

  8. Naomi says:

    I loved The Bear, but for some reason haven’t gotten to The Last Neanderthal yet. Usually that kind of book would draw me right in.
    I read the first 3 of Auel’s books when I was in junior high – all my friends were reading them, too. At the time, they were pretty fascinating. 😉

    Sourdough sounds like fun! This is the first I’ve heard of it, even though I read Mr. Penumbra. It sounds like it might be even more “out there” than Penumbra was, but I think you’d enjoy it just as well.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Naomi, thanks, glad to hear you read Mr. Penumbra; it sounds like I’ll like it as well as I did Sourdough. If you liked the Auel books, it seems like you will like The Last Neanderthal book too. It sounds like I need to read The Bear as quite a few people said they loved it. The child protagonist gave me pause a bit to picking it up, but I should just give it a go. thanks.

  9. Hi Susan, ‘The Last Neanderthal’ doesn’t speak to me yet. I will let it follow me for a while before I muster some courage to take in all that information. 🙂 But, I think I might like ‘Sordough’. That sounds like a story that would be fun and that would still get me out of my comfort zone. I am certainly adding it to my TBR. The author’s first book was a riot, I heard. Maybe, I will try to read that this year and ‘Sordough’ in 2018. However, I would never know. 🙂

    Happy December! It’s still raining in Chennai and Anu Boo is always curled up like a comma. I love how my city looks now. 🙂

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Deepika, I have looked up Chennai on Google Maps to see where you are. Are you in the southeast of India along the water? It must be pretty nice there. I hope the rain cools things off and that Boo likes it. As for author Robin Sloan, he must be a funny guy; I think I will check out his first book sometime in 2018. His stories seem to be filled with laughs, and we could all use some of that!

  10. I have a copy of Sourdough, so I should really read it! I think “Lemony Snicket infiltrating The Circle” is the best description I’ve read for a book.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Ha, thanks Kate. I thought it’d be a funny way to describe it, though it sort of reminded me of that. The audio is also pretty good.

  11. Sourdough was everywhere a couple of months ago, but I never took the time to find out what it was about. You certainly have me intrigued now… we’ll see if the book and I manage to cross paths.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi JoAnn, Yeah I never really paid attention to Sourdough until it came up in my audio window. And since you often like food or cooking books, you might like this offbeat story. Ha. the audio of it is a bit fun.

  12. Ti says:

    The first book sounds super interesting but then I got to Sourdough and I am like… I must have this book now. Seriously!! Your review makes me want to get it right now.

    Christmas is upon us. I am in a festive mood although my Sunday post will outline some troubling events of the past week. Nevertheless, I am still in a good mood and just want to enjoy all the lovely holiday moments.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Ti, I hope you and your family are all right. I’ll be coming to the OC for the holidays, so I hope you keep the natural disasters at bay. Thanks about the review. Seriously Sourdough is a bit of a whimsical story to explain. For those who like the taste of great bread, this is for them, ha! I’ll check for your Sunday post.

  13. Amy Brandon says:

    You’re killing my TBR list, Susan! I’ve now put both of these plus Mr Penumbra on hold at the library. Gah. I loved Jean Auel as a teen, but when I tried to re-read her a few years ago, sadly, I couldn’t recapture the magic.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Ha Amy. Glad I’m adding to your TBR list! Yeah I definitely need to get to Mr. Penumbra too in 2018 because I seem to like this author’s humor. Interesting to hear about your experience with Jean Auel’s books. You’re the second one that has said the books were great during the teenage years but now not so much. Hmm. I will take note of that. Cheers.

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