Movie Review: Mudbound

There is mud everywhere in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. The Jackson family is black and works the land. Their oldest son, Ronsel, is called into the service when America joins World War II. The McAllan family is white and they also farm the same land as the Jacksons. Pappy McAllan, the patriarch, is a racist through and through. The younger son of the McAllans, Jamie, is also called into the war. He is a pilot in Europe, while Ronsel is a sergeant and tank commander. While the two families struggle at home in Mississippi and try to survive in abject poverty, the two sons fight the demons of war in Europe.

Eventually, in 1945, they both return home to a place that does not understand them anymore. While they can’t connect to life at home, the two men form an unlikely friendship, bridging the vast gap of race and culture, while they sink into the self-sabotage of alcoholism. But in Mississippi, the people are not ready for human relations across the races, and especially not Pappy McAllan. While the two young men are trying to put the horrors of war behind them, they are not prepared for the horrible fate that confronts them right at home.

Mudbound came out in 2017, and watching it in 2021 when racism in America is as alive as ever, and white supremacy is once again celebrated in too many corners of the country, it reminds me that not much has changed in America in the last 50 years. We have had a black president, but the intrinsic hatred in the people appears to have been buried only in a shallow grave in the last few decades, and new fires have been lit.

Pappy McAllan is played expertly by Jonathan Banks, who we all know as Mike in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Pappy is pure evil, hateful to the core, and proud of it. He is a frightening caricature of the American racist and he inflicts endless damage on his fellow men by outright hurting them, as well as on his family by corrupting their ability to grow up and think for themselves.

The plight of black people in America is in the forefront of this movie. We understand why so many black soldiers returned to Europe after the war, where they were treated as equals and were allowed to have normal lives.

Watching Mudbound made me afraid it might take centuries for America to overcome its bloody and oppressive history. Watching Mudbound will leave you depressed and hopeless, but watch it you must nonetheless.


Movie Review: The 12th Man

In 1940, the Nazis rolled over Norway and subjugated its people. The British forces trained Norwegian soldiers in sabotage. They then went back and tried to do as much damage to the occupying Germans as they could.

In one mission, 12 saboteurs went to Norway in 1943. The Germans sunk their boat, captured 11 of them, but one got away. This movie is a dramatization of the true story of Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad), the soldier who escaped. The arctic winter in the north of Norway was as brutal to him as the Nazi patrols trying to capture him.

The 12th Man is a story of survival under the worst imaginable conditions. It is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, in Norwegian and German, with English subtitles. It made me admire the Norwegian people and their resilience. It reminded me of the movie The Revenant, which I reviewed in 2016.

I also remembered that they were the people of the Vikings, who terrorized the northern seas starting around the year 800 and conducted raids against England and France for some 600 years during the Middle Ages. The Vikings were featured in Ken Follett’s the book The Evening and the Morning that I recently reviewed here.

Movie Review: The Professor and the Madman

Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) is a language scholar at Oxford. Despite the pessimism and outright hostility of some of the stuck-up faculty members, who would like to see him fail, he is assigned the project to compile the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid-19th century. To do that, he has to catalogue and document the history of every word. He is not even through the letter “A” and struggling with the word “art” when he hits major hurdles, both from within his own team and their work, as well as from the faculty at large.

Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn) is an American veteran of the Civil War, who served as a surgeon. Haunted by demons inside his own head, he ends up murdering an innocent young family man, leaving his wife and children destitute. During his trial, his defender convinces the jury that he is insane, so he ends up as a patient at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, rather than at the gallows.

When Professor Murray writes an advertisement asking the public for contributions to the dictionary, Minor ends up contributing over 10,000 words and gets the attention of not only the literary community, but receives special treatment by the leaders in the asylum.

Both brilliant men forge an unlikely friendship, but neither seems to be able to overcome his own demons.

The Professor and the Madman is a difficult movie to watch and follow. It is anything but light. The plot is complex and presumes some understanding of the Victorian culture in England at the time. The English and Scottish accents of some of the characters are strong. Along with the occasional mumbling and dialog in soft voices, it’s a challenging movie to follow for the modern American ear.

However, I enjoyed watching, I learned how the Oxford English Dictionary got started, and I caught some glimpses of severe mental illness.

The performance of both veteran actors, to me, was astonishing. They are both masters at their craft and the mastery carries the movie from the first second to the last.

Movie Review: Fisherman’s Friends

A group of four London music executives pile into their BMW and head out to Cornwall, a remote fishing village, for a stag weekend. While out making fools of themselves, they come across ten fisherman singing sea shanties. Danny (Daniel Mays) is a band manager, and his slimy boss pranks him into trying to sign them on for a record deal.

Not knowing it’s a joke, Danny pursues the fishermen, and stays in the village, partly because he gets enchanted by the daughter of one of them. While he works with them on making a record, he slowly learns the way of life in the village, and his fast-living existence back in London loses its luster.

Fisherman’s Friends is based on a true story in England in the 2011 time frame. The plot is a bit predictable, but it’s a feel-good movie, and it really made me want to travel to the English countryside and hang out for a while, have a few pints in the pubs, and soak in some of the salt.

Movie Review: My Octopus Teacher

Craig Foster is a South African diver. He likes to swim in the ice-cold Atlantic off the tip of Africa. As he explores a kelp bed, he finds a curious octopus.

He then decides to swim out and dive every day, seeking out the octopus in her den, waiting patiently for her to get comfortable with him. Eventually, an unlikely friendship develops, where man learns about octopuses, and – so it seems – the octopus teaches man a thing or two.

My Octopus Teacher is a documentary. There are only two human actors in this film, Craig, playing himself, and then there are a few scenes with Craig’s son, also playing himself.

The underwater photography is amazing, and I kept wondering just how he did it. There must have been other divers taking the shots of course. Also, he believes in free diving, not using scuba gear, and he seems like a he never needs to breathe.

A  documentary does not usually elicit strong emotion in its viewers, but I admit there were a few passages where my eyes teared up.

My Octopus Teacher is a remarkable film that shows that man is by far nothing special in this world and ecosystem, and that there are many other “beings” here living with us, so close, and yet so far.



Linguistic comment: The plural of octopus is “octopuses.” The word comes from Greek, and the plural form is “octopodes.” The Latin word for “octopus” is actually “polypus.” There is no “i” in any form of octopus, and therefore the reference to “octopi” we occasionally see is grammatically incorrect.

References: I have written about octopuses a number of times in this blog, and will take this opportunity to direct you to those posts.

Here is a post about how an octopus is smart enough to escape from an aquarium: Octopus Escapes Aquarium Through 160-Foot Drainpipe Into the Sea (

Here is my book review for Other Minds

Here is my book review for Aliens




Movie Review: A Serious Man – Take Two

Every now and then I watch a movie and I get these vague flashbacks: I have watched this before. But I can’t remember much, just a scene or two, or a feeling. Such was the case with A Serious Man. We just watched this off the the saved playlist. I thought I saw it before “a long time ago, so long, I can’t remember.” But it helps when you write a blog and your self-discipline requires you to write a review of every movie you watch (all the way through).

So within an hour of turning off the screen, I sat down and searched for A Serious Man and sure enough, here is my review of April 6, 2010. I thought I should write another one now, but reading the 2010 one again, I must say – tapping myself on the back – I did quite a good job. I think I spent more energy on my movie reviews 10 years ago than I do now.

So I invite you to read my review – I assure you there are no spoilers there – and then watch the movie. I gave it three stars, and that should make it worth your while.


Book Review: The Room Where it Happened – by John Bolton

We all know who John Bolton is, we all know how his tenure at the White House started and ended, and we know Bolton’s role, or lack thereof, in the Trump impeachment proceedings.

So I don’t have to tell you what this book is about, but I can rather focus on telling you my experience reading the book, about what I learned, and, most importantly, what conclusions I drew.

John Bolton has been around the United States government, and particularly foreign policy, for decades. I knew little about him, and I would simply have categorized him a “hawk” in line with the generally liberal sentiment in my usual circles. When I first heard that Trump was going to install him as National Security Advisor, I was deeply worried that his hawkishness would get us into new conflicts and would even further endanger our already very dangerous world.

I bought the book the day it first came out on June 23, 2020, and started reading it right away. But it is a long book, with detailed, journal-like narration describing events as they took place with sometimes down to the minute accuracy. It really does put the reader into the room where it happened. The book is very long, and takes a long time to read, so I had to interrupt reading it when Mary Trump’s book came out, so I could read that one right way, and then again I had to lay it aside to make room and time for Michael Cohen’s book. But I kept going back and I forced myself to slog through it, and I finished tonight.

Trump fought vehemently to have the publication of The Room Where it Happened blocked. I expected some type of tell-all book, but that’s not at all what it is. It basically talks about the United States foreign policy from the point of view of a man who deeply understands it and has lived it all his life. Since Trump has no understanding of world affairs and any matters that don’t involve him personally, clearly this book will “make Trump look bad,” not because Bolton says Trump is a fool or anything like it, but because Bolton allows us to sit in the room with him, and Trump, and Mulvaney, and Mattis, and Pompeo, and we can watch Trump make a fool of himself by showing clearly and overtly that he does not know what he is talking about, that he has no interest in governing and certainly not foreign affairs, and that he is as smart as the last person he talked to wants him to be. That was particularly dangerous and ludicrously embarrassing for our country when he “negotiated” with Putin, Kim Jong-un, Erdogan, Xi, and pretty much every other adversary of our national interests.

Bolton does not make Trump look bad. Bolton just shows us how inept Trump is for all of us plain to see. Unlike Trump, where his supporters always are quoted saying “he tells it like it is,” Bolton actually does tell it like it is.

Bolton is definitely a proponent of America carrying a big stick and operating from strength. Trump just thinks of himself being the smartest man in the room, and he tells us that all the time, and he thinks he is the big stick. Yet, Bolton shows us clearly that Trump was and is our most serious security risk, consistent with what we have learned from Mattis, McMaster, Coats and the entire national security establishment. I can see why Trump didn’t want this book published.

I know that a lot of Trump supporters have blasted Bolton as a traitor for writing this. Well, let me tell you this: If 3% of all Trump supporters actually read The Room Where it Happened, I’d be very surprised. To read this, you have to be very patient, persistent, interested in foreign polity, and tenacious. This is NOT AN EASY book to read, and I predict most people who buy the book won’t finish it. So let them blab about Bolton being a traitor, or let the liberals blab about him being a hawk. Neither side knows what it is talking about. They have to read the book first before I would take them seriously.

And here is my probably shocking conclusion: On a scale from 1 to 10, my respect for Bolton, for what I knew about him before reading the book, may have been around 2. It’s now at 9 or so. I actually believe he would be an excellent pick for Biden to choose for Secretary of State. It would ensure that our foreign relations would be rebuilt, corrected, and put on a secure footing. Our adversaries would be on notice and our security would be enhanced. By choosing Bolton for this critical slot, Biden would ensure consistency from the past, a strong presence in the world, and he could focus on the many domestic issues that need attention, without having to lose sleep about what’s going on in the world. I know this opinion of mine will shake up some of my readers, but I stand by it.

Now, of course, there is no chance Biden will do such a thing, and history will continue.

I gained a lot of respect for Bolton by reading his book, and his mustache doesn’t bother me one bit.

Movie Review: Freedom Writers

It is the time after the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) is a young and idealistic teacher who leaves her safe hometown of Newport Beach to teach freshman and sophomore English at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach. The school has just implemented a voluntary integration program, and gang violence in the community is terrorizing the school. The Latinos hate the blacks, the Cambodians hate the Latinos, every group hates every other group, and the white minority is drowned out. Every kids knows somebody who has been killed by gang violence. The students are un-teachable. None of them have any respect for Ms. Gruwell.

When she intercepts a racist drawing one day, she uses it to teach the kids about the Holocaust. Slowly, one student at a time, she wins them over. She asks them to write journals about their lives and experiences, and slowly she wins their trust. To finance materials and field trips, she takes on a second and third job. In the process, she loses her husband. Only her father sticks with her and supports her endeavor. One by one, she brings the students together and  they transcend their former boundaries and hate. The students become friends, and they revere Ms. G, as they endearingly call her.

Freedom Writers is not just a movie about a high school teacher, it’s about America locked in diversity and divide, trying to overcome the differences, and growing as a microcosm – a single class of kids – and as a nation.

Freedom Writers is an uplifting story that left me feeling enriched and inspired.

Book Review: Disloyal – by Michael Cohen

When Disloyal came out I knew I had to read it. Who is this most powerful of Trump’s enablers? Who is this guy that I read about long before Trump’s announcement of his candidacy, the ruthless wolverine who came after Trump’s victims and threatened to ruin them if they even tried to assert their rights?

When the White House found out that Cohen was writing this book, they tried everything they could to stop him from publishing it. It was going to be a sensational tell-all book.

Well, it is.

Cohen was there from the beginning. He knows Trump intimately, and he was his most loyal and effective confidante and protector. To understand Trump, we need to read Disloyal, because it tells what it was like to work for Trump.

Here is an excerpt:

We all flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin for the event titled Trump: The New Owner of WWE Raw. All of us invited were eager to experience what we knew was going to be a wild, fun night. In the dressing room under the stadium, we could hear the mounting noise of the crowd coming in, and it was obvious that the place was going to be sold out, not to mention the huge pay-per-view audience. This was when Don Jr. spoke out of turn, at least in the eyes of his taskmaster father. “Hey, Dad, are you nervous?” he asked. “What did you say?” Trump asked, his face reddening. “I’m going in front of millions of people. What kind of stupid fucking question is that? Get out of here.”

We all stood in awkward silence, staring at our shoes, feeling sorry for the son and his perfectly innocent question.

“God damn it,” Trump said with a heavy sigh, as if his son wasn’t present. “The kid has the worst fucking judgment of anyone I have ever met. What a stupid thing to say—to put that thought in my head.” Don Jr. said nothing, also inspecting his shoes, and no doubt desperate to flee. The hurt was evident in his face and demeanor, even though this was hardly the first time I’d heard Trump insult his son and remark on his supposed lack of intelligence. I often wondered why the son stayed around in the face of the abuse of his father, though I knew the answer, because Don Jr. had told me the story.

— Cohen, Michael. Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump (pp. 83-84). Skyhorse. Kindle Edition.

Obviously, the White House said that Cohen is a liar – and he is, by his own admission – but when you read his story, it’s obvious that he is not making this stuff up. He just tells it like it was, like a journal entry, and he doesn’t really “blast” Trump either. He just describes, almost soberly, some of his more atrocious deeds. The personality of Trump comes out, similar to how it came out in Mary Trump’s book Too Much and Never Enough.

Most of all I was struck with the realization that Trump USED Cohen, over and over again, until — suddenly — when Cohen fell due to his covering for Trump, he was no longer useful to him. Trump immediately disowned and abandoned him. Cohen is now in prison (at this time serving his sentence under house-arrest) and Trump is — still — in the White House. Trump uses people, everyone, his wife, his children, his best friends, his relatives, his employees, his vendors and contractors, and now the entire population of the United States, to serve him. Cohen’s book shows how he does that.

Michael Cohen’s book is not a “great book” or an exceptional memoir. It is a sober book, well told, revealing, and it shows us what Trump really is: a fraud.

Movie Review: Spotlight

Spotlight is a team of investigative reporters working for the Boston Globe. When a new editor takes charge of the paper, the Spotlight team is tasked to investigate allegations of sexual abuse of minors by the Catholic Church. The year-long investigation slowly exposes cover-ups at the highest level of the Boston religious circles that date back decades.

Spotlight is an expose about the Catholic Church, not just in the United States, but worldwide. What we learn is shocking, disturbing, disgusting and, in the end, a confirmation of what we knew all along from the media revelations of decades of abuse.

The Catholic Church has taken advantage of its members for over a thousand years, it has committed millions of atrocities, and it’s been getting away with them. In the modern world, where we value the emotional health of our children, abuse, and particularly sexual abuse by the clergy has been put under a microscope. And even now, with all the modern tools, there are still plenty of people willing to cover up for the church.

I know about this type of abuse and the effort to cover it up personally from people very close to me and I can attest to that.

We need more Spotlight on this problem, and we need to continue to expose the church for what it is: a power-hungry, self-serving beast that preys on its own members and everyone it comes in contact with.

Watch Spotlight!

Book Review: Too Much and Never Enough – by Mary L. Trump

Mary Trump’s tell-all book about her brother Donald Trump sold 1.35 million copies in the first week after publication. My copy was one of those.

Mary is an educated professional, a psychologist and a very good writer and story-teller. She is the oldest daughter of Trump’s oldest brother Freddie, who died very early in life. She has unique insight into the upbringing and lives of the five Trump siblings by her grandparents. Of course, Trump and the White House tried to stop publication of this book. Trump tweeted:

“Mary Trump, a seldom seen niece who knows little about me, says untruthful things about my wonderful parents (who couldn’t stand her!) and me, and violated her NDA,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “She’s a mess! Many books have been written about me, some good, some bad. Both happily and sadly, there will be more to come!”

Some Trump supporters have called the book a “book of lies” but I doubt that when they say this they have actually read it.

There is nothing scandalous about it. It just tells the story of a family in Brooklyn, led by an autocratic and self-absorbed man, Fred Trump, who build a billion-dollar real estate empire, and who shaped Donald Trump into the person we see today.

If Trump hadn’t ascended to the presidency, none of this would have been interesting to anyone, and the Trump Organization would have gone on doing what appears to be shady business for decades to come.

But that is not how things went.

Here is an except:

Donald was to my grandfather what the border wall has been for Donald: a vanity project funded at the expense of more worthy pursuits. Fred didn’t groom Donald to succeed him; when he was in his right mind, he wouldn’t trust Trump Management to anybody. Instead, he used Donald, despite his failures and poor judgment, as the public face of his own thwarted ambition. Fred kept propping up Donald’s false sense of accomplishment until the only asset Donald had was the ease with which he could be duped by more powerful men.

There was a long line of people willing to take advantage of him. In the 1980s, New York journalists and gossip columnists discovered that Donald couldn’t distinguish between mockery and flattery and used his shamelessness to sell papers. That image, and the weakness of the man it represented, were precisely what appealed to Mark Burnett.

— Trump, Mary L.. Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (pp. 195-196). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Too Much and Never Enough is a very readable book, not too long to become a tedious read, and it explains Donald Trump. What he does, how he acts, and more importantly, what he doesn’t do or say just makes sense after having read this book.

I would highly recommend it to everyone, both Trump supporters and the rest of us.

Movie Review: Harriet

In America, we currently have the worst race relations and resulting riots, protests and civil unrest since 1968. Who would have thought that over a 50-year span of history, we would not have made more progress toward race equality in this country. The shackles of slavery, hardened over 400 years of brutal history, have not been undone, and a significant percentage of our population is still – oppressed.

This is the backdrop to which we chose to watch the 2019 film Harriet, which dramatizes and illustrates the life of Harriet Tubman. The story starts in 1844 in Maryland. A 26-year-old slave woman named Araminta Ross, for short Minty, was married to John Tubman, a free black man. When they approach Minty’s master, a plantation owner, showing the paperwork that documents that she should be free, he simply tears up the paper and proclaims that she will be his property, her children will be his property, and that was the end of it. That moment shows the utter brutality of slavery.

Minty runs away and makes her way to Philadelphia all by herself, taking advantage of the “underground railroad,” a system by which runaway slaves were helped in their journey north and to freedom. As was customary for freed slaves, they changed their names, and Minty picks the first name Harriet after her mother and Tubman after her husband. Rather than settling down in a life of work as a free black woman, she takes on the cause and becomes a crusader for other slaves. The eventually becomes one of the most successful “conductors” of the underground railroad, achieving fame and, among the slaveowners, infamy as “Moses,” a mysterious rebel who steals their slaves and guides them to freedom. As history tells us, she becomes one of the most famous freedom fighters of her time and a powerful female figure in our country’s history.

Harriet tells this story and illustrates the anguish and institutional injustice blacks have suffered throughout our history. Watching Harriet, I understood the incredible brutality of the system, our now proverbial “knee on the neck” of the people we subjugated for so long.



I have written a lot about slavery in this blog, and I will take the opportunity here to list some of those posts, as the are so appropriate at this time in our history. Please read them.

Visualizing  the Atlantic Slave Trade  – Some illustrations of what it was like to be on a slave ship.

Ben Carson’s Appalling Statements about Slaves – Our Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a black man, and a renowned brain surgeon, makes the dumbest comments ever. It’s not brain surgery, man!

Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – A great documentary story of what it’s like to be a slave.

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave – A good movie illustrating the horrific injustice suffered by slaves.

With Liberty and Justice for All – Eight of our presidents were slave owners. Here is the list.

Be Careful What You Post – Disgusting comments on social media by trolls, stating that slavery isn’t all that bad, and calling those of us that think it is “liberals.”

U.S. Population in 1776 and 1790 – Statistics on the United States population in those years and the percentage of blacks.



Movie Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is a street-smart lawyer who works out of the back of his car, a Lincoln. He has a – sort of – successful practice defending crooks, drug dealers, biker gangs and assorted low-lifers. Suddenly he gets a referral to defend a rich playboy who is accused of rape and attempted murder. He thinks this is his ticket to a better career. His connections help him sort out the case, but he quickly discovers that there is much more to the story than meets the eye.

The Lincoln Lawyer is based on the novel by the same name of Michael Connelly. After this book, Connelly wrote another five books in a series called the Mickey Haller books or the Lincoln Lawyer Books. Clearly, the movie is following an extremely well-crafted plot in the tradition of legal thrillers. I have not read any Connelly books yet, but it seems like I should.

Given the detailed plot and story line, and the thriller-like pace, The Lincoln Lawyer is a surprisingly good movie. When the credits rolled I knew I got more than I had expected. Good acting, suspenseful story, perfect plot, and the good guys win at the end.

What more can I ask for?

Movie Review: 1917

World War I was one of the deadliest conflict in human history. Almost 40 million people died in that war. We generally think of WW I as the war of trench warfare. Soldiers lived in trenches on both sides of the front.

In April of 1917, two young British soldiers, Shofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are sent on an impossible mission: cross into German-held territory in northern France and warn the commander of a British unit of about 1,600 soldiers about a deadly trap they don’t know about. Without any means of communications, the two soldiers are hand-carrying a letter. Blake was picked because his brother is a lieutenant in the endangered unit and the commanding general assumes that will give Blake the necessary motivation.

They only have one day and one night for the mission, since the unit is scheduled to attack in the morning and run into the ambush.

The movie follows the two hapless soldiers on their journey. The entire picture is filmed in one continuous shot, not in individual scenes. This gives the action some urgency and fluency. As they progress through the war-torn wasteland, they come across an endless stream of corpses in trenches, ditches, bunkers, on fields and in streams. The brutality and horror of war comes to life in 1917, and the senselessness of it all is ever present.

Some people just want to fight.

And therefore, many others have to die.

As I watched 1917, I realized that Adolph Hitler was a common German soldier in that war, and the experience of the conflict, and the aftermath and subsequent humiliation of the German people, was one of the driving forces that shaped his world-view and fueled his eventual rise to power – just to repeat the whole atrocity again.

Everyone should watch 1917 for the political and humanitarian message it sends, not just because it’s going to win many awards.

Book Review: The Clan of the Cave Bear – by Jean M. Auel

I read The Clan of the Cave Bear many decades ago and I remembered liking it, being impressed by it, and that the main character’s name was Ayla. But that was all.

When I recently read Pushed Back it reminded me of this book, so I read it again now.

The story plays about 30,000 years ago, the end of the age of the Neanderthals, on the peninsula of Crimea, the same Crimea that was taken over by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. The glaciation of the northern hemisphere was at its maximum, reaching down all the way to southern England, covering Scandinavia, and getting to within a few hundred miles of Crimea in what is now Russia.

Ayla is a 5-year-old girl born to Cro-Magnon humans who had just started arriving in Europe at that time. Ayla was away from her tribe playing when a strong earthquake demolished their encampment and everyone perished. The little girl was left alone, naked, in the wilderness. After days of wandering about, just before her imminent death, a migrating troupe of Neanderthals comes along and their medicine woman, Iza, convinces the leader to take the little girl in so she could save her life. And so it comes about that a little girl “born to the Others” is raised in a Neanderthal clan.

The Others look like modern humans, and the Clan people find her ugly. Eventually she is accepted into the Clan and those around come to love and respect her. But it does not come without a price. The Clan’s rules are highly patriarchic and restrictive. The successor to the current leader, Broud, is an ambitious youth, very insecure, and sees Ayla with all her differences as a threat. He develops a deep hatred for her that festers and escalates until the day he takes over.

The book is 468 pages long and delves deeply into the Clan’s society, culture and individual thinking. As a reader, I found myself thinking like many of the main characters, like Brun, the Neanderthal leader, Broud, his eventual successor, Creb, the clan’s magician and spiritual leader, and the many women and children. The author goes into great detail into the lifestyle of the clan, how they live, hunt, eat, celebrate and socialize. Reading this book is an immersion into stone-age life.

Much of the detail, of course, is the author’s conjecture. For instance, she describes the Clan people as speaking mostly using sign language and not voices. She also makes many assumptions about the social structure, and while we are not sure what is fact and fiction, I was fine with it. I didn’t come to read the book to get a historically accurate and factual representation of Neanderthal life, I came to experience what it might have been like, and how it would have felt. In that, the author was very successful.

For a while, as I was reading the book, I became a Neanderthal.

It struck me how much of their life and their culture was guided by “spirits.” Most important decisions, most laws or rules, were based on what the spirits wanted or dictated. Many decisions were made not based on the visible reality of the world, but what they thought the spirits wanted. This caused misery, sometimes death, unspeakable pain and sorrow, and much overall suffering.

One of the conjectures I found hardest to believe was that the Clan people thought that pregnancies were started by totem spirits fighting over the woman’s body. If the outside male spirit won, the woman became pregnant. Sexuality was a casual activity. Any male could beckon any woman or young girl, any time he wanted, and she would simply have to assume the position, so he could “relieve his need.” This was done in open sight all the time. You would think that Neanderthal society, which was active for over 100,000 years without any real progress or change, but was very smart with herbs, medicinal uses of plants, tool making, and the like, would have figured out that it was the relieving of a man’s need into a woman’s womb that might be the cause of the baby getting started in there? Surely they knew!

While I wondered how it was possible that societies could be that much influenced by imaginary powers, imaginary threats, and imaginary disasters, I realized that we have many parallels today.

Millions of people today are still guided by religions and their laws, ceremonies, customs and limitations. In addition, we allow ourselves to suffer from imaginary foes, like mortgages coming due, debts having to be repaid, bad grades in college, titles attained or not attained. All those things are imaginary powers, not unlike the spirits of the Neanderthals, and I found suddenly that my life was not that different and in its own way was driven by the Spirit of the Cave Bear.