Friday Reviews: The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2 by Samuel Clemens

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2

Mark Twain

Volume 1 of Mark Twain’s autobiography includes portions where Twain attempted to write the biography over the course of his latter adult life, as well as sections of an unfinished biography written by his daughter Susy, who died at the age of 22. Volume 2 finds Samuel Clemens settling down to dictating whatever is on his mind over the course of 1906 and early 1907. Twain is now 70 years old and freely refers to barring publication of his autobiography in its present form until 100 years after his death. Indeed, Twain died in 1910, missing World War I by four years. And at 70, Twain is a cranky old man whose sarcasm and dark humor makes the latter day George Carlin look like Mr. Rogers.

There are some reasons Twain insisted on waiting until not only he, but the children of some of those depicted in various anecdotes have all passed away. Twain lashes out at several figures, most notably fellow writer and former San Francisco news colleague Bret Harte. While it is well-documented that Harte abandoned his wife and children, Twain lays out Harte’s character flaws: He was a kept man, he says, and a chronic deadbeat, borrowing with no intention of paying back.

Perhaps most controversial for his time, Twain denounces religion is a slander against God. In one rather poignant section, he relates the story of a rail accident in which most of the passengers survived. A reverend who was among the survivors makes a lot of noise about Providence. Why, Twain asks, would Providence save that particular group of passengers from certain death when trains in 1905 killed 60,000 people? Twain is a closet diest in the vein of an earlier American smart-ass, Benjamin Franklin. Only Franklin’s outlook did not darken with age as much as Twain’s had.

But this is also the voice of a man who knows his time is drawing to a close. He misses his two deceased daughters, Susy and Jean, who died young from common ailments. He misses his wife. Several times, he makes mention that he is finished being a human being and would not mind dying.

The book is definitely by the author of Tom Sawyer and The Innocents Abroad, but he is very tired now.

Thursday Reviews: The Gilded Age by Mark Twain & Charles Dudley Warner

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

Mark Twain’s first novel is a collaboration with friend Charles Dudley Warner. It’s a raucous look at Washington and Wall Street in the so-called “Gilded Age” (which takes it’s name from this book.) The novel concerns the Hawkins family and their friend, Col. Beriah Sellers. Sellers and the Hawkins patriarch try scheme after scheme to cash in on the Missouri land boom and land the elder Hawkins owns in Tennessee. Meanwhile, two gentlemen from Philadelphia, Phillip Sterling and Henry Brierly, as they try their hand at coal speculation. Fortunes are made and lost, and quite often stolen. Members of Congress, who play a large part in this tale, are repeatedly accused of taking bribes and selling their office, found guilty, and given stern talkings to by their fellow Congressmen.

The novel contains some autobiographical material. While Sterling and Brierly’s storyline was written by Warner, their fortunes reflect Twain’s adventures in Nevada as a gold and silver speculator. Also, Twain writes in his autobiography that his father similarly bought land in Tennessee, promising his family would make millions from it someday. (It ultimately sold for a modest amount.)

The novel has a lot in common with The Bonfire of the Vanities. However, unlike Wolfe’s depiction of New York, most of the characters, even the weasels, are likeable. Like Bonfire, however, Gilded suffers from disjointed storylines. Part of it is due to each author working on a separate storyline. Which is too bad, because Twain’s first two books, The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, already proved he could tell a good tale. Still, the book was done on a dare by Mrs. Clemens (Twain) and Mrs. Warner, who were sick of their husbands kvetching about the state of modern fiction.

Thursday Reviews: Roughing It by Mark Twain

Roughing It

Mark Twain

The original American smartass tells tales of the origins of his career in Nevada, dedicated to a partner in a mining venture, along with whom they were “millionaires for two weeks.”

This could be considered The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Version 1.0 when coupled with The Innocents Abroad. Young Samuel Clemens heads east during the Civil War to become private secretary to the new territorial secretary of state of Nevada. There, he catches mining fever during the territory’s silver rush and becomes a paper millionaire. Of course, it’s not that easy. He has to deal with rough weather, questionable business deals, his first turn as a newspaper editor, gunslingers, and periodic bankruptcy.

From there, Twain makes his way to San Francisco, flush with silver stock that, like the dotcom stocks of 125 years later, will be completely worthless within a month of his arrival. He has to “lower himself” and become a reporter. When he loses that job, he tries his hand at gold prospecting and is a miserable failure. Returning to San Fran, he lands a difficult gig to rescue him from poverty. He will have to spend a few months in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), where he is to report back to his newspaper on life in the tropical kingdom. Yeah. Life sucks, even in 1870.

Upon his return home, he’s unemployed with no prospects. To make a living, he embarks on a lecture tour of the Pacific coast. It’s a novelty as no one lectures on the Pacific Coast. And thus, a star is born, though Twain seems to be loathe to call himself that. He seems rather shocked anyone wants to hear him speak about anything at any length.

At a time when essays and fiction tended to be long-winded, even today, Twain’s prose reads as easily and accessibly as anything one might read online. Better, actually, because the misspellings are the result of the grammar rules of the day and not the sloppy editing that plagues even the major news feeds. There are some things that give pause. Twain is not skittish about quoting someone dropping an N bomb, though he refers to black people himself as “Negroes” (which was still valid as recently as the 1960’s) and clearly has a dim view of the Anglo-Saxon superiority complex. Even with biases in evidence, Twain is more forward thinking than most of his contemporaries than terms of race, to the point where he talks about missionaries in Hawaii with dripping sarcasm. It really puts some of the squick moments in Huckleberry Finn into perspective. (Then again, Huck’s pa was too racist for the slaveholding south, so you get the idea that Twain knows there’s a better way.)

Twain spares no one from his sarcasm. Presidents such as Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson were given barbs we normally reserve for George W. Bush or Barack Obama. (He does give Lincoln, president when the book begins, a free pass.) He rips on the Indians, then white people for taking the Indians’ land. He calls out Brigham Young on polygamy since, as he cites, Joseph Smith was actually against the practice. He doesn’t even spare himself. Twain freely, even gleefully, admits he was after the fast buck in his Nevada days and seems amused whenever his plans would be foiled by nature or by that pesky silver vein being nowhere near where they discovered it.

Twain is funny, slightly raunchy, and not the least bit pretentious. We need more Twains and few pundits. America would be a happier place for it.

Thursday Reviews: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain

When you read this travelogue, Twain’s first book, it’s sometimes hard to believe it was written in 1867. Some of the attitudes come through, but Twain’s descriptions of life aboard a converted Civil War ship, his travels in France and Italy, and some of the people around him sound rather recent.

But some things stand out. Twain and his companions meet the Czar. Israel (Well, Palestine in the vernacular of the day) is not the modern desert region or the war torn battlefield we see on CNN. It’s a wasteland not unlike some parts of the American West. And the passengers are much more religious than you’d find today. Contrast that with Chelsea Handler’s description of a disastrous Carnival Cruise she and a roommate took, where the only religious people were a group of self-righteous ass hats.

But all the hazards of a long cruise are there: Seasickness, greedy natives descending on tourists, language barriers in Europe (where some of the French, it seems, can’t speak proper French like they used to teach in America.) Still, the times do show in this in more ways than historical differences. Twain is less than charitable to Greeks, Bedouins, and Portuguese. His comments today would probably be reworded. On the other hand, if you want to put the number of Antebellum N-bombs from Huckleberry Finn into perspective, Twain quotes one passenger who has a rather optimistic view of his own intelligence. In this scene, Twain calls him out on referring to some of the crew as “n—–s,” then proceeds to skewer him as only Twain can. Only 32 at the time of this trip abroad, and already Twain sounds like a cranky old man.

The book is, over all, raucously funny. He pokes holes in all the travel cliches that persist to this day. The section on Italy reminds me of an old Ron White bit about honeymooning on a Greek island “because there was one more church in the Mediterranean we hadn’t seen yet.” One can even hear Twain do White’s “You can have the donkey, or you can take the tram. It is the same price” bit, though I doubt Twain would do it with a French accent like White.

Wednesday Reviews: The Autobiography Of Mark Twain by… Um… , Jimmy Benchpress by Charlie Stella, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

By Mark Twain

This book lists at least six editors aside from Mark Twain himself. In fact, if you get the full edition of this first of three intended volumes, you have more notes than you have actual text. The notes themselves make up an entire second book about Twain. I blogged here a few weeks back about ditching the audio version. I’m not a big fan of putting footnotes and citations in audio works. I know why it’s done, but in this case, it took over ninety minutes of listening before I heard one line of Twain’s prose. Thus, I sent the audiobook back to the library and downloaded it on Kindle. If you’re looking to read Twain riffing on Twain, get this in print or on Kindle. Much easier to flip pages and get to the meat of the work. Plus, if you want to do some research of your own, the notes provide tons of material ripe for study.

I, of course, wanted to hear from the man himself, Twain. Twain, Samuel Clemens to his family and friends, stipulated that this three-volume set not be released until 100 years after his death. There were two earlier, shorter versions he authorized, and the introductory notes explain the editorial decisions, good and bad, that were made. In those versions, certain material was omitted as Twain did not want it released in certain people’s lifetimes. During World War II, there were people who knew Twain still walking the Earth, though if Volume 1 is anything to judge by, they had little to worry about.

Twain puts everything in, all his false starts, some character sketches of people he knew (most notably Ulysses S. Grant), and finally settles into some dictations made during the last four years of his life. The result is a rambling monologue of Twain talking about everything from his mechanical ineptitude, his adventures as a miner in Nevada, how US Grant came to write his autobiography, and anything else that crosses his mind. The rambling, unstructured format is intentional, and it took Twain nearly three decades to settle on it, when he found the perfect stenographer to take dictation. Within the manuscripts from these later years, Twain adds passages from an unfinished biography written by his daughter, Suzy, who died when she was 22.

Twain spares no one. He dislikes President Roosevelt, though he is fond of Theodore Roosevelt. He is close friends with John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary and one of Roosevelt’s most trusted advisers. He seems to be well-versed in Christianity, but hates religion. He is as disparaging about himself at times as he is about others, many times offering the criticism with tongue implanted in cheek. The funniest stories often feature Twain as a boy and the unfortunate victim of his own mischief. It’s pretty clear from this volume – as if we didn’t know already – that Twain is Tom Sawyer, and the white wash incident has several real-life inspirations. We also learn who the real Huckleberry Finn was, and at least his father wasn’t nearly as racist as Huck’s pa (though, from what I can tell in this tome, he was three times as drunk.) Twain doesn’t say much about his aborted career in the Confederate army, but since his family was a group of unenthusiastic slave holders, and his brother Orion was an abolitionist, the Glorious Cause definitely didn’t seem glorious to Twain.

The book is funny, and there’s a reader’s edition on Amazon (produced by the edtiors of this edition). I highly recommend getting that version if you can. I can’t wait to read the next volume as Twain has more thoughts on that “damnable human race” and stories about other luminaries of his time, such as Nikolai Tesla. The original plan was to release volumes 2 and 3 by 2015. If so, I would suggest making the reader’s edition the primary audio version. I’m sure Hal Holbrook wouldn’t mind doing the reading.

Jimmy Bench-Press

Charlie Stella

Charlie Stella’s second novel tells the tale of Jimmy Mangino, aka “Jimmy Benchpress.” Jimmy is huge. He can bench press 400 pounds. Hence the nickname. Fresh out of prison, he’s looking for work and looking for a big score that will pad his bank account nicely. He finds it in Larry Berra, a Mafia wannabe and probably the dumbest loan shark ever. Berra hires him as muscle to get back $58,000 from an elderly barber who clearly didn’t have it to pay back. While working for Larry, Jimmy decides he’s going to help himself to Larry’s money. But first, he helps himself to Larry’s girlfriend. He has a few other scams working against people who employ him, but let’s be honest. Jimmy’s in it for Jimmy. That puts him in the crosshairs of Alex Pavlik, an organized crime cop who already is in hot water for giving a pedophile killer a twenty-minute beating. So Pavlik and his rage control issues are sent to the OC squad where life is supposedly quiet.

Stella, himself a former knockaround guy, paints a very unglamorous picture of life as a Mafioso and as a cop. The street level soldiers in the mob and their counterparts in the NYPD are often the victims of those above them who lose sight of what their purpose is. Plus there’s always one guy on either side whose ego and rage threaten to crash the whole works. For the mob, that’s Jimmy.

Like Eddie’s World, Jimmy Bench-Press is a very working class novel. Whereas Eddie Senta, though, is a likeable sort just trying to survive and flirting with going straight, Jimmy Mangino is an unlikeable protag. Like Hannibal Lecter or Heath Ledger’s Joker, this guy is walking chaos, simply doing what he does because he’s smooth and he’s intimidating. Unlike Lecter or The Joker, Jimmy’s unlikely to trigger a nationwide manhunt or hold an entire city hostage. One of his own would likely shoot him in the head if it came to that.

It’s actually Pavlik who is the eyes and ears of the outsider in this one. Pavlik’s rage is over how innocents are treated. While police must deal with that sort of violence everyday, they are expected to handle it with a certain amount of restraint. Reading Pavlik’s reaction to the murder of young boys by a pederast or how Jimmy pushes around an old man, you’re right there with him saying, “Screw restraint. Where’s my Louisville slugger?”

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition

Christopher Vogler

Why are so many Hollywood movies written to a certain pattern? Blame Joseph Campbell. His The Hero With a Thousand Faces has become the yardstick by which everything from science fiction epics to horror movies to even romantic comedies are measured. So why read Christopher Vogler’s distillation of Campbell’s tome?

Well, because it’s a good way to tell a story. Mind you, not every story follows what Vogler calls “the hero’s journey.” Indeed, Vogler points out that some cultures are not big on hero stories. Australia is a country where this type of story-telling doesn’t work. And in Germany, Kaiser Willy and Adolf Hitler pretty much killed the form for an entire nation. But Vogler is not about praising the journey or burying it.The Writer’s Journey is about doing this type of story right. He breaks a story down to distinct phases. Done properly, these phases can be used to shed light on a story to shore up its weaknesses or point a writer to a path out of a confusing plot problem. But the hero’s journey, he says, has to be done right. If it’s used as a model instead of a formula, stories will sing. When it’s used as a crutch…

Well, if it has enough explosions, Michael Bay might want to make it into a film.

Bailing On Mark Twain

I recently downloaded The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 on audio. And then I sent it back to the library. Why?

The autobiography, ordered published by Twain 100 years after his death, is essentially a compilation of rambling essays and false starts along with a series of dictations the last five years of Twain’s life. There is a framework to it all, and I would have loved to listen to it straight through. The problem is that, after 100 years, not enough of Mark Twain’s estate remains to manage this into publication. So no Brilliance Audio rights bought from Random House. Instead, it’s an academic work, in this case done by the Mark Twain Project at Berkley University.

Which means the book is annotated with long introductions to various sections and a long preface. There’s enough here to write a book about the writing of the book (or the three volume book. There’s hints of what prompted this in the sections about Ulysses Grant’s memoirs.) It’s enough to make grad student in American Literature go squeeeeeee!!!!!

But it doesn’t work on audio. It took over an hour before I got to a line of Twain’s prose. And even then, the flow of the narrative was interrupted by the editor’s notes before various sections. In print, this is great for people wanting to find out more about Mark Twain. For someone who wanted to listen to about four or five hours of Twain riffing on whatever struck his fancy over the 40+ years he wrote this, not so much.

Fortunately, they also published this in print. Subsequently, they published this to Kindle. And, of course, you can get all the Twain you want at the project’s web site. I opted for Kindle. When the notes overwhelm the actual text, I just hit the table of contents and click on the next link.

As I said, there’s a wealth of information in this volume, and I have to assume the subsequent two volumes to be published will have similar amounts. However, I do have a suggestion for the publishers. How about an audio version of pure, unadulterated Twain? That would rock.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn By Mark Twain

The original American smart-ass tells a smart-ass tale about a smart-ass kid living in Antebellum Missouri.  Huck Finn is the less glamorous and less educated partner-in-crime to Twain’s more famous Tom Sawyer.  And Twain seems to be having more fun telling Huck’s tale.

Huck’s had a rough life.  His Pap is the town drunk, abusive and, even by the Southern standards before the Civil War, bigoted.  Pap isn’t happy that Huck is learning to read and write.  He thinks the boy’s trying to be better than his station in life.  (ie – Making daddy look bad.)  He also wants to get his hands on some of that money that Huck and Tom came into during the events of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. So Pap spirits him away to nearby Illinois.  What’s a poor boy to do with a drunken, ignorant father locking him away in a cabin in the woods?

Huck fakes his own murder and flees to a nearby island where he runs into Jim, a local slave who decided to run away in all the chaos surrounding Huck’s “murder.”  Together, they set off north on the Mississippi to free Jim.  When they miss Cairo, Illinois by several miles, then are separated by a steamboat, they head south for New Orleans to see what they can find there.

Along the way, they run into two con artists who claim to by the deposed King of France (and never mind that he can’t speak French) and a British duke (ditto with the English accent.)  Even poor, ignorant Jim realizes these are not royalty, but he and Huck don’t get away fast enough.  The phony royals, running low on cash and foiled by Huck in their attempt to steal an inheritance in Tennessee, sell Jim.

For $40.

Huck finds him on a nearby farm, where the family there mistakes him for their cousin.

That cousin would be Tom Sawyer.  Naturally, Tom shows up, plays along.  Hilarity ensues as they try to free Jim again.  The punchline – there are several at the end of the story – is that Jim was already freed when his guilt-ridden owner decided not to sell him but free him when she died.

The book was written in the latter half of the 19th century, when slavery and all its implications were still fresh on everyone’s mind.  Although Huck is raised on the racist dogma of the Antebellum South, he clearly doesn’t like slavery or seeing his friend Jim in bondage.  He’s been taught that there’s nothing worse than an abolitionist and that freeing slaves is theft.  However, he also seems to have a hard time working up any guilt over the subject, his conscience stubbornly telling him Jim needs to be freed.

It’s the tone and language used that puts The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the banned books list quite often.  And for good reason.  The N word appears so many times one might think they were reading a novelization of The Wire.  I’m not a fan of banning books.  I’ll go as far as to say book banning is criminal.  But since people do try, I hope they keep trying to ban this book.  And I hope they keep losing.  Why?  It fulfills what Twain set out to do with this book, which is to make a mockery of the old prejudices.  As long as we keep talking about how we don’t like the way blacks are treated in the book, we get to the heart of why Huck couldn’t feel any guilt over freeing Jim.  Huck was better than his upbringing.

Which Jim picked up on before Huck did.