Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pippin by Stephen Schwartz & Roger Hirson

Ah, how marriage changes a man. Musicals were not exactly my thing, although I concede being raised on The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. And later, I played in the orchestra in a number of local productions: Hello Dolly, The Music Man, The Secret Garden, My Fair Lady, and Crazy for You. But by then, I had already met my wife, and knew the tunes to Crazy for You because she introduced me to the George and Ira Gershwin songbook - as performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Michael Feinstein. (On separate albums, of course.) And then I played a number of tunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber and so on. I also saw both Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables in London during my law school days. So I wasn’t exactly a neophyte, but I didn’t exactly seek out musicals either.

Competing with this, however, was my love for music and for live theater. And, occasionally, a particular production will catch my eye, particularly if it is something my wife (who knows more about musicals than any non-professional I have ever met) finds interesting. Pippin, by Stephen Schwartz and Roger Hirson, was one of these.

The idea of a spoof on the “finding yourself” genre, with a dose of snark about Medieval - and modern - values, sounded interesting by itself. Add to that the fact that it was at our local university, and would likely feature live musicians (it did!) and it sounded like a fun idea. In fact, we brought the kids too. My sons in particular love live theater, and were eager to see this one. They were not disappointed.

I would caution parents, however, that there is some decidedly adult humor in this particular show. Nothing explicit, but older/experienced kids will get the jokes. This isn’t an issue for me - my kids had sex ed early and I am not really into sheltering. (For reasons. I don’t want them to see sex as a taboo.) Your mileage may vary.

The play uses the historical characters of Charlemagne and his sons Pippin and Louis. I say “uses” in the sense that the names and relationships are used. But nothing else has much of anything to do with history. Sure, King Charles is a king who conquered a lot of Europe. And he had sons. And the real life Pippin did lead a revolt against his father. But that is pretty much it.

The story itself is about Pippin (usually called Pepin the Hunchback) and his quest to find himself and his place in the world, his “corner of the sky,” to quote his signature song.

This quest leads the naive Pippin through a variety of adventures. But there is an additional layer. Like The Taming of the Shrew and others, this play uses the framing story of a group of actors putting on the story. Except that in this case, Pippin is both a “new actor” in the role, and someone who isn’t entirely acting. The other actors want Pippin to follow the script and get the big finale, but Pippin wants to actually find himself, and live the life he wants, whether or not it fits the script.

The original production of Pippin on Broadway was directed by Bob Fosse. My wife, who would of course know all about this, dug up a bunch of clips after the play so I could see all of the choreography that was classic Fosse. The costumes, the sets, and the dancing all showed the influence. The opening itself was interesting for that reason. Nothing but white gloves and black lights, followed by the appearance of the actors (sans Pippin) in black costumes with over-the-top hats, revealing them as characters villainous or good, humorous or serious. (The costumes in this production were excellent and almost a character themselves.)

Pippin starts off pursuing his father’s favorite pursuit: war. This is pretty well doomed because Louis is far, far better at that sort of thing than Pippin will ever be. And Pippin is simply horrified by war once he experiences it.

The war scenes were delightfully done. Charlemagne rallying the troops with a battle plan (“War is a Science”) is hilarious, and the ode to gore, “Glory,” is darkly humorous. The predominantly female soldiers were dressed in what can only be described as “Chorus girl meets Roman Soldier” costumes, which were profoundly ludicrous. While they fight - and severed limbs and heads appear - the “Leading Player” (the narrator and master of ceremonies) and two members of the chorus do a little Broadway soft-shoe routine at stage right. The incongruity serves to highlight the sport which Charlemagne and Louis make of bloodshed.

Disgusted, Pippin goes to consult his grandmother, who shares his disdain.

“Men and their wars. They like to raise a flag when they can’t get anything else up.”

She urges him to live in the moment, serving as the Hippie Godmother of the play. Everyone was encouraged to sing along with “No Time At All.” In this production, Miriam Alqausi appropriately hammed it up, ordering the orchestra around, and ignoring the directions from the Leading Player. Pippin then has a series of (highly stylized and choreographed) encounters with beautiful young women, but the meaningless pleasure doesn’t thrill him either.

Pippin then becomes a revolutionary, after seeing the way his father oppresses the peasants. (At this point, one of the actors held a “#fakenews” sign in the background. Pippin himself wears a red trucker hat while a revolutionary…) But after he murders his father, he finds that circumstances make it necessary to do the exact same stuff his daddy did. He then regrets the murder, and wishes it were undone. The Leading Player obliges, and Charlemagne is restored to life - and tells Pippin that patricide had better not happen again.

Disillusioned with revolution, Pippin tries religion, but this too is much like his father, who has an alliance with the Pope to spread Christianity throughout Europe, even if they have to kill millions of infidels to do it. Got to love that whole “by this cross conquer” thing.

Pippin despairs, and collapses in the middle of the road, where he is rescued by a widow, Catherine, who falls in love with the arch of his foot. (My kids found this hilarious.) She takes him home, and does her best to capture him as a husband and assistant on her farm. Pippin is initially put off by the hard work, but warms to her and her snotty son, comforting him when his pet duck dies.

But Pippin eventually moves on, and Catherine sings a song about her loss - a song which is not in the script - giving the Leading Player fits.

The time comes for the big finale, but Pippin refuses to cooperate, choosing a “boring” life of settling down.

I should mention a few of the actors in this particular production. Most of the leads have been in other things around town, and elsewhere. Paul Sosa, as the Leading Player, is a professional and alumnus of CSUB. He has had bit parts on General Hospital and has worked as a showman at Disney and Universal Studios. He owned the stage when he was on it - great dancing, stage presence, and totally unflappable. We went on opening night, and his mic had issues and kept falling off. He was able to carry on unamplified and never missed a beat. That’s skill.

Dakota Nash as Pippin is a bit of a newcomer, but did fine. Anthony Salvador Jauregui III was a convincing Charlemagne. Susannah Vera (Catherine), Crystal Vega (stepmother), and Miriam Alqaisi (grandmother) were solid.

But I was particularly impressed by Judd Johnson as Lewis. The word that comes to mind is “electric.” His stage presence, physical acting, excellent dancing, and connection with the audience was impressive. He could easily carry a bigger role than he had in this play. I hope we see a lot more of him around town - give this kid some main roles!

Pippin runs this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so if you are a local Bakersfield resident, go see it. 

 Charlemagne (Anthony Salvador Jauregui III), Pippin (Dakota Nash), and Lewis (Judd Johnson)

 Soldiers before the battle...

***

One quibble with CSUB: You need to make more photos available! Other local theaters promote their events with high quality pictures, while I had to go hunting to find a mere two. I’d love to give some publicity, but could use some better materials.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This month seemed like a good time to read an immigrant story. I believe strongly in the power of stories to shape us and to build empathy and ethical, moral thinking. In light of the revived anti-immigrant sentiment and policies that have and will continue to dominate headlines, I believe it is important to tell these stories, to see things from other perspectives. And to remind ourselves that all of us were “somebody else’s children” once.

The kids and I listened to this during our recent travel to see the Blue Angels fly at China Lake Naval Air Station. It turns out my second daughter has read this book too. (For those counting, that makes a remarkable number of books that she introduced me to the last few years - and several already this year that she read before we listened to them together.) My eldest daughter was interested in this one in part because it is set in the 1930s, an era she is particularly fond of studying.

Although first published in 2000, this book rings even more true today. 

First, let me mention that most of this book takes place in our backyard, in my little spot in the world and in America. Esperanza and her mother come from Mexico to California, stopping in Los Angeles (the city I was born in) on their way to the farms of Kern County. Bakersfield, Arvin, and Lamont, places I know from living here for the last 19 years - where my own kids were born and raised. This is also the setting of Steinbeck’s most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and takes place in the same time frame.

Pam Munoz Ryan chose to make the protagonist, Esperanza, from whose point of view we see the story, a rather atypical immigrant. She is the daughter of a wealthy Mexican landowner, not a peasant. I believe this was an intentional choice, and one calculated to make her more relatable, rather than less, to the typical American child. Sure, they have servants, but they also have a lifestyle largely comparable to that of a middle class American family. Thus, when Esperanza’s life changes catastrophically, she experiences the shocks of poverty much like my kids would.

Esperanza’s father is murdered by bandits early in the story, and the evil step-uncles try to force her mother to marry one of them. When she refuses, he has their home and grapevines burned to the ground. They must flee under cover of darkness to get to America and the promise of a better life than one under the thumb of the powerful.

In order to do so, they must be dependent on the family’s former servants, Alphonso and Hortensia and their teenaged son Miguel, who have relatives who are working in California and can help them get jobs and housing.

California is not, of course, all roses. The field workers live in abject poverty, in camps that are not as nice as those built for the white workers (like the Okies described by Steinbeck). There is an attempt to unionize and strike which ends badly, with many Mexican-Americans who are born citizens being deported along with the rest. The scene involving the deportations is uncanny, as it captures the current atmosphere of disdain for the disruption caused by deportations of those who have known no other life. It also is pertinent for the way that hostility toward Mexicans ultimately does not distinguish between legal, illegal, or native born. It ultimately has always been - and certainly is now - about race. (All it takes is to suggest in a discussion on immigration that we open the borders to those who wish to get a job and better themselves, and you will find REALLY fast that the “illegal v. legal” argument is a red herring. The problem for the vast majority of those who want deportations is “too damn many Mexicans.” Too many “other people’s babies.”)

The worst disaster for Esperanza happens when her mother contracts Valley Fever. If you don’t live here, you may not have heard of it. It’s a fungus that lives in the soil around here (and in a few places in Arizona and Los Angeles) that can infect the lungs. Most people who grew up here have had it as a child without knowing it - for most, it is just a flu-like lung infection which resolves in a week or two. But others get a bad case. I know a few people who have had it as adults, and it wiped them out for months. It can be really bad news, even now that there are drugs which can treat it. Back in the 1930s, you just had to ride it out.

Because Esperanza’s mother is hospitalized for months, Esperanza, just 13 years old, has to work in the fields - as did many other young men and women.

There are a few lines that stood out enough that I was able to remember them even while driving. Both took place early in the book, while Esperanza and her mother are fleeing. First is the comment that Spanish blood meant you didn’t starve. My mother was born and raised in Mexico as a missionary kid, and she used to tell me that there are definite castes in Latin America. Those descended from the Spaniards are essentially white, while those descended from the Native Americans are at best “mestizo,” mixed, and of a lower caste. Racism and Colonialism have left a poisonous residue around the globe…

On a related note is the second line. Esperanza is still struggling to view the lower classes as fully human - she finds them dirty and uncouth - but she sees that an impoverished fellow traveler is generous to the beggars and disabled.  She recalls a saying which she hated - and which Miguel points out the non-rich consider truth: “The rich only look after themselves. The poor look after everyone.” (I am paraphrasing - I couldn’t write and drive…) And this is really pretty true, in my experience growing up in a working class neighborhood. One might even say that this is a stereotypical “fault” of the poor - they tend to spread the wealth around. (Think, as one example, of the NBA stars’ tendency to buy stuff for people back in the old neighborhood. This isn’t a way to keep wealth - but it is generous. Are we really sure the one way is the better one?)

As a final point, I want to return to the issue of the Okies. When the dust bowl sent thousands of destitute migrants from the Great Plains to California, it wasn’t as if there were no workers here already. Rather, the field work had been done mostly by other immigrants: from Mexico, the Philippines, China, and other places. But when the Okies came, there was a strong push to eliminate the non-White workers. Then, as now, there were two key facets that drove this. First, the employers needed to keep the different groups fighting each other, so that they wouldn’t band together and demand higher wages and better conditions. In this last election, make no mistake, the point wasn’t that anything will get better for the white working class. (See, for example, the real life effects of the GOP health care disaster plan, which would have harmed Trump voters.) The point was that by directing the ire of working class whites against the brown skinned workers, those who have really gained over the last several decades as a result of depressed wages didn’t have to worry about unions or wage laws cutting into profits. (I’m a conservative-leaning person, and even I can see how transparent this tactic is.) By the way, this tactic has been used whenever there has been an event which led to unrest in the working class. Blame the blacks, the Mexicans, the Chinese, whatever.

The second point is related: there is an assumption whenever economic conditions lead to unemployment that non-whites should have to give way to whites. The utter lack of empathy for the disruption caused is just astounding to me. I wasn’t raised that way - we understood that all humans have worth - not just the white ones - and it was morally appalling to evict workers from their jobs so that others could have them.

This book was narrated by Trini Alvarado, who did a fine job of capturing the character of Esperanza.

I highly recommend this book, particularly as an antidote to the casual racism and xenophobia sweeping certain groups within our nation. Amid all the dehumanization, casually painting immigrants as “criminals,” “rapists,” and “drug dealers,” it is important to put a human face on, well, human beings. Whether they flee the violence of the drug wars, the grinding of poverty, or just seek a better life for their children, today’s immigrants come here for the very same reasons my ancestors - and probably yours as well - came seeking Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And, as the founder of my religion warned, we turn them away at our eternal peril.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

Source of book: I own this

I don’t read too many series books, in part because I could easily fill my reading schedule up with them alone, and never get to other stuff. However, there are arguably six series that I do follow. Two are kind of wobbly as to whether they fit the definition (Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barchester series and something by P. G. Wodehouse each year.), but the other four definitely qualify. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series has long been one of my favorites. I am two books into C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, and have greatly enjoyed it so far. My kids insist that we listen to Alexander McCall Smith's excellent Mma. Ramotswe series on audiobook when we travel - although we have done them completely out of order. The other series is the Flavia series by Alan Bradley, of which As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is the seventh. Here are the others:




As I noted in the very first review, Alan Bradley turned to writing fiction late in life. The first six books were part of his original contract, which has now been extended after the significant success of the first books. I strongly recommend reading both the books and my reviews in order, as the later ones assume the earlier ones.

Like all the books in the series, this one has its title taken from a line in an old book. The full quote, from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (one of the plays I haven’t seen) is a song for a dead character. (I didn’t read the entire play to figure out what was going on - maybe some day…)

FEAR no more the heat o’ the sun,
 Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
 Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great,
 Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
 To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
 Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
 Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
 Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
 Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renown├Ęd be thy grave!

The choice of title also refers to the fact that the corpse that sets the plot in motion is discovered in a chimney.

The last few books have been significantly darker than the earlier books, which had more whimsy and fun. In part, what has happened is that Flavia herself is growing up, and having to deal with much more adult situations. But also, Bradley is taking the stories to a darker place in general. Whether this is a good development is debatable, and the Amazon reviews show a sharp split in opinion.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is also unusual in that it is not set in the sleepy village of Bishop’s Lacey, but in a strict girl’s academy in Canada. Thus, Flavia is adrift from her roots, and none of the familiar characters enters the story in any significant way. This is too bad, in my opinion, as the supporting cast was a lot of the fun. Dodger, and the semi-wicked step-sisters, and the vicar and his wife, and the inspector as Flavia’s frenemy. Most notably absent in this book is any comic relief. I think it could have used a bit of humor to relieve the tension.

On the other hand, I think the story itself works well, and Bradley keeps the reader as off guard as he does his protagonist. Nobody is who they seem to be, and everyone has secrets. Since this book continues the plot twist from the last book - that Flavia’s mother was involved in a secret quasi-government spy society - Flavia is now embroiled in that world, even if she doesn’t know who is in or out, or on her side or not. This is a definite change from the earlier books, which had a Miss Marple meets Nancy Drew sort of feel to them. I am curious to see where Bradley takes the series next. Will Flavia’s return to England mean a return the series’ roots, or has everything changed too much? I hope we at least get the old characters back, because the new ones in this book tended more toward the sinister than the likeable.

Still, not a bad book, and a nice diversion, as a murder mystery should be. Start this series at the beginning, and enjoy.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories by Mark Twain

Source of book: I own this.

This is one of the weirder book-reading situations I have had since I started blogging. We actually started reading this book last March, while we were camping in the Gold Country. I brought it along because we would start the trip at New Melones Lake, in Calaveras County, just a few miles south of Angels Camp, where the incident allegedly took place. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were literally across the road from where Twain’s cabin stood - just up at the top of the hill overlooking the canyon which is now the lake. Angels Camp, by the way, has little going for it other than Twain, which is why frog imagery is everywhere. This story IS the identity of this town, and they milk it for all it is worth. And who can blame them? But, while you are there checking out the frogs, the museum is really very nice and worth the few bucks to get in. Plenty of history.

So why write this review now? Well, we got busy on other things, and have had difficulty finishing it. I feel bad that I don’t read to the kids as much as I used to - although we have done a lot of audiobooks. The problem is that we have ended up using our evenings while my wife works to focus on science, and that has left less time for reading. Too much to do, too little time.

But anyway, the kids loved this book.

This book comes from my Reader’s Digest World’s Best Reading collection. These are decent quality hardbacks that I have painstakingly collected at library sales, used bookstores, and online (with help from my lovely wife) over the last 20+ years. Since it contains a number of stories of various length, I am going to address each one separately.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”

This is the best known Twain short story - and one of the best known stories in literature. Thus, I think it is no spoiler to discuss the plot. This tall tale, supposedly heard by Twain from an old miner in Angel’s Camp, is a classic in the American tradition of “tall tales.” While I have run across a few stories in this vein from elsewhere, this is a predominantly American literary form, and reflects part of our national character. (One of the better parts, I would say.) The idea too of the rambling teller of tales that never comes to the point, no matter how much the listener tries to prod him is also an American archetype. Likewise, the idea of sandbagging a contest is quite American. We have always had a soft spot for the loveable cheater, the man sharp enough to rip off the Devil himself.

Twain was probably the best author of tall tales, but others arose at the same time. I would recommend, for example, Bret Harte (who, like Twain, lived in the Gold Country and wrote about its denizens) and Ring Lardner. The kids did find the story amusing, and it fit well with visiting the reconstructed cabin up on Gold Hill.

“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”

My second daughter (the cynical and macabre one) really loved this story. To be honest, I liked it too when I first read it as a kid - and it seems darkly appropriate these days.

A stranger passes through Hadleyburg, a town renowned for its uprightness, where its citizens are trained from birth to be honest and upright. Something happens, though, and the stranger is offended - the story never tells us exactly how, but hints that Hadleyburg didn’t care about the opinion of others. I kind of presume that the offense was self-righteousness in some form. The stranger swears revenge, and hatches an elaborate plot to make the town destroy itself.

He sends a bag containing a fortune in money, and instructions that it is for the man who did him a kindness. The person who did the kindness, of course, must identify himself by naming the kindness - in fact the specific words he said to the stranger - in order to claim the money. After a delay, the stranger then sent a letter to each of the leading citizens in town supposedly giving them the secret key to the mystery. However, it is incomplete, and the townspeople are exposed as liars as they each claim to know the phrase. However that phrase is incomplete.

One couple, however, is not exposed, due to an accident of fate. Their consciences are torn, but they cannot bring themselves to confess that they too were lying. They get the money, but it gives them no pleasure, they become paranoid, and they die soon after finally confessing their guilt.

The phrase, by the way, is, “"You are far from being a bad man—go, and reform—or, mark my words—some day, for your sins you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg—try and make it the former.”

There is another line in this story, however, that I really love. John & Mary Richards - the couple that will eventually be driven mad by their guilt - are discussing the potential windfall. They are poor, and really could use the money. They are, unlike most of the citizens of Hadleyburg, acutely self aware, and it is impossible to not pity them as they too succumb. Early on, they discuss the problem that the town faces: it has been trained in honesty, but are weak, unprepared to face real ethical temptation.

“But Mary, you know how we have been trained all our lives long, like the whole village, till it is absolutely second nature to us to stop not a single moment to think when there’s an honest thing to be done--”
“Oh, I know it, I know it -- it’s been one everlasting training and training and training in honesty -- honesty shielded, from the very cradle, against every possible temptation, and so it’s artificial honesty, and weak as water when temptation comes, as we have seen this night. God knows I never had shade nor shadow of a doubt of my petrified and indestructible honesty until now -- and now, under the very first big and real temptation, I -- Edward, it is my belief that this town’s honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours is. It is a mean town, a hard and stingy town, and hasn’t a virtue in the world but this honesty it is so celebrated for and so conceited about; and so help me, I do believe that if ever the day comes that its honesty falls under great temptation, its grand reputation will go to ruin like a house of cards.”

During my days in a certain cult group - and indeed in Homeschool culture as it later developed - it was obvious that Twain, like Hawthorne, was persona non grata for his skewering of religious hypocrisy. But Twain got what many of the religious of his day - and ours - did not. When Huck Finn struggles with his conscience as to whether to turn in his friend Jim, a runaway slave, his religion tells him to follow the law and betray Jim. Huck rejects this, and decides he would rather go to hell than betray his own compassionate values. And I think this is what Twain is getting at here. Hadleyburg has spent its years breeding self-righteous “honesty” at the expense of compassion. “A mean town, a hard and stingy town,” as Mary realizes.

And, as I also have noted over my years in this life, building walls around ourselves to keep from temptation doesn’t in fact make us strong. The more we try to protect ourselves - and our children - from contamination, the less truly moral we become. And the more we keep ourselves from the “undesireables,” the more we substitute self-righteousness for compassion. I would argue that this last election is merely the final step in that conversion.

This is definitely one of Twain’s finest stories, and one that stays with you forever after you read it.

“A Dog’s Tale”

Oh boy, this one is a doozy. I did not remember this one at all, and got part way in before realizing this story may or may not be appropriate for children. Twain was vehemently opposed to vivisection, and wrote this story in an attempt to expose the horrors. Basically, this is a mother dog’s viewpoint of her puppy having hits brains pulped while it is alive. Yes, we finished the story. My kids are pretty used to difficult topics, and I would rather they be aware that sheltered. But caution on this one, your kids might not handle it well.

“A Fable”

This short, well, fable in the vein of Aesop, is about the nature of perception and the way our own biases affect it. A group of animals discover a mirror lying on the ground, and think it is a hole. But they cannot agree about what is in the hole, because they see themselves reflected. As the cat, the only one crafty enough to understand what has happened, gives the moral, “You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination.”

As many have noted about the Bible, if you want to burn witches, you’ll find justification. If you want to feed the hungry and welcome the immigrant, that is there too. What you choose says more about yourself than anything else….


“The Story of the Good Little Boy” and “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”

These two are a matched set. To best understand them requires a knowledge of the popular moralist genre from the Victorian Era. Twain skewers the genre, while also satirizing the times in which he lived. The “Good Little Boy” is a Pharisee - he wants nothing more than to have his picture in a Sunday School book someday as a hero. And instead of rising, everything goes wrong, and bad things happen to him. That’s fairly typical Twain - goody-goody little brother Sid from Tom Sawyer is perhaps the best portrayal of that sort of person.

The Bad Little Boy is a bit more complex, however. Twain doesn’t appear to approve of him either, even though he succeeds. Rather, Twain takes an opportunity to point out that being a horrible person was a pretty good way to succeed in the Gilded Age. Corruption, dishonesty, bullying, and general atrocious behavior was a path to success, not censure. Sounds a bit familiar.

“The £1,000,000 Bank Note”

This is another of Twain’s humorous yet pointed tales. Two wealthy London brothers decide to make a bet as to what would happen if they gave a random person a million pound bank note with the instructions that he was to pay it back in 30 days. The note and instructions were handed to the narrator, and the agent for the brothers disappeared without a trace. Also in the instructions was the mention of the bet (but no clue as to what the bet was) and a promise that if the recipient caused the one brother to win the bet, then the recipient would be given a job of his choice.

With a gigantic bit of currency in his pocket - but no way of spending it - the narrator sets out to figure out how to leverage this bit of good or bad luck. After all, showing up with a single bill worth about $100 million in today’s money isn’t helpful. Nobody can give you change, and walking up to a bank with it may get you arrested.

How the narrator turns the bill to his advantage is both humorous and perceptive, as it is the leverage of human nature that will cause success or failure. To a degree, Twain is pointing out that appearing wealthy can get you almost as far as being wealthy - and that privilege itself is more of an advantage than we appreciate.

“Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn”

My kids (with the exception of the cynical child) liked this story best. Another tall tale, it has endured in various forms throughout our culture. (Most notable is the Chip and Dale cartoon.) A blue jay sees a knothole in some wood, and tries to fill it with acorns for the winter. But it never seems to get full. Because, of course, it is a hole in the side of a cabin - and even a hundred jays probably couldn’t fill that up.

A few years back, we actually saw something similar. Out here, we have Acorn Woodpeckers (among the dozen or so species of woodpeckers), who peck out holes in dead trees and store acorns in there. While camping, a bird kept filling up this hole in the side of a metal power pole. You could hear it rattle down to the bottom. Over and over. But filling a hollow pole a foot wide and 40 feet tall is tough.

“A Medieval Romance”

This is an unusual story, to say the least. It is a twist on the inheritance drama, and a statement on gender roles.

Two brothers wish to have their progeny inherit the throne. The older brother’s child will get the job, unless she is female and the younger brother’s child is male.

So, the younger brother names his daughter Conrad and raises her as a male. The two of them grow up, and things happen. Constance, the rightful heir to the throne, falls in love with a man who abandons her after impregnating her. Before this comes to light, Constance falls in love with Conrad, but Conrad spurns her for obvious reasons.

Then, when the illegitimate child comes to light, Constance will be subject to the death penalty. Unless, and only if the king pardons her. Conrad takes the risk of assuming the Ducal throne to pronounce judgment - it can only be done from there - knowing that if she is exposed as female, she will die. Conrad offers pardon if Constance will name the father. Constance, still smarting from her rejection by Conrad, names Conrad as the father.

Twain ends the story with Conrad fainting, and leaves it to the reader to extricate the parties from the mess Twain got them in.

“The $30,000 Bequest”

Twain was fascinated with money and its effects. Like Hadleyburg and the million pound note, this story explores the way money changes people. A hardworking middle class woman is told by a rich relative that he will leave them $30,000 on his death. Provided, however, that she could prove to the executors that she had not mentioned the gift to anyone, had not inquired about his health, and did not attend the funeral. This would be a boon to her and her family, and they are excited, but of course cannot tell anyone.

Unfortunately, this “wealth” changes them. They begin to build castles in the sky and imaginary investments that eventually build to an impossible sum. It is a stock market bubble in their own minds. And it crashes in their own minds too. But in real life, they begin to live as if they were rich, no longer living below their means, or content to be ordinary people.

When the bequest ultimately turns out to be a fraud, their world crashes down.

“The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm”

Another tall tale, about the burglar alarm from hell. After meeting a burglar in his house, the McWilliamses decide to get an alarm, which turns out to wake them up at night and yet literally allows the burglars to use the top floor as their base of operations.

This is Twain in his slapstick mode, taking things to a ridiculous extreme. But also, it is hilarious for another reason: the formal dialogue between Mr. McWilliams and the burglars.

“Then one night we smelled smoke, and I was advised to get up and see what the matter was. I lit a candle, and started toward the stairs, and met a burglar coming out of a room with a basket of tinware, which he had mistaken for solid silver in the dark. He was smoking a pipe. I said, 'My friend, we do not allow smoking in this room.' He said he was a stranger, and could not be expected to know the rules of the house: said he had been in many houses just as good as this one, and it had never been objected to before. He added that as far as his experience went, such rules had never been considered to apply to burglars, anyway.
"I said: 'Smoke along, then, if it is the custom, though I think that the conceding of a privilege to a burglar which is denied to a bishop is a conspicuous sign of the looseness of the times. But waiving all that, what business have you to be entering this house in this furtive and clandestine way, without ringing the burglar alarm?'
"He looked confused and ashamed, and said, with embarrassment: 'I beg a thousand pardons. I did not know you had a burglar alarm, else I would have rung it. I beg you will not mention it where my parents may hear of it, for they are old and feeble, and such a seemingly wanton breach of the hallowed conventionalities of our Christian civilization might all too rudely sunder the frail bridge which hangs darkling between the pale and evanescent present and the solemn great deeps of the eternities. May I trouble you for a match?'__
"I said: 'Your sentiments do you honor, but if you will allow me to say it, metaphor is not your best hold. Spare your thigh; this kind light only on the box, and seldom there, in fact, if my experience may be trusted. But to return to business: how did you get in here?'
"'Through a second-story window.'
“It was even so. I redeemed the tinware at pawnbroker's rates, less cost of advertising, bade the burglar good-night, closed the window after him, and retired to headquarters to report.”

“Was It Heaven or Hell?”

This is kind of a “The Lady or the Tiger” sort of story, and a bit moralizing to boot. Basically, daughter is raised by mom and the aunts who are insistent that she never, ever lie no matter what the circumstances. Then mother and daughter both fall ill, and each is counting on the other to live to continue their fight. A moral dilemma ensues, and there is the question of heaven or hell for the participants.

This wasn’t my favorite story, as I felt Twain handled it with a heavier touch than most of his satire. It felt clumsy.

“Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”

This one, on the other hand, is brilliant. It is a great takedown of common tropes about the afterlife, from the harps and clouds to the need of some to experience celebrity for their conversions. Twain is actually fairly respectful of religion in this one, but gently laughs at a lot of the silliness that it can inspire. Particularly perceptive is the distinction between those quietly good to others, such as a man who fed the poor without anyone knowing, and those whose ostentation of their virtue find themselves either disappointed in their reception or oblivious to the fact that others are laughing behind their backs at their silly pomp. Twain also makes the point - which I find quite good - is that you can’t escape yourself, even in heaven. Some can manage to make heaven itself their own hell.

Twain wrote a whole lot more stories than this - the complete collection would be a much bigger book. However, these are certainly among his best, and a good place to start. Mark Twain did a lot to shape my own thinking during my childhood. My mother read us Huckleberry Finn when we were pretty young, and we discussed the racial and religious issues as a result. If I were to trace my own views on many of these issues, they were inculcated by my parents at this time. A sense of justice, and the need for a Christian to have empathy for those outside of race and religion. Books by authors like Twain were an important part of developing empathy and seeing issues from the perspective of others. I also believe that Twain opened my eyes at a young age to the fact that those outside the Christian bubble see us differently. And, contrary to the “alternative facts” offered by the White Evangelical Persecution Industrial Complex, our poor reputation has nothing to do with our faith itself, but our tendency to be “mean, hard, and stingy” to those outside our tribe.

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Pictures:


 Reconstructed Mark Twain cabin on Gold Hill

Water Wagon at the Angel's Camp Museum. 
Plenty of great vehicles and equipment on display.