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The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (The Art of the Novella)
The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg (The Art of the Novella)
by Mark Twain
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.00
38 used & new from $0.61

5.0 out of 5 stars Great, but a collection may be ideal, July 16, 2010
Though less well-known than some of his earlier works, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" is one of Mark Twain's greatest works and one of the all-time best short stories/novellas. It is absolutely essential and a fine introduction to the later, darker Twain.

Like most great works, "The Man" is many things and works on many levels. Nearly everyone can enjoy it, not least because it has an excellent premise that pulls us in immediately and keeps us intensely focused until the last word. Few works have a more intriguing central mystery or are as supremely suspenseful.

More importantly, Twain is one of very few artists who can write this engagingly while having very meaningful - and even didactic - themes, and this is an exemplar. The story is a bitter human nature denunciation; Twain mercilessly tears into moral weakness, hypocrisy, greed, and other detestable qualities with a tent evangelist's fire. Few works are more thoroughly or persuasively misanthropic; anyone with a positive view of human nature going into the story can hardly have one afterward. The blow is so crushing that it is almost painful to read - but we keep reading because the writing is so interesting. The extreme heavy-handedness means this is far from Twain's greatest work in the purely artistic sense, but its eternally relevant message is undeniable and should not be ignored.

The story is well worth reading in itself, but the fact that it is in many collections - such as The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain - makes a standalone hard to justify. The important thing at any rate is to get it in some form.


Mark Twain : Mississippi Writings : Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson (Library of America)
Mark Twain : Mississippi Writings : Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson (Library of America)
by Mark Twain
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $26.19
236 used & new from $1.81

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Collection, July 16, 2010
This great collection has four of Mark Twain's most famous books, containing some of his most essential work: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Pudd'nhead Wilson. All deal with the Mississippi area that is so essential to his life and work -- and to American literature and culture generally. Putting them together is thus ideal, and anyone who is still without them would do well to get them here. It is a fine edition with extensive notes and documentation; the quality of the book itself is also very high, and we even get a built-in bookmark. Anyone wanting specifics may read on, but the gist is that everyone should have these works in some form.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a treasure of American literature and has added immeasurably popular fiction. If any book needs no introduction, it is this. Its influence is simply ubiquitous;: countless images are commonplace not only in literature but also in television - nay, everywhere. The tale is timeless and universal. Though it may have been written mainly for children, it can - and should - definitely be enjoyed by all. The imagination, narrative drive, and sheer adventure will fascinate children of all ages and may very well spark an early love of reading. However, the book also exists on a whole other level. The character of Tom symbolizes the child in us all - what we once were, or what we'd like to be (again, perhaps) and the innocence that we have so irretrievably lost. As always with Twain, it also contains masterful wit. Keen observations on society and human nature abound, as do subtle comments on religion and superstition; this is quite a good satire of religion in its own way - very different from what Twain later did it in works like Letters from the Earth. The book contains many bits of wit and interlaced commentary that will likely be lost on younger readers but that older and/or more perceptive readers will enjoy immensely. It is truly an American classic and an essential read.

Mark Twain is synonymous worldwide with the Mississippi River, mainly because of the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn stories. However, Life on the Mississippi is just as important and, in a testament to Twain's greatness, nearly as readable despite being non-fiction. It details his history with the river and gives an overview of the river itself; this may sound boring, and almost certainly would be with anyone else, but I long ago decided that even Twain's laundry list would be worth reading, and this certainly is. The magic he seemed to bring to everything is in full force; one would be very hard-pressed to find another non-fiction book that is so entertaining, besides Twain's others of course, but it is also awesomely informative. In addition, Life is historically notable as the first book written on a typewriter, not Huck as is commonly thought; however, it made Twain able to finish Huck, which he had struggled with for some years and set aside. Huck fans and scholars will want to read Life for this alone, but it is more than worthy in itself.

Twain starts by giving some basic facts and history; this is the least interesting part but only lasts a few pages, and I urge anyone bored by it to continue. Much of the information is of course dated but remains historically valuable as a portrait of the river as it then stood. Far more interesting is Twain's unforgettable rundown of his years as a riverboat pilot - a central life experience that led to much of his writing. We get a fascinating glimpse of this long-vanquished trade, which was all but unthinkable even when Life was published. It is important to recall that Twain was a pilot before such boats had steam or even lights at night. He details piloting's extraordinary difficulties with engrossing detail and typical self-deprecating humor. We learn much along the way about the riverboat lifestyle, the river itself, and riverside towns. Anyone curious about what it was like to live in this era and/or how its inhabitants thought and acted will find a wealth of information; we learn as much here as in any history book, and it is of course infinitely better written. Life covers a crucial American history era and is an important primary source even for those not interested in Twain and certainly essential for anyone who is, as it gives substantial background about a crucial part of his life. The book is indeed in part a bildungsroman; Twain had always loved the river and began pilot training soon after first leaving home. He structures the narrative so that it reads much like a story, and we see him grow from naÔveté and ignorance to an admirable experience and wisdom.

Twain then details a trip he made on the river many years later, noting what changed and what stayed the same. There is significant autobiographical material here also, but the crux is descriptive. Twain describes the river's whole length and everything having to do with it as he goes, making it all utterly absorbing. As always, there are many eminently readable tangents. Several are autobiographical - reminisces as well as then recent events. Particularly interesting is Twain's profoundly touching visit to his hometown after a long absence. However, a good part of Life has nothing to do with the river directly but is at least as engrossing as what does. Twain's many asides are full of wit and insight; few have ever probed so deeply into life and humanity, and we are lucky to have his wisdom, much of which is hilarious. Especially engaging are observations on North/South differences, notably including the Civil War. Twain's sociopolitical criticism is also as brilliant as ever, taking on everything from architecture to Walter Raleigh to speech. Finally, Life would be valuable even if lacking all this because it passes on an invaluable treasure of American folklore.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is simply an indispensable part of the American canon. Among many other things, it is a rich, stunningly accurate portrayal of the antebellum South. It is also an enduring portrait of childhood. Quite simply, it is a masterpiece. Huck is a character to whom all can relate, no matter who we are or how ostensibly far removed. The novel's American dialect use was also extremely influential. A quote you often see is the one Ernest Hemingway himself made about this being the American novel's very archetype. And it is true. Tom Sawyer was the first step, but this is the culmination. It is here that American literature found its voice and stepped out from its neglected step-child relationship with English literature, and its immense influence on later American work cannot be overestimated. Finally, its portrayal of slavery was a very immediate thing as well. Its influence on such writers as William Faulkner and John Steinbeck - as well as, in some form, literally all great literature to come from America - is profound. For this reason, and for its sheer adventure and narrative drive, it is an essential read for all.

Though not Mark Twain's best novel, Pudd'nhead Wilson is a major work essential for fans and critics. Published in 1894, it is Twain's last significant novel and in some ways the culmination of prior ones but also looked to the future - not so much his own work as the complex twentieth century novels that it in many ways prefigures.

The basic plot is so improbable as to be near-absurd, a fact exacerbated by simple, melodramatic presentation. This is doubtless partly because Twain wrote at near-superhuman speed when desperately in need of money, doing little revision and not being overly concerned with the book as art. This means Pudd'nhead is not his best literary work but lends the not inconsiderable virtue of extremely fast reading. One can easily plow through in an hour or two - even in one setting - and will likely want to because the story is supremely engrossing, pulling us in immediately and never letting go. In this it is very different from most late Victorian novels. Of course, as always with Twain, the structure is also partly satirical - a parody of the sensational mysteries then wildly popular and which Twain elsewhere mocked. Later works - e.g, Tom Sawyer, Detective - were also structural parodies, but this is significantly more successful. Twain pokes insightful but essentially gentle fun at stories that were ridiculously bombastic. Needless to say, this does not prevent enjoying Pudd'nhead on a very simple level as a murder mystery full of suspense, plot twists, and highly wrought revelations. It is quite likable even on this level and has been enjoyed for over a century on account of this alone.

However, Twain also deals with very serious themes. Like many of Twain's best-known works, this is set in antebellum small town Missouri and gives a fascinating peek into the culture, speech, and landscape of that time and place. This would make the valuable even if it had nothing else, but it also has many other virtues. Twain's wit always had an acerbic streak, but he became increasingly pessimistic and cynical and came to believe in something very near determinism. Pudd'nhead was his first real novelistic expression of this last, vividly dramatizing - in a way recalling but complexly different from The Prince and the Pauper - how environment determines character. The novel leaves very little room for free will - a thought highly disturbing to many; thus, though almost never considered such, Twain was an important member of the naturalist school flourishing near century's end. Even more disturbing is the book's unflinching human evil depiction; Tom is one of the most loathsomely vile characters ever, fully self-absorbed and seemingly conscienceless. Later Twain works focused even more obsessively on humanity's rather large dark side, but this is more than stunning. Unlike those works, mostly unpublished in Twain's life, this is still livened with the light elements mentioned before plus a profusion of the country humor for which Twain had long been famous. Tenuously straddling the line, ostensibly the latter but leaning toward darkness and seemingly struggling to avoid falling in altogether, are the aphorisms beginning each chapter. They usually relate in some way to what follows but are sometimes little more than an excuse for Twain to throw in ever-darkening wit. The sayings, several of which have become among his most famous, have penetrating insight into life and human nature and are so great that the book is well worth buying for them alone.

We think of Twain as epitomizing his era, as he certainly does, but he was also always well ahead of his time in many ways. Quite remarkably considering the brevity and simple structure, Pudd'nhead has many such examples. First, as often with Twain, its race presentation was very advanced. As Langston Hughes observes, the presentation of blacks as human beings by a white Southern writer who grew up with slavery is truly remarkable. Twain was one of his era's great liberals, condemning racism and promoting the essential humanity of all people; that he has become the unfortunate victim of absurdly perverse, politically correct, knee-jerk overreaction is so viciously ironic that it would be hilarious if it were not so sad. The novel was practically revolutionary in showing that people are not good or bad, smart or dumb because of race. The sympathetic picked up the general drift, but the truly nuanced portrayal was virtually unnoticed and did not really reappear in fiction - or indeed science - for several decades. Pudd'nhead deals with complex psychological, sociological, criminological, and Freudian factors when such things were hardly even known concepts. It is also highly noteworthy as a very early depiction of fingerprinting's criminal application - surely the first fictional instance and one of the first period. Hughes points out that that the concept had been proposed only sixteen years before, and initial application began merely two years earlier. It has of course been so ubiquitously used in fiction since that the grand finale is not only obvious almost from the start but seems patently contrived. However, Twain's audience could have had no idea what was coming, and the climax must have been absolutely spellbinding.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 25, 2012 3:33 PM PDT


Concerning the Jews
Concerning the Jews
by Mark Twain
Edition: Paperback
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Essential, but why not get a collection?, July 14, 2010
This review is from: Concerning the Jews (Paperback)
"Concerning the Jews" is one of Mark Twain's most notable non-fiction works and a landmark in writing about Jews, especially among non-Jews. As with African Americans, Twain's comments are sadly often taken out of context to make him seem anti-Semitic, but "Concerning" undeniably shows that he was a passionate Jewish defender. That said, he predicted that the article would please no one, which was essentially true. As always, Twain was blunt and honest, saying what he thought was good and bad about Jews; the remarkable thing is not that he listed some of the latter, but that the former far outweigh them. Very few people were willing to defend Jews at the turn of the twentieth century - especially publicly, especially among the famous. Twain was, and knowledgeable Jews have never forgotten it. He details their sad history of persecution and suggests reasons for it - ones that many on both sides are unwilling to admit but that are very plausibly argued. Twain then makes suggestions for improvement and closes with a stirring finale of praise. He acknowledges the ill treatment of Jews but is optimistic about change; needless to say, the Holocaust crushed this within half a century. "Concerning" remains valuable even so and should be read by all Jews and anyone interested in them as well as anyone wanting insight into the persistent xenophobia of prejudice and xenophobia. We should all remember Twain's words: "All that I care to know is that a man is a human being - that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."

The fact that the essay is available in collections makes a standalone hard to justify, but Twain fans and many others should get "Concerning" in some form.


No Title Available

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, July 13, 2010
"My Platonic Sweetheart" is an obscure Mark Twain work but of interest to fans and others. Despite deep-seated rationality and admiration for science, Twain was very interested in many things that can widely be called paranormal, including dreams. This short piece describes a dream sequence he had over a period of decades and ends with brief reflections on dreams in general. The dreams are interesting, especially as Twain describes them, but no more profound than anyone else's; even so, we can appreciate their importance to him because of our similar experiences. More importantly, dreams' universality makes the article engrossing to all, especially as Twain was one of the first to study them systematically - ahead of his time here as in nearly everything else. We may or may not agree with his closing remarks, but they have undeniable plausibility. All told, fans should certainly read dozens of other Twain works first, but this is worth getting around to, and anyone interested in the interpretation or significance of dreams should do so earlier. Its being available in Twain collections may make a standalone seem hard to justify, but collectors will be thrilled to have a copy of the original publication.


The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper
The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper

4.0 out of 5 stars Great, but why not buy a collection?, July 12, 2010
Mark Twain's attack on author James Fenimore Cooper is one of his best satires, perhaps his best critical writing, and some of the best creative writing advice that exists. It is also very funny. Cooper was perhaps the most popular American novelist through the mid-nineteenth century and remained in vogue until about the twentieth but is now hardly more than a footnote. This is largely because of Twain; Cooper has hardly been mentioned since without Twain's attack being immediately brought up. The latter is probably more widely read than the former, and even many editions of Cooper's work include it. Twain attacks Cooper on many grounds - from realism to grammar to style -, and it is very hard not to agree. Twain is certainly closer to today's ideal, and it is interesting and instructive to compare the two writers and see how much literature has changed. It is also important to realize that much of what Twain says applies to Romanticism generally, especially its American form, which is one of his favorite targets. The essay is essential for Twain fans - as well as Cooper fans, if any still exist - and for anyone wanting to improve writing skills. That said, it is widely available in collections, making a standalone very hard to justify, though it is certainly worth the small cost in itself.


Extracts from Adam's Diary
Extracts from Adam's Diary
by Roy J. Friedman Mark Twain Collection
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.75
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, but why not buy a collection?, July 11, 2010
Extracts from Adam's Diary is one of Mark Twain's most enjoyable short works. A quick read, it first comes off as light and comic, and is certainly very funny, but also has many points of subtle significance. Twain manages to touch on male/female relations, sociology, anthropology, biology, human arrogance, theology, child rearing, and other important subjects in only a few pages - in the guise of comedy! Despite the seemingly limited form, the work portrays the growth of human love more movingly and believably than most far longer pieces and good-naturedly mocks humanity's strange combination of ego and ignorance. It also never ceases to entertain. This is a must for Twain fans and highly recommended for all. That said, Twain returned to the idea of Adam/Eve diaries several times, and they are often published together or even in collections with many other stories, making a standalone very hard to justify.


Toilers of the Sea
Toilers of the Sea
by Victor Hugo
Edition: Paperback
Price: $21.75
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5.0 out of 5 stars Overlooked Greatness, July 9, 2010
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This review is from: Toilers of the Sea (Paperback)
Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are two of the most famous books ever, but his other novels are obscure in English. The Toilers of the Sea is probably his next best known, and though less great than those immortal works, is another masterpiece. Enough of their greatness is present to ensure that anyone who likes them will like it, but it also differs in many ways, meaning those not usually keen on Hugo may enjoy it.

Toilers is certainly not the easiest book to get into. As always with Hugo, there is an incredible amount of exposition; he diametrically opposes present day fiction's cardinal "Show; don't tell!" rule. It must be remembered that photographs were rare, television did not exist, and mass media was unthinkable; readers relied on description to set the scene. Nothing could be taken for granted. This is a large part of the reason that novels through the early twentieth century are so much longer than today's. However, Hugo took this particularly far; he could hardly mention anything - location, person, idea, etc. - without giving a mini essay, or even a full one, about its features, history, and significance and seems addicted to lists. Nineteenth century readers appreciated or even liked this, but it is so different from today's fiction that many will be unable to get past it. This is particularly so in that Hugo makes no attempt to insert them seamlessly; an action scene may be interrupted with twelve or so pages of description. Hugo often seems to forget he is writing a novel, and one can even legitimately call his novels about half non-fiction; some may well forget where the story left off. Toilers has an even higher percentage of this than usual; a fifty page essay about every aspect of the Channel Islands indeed introduces it, and the first fifty or so pages of the story are deep background. As someone who thinks Les Miserables the greatest novel and Hugo the greatest novelist, I admit this is very hard going; I would have given up if it had been almost anyone else. However, I am very glad I did not; as with Les, I would not have cut one word by the end. Hugo masterfully ties it all together, making what seemed superfluous or even perverse in the plot seem inevitable, while the background makes the setting far richer and more believable. Anyone struggling with section one can skip it without significant loss, and most non-narrative sections can be passed over or skimmed without losing the plot. That said, those who do so will miss astonishing detail that makes the book so much deeper, not to mention the writing's sheer brilliance. Even those who think Hugo dreadfully digressive cannot deny the greatness of such passages in themselves; his knowledge's sheer breadth is incredible and his style nearly unmatched. I thus strongly encourage those struggling with Toilers to persevere, even if they find it necessary to skim or get an abridged edition; Hugo at least renders this easy by making non-narrative sections their own chapter and using short chapters generally.

Surprisingly, perhaps even paradoxically, Toilers also has a great amount of high adventure. No one beats Hugo for action when he finally gets down to it; no current thriller writer even approaches him for suspense and excitement. We do not expect such things from nineteenth century works, but Hugo is still supremely entertaining. I guarantee that, hard as it first is to believe, Toilers is almost impossible to put down at several points. Without spoiling anything, suffice it to say that I have read hundreds or thousands of books of all sorts, and this has some of the most exciting scenes. It would be well worth reading for this alone out of sheer escapism.

Of course, as always with Hugo, there is far more. Perhaps most obviously, the characters are wonderfully done. Gilliatt is grand, in some ways reminiscent of Les' immortal Jean Valjean but with many excellent qualities of his own, and Clubin is one of literature's more subtle and memorable villains. The cast is not as large or diverse as other Hugo works', but minor characters are also well-done. Hugo's place evocation is also hardly to be equaled. He dedicates Toilers to the Isle of Guernsey, where he lived in exile, and Toilers overflows with his love of the Channel Islands and surrounding area. His lush descriptions are unforgettable, making an area utterly foreign to nearly everyone seem very real. We can learn a great amount about them, as well as many other things; Hugo was far more than a novelist, and it is impossible not to appreciate and be enlightened by the great amount and variety of information. Only a novelist who was also a poet could write as beautifully as he does, but he goes well beyond what anyone could have expected to include significant amounts of geography, oceanography, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, theology, history, engineering, architecture, biology, meteorology, physics, chemistry, and seemingly everything else. The wealth of data is daunting, and no current reader will get all the contemporary and historical references; anyone wanting to really follow Hugo will need a dictionary and extensive Googling. However, one can get the gist easily enough, and Hugo's detail has an advantage that he likely did not foresee - it lets twenty-first century readers make sense of the book and its world, which would have been impossible otherwise without extensive notes.

This would of course not be a Hugo novel without a healthy dose of weighty themes, and Toilers has more of them than most books despite avoiding his usually overt social/political/theological framework. His main intent was to show Nature's immensity and humanity's difficulty in combating it, which the book does brilliantly; indeed, very few works approach its handling of this common theme. Toilers is also a towering testament to human endurance and vividly shows the harmful effects of poverty, xenophobia, class conflict, and capitalism; it is also an unforgettable portrayal of love's dark side.

All told, though less ambitious and transcendentally great than Hugo's best-known novels, Toilers is an epic of eternal greatness that would be nearly anyone else's masterpiece. It is a must for anyone interested in great literature.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 27, 2012 11:23 AM PDT


Two on a Tower
Two on a Tower
by Thomas Hardy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $32.99
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sadly Overlooked, July 5, 2010
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Two on a Tower is among Thomas Hardy's least known novels, and though not in his top tier, is excellent and would be nearly anyone else's best. It certainly deserves a far wider readership, as it has both many usual strengths and is in several ways unique, making it worthwhile for both fans and others.

The main unique factor is the astronomy focus. Hardy had significant interest in and knowledge of astronomy, which pops up in his work here and there, but only Two deals with it extensively. The main male character is an astronomer, and the field gets considerable attention; readers can learn a fair amount about it from Two, as there are many technical terms, historical references, and other descriptions. The focus is indeed so strong that Two might almost be called proto-science fiction; astronomy is not integral to the plot, but its background importance is very high. Hardy was no scientist but researched extensively, taking great pains to be accurate, and it shows. The science has of course changed much in the century plus since, but the basics here focused on are essentially unaltered, and we also get an interesting historical perspective. Hardy in any case adapts astronomy to his purposes, not least by using terminology metaphorically - a risky move that could have been disastrously corny but is very well-done. More importantly, he shows it through the lens of his infamously pessimistic, naturalist philosophy. Many astronomers think of their field as one of wonder and beauty, but Hardy sees it very differently. Two is well worth reading for these factors alone, especially for anyone interested in astronomy.

The astronomy angle also has other important effects, not least in portraying the scientific mindset and culture of science just as it was beginning to arise. Much later novels like Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith (1925) are almost universally credited with first showing this, but Hardy was far ahead of his time here as in so many ways, essentially displaying it all in 1882. Two even anticipates stereotypes - such as scientists taking things too literally and being socially inept - not common until after World War II. It dramatizes many important related issues: scientists' single-minded devotion to study, the pure vs. practical research problem, the annoying but impossible to ignore finance issue, etc. It also incorporates related themes closer to Hardy's heart-centered, empathy-driven worldview: the problem of study vs. society, love vs. work, etc. Such dynamics are very complex, and he handles them deftly, making them not only interesting and thought-provoking but affecting.

All this may sound as if Two is inaccessible, but it is thankfully very far from so. Early chapters seem to move the book toward true early science fiction, well away from previous Hardy territory, but this soon proves untrue. It changes to his central concern: a story of - in this case quite literally - star-crossed lovers with consequent issues of class, law, morality, and religion. Fans will probably be glad, while some others may be disappointed, but the drama is so well-done that is surely impossible not to be at least moved. This plot aspect is very similar to several other Hardy works, and some elements are virtually verbatim, but many usual strengths are at near full force. Chief among them is Hardy's near-unparalleled portrayal of emotion; whatever else we think of the characters, it would take a hard heart indeed not to feel for them. Hardy always deals in universal human emotions, making his highly dramatic works accessible to all. The characters themselves are also very engaging; Hardy is famous for heroines, and Viviette is another in his long list of great ones and deserves to be much better known. Swithin is in many ways engrossing, if less sympathetic, while Louis and the bishop are two of his more memorable villains. The latter two may be somewhat one-dimensional, but the main characters are richly complex and full of verisimilitude. Finally, Hardy always pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, and Two, like several of his other novels, was viciously attacked, even condemned, for undermining religion, law, and morality. Hardy's 1895 Preface notes that things had changed so much even by then that readers would be hard-pressed to find anything offensive, and Two is so superficially tame by our standards that the very idea of it causing controversy is laughable. However, time has allowed us to get past such trappings and appreciate Hardy's still unfortunately valid points about laws that are unjust and/or nonsensical, a church that is corrupt, and a society that is hypocritically prudish and optimistically self-important.

Strong as Two's core is, occasionally questionable execution keeps it well below Hardy's best. Different as it is in some ways from his other novels, it in other ways exaggerates tendencies that many always dislike in him. The plot is very dense, probably too much for many, with multiple twists in such quick procession that it is easy to dismiss the book as unbelievable. Hardy's heavy coincidence use is often noted; it is common in Victorian fiction but even more so in him, which often annoys those favoring more straightforward recent novels. However, unlike weak writers who rely on it for plot and hope we will not notice, he uses it deliberately and even draws attention to it because of his deterministic beliefs. Fans inevitably come to terms with this, but he arguably simply goes too far here, especially as he does not take as much trouble to justify it as usual. In addition, while there are no plot holes in the usual sense, some points, especially about Louis, are never explained. To be fair, it must be noted that Two has an incredible amount of suspense, far more than we expect from Victorian works. He also has a nearly scientific ability to know what we expect and do something different, which is highly admirable in any writer. On the other hand, the dialogue is also almost certainly Hardy's most artificial - so much so that it is at times nearly risible. Finally, Two is arguably a bit overly melodramatic, especially the rushed ending. Hardy later classed it as one of his "Romances and Fantasies" where realism was not consciously maintained, and his Preface admits the book was not well put together. This is partly because, in contrast to his usual practice, he did not proof the serial or revise for book publication; in addition, several differing manuscripts floated around at once, and not all changes were implemented. Hardy was usually an inveterate reviser but gave Two unusually little attention, and it shows. A thorough revision would likely have fixed at least several weaknesses, but Two is still quite strong.

All told, though Two should be no one's first Hardy novel, anyone who likes his others should certainly pick it up eventually, and those who have disliked one or two may also find it appealing.


All My Sons (Penguin Modern Classics)
All My Sons (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Arthur Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.75
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5.0 out of 5 stars Early Masterpiece, July 2, 2010
All My Sons is one of Arthur Miller's earliest plays; just preceding Death of a Salesman, it was his first success. It remains one of his best works and, though less great than Death, in my view outdoes The Crucible. Anyone interested in Miller should check it out, as should anyone who loves great drama.

Much like Death, All features what first seems a perfect - or at least perfectly ordinary - American family that soon shows significant cracks. This leads to much drama but is not the real focus; the true targets are war profiteering, the American dream, and the conflicting responsibilities of self, family, and society. Miller of course favors the last, and the play powerfully supports his view; whatever one's take on the complex issue, All is certainly moving and thought-provoking. As always with Miller, it gives much to think about without being didactic - a truly rare combination that was key to his success. At least as importantly, the play is profoundly emotional; we are quickly drawn into the family drama and then into the greater one and become deeply engrossed. Clearly influenced by Greek tragedy and Henrik Ibsen but overflowing with unique talent, Miller truly knew how to make a play; All's suspense is great and its ending devastating. The characters are also integral; it is hard to like most of them, but they seem very real, which is of the utmost importance in such a play.

All was the first real bright spot in a career with many to come. Death may be better, but this is also a great introduction and should at any rate be one of the first Miller plays anyone reads.


The American Dream and Zoo Story
The American Dream and Zoo Story
by Edward Albee
Edition: Paperback
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two Solid Plays, July 2, 2010
The Zoo Story and The American Dream are among Edward Albee's earliest, the former being his first performed, and better-known plays. Though not on par with his masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, they are quite worthy. They are also very different from it and each other, showcasing Albee's remarkable diversity and ensuring appeal both to fans of his other work and anyone who likes well-done plays.

Zoo defines simplicity - one act, one setting, two characters, very little action - but in the best sense. Albee has the great dramatist's talent of making us feel strong suspense, even urgency, even when almost nothing actually happens. Zoo draws us in very quickly and does not let go until the last line; it is immensely engrossing. That Albee manages to hold attention so well with so few trappings testifies to his artistry. The play's content can be very quickly summarized, but its significant implications are many and varied. Part realism, part black comedy, part absurdist theater, Zoo is all interesting. Without giving away the plot, since suspense and the central mystery are so integral, Zoo deals with several important themes central to the twentieth century human condition: alienation, interpersonal communication difficulties, class, and humanity's inhumanity. Few playwrights have had such a notable debut.

The American Dream is more ambitious and probably at least as good. A whirlwind satire of the ubiquitous title subject, it satirically attacks many sacred cows. It is indirect but no less biting for that, showing Albee's early deft hand with absurdism. The play is bleak but not without humor, though the humor is quite dark, combining Greek tragedy elements with the most modern techniques. The content was near-shocking and caused quite a stir; it is important to remember that Albee's Preface says the play is meant to offend. It now seems superficially tame, but anyone alive to the real issues sees that it is as provoking and penetrating as ever. The play gives much to think about - especially if we realize our laughter is in self-defense.

All told, though Who's Afraid is the Albee play of choice, anyone interested in him should look into these.


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