The eighteenth volume in the Oxford Mark Twain presents facsimiles of three books within one set of covers: a short story collection called The Stolen White Elephant Etc. from 1882 and novellas called Tom Sawyer, Detective and A Double-Barrelled Detective Story from 1896 and 1902, respectively. This is also like the seventh volume in a row in which the introduction and afterword spend most of their ink talking about how what you either are about to read or have just read sucks. But I thought it was pretty entertaining.

"The Stolen White Elephant" itself is not very good, admittedly — it's a farce, told largely in telegrams, about an incompetent police force. But the piece that follows, "Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion," is flat-out terrific. An account of a trip to Bermuda, it is by turns funny and fascinating, like the best of Twain's travel writing. There's one character in particular who brings down the house multiple times by obtusely asking exactly the wrong question at exactly the wrong time; it is both hilarious and utterly believable, and this story paired with "The Stolen White Elephant" gives powerful support to Dutton's thesis from the first Calendar article that unexaggerated comedy is the best.

"The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" is a great short story, not a half-baked sketch but a satisfying tale with some content to it, and funny too; again, this was 1882, and Twain was at the peak of his powers. A couple of stories later is the famous "Punch, Brothers, Punch" story, and really the book remains highly readable straight through to the final story, "The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton." This is a wacky comedy about a couple of young people who spend day after day locked in their rooms talking to the furniture, and seem to think it is answering. It turns out that they are fairly well-off and are using an exotic new device called a "tele-o-phone" or some such to hold conversations with one another even though they live in different cities! But then a dastardly villain manages to tap into the line and pass himself off as Alonzo, spoiling their romance! Fortunately, his scheme is thwarted, and the lovers are married... over the tele-o-phone! Ah, for fun!

Tom Sawyer, Detective, a decade and a half later, is another one of Twain's attempts to turn a quick buck by tossing Tom and Huck into another generic adventure, this time in the mystery genre that Arthur Conan Doyle had made quite the fad of the day. Great literature it is not, but it's amusing. Huck says, "If you'd lay out a mystery and a pie before me and him, you wouldn't have to say take your choice; it was a thing that would regulate itself." Mmm, pie. A Double-Barrelled Detective Story is better still. It starts as a rather serious revenge tale with a superpowered protagonist, and it looks at first like it will be a globe-spanning tale of pursuit... but then things settle down in a California mining camp. The story changes focus. The protagonist recedes into the background. For no reason whatsoever a minor character is named Ham Sandwich. And then Twain has the audacity to casually drop Sherlock Holmes into his story. I wonder how far I would get if I tossed Harry Potter into the mix in the book I'm working on. Anyway, it's a good time.

More than just a good time is the second volume of Age of Bronze, Sacrifice. I generally don't write up more than the first volume of an ongoing comics series; for instance, I only did an article on the first volume of Powers, though there are now five collections and I own all of them. But it seems to me that every volume of Age of Bronze qualifies as a major event. If you missed the first article from three years ago, here's the basic gist: one guy, Eric Shanower, is doing a comics adaptation of The Iliad in exquisitely detailed pen and ink. Now, here's the thing. I can't read Greek. Nor have I ever really taken to translated epic poetry. Naturally I have studied it, but it wasn't really an immersive experience the way Age of Bronze is. So to me, this isn't a wacky recasting of The Iliad into a fringe genre. To me, this is The Iliad. And it is great.

As noted in my earlier piece, Age of Bronze limits its focus to the humans involved in the Trojan War; they ascribe various events to the intervention of the gods, and priests declare what the gods demand, but the gods themselves are never seen. This of course leaves open the possibility, as the actual Iliad does not, that the central dilemma of this segment of the saga — high king Agamemnon is told that he must sacrifice his beloved daughter Iphigenia before the goddess Artemis will take away the fierce wind that is keeping the Greek ships from sailing to Troy — is prompted by the ravings of a madman hearing the voices of imaginary deities. (Of course, this is how all divine-mandate stories read to an atheist: cf. Joan of Arc.)

Now, as also noted in the previous Age of Bronze writeup, though not in these words, Shanower highlights the base that underlies the superstructure (to use the Marxist terminology) of The Iliad. For instance, while the original text may focus on kidnapped queens and princesses — the abduction of Helen occurs on a mission to "liberate" the Trojan king Priam's sister Hesione from captivity on the island of Salamis — Shanower has Hector explain to Paris, "Now it's becoming clearer... the reason Hesione's suddenly so important after all these years. Menelaus and Priam recently concluded a treaty. Priam is using you to test Menelaus's reliability — and if he can drive a wedge between Lakedaemon and Salamis at the same time, well, the better to divide Achaean strength." The Trojan War as depicted in The Iliad might be about gods and heroes, but in Age of Bronze Shanower reminds us that this is largely stage dressing for a dispute over Black Sea trade routes.

So what is the base underlying the sacrifice of Iphigenia? This is less clear. Shanower hints that its role in the story is to make the point that the leader of an army should share in the burden it bears, both for moral reasons and to win over the troops; though at first the troops are more attached to Palamedes and Ajax and Odysseus than to Agamemnon, they'd follow into Hades a man willing to butcher his own firstborn for the army's cause. (Shades of Michael Moore asking senators to enlist their children in the military.) But it seems to me that there's more to it than that. Even most Marxists today agree that the "vulgar Marxist" principle that everything is based on economics isn't true. This book is called not The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, but just plain old Sacrifice. Animal sacrifice was a huge part of ancient Greek culture. Practically everything you did had to be accompanied by burning an ox bone and some fat, or at least a pinch of incense, and dedicating it to one god or another. (Indeed, another thing Age of Bronze emphasizes is that The Iliad most emphatically does not take place in our culture, and the perspectives and priorities of the characters are not remotely universal across human societies; if myth is anything to go by, Greek society considered failing to sacrifice to the appropriate god just about the worst transgression a person could commit.) Why?

Sure, if you poke around, you'll find explanations: sacrifice was intended to ritually purify people and places, it bound the community together, and so forth... but why? What are the economics underlying the burning of offal? Mark Twain might argue that religion is simply a power grab by the priestly class, but that doesn't seem to answer for the Greeks and their sacrifices. The origin of sacrifice is, I am told, still hotly debated by classics scholars, but what little I've read seems to suggest that it's essentially superstitious: you kill some cattle for a feast, you burn the inedible stuff just to get rid of it, a couple of lucky things happen over the next few days — your enemy falls off a cliff, your wife gets pregnant, whatever — and... hmmm... the gods must have liked those bones you "sent" them! Maybe you ought to do that again the next time you want something lucky to happen! Memes have their own physics. They don't need to be tied to the political economy. It's almost comforting to think that sweet and lovely Iphigenia dies to further her father's military ambitions; the alternative is that her society, like every society, is mad.

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