Layne, McAvoy. Mark Twain's Letters from Hawaii. Auburn, CA: The Audio Partners Publishing Corporation 2004. 3 hours 9 minutes. 3 compact discs. $24.95. ISBN 1572704284.

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The following review appeared 26 February 2005 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2005 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by
Doug Bridges

The Queen of Excess, Mae West, said it best: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful." More of Mark Twain, in any format, truly is wonderful. The Audio Partners abridged version of Mark Twain's Letters from Hawaii is tasty enough to make a cat cry. Like a young lady's skirt should be, the audio is long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting. At three hours, the recording is a comfortable evening escaping television or is just the balm to ease the morning and evening commute for a week or so. It does not contain all the material previous book versions of the same contain. So what? The unwashed masses probably have not read the printed editions--but they might enjoy a tidbit delivered through the ear--and that might stir them to read something else of Twain.

The content of the recordings is based on a series of twenty-five letters that a relatively unknown journalist named Mark Twain wrote for the Sacramento Daily Union in 1866 when he spent four months in Hawaii, known then as the Sandwich Islands.

McAvoy Layne is a Mark Twain impersonator and former resident of Hawaii. His career there included working as a news director of a few different radio stations. Layne's performance is clear, distinct, properly interpretive and convincingly emoted. He lightly massages the multi-syllabic native Hawaiian words such as "ahahui kaahumanu" and "Kamehameha" effortlessly and convincingly. Layne's diction and pronunciation truly are admirable. However, even Layne misses a note now and then, mispronouncing a few words such as "pestilence" which he pronounces "peshtilence" and "conjecture" which comes out as "conjecshture" and occasionally comes short of perfection in intonation. But this reviewer is not pedantic and will take his sugar with a bit of grit mixed in and still be happy.

Nothing is perfect. There are minor faults with the abridgement. A bit too much time is devoted to the death and funeral customs of a certain princess (not Diana) and I could have stood a little less of the wreck of the clipper ship Hornet (big news then, but now...hardly). But the good trumps the bad and when I hear McAvoy Twain tell about his journey on the mule Oahu or about his attempts to ease the seasickness of passenger Brown, or about his keen-eyed enjoyment of the local custom of nudity among the young native girls while swimming, then I snicker, giggle, chuckle and guffaw. And when I hear again about Captain Cook's slaying by the native Hawaiians, hearing both the English history and the native version of the event, I believe both sides of the story and even remember being there myself, so convincing is Twain/Layne.

As noted, the audio is an abridgment of previous print versions of Twain's letters. There are no reference notes to indicate which printed edition the producers used for their source material. This reviewer compared the recordings to the University of Hawaii Press edition of 1975. The audio contains only about one-fifth of the material in that book. The audio is organized such that it follows the organization or order of the material in the book, but in no case does the audio contain a full chapter or letter from the book. One assumes that marketing considerations drove the design and content of the audio, but one wonders about the actual editing that resulted in tedious details about the clipper ship Hornet while leaving out hilarious commentary on the poor quality of cigars available in Hawaii in Twain's day, when Twain said it took a couple tons of the local smokes to satisfy one man one evening. And the recording has at least one instance of possible bowdlerization. In the book, Twain once referred to Balboa as an "infatuated old ass" but the audio is satisfied calling him an "infatuated old man." Since no source for the letters used in this production is given, the question of who made such editorial revisions remains unanswered.

The bottom line? The audio is a good effort, entertaining for Twainiacs undoubtedly.


The reviewer, Doug Bridges, teaches American literature at Polk County High School, Columbus, NC. He is a Twainiac, which explains a lot.