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I love Mark Twain. Not just because I love grumpy men (Dylan Moran is my spirit animal) and not just because I love sarcastic humor. I love Twain's ability to poke fun at all of humanity while still acknowledging that we are a splendid, if ridiculous, race. He makes fun of everyone indiscriminately, not excluding himself.

Map taken from The University of Virginia
The Innocents Abroad is Twain's account of his six month trip on a steamer on an "excursion to the Holy Land, Egypt, the Crimea, Greece, and intermediate points of interest." The program of the excursion sounds terribly exciting, even today when travel of this sort is less exotic. As he says, "Who could read the programme of the excursion without longing to make one of the party?"
Starting in New York, the cruise traveled across the Atlantic by way of the Azores and into the Mediterranean--including a trip up the Bosphorus and into the Black Sea. The travelers stopped in ports and traveled by land in most of the countries around that sea, taking a lot of time along the way to visit landmarks and take in the sights (including a meeting with Tsar Alexander II). Twain's blisteringly honest and irreverent observations and accounts of these many countries and famous places as they were in the mid-1800s makes for utterly fascinating and often hilarious reading.

It's not always an easy book to read since there isn't a continuous thread of story. I did find that once put down, I could easily not come back to this book for weeks at a time. Each time I picked it back up though, I fell back in love with Twain.

It is important to read this book with a grain of salt. Twain's views are indicative of the prejudices of the day, and he doesn't hesitate to make offensive observations about the "backwardness" of certain people groups and in fact whole countries and compare them to countries considered more civilized (mainly America and England). But in a way I find it refreshing to know they are his honest views, even if some are ones I disagree with. His honesty means that sometimes he drastically changes his view of a place or people group within the same chapter as he gets to learn more about it and he readily admits to this change of view.
"I set down these first thoughts because they are natural--not because they are just or because it is right to set them down. It is easy for book-makers to say 'I thought so and so as I looked upon such and such a scene'--when the truth is, they thought all those fine things afterwards. One's first thought is not likely to be strictly accurate yet it is no crime to think it and none to write it down, subject to modification by later experience."
But what makes this so very Twain is that amongst all his complaining about and poking fun at other people and cultures he's not above making fun of himself  as well.
I am reminded, now, of one of these complaints of the cookery made by a passenger. The coffee had been steadily growing more and more execrable for the space of three weeks, till at last it had ceased to be coffee altogether and had assumed the nature of mere discolored water — so this person said. He said it was so weak that it was transparent an inch in depth around the edge of the cup. As he approached the table one morning he saw the transparent edge — by means of his extraordinary vision long before he got to his seat. He went back and complained in a high-handed way to Capt. Duncan. He said the coffee was disgraceful. The Captain showed his. It seemed tolerably good. The incipient mutineer was more outraged than ever, then, at what he denounced as the partiality shown the captain’s table over the other tables in the ship. He flourished back and got his cup and set it down triumphantly, and said:
“Just try that mixture once, Captain Duncan.”
He smelt it — tasted it — smiled benignantly — then said:
“It is inferior — for coffee — but it is pretty fair tea.”
The humbled mutineer smelt it, tasted it, and returned to his seat. He had made an egregious ass of himself before the whole ship. He did it no more. After that he took things as they came. That was me.
The Innocents Abroad is quite a wonderful adventure and the reader gets to see Gibraltar, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Israel, Syria, Egypt, and more as they were 150 years ago. Ships, tropical islands, famous cities, exotic cuisine, art, sculpture, architecture, mountains, rivers, lakes, camels, camping, "the orient," the Holy Land, deserts, mummies, pyramids, really what more could you want?

I read half of this book, and listened to the other half when it became clear that I'd never end up finishing it if I read it in the traditional way. I listened to it on Librivox, and John Greenman reads it very well indeed.


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