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Quality time spent with Mark Twain ... and Harry Potter

Daffodils are popping up, a sign that spring is just over the hill in the Siskiyou Mountains south of Jacksonville.

The emerging narcissus remind me I need to finish the "Autobiography of Mark Twain," the 736-page tome I received for Christmas from a daughter and her significant other.

Like many folks, I am a foul-weather bookworm.

Once the weather turns fair, I read less and spend more time outdoors, albeit summer nights still find me in bed with a book in hand. Unfortunately, Twain's hardback is so heavy I wouldn't want to fall asleep while reading it in bed. You could bonk yourself on the nose. A broken proboscis is the last thing this weathered mug needs.

Yes, perhaps it is time I make the switch to electronic books. But I will miss the smell and feel of a solid book.

During a stormy day, give me a good book, a crackling fire in the wood stove, a dog snoozing at my feet and a cat purring in my lap. We're talking heaven here.

Twain has had some stiff competition this winter. I usually have three books going at once — one on the night stand, another in the living room and one waiting upstairs in my writing loft.

At one point I was reading "The River of Doubt" in the bedroom, joining Teddy Roosevelt on his near-death experience in the Amazon jungle in 1914.

Waiting in the living room was legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett, a fascinating fellow known for his forced marches into the Amazon.

"The Lost City of Z" tells of his mysterious disappearance in the jungle in 1925.

And upstairs sat George Armstrong Custer who, along with one of my maternal ancestors, would meet his end in "A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn." A good book, though Custer is not my favorite person.

During the warmer days I read "The Mammoth Book of Polar Journeys," accompanying the likes of Amundson, Scott and Shackleton into the brrrrrr country.

As a former Alaskan who has been in the Arctic, I can say I'd rather perish in the numbing cold than die from a high fever in a steaming jungle lurking with leeches and God knows what.

And there was "Unbroken," a book an anonymous reader kindly dropped off at the office for me. It's an incredible tale about a World War II Army Air Corps bombardier who became a POW after his plane went down in the Pacific.

When I tired of history this winter, I turned to the fiction experts. This season's reading included "Jaybar Crowe" by Wendell Barry, "Alpine Tales" by Paul Willis, "A Painted House" by John Grisham and even "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling.

I thoroughly enjoyed them all, even the adventure with the Potter lad. My excuse for reading it was to see what our grandchildren are reading. Turns out it was a real hoot.

But Twain is one of the few authors who makes me laugh out loud. My guffaws invariably cause the canines and felines to lift their furry heads, no doubt wondering whether I've been in the cat nip again.

In my book, Mark Twain, the nom de plume of Samuel Clemens, is one of the great writers of all time. Whether he is writing fiction or fact, he prompts you to rethink your views of the world.

Twain died 101 years ago this year, leaving behind a huge amount of unpublished material, much of which he didn't want published until a century after his death.

Published last fall by the University of California Press, the book is a bit daunting at first heft ... and the material starts out a bit dry.

But his self-reflective, humorous best quickly breaks through as he talks about family and friends, politics and religion. He wasn't too keen on hypocrites, be they politicians or preachers.

He talks rather than writes, as much of it was told to a stenographer. As a result, it flows like the veteran storyteller he was, telling of his life and times.

You come to know the love of his life, his wife, Olivia, the lady who fondly referred to him as "Youth." You meet their delightful daughters and family pets. You hear their laughter and feel their heartbreak as they make their way through this thing called life.

I should wrap up the wonderful tome in a few weeks. Fortunately, two more volumes of his autobiography are waiting to be published. I just hope the next installment is completed before the snow begins to fly next winter.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.