Shelf Life

On Twain

Mark Twain with his companion, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon. Mark Twain with his companion, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon. (Courtesy of Robert Slotta)
By Jan Gardner
Globe Correspondent / March 21, 2010

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On Twain
Samuel Clemens, the riverboat pilot who reinvented himself as Mark Twain, is still being studied and celebrated a century after his death on April 21, 1910.

Missouri and the Mississippi River loom large in Twain’s life but the city of Hartford claims a piece of his soul, too, because it was there that he wrote some of his best-loved books. A chamber opera and play based on “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’’ will debut in Hartford, and the Mark Twain House, where the author lived from 1871 to 1891, is hosting a number of talks as well as a Victorian-style séance.

Two new books, “Mark Twain: Man in White’’ (Random House) by Michael Shelden and “Mark Twain’s Other Woman’’ (Knopf) by Laura Skandera Trombley, focus on his final years. Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, the “other woman’’ in Trombley’s book, plays a prominent role in Shelden’s book as well. After Twain’s wife died, Lyon became Twain’s companion, secretary, and household manager. When the relationship soured, Twain fired her, calling her “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.’’

“Mark Twain’s Book of Animals’’ (University of California), with illustrations by Barry Moser, and “Who is Mark Twain?’’ (HarperStudio) collect his lesser-known writings. The latter includes the essays, “Happy Memories of the Dental Chair’’ and “The Privilege of the Grave.’’

Finally, “Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain’’ (Simon & Schuster) by Roy Morris Jr. is an entertaining account of how Clemens reinvented himself when he was 25. He tried his hand at newspaper reporting, had near-constant run-ins with his editors, enjoyed a few publishing successes, and turned to the stage, becoming a popular author, humorist, and performer.

Walcott returns
Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992, will read from his new book of poems at 7:30 p.m. April 6 at Lesley University’s Marran Theater, 45 Oxford St., Cambridge. Walcott, born in St. Lucia in 1930, examines Caribbean life and aging in “White Egrets’’ (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). After teaching at Boston University for many years, he is now a scholar in residence at the University of Alberta.

Literacy and prison
Can reading change prisoners’ lives? The Boston Athenaeum and Suffolk University are cosponsoring a panel discussion on April 8 about literacy and prison. Panelists include Robert Waxler, cofounder of an alternative sentencing program that sponsors literature seminars, and Jill McDonough, who teaches incarcerated college students. Author Jack Gantos, who as a young man spent 15 months in a federal prison for drug smuggling, will moderate. The event starts at 6 p.m. at the athenaeum. Reservations will be accepted starting Friday. Call 617-720-7600.

Coming out
■“What Is This Thing Called Love?’’ by Gene Wilder (St. Martin’s)

■ “For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History’’ by Sarah Rose (Viking)

■“The Glass Industry in South Boston,’’ by Joan E. Kaiser (University Press of New England)

Pick of the week
Dana Brigham of the Brookline Booksmith recommends “Making Toast’’ by Roger Rosenblatt (Ecco): “After the death of their married daughter, Roger Rosenblatt and his wife take on all they can to help their son-in-law and grandchildren. The pain of the story is beautifully mitigated by the elegance of the language. This is a book to cherish.’’

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanL