Look closely into one of those white, zephyr-swirled clouds that sharply contrast with the Sierra Nevada's famously cobalt blue sky and it's easy to imagine Mark Twain with his frizzled hair and furry mustache and eyebrows. He's gazing down at Lake Tahoe, smiling.
Four outstanding books about Tahoe have been published 100 years after the death of the great American author who during his time around the lake transformed himself from Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain.
"Tahoe Beneath The Surface" by Scott Lankford was released by Heyday Books in late 2010, and the first part of 2011 had the publications of "A Short History of Lake Tahoe" by Michael Makley, "Fairest Picture: Mark Twain at Lake Tahoe" by David Antonucci, and "Fallen Leaf: A Lake and its People," by Janet Beales Kaidanzis and the Lake Tahoe Historical Society.
The timing is a coincidence considering the years it takes to publish a book. Lankford's, for example, took a decade to compile.
"I didn't know that those other books were going to be published this year," said Makley, a retired history teacher from South Shore. "Those are well done and we all hit it from different angles."
The books have received plenty of rave reviews.
"(Makley's) book should be required reading for every high school senior, make that every adult, living within 200 miles of Lake Tahoe," said McAvoy Layne, who for 24 years has made his living as a Twain impersonator. And Booklist wrote: "Makley's work could serve as a blueprint for writing relevant and engaging regional history."
Antonucci's book, South Lake Tahoe history buff David Borges wrote in a review for Amazon, "is destined to be the best Tahoe history book written. ... (It has) science literature scrutiny standards without the science jargon."
Lankford's interest in Tahoe came about through happenstance when he wound up at Stanford's Sierra Camp at Fallen Leaf Lake. A similar circumstance occurred in 1928 when John Steinbeck penned his first novel.
"I was on my way out to Stanford from the East Coast for graduate school and was offered a summer job," Lankford said. "I ended up most of the next 10 years at Tahoe instead of Palo Alto. Eventually, I got my graduate school degree but it took forever, partly because I was always running back to Tahoe in any kind of ski-bum way that I could.
"I stumbled blindly into this place where John Muir and John Steinbeck and one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century (Bertrand Russell) had all been during pivotal times of their careers."
Makley didn't stumble into Tahoe; he moved here in 1959 with his family. A 1966 graduate of South Tahoe High School, he taught history at his alma mater and one other school for 36 years.
"A Short History of Lake Tahoe" was Makley's fourth with University of Nevada Press, which recently had its second press run for the book. It is the third in a series of "Short History" books. A year earlier he wrote along with his son, Matthew Makley, "Cave Rock: Climbers, Courts, and a Washoe Indian Sacred Place."
"We knew he would be a natural to write the book," said Barbara Berlin, a spokeswoman for the publisher. "He's an engaging writer and he brought it right around. He is amazing."
Makley said it took a year to write the book and another to get it edited and published.
"My interest is in regional history and I had most of the regional history," Makley said. "I spent most of the time looking at old editions of newspapers, the Tahoe Tribune, so it was relatively easy to do. I grew up with a lot of the history and the research is pretty easy."
Antonucci praised his peers' books.
"I highly recommend both," he said. "Makly's book does a real good job on Tahoe history and he condensed it down to what's important and that makes it very readable. Scott's book is very entertaining and he's an excellent storyteller and is able to weave the history Lake Tahoe."
For Antonucci, it was his second book. He wrote "Snowball's Chance: The Story of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games" after he discovered the Games' long-forgotten nordic ski course near his Tahoma home.
He was motivated to write about Twain's time at Tahoe after a Nevada agency lobbied the federal government to designate an area south of Incline Village as "Clemens Cove." Led by a pair of retired Nevada state workers and championed by Layne, the co-proprietor of the Mark Twain Cultural Center at Incline Village, the area to be called Clemens Cove, they said, was the site described by Twain in his book "Roughing It." Twain wrote he accidentally started a wildland fire there.
Antonucci argued at a Nevada State Board on Geographic Names meeting at the Thunderbird Lodge that Clemens had instead camped in an area on the California side of the lake. But the board sided with Robert Stewart, a retired chief of Nevada public affairs, who said the fire occurred in Nevada. Nearly eight months later, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names denied Nevada's recommendation in a 5-4 vote, not because of Antonucci's argument, but because of Clemens' carelessness with a fire.
"We were shot down by Smokey Bear," said Stewart, who will debate Antonucci June 21, 2012 at the Gatekeeper's Museum in Tahoe City.
"I had the book in back of my mind but it was a low priority, but it moved right to the top after the Clemens Cove controversy," Antonucci said. "I felt a book needed to be out there to provide a factual basis because it had just been in my estimation a lot of misinformation about the whole issue."
Antonucci researched all known accounts of Twain's Tahoe visits to justify his theories. An afterthought and perhaps far larger benefit to readers, however, is for geotourism. People in Tahoe can use Antonucci's book to literally walk in Twain's footsteps. All but one of the places Twain visited here are on public land.
Paddle-boarders and kayakers doubtless for years to come will use Antonucci's book as a guide to recreate Twain's "balloon voyages" described in "Roughing It." While Tahoe's water is not nearly as clear as it was in the early 1860s, it is still translucent enough to see, Antonucci said, "giant boulders the size of houses underneath the waters" and to search for the infamous campsite.
The subject of each of the 15 chapters in "Beneath the Surface," could be the topic of an entire book, said Lankford, who in No. 7 titled "Samuel Clemens: Tahoe Twain."
"I think Antonucci's written a brilliant book," Lankford said. "I think that whole debate is really fun. It puts a lot of attention on Mark Twain but I don't have a dog in that fight. My deal is what does Mark Twain's presence there tell us about who he was as he's becoming a writer?
"He's there literally in the middle of the Civil War, and I ask what is the very uncomfortable question, What was Mark Twain's position on the war? And I come up with some pretty creepy answers. I think that early in his career he still has Southern sympathies, which is pretty shocking when 25 years later he's the guy who writes one of the greatest anti racist novels in world history."
While the timing of the four books publications about Lake Tahoe was a coincidence, the December article in Lake Tahoe Action was purposeful. Look closely into one of those fuzzy Sierra clouds and imagine the flowing white beard of ... Santa Claus.
Next week: Learn about a children's book by a Tahoe musician and instructor, check out Lake Tahoe Action's reader's choice national review and find out this publication's selection for Book of the Year.