Samuel Clemens and his friend John T. Lewis in 1903 (Library of Congress)

While showing a picture of Lewis and himself, Twain remarked:

“The colored man. . . is John T. Lewis, a friend of mine. These many years – thirty-four in fact. He was my father-in-law’s coachman forty years ago; was many years a farmer of Quarry Farm, and is still my neighbor. I have not known an honester man nor a more respect-worthy one. Twenty-seven years ago, by the prompt and intelligent exercise of his courage, presence of mind and extraordinary strength, he saved the lives of three relatives of mine, whom a runaway horse was hurrying to destruction. Naturally I hold him in high and grateful regard.”

John T. Lewis was born a “back freeman” in 1835, Carroll County, Maryland, where he lived the first twenty-five years of his life. At the age of 18 he joined the Church of the Brethren, becoming a lifelong member. In 1860 he moved north to Adams County, Pennsylvania, then settled in Elmira, New York. There he married Mary Stover, who was born in slavery.

Author Rating: D

The Handmaid’s Tale (listened to audiobook read by Claire Danes, March 2017; not recommended)

This will be an unpopular opinion but this book is terrible. It’s boring. Twenty-five chapters in and I want to slap the main character, Offred. Just eat the fucking toast already.

I do not understand why this novel is recommended so glowingly by so many. Has anyone actually read it since they were 14, in 1985?  I don’t believe in the dull, gray world, and I have been given no reason to care about any of the characters, least of all the main character, Offred, who is as appealing as gray washwater.

It’s hard to find really good speculative fiction. This doesn’t even rise to the level of passable.   Claire Danes might be a good reader. It’s hard to say given how unremittingly dreary and uninspired this particular book is.

Author Rating: A

Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins, or Anthony Hope as he was known to his readers, was born February 9, 1863, a young contemporary of Thomas Hardy. While Hardy is remembered and celebrated today, Hope is largely forgotten as a writer. I only discovered him by chance while looking through Andy Minter‘s Librivox catalog. I am delighted to have discovered Hope. His writing is quick and engaging.

His tenth novel, published in 1893, The Prisoner of Zenda put Hope firmly on his contemporaneous public’s map and then further popularized when it was made into a movie in 1913, again in 1922 and 1937. Even though he’s forgotten as a writer, his storytelling has influenced movies and TV shows well into the late 20th century. Hope published 32 novels by 1925 and died July 8, 1933.

The Prisoner of Zenda: being the history of three months in the life of an English gentleman (Listened 09/2016) Recommended

Rupert of Hentzau: being the sequel to a story by the same writer entitled the Prisoner of Zenda (Listened 11/2016) Recommended

I listened to both of these as audio recordings, read by the wonderful Andy Minter who brings the stories alive with his deft chracterizations.

The two novels are set in the imaginary central European country of Ruritania, where adventure and true love and heartbreak await.

Author Rating: A+

The Ferryman Institute (Read 11/15/2016) Highly recommended

I absolutely love this book. It is perfect. (Well, there was one typo toward the end but hey).

It’s the story of Charlie Dawson who has labored for 250 years helping people cross over after their death, never failing at his task but heartbroken by the effort. It is well paced, hilarious at times, and utterly convincing in the universe revealed. I won’t give away any more than that because you want to discover it for yourself.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to read this lovely book and look forward patiently to whatever Colin Gigl comes up with next.

Author Rating: Not Yet Read

The Betrothed (Not Yet Read)

“Italy’s greatest novel and a masterpiece of world literature, The Betrothed chronicles the unforgettable romance of Renzo and Lucia, who endure tyranny, war, famine, and plague to be together. Published in 1827 but set two centuries earlier, against the tumultuous backdrop of seventeenth-century Lombardy during the Thirty Years’ War, The Betrothed is the story of two peasant lovers who want nothing more than to marry. Their region of northern Italy is under Spanish occupation, and when the vicious Spaniard Don Rodrigo blocks their union in an attempt to take Lucia for himself, the couple must struggle to persevere against his plots—which include false charges against Renzo and the kidnapping of Lucia by a robber baron called the Unnamed—while beset by the hazards of war, bread riots, and a terrifying outbreak of bubonic plague. First and foremost a love story, the novel also weaves issues of faith, justice, power, and truth into a sweeping epic in the tradition of Ivanhoe, Les Misérables, and War and Peace. Groundbreakingly populist in its day and hugely influential to succeeding generations, Alessandro Manzoni’s masterwork has long been considered one of Italy’s national treasures. Translated by Archibald Colquhoun.”

Project Gutenberg has The Betrothed available to read online or for download to Kindle.

Author Rating: A

The Thirty-Nine Steps (read 9/6/2014)

First published as a magazine serial in the last half of 1915, this is the first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay, adventure hero.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the earliest examples of the ‘man-on-the-run’ thriller archetype subsequently adopted by Hollywood as an often-used plot device. In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan holds up Richard Hannay as an example to his readers of an ordinary man who puts his country’s interests before his own safety. The story was a great success with the men in the First World War trenches. One soldier wrote to Buchan, “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”

Richard Hannay continued his adventures in four subsequent books. Two were set during the war when Hannay continued his undercover work against the Germans and their allies the Turks in Greenmantle and Mr Standfast. The other two stories, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep were set in the post war period when Hannay’s opponents were criminal gangs.

I listened to the Librivox recording read by Adrian Praetellis and enjoyed it very much. I will be on the lookout for Buchan’s other novels.

Author Rating: A

When I indicate “read” in this instance, I actually mean listened to Librivox recordings. I am very surprised that I have never read anything by Burnett (1849-1924). She was left out of what I thought was a comprehensive study of 19th century English literature. I guess the men who organized the list of who is important did not consider her or her subject matter important. Perhaps because, according to the Washington Post at the time of her divorce in 1898, she had “advanced ideas regarding the duties of a wife and the rights of women.” (Gretchen Gerzina, Frances Hodgson Burnett: the unexpected life of the author of The Secret Garden, pg 204)

While Burnett is best known for what are considered children’s stories, she is much more than that. Further, what are deemed “children’s stories” are belittled by that categorization. Her stories are beautifully rendered studies of the lives of women.

The Secret Garden (read 81/2014) Recommended

I listened to the Librivox reading by Caroline Griggs. It is a wonderful story, and Ms. Griggs was a perfect reader. This is not a book to be ignored because it is labeled “children’s literature.”

The Shuttle (read 9/1/2014)

A novel set during the late 19th century when young, wealthy American women were marrying titled but often poor Englishmen. The “shuttle” is a reference to the back-and-forth trans-Atlantic trips made by the rich American women and their would-be titled English suitors. The heroine is Bettina “Betty” Vanderpoel, who travels to England to find her sister who married one of those poor but titled gentlemen and had seemingly forgotten her American family. Betty is a strong, delightful character who, through intelligence and compassion, rights wrongs and finds true love. Burnett is masterful.

The Making of a Marchioness and The Methods of Lady Walderhurst (aka Emily Fox-Seton (read 8/10/2014)

Burnett’s two novels describe the difficulties of women and their limited options. I listened to a Librivox recording, and although these are two novels they are run together into one under the title Emily Fox-Seton.

A Lady of Quality (read 8/20/2014)

Also listened to a Librivox reading. This is a historical novel set in, I believe, the 16th century. Somewhat reminescent of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew,the story opens with the tragic death of Clorinda’s mother who had borne her lord and master many girls but no male heir. Clorinda grows up to turn her father’s opinion of women on its head.