Review: Stonewall, Martin Duberman

Review: Stonewall, Martin DubermanStonewall by Martin Duberman
ISBN: 0525936025
on May 1st 1993
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

On June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, was raided. But instead of the routine compliance expected by the police, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life. This book tells the story of what happened at Stonewall, recreating those nights in detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Their stories combine into a portrait of the repression that led up to the riots, which culminates when they triumphantly participate in the first gay rights march of 1970.

I wanted to read this book after watching the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha’s longtime friend and a fellow Stonewall veteran, is one of the six gay rights pioneers profiled in Stonewall, alongside Jim Fouratt, Yvonne Flowers, Karla Jay, Craig Rodwell, and Foster Gunnison, Jr. While not all six were present at Stonewall the night of June 28, 1969, each contributed in their way to the burgeoning Gay Rights Movement in the wake of Stonewall. The book is structured as a profile of each of these six people’s lives leading up to Stonewall, their participation (if any) in the events at Stonewall, and their lives post-Stonewall.

If you watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, it’s difficult not to become fascinated by Sylvia Rivera. As a trans woman of color, she landed on the streets of New York at the age of eleven and had a difficult life, often homeless and combatting drug and alcohol problems along with the dangers of living on the street and hustling for money. And yet, her commitment to the Gay Rights Movement is real and heartfelt. Jim Fouratt has claimed that Sylvia was not at Stonewall the first night, but other participants (including Sylvia herself) claim she was. Some have even claimed that Sylvia threw the first bottle or Molotov cocktail, though Sylvia herself denies these accounts. I imagine the scene was chaotic enough that it’s hard to tell who exactly did what and where they were. In any case, Sylvia threw herself into the work of the Gay Rights Movement, founding STAR House (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Marsha. STAR House took in transgender kids, offering them food and shelter. Sylvia advocated for the poor and marginalized in society. At the time of her death, she was directing a food pantry at her church.

Transgender people have been sidelined in the Gay Rights Movement. In 1973, Sylvia left the movement after leaders in the movement attempted to silence her at the annual celebration of gay pride that grew out of Stonewall and has become the annual Pride Parade.

I learned a great deal from this book. I didn’t know anything at all about the Mattachine Society, and none of the figures, aside from Sylvia Rivera, was familiar to me before reading the book. Jim Fouratt was not only an early leader of the Gay Liberation Front but also a friend of Abbie Hoffman’s and one of the Yippies. He later became a music journalist. Karla Jay is a writer and college professor emerita. Craig Rodwell founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (which finally closed its doors in 2009, unable to compete (like so many bookstores) with online outfits. Two figures who are still somewhat enigmatic to me are Foster Gunnison and Yvonne Flowers. Gunnison was a founding member of NACHO (North American Conference of Homophile Organizations) and died shortly after Stonewall was published. He was more conservative than the others profiled and wasn’t involved in Stonewall, though (uncharacteristically for him) approved of what happened there. Yvonne Flowers participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day parade (which I think later became the annual Pride Parade) and was friends with Audre Lorde. Neither she nor Gunnison has a Wikipedia entry, and I couldn’t find much available information without doing some real digging online, though it’s there. I also didn’t realize how difficult it was for lesbians and transgender individuals to be involved in the early movement. I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise, but one might think if you are marginalized in some way yourself, it makes you more open to empathy for other marginalized groups. Not so much. White males dominated the early movement to the extent that many women and transgender people felt shut out.

Stonewall was published in 1993, and the information may be quite dated. Jim Fouratt and Harry Beard, a Stonewall waiter, both claimed that the catalyst for the uprising came when a lesbian dressed in men’s clothing was cuffed, complained the handcuffs were too tight and was then hit with a nightstick. Craig Rodwell insisted that “There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group—of mass—anger” (197). Duberman quotes collective eyewitnesses who “skeptically ask why, if [the lesbian] did exist, she has never stepped forward to claim the credit” (197). However, Stormé DeLarverie has, in fact, claimed to be that person, and several other witnesses have supported her claim. I’m not sure when DeLarverie identified herself, but Duberman didn’t identify her at all in the book, so it stands to reason he didn’t know about her claims when he wrote the book.

I liked the structure of following the six individuals, and the six chosen represent a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, so it’s nice to see that balance. As much as I appreciate the balance of perspectives, it comes at the cost of focusing on individuals who were not involved at Stonewall itself, though it’s hard to deny their importance in the Gay Rights Movement.

The February motif for the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge is to read a book with one word in the title, which is one of the reasons I read Stonewall this month. I obtained this book from my local library.

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Sherlock Holmes: Caught Up

Dancing Men Cipher
AM HERE ABE SLANEY Cipher by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m all caught up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” over the last week.

“The Abbey Grange” involves one of the sharper murder schemes in the series. When Sir Eustace Brackenstall turns up dead, no one much laments, and Inspector Hopkins thinks the notorious Randall Gang might be behind it. But Holmes, as usual, notices a few things that everyone else has missed and puts the pieces together.

In “The Devil’s Foot” Watson thinks he and Holmes are in for some rest and relaxation in Cornwall, but instead find themselves confronting a grisly scene. Three members of the Tregennis family are found sitting around their table. One of them is dead, and the other two are mad. What could have caused it? Obviously not the devil, but that’s how it looks… at first.

In “The Dancing Men,” probably one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes with a mystery: several notes with stick figure men. Surely, they are only childish drawings… except they horrify his wife, who has expressly forbidden Cubitt from asking about her past. Holmes solves the cipher to determine why Mrs. Cubitt feels threatened, but he arrives too late to save his client from the menace behind the coded messages.

In “The Retired Colourman” Josiah Amberley hires Holmes to investigate his wife’s disappearance. He accuses his wife of eloping with a friend of his and making off with a great deal of money in cash and securities. Holmes naturally smells a rat and enlists Watson to dupe Amberley so that he can do some investigating on his own.

BBC’s Sherlock alludes to “The Dancing Men” in two episodes. Ciphers feature in “The Blind Banker,” and the “AM HERE ABE SLANEY” cipher appears on a chalkboard at the end of “The Final Problem” episode. I didn’t notice any other references to these other stories in the series.

“The Abbey Grange”  Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Devil’s Foot” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Dancing Men” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Retired Colourman” Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 44th, 45th, 46th, and 47th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Thor Bridge.”

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Review: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

Review: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House Trade ISBN: 0812971833
on September 30th 2008
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 286
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four-stars

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life—sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition—its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

I can’t remember anymore why I decided to read Olive Kitteridge. I had it in my head somehow that I wouldn’t like it. I do think it’s a bit uneven in that the stories that don’t feature Olive herself seem tangential. In a few cases, Olive is mentioned in a way that seems forced as though Strout was attempting to tie together stories that weren’t tied together. She explains this in the interview in the back: “I chose this form primarily because I envisioned the power of Olive’s character as best told in an episodic manner. I thought the reader might need a little break from her at times, as well” (276). The episodic manner works very well for revealing Olive’s character, as Strout suspected it would.

The best stories told from an alternative point of view are “Pharmacy,” told from Henry Kitteridge’s point of view and “Incoming Tide,” told from Olive’s former student Kevin Coulson’s point of view. The other stories were fine, but in terms of belonging in a collection of stories about Olive, they didn’t quite fit for me. Olive was easily the most intriguing character in the book. It was her personality—at once completely recognizable and by turns compelling and repellent—that kept me turning the pages in this book.

We all know an Olive. She’s hard to like, but I quibble when she’s described as “abrasive.” If she were a man, I’d lay odds that’s not a word anyone would use to describe her. That adjective seems to be applied almost universally to women, who are supposed to be nice and are supposed to be easy to like. Olive would not approve of my saying this, but fuck that. It’s more important to have character. For example, in “A Little Burst,” when Olive draws on her new daughter-in-law’s sweater and steals one of her shoes and a bra after hearing the young woman make fun of the dress Olive had worn to the wedding, all I could think was good for Olive. No, I wouldn’t have liked it if my mother-in-law had done that to me, but I also wouldn’t have been mocking my mother-in-law behind her back at my wedding. Christopher, Olive’s son, seems to have a great deal of difficulty with his mother, and she might not see her parenting in the most accurate light, but he’s a difficult son as well. Henry, the character who suffers most from Olive’s personality, emerges as genuine and caring, and his fate is perhaps most tragic.

Of the stories in the collection, my favorites were “A Little Burst”—which reminds me in the best way of Flannery O’Connor’s writing—and “River,” the final story in the collection. There were moments when I put this book down for a long period of time, but I picked it up thinking I’d like to cross one more unfinished book off my list before the end of the year. Truthfully, the moments when I put the book down were the times when Olive was offstage. She drives the entire book, and I enjoyed the ride very much when she was behind the wheel.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I lied. I thought Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters would be the last book I’d finish for the Backlist Reader ChallengeOlive Kitteridge probably is.

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Review: 1984, George Orwell

Review: 1984, George Orwell1984 by George Orwell, George Orwell, Erich Fromm
Published by New American Library ISBN: 0451524934
on July 1st 1950
Genres: Classic
Pages: 328
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four-stars

Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell's nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff's attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell's prescience of modern life—the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language—and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written.

1984 is one of those books I’d been meaning to get to for a long time, and I didn’t for one reason and another—partly perhaps because I didn’t much like Brave New World; partly because I knew it was pretty depressing; and partly because as an English teacher, I knew the plot and pretty knew much how it would end. It’s an occupational hazard. At any rate, the story is depressingly relevant in ways I’m not sure it was even ten years ago when I read Brave New World. I am glad to be able to cross it off my list. It’s one of those books people are surprised to learn I haven’t read. I guess most people read this novel in school, but I was never assigned many class texts to read until junior year when I moved to Georgia. I can’t even remember reading a book in English class at all in the tenth grade. I don’t feel there is any such thing as a required text that everyone should read. If we want to read classics, we will get to them when we get to them. On the other hand, I also see the value of books that show us who we are and help us understand ourselves and others.

I struggled with how to rate this book because while I can’t say I truly liked it—and it is possible, I think, to like dystopian fiction. I didn’t like the characters or really care too much about them. However, I can also admire it from a philosophical standpoint as a precursor to dystopian fiction that—in my opinion—is both more compelling and better written, such as The Handmaid’s Tale. I can also admire Orwell’s prescience in predicting the ubiquity of television and the creepy surveillance culture, though I’m not sure it existed in 1984 the way it does today. It’s hard to deny the book’s influence on our culture. Most distressing, perhaps, is the way in which our current president’s lies and the “doublespeak” presentation of “alternative facts” makes the book too alarmingly close to reality. Ultimately, I want to have too much faith in the people to prevent a vision like Orwell’s from happening in our time. Yet, Suzanne Collins has said about her series The Hunger Games that there isn’t anything in her books that hasn’t happened in history in one form or other. The same can be said of 1984. I am hoping we all stay vigilant.

Beat the BacklistI’m not sure if I’ll count any additional books for the Beat the Backlist Challenge this year, as 2017 is drawing to a close. This is only the sixth book out of twenty that I had planned to read, but I’ll save my reading challenge progress reflection for another day.

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Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas HardyTess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published by Public Domain Books on December 31st 1969
Genres: Classic
Pages: 411
Format: Audio
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four-stars

The chance discovery by a young peasant woman that she is a descendant of the noble family of d'Urbervilles is to change the course of her life. Tess Durbeyfield leaves home on the first of her fateful journeys and meets the ruthless Alec d'Urberville. Thomas Hardy's impassioned story tells of hope and disappointment, rejection and enduring love.

I have had this book on my TBR pile for a long time, but I was finally moved to pick it up by a recent post on my friend Robin’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf. In this post, Robin, who is a college English professor, writes that Tess is “more relevant than ever” as more and more accusations of sexual harassment and rape come to light, and, as Robin suggests, “certain defenders of Roy Moore, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton have avoided examining too closely what transpired.” Robin’s particular genius is in applying literature to the current moment. He’s a master at seeing literature as a mirror that reflects our world today, no matter when it was written. I’d love to be a student in his class.

Tess is often painted as spineless, lacking any ability to stand up for herself whatsoever. I don’t see her that way. She actually stands up for herself quite a lot. But she is also a lower-class woman in the late nineteenth century, so no one listens to her, and indeed, most people seem to feel they can abuse her however they like. I find it odd that most of the reviews and analyses about Tess that I have read refer to Alec D’Urberville’s rape of Tess as “ambiguous.” I suppose it could be ambiguous if you think her repeated attempts to push him away, her repeated refusals of his advances, and the fact that he came upon her while she was asleep and attacked her “ambiguous.” Seriously? People read it and think it might not have been a rape? That’s precisely why this book matters. As a victim, Tess is even hoodwinked into thinking she is at fault, that she is somehow to blame for being raped. That she is a fallen woman. And due to the Victorian notions of piety, everyone from her family to her rapist to the man she ultimately marries treats her that way. It’s maddening. I definitely don’t see her as someone who doesn’t stand up for herself so much as she is mowed over by a great big tank.

I really disliked Tess’s family, who seem to use her and unfairly depend on her financially. I disliked her husband, who is a hypocritical prig (and Tess should have told him to shove it when he finally showed up, but sometimes we do stupid things when we’re in love). And Alec D’Urberville is the ultimate dastardly villain, even twirling a mustache, for crying out loud.

I’m glad I finally read the book. I have been wanting to for a long time, and though the characterization in the novel suffers because Hardy was trying to make a POINT, the beautiful descriptions of the landscape redeemed the book for me.

As usual, Simon Vance is a brilliant narrator. I highly recommend him if you are looking for audio books and are not sure which narrators to pick.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember when this book first went on my TBR pile, but it was probably years ago, so I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

Unrelated: I have a new plugin that allows me to pull some automated data about books I review, but it also changes the layout of posts a bit. If you have opinions about it, please share.

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Review: Tales of the Peculiar, Ransom Riggs

Ransom Riggs’s Tales of the Peculiar is a collection of short stories presented as folklore from the peculiar world and gathered and edited by Millard Nullings, the invisible boy in his Miss Peregrine series. Each of the stories is a window into the history and beliefs of the peculiar world, including an origin story for the ymbrynes who protect peculiar children in their loops. One major theme that emerges from the stories is to accept yourself just as you are, to accept others as they are, and to avoid letting others take advantage of you or make you ashamed of being yourself.

The collection includes ten stories. Of the ten, my favorites were “The First Ymbryne,” a tale explaining how ymbrynes came to be and began creating loops; “The Woman Who Befriended Ghosts,” which was a story about a peculiar girl whose dead sister was a cherished childhood companion and who used her gift for speaking to ghosts to help people plagued by hauntings; “The Girl Who Could Tame Nightmares,” which was the story of a girl who removed people’s nightmares but discovered perhaps nightmares serve a purpose; and “The Locust,” an interesting tale of a boy whose peculiar talent is that he shapeshifts into the form of creatures who show him the most love. All of the stories were entertaining peeks back into the peculiar world. They are excellent on their own, but they are also great for fans of the Miss Peregrine series. You do not have to have read the series to enjoy the books, and they might be a great introduction to people who want to read the series and want a small taste first. Some of the stories are downright creepy, and the collection as a whole (as is true of the entire Miss Peregrine series) is perfect for the R. I. P. Challenge if you’re looking for one last book to squeeze in.

Rating: ★★★★☆

R. I. P. XII

 

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Review: The Hearts We Sold, Emily Lloyd-Jones

Emily Lloyd-Jones’s novel The Hearts We Sold is probably not a book I’d have picked up on my own, but it shipped in my last Owl Crate. I read the book’s cover blurb and realized it would be perfect for theR. I. P. Challenge, so I dove in.

The Hearts We Sold is the story of Dee Moreno, a student at a boarding school in Portland, Oregon. Dee discovers that the school doesn’t have the funds to continue her scholarship, and knowing her parents, abusive and neglectful alcoholics, will never give her the money she needs to keep attending school, she finds herself willing to try something desperate. So she makes a deal with a demon. She trades her heart to him for two years in exchange for money to attend school. But her deal comes with a price—she must help him wage a war against strange monsters appearing in voids. Dee befriends the other members of the demon’s other “heartless” gang, but she quickly realizes that she has chosen a dangerous path, and she might have more to lose than her heart.

This book kept me turning pages. I think it’s intended teen audience would enjoy it. It’s honest, and it includes some diversity in its cast, including a lesbian character and a transgender character; however, they aren’t exactly major characters. Dee shows strength in dealing with her family’s problems, but her parents are bit one-dimensional, and it bugged me for some reason that the author referred to them, when she named them, as Mr. Moreno and Mrs. Moreno. It felt like they didn’t have any identities. I think I would even have preferred something like “her father” or “her mother.” Probably it wouldn’t bother most people. I’m noticing a trend in YA fiction in which it seems secondary characters (at least, usually secondary) have to be quirky in ways that don’t seem important or maybe don’t make sense. For example, Dee’s roommate not only has the odd name Gremma, but she also vivisects her teddy bears because she’s interested in medicine. That makes no sense to me because vivisecting teddy bears won’t help anyone learn anything about anatomy. I could see it if she were dissecting animals or something, but perhaps that was a bit too gross. I guess this trend just reminds me too much of the “manic pixie dream girl” thing that ran rampant in movies a few years back. I do like the fairy tale allusions and there were some other fun surprises along the way, too. The book was a fun diversion, though, and if anyone’s looking for something new to read for the R. I. P. Challenge, you might check it out.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I am counting this book as my second selection for this year’s R. I. P. Challenge.

R. I. P. XII

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Sherlock Holmes: Three Short Stories

The Red-Headed League
Illustration of “The Red-Headed League” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

After school started again, I fell a bit behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, in part because I needed to finish our all-school summer reading book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As of today, I’m all caught up, having read “The Copper Beeches” and “The Red-Headed League.” I had read “The Blue Carbuncle” some time back but neglected to blog about it.

“The Blue Carbuncle” takes place at Christmas and involves the loss of a large, blue jewel. An innocent man is accused of stealing the jewel. After the jewel is found in the crop of a Christmas goose (geese don’t have crops, by the way), Holmes deduces how the theft was carried out and by whom.

In “The Copper Beeches,” a young woman consults Holmes over whether she should accept a governess job that seems too good to be true. The pay is three times as high as typical pay, but she will need to cut off her long chestnut hair, wear a blue dress, and sit in a window. Discomfited by the odd requests, but attracted by the pay, the client retains Holmes’s help after finding a hidden room in an unused wing of the house.

“The Red-Headed League” is the story of a mysterious beneficence offered to redheaded men in exchange for light work four hours a day. Jabez Wilson consults Holmes after showing up for this work only to see a cardboard sign indicating the League has been dissolved. Holmes quickly deduces that Wilson has been taken in and that a more serious crime is about to take place.

All three of these stories are classics, frequently filmed or otherwise anthologized. I enjoyed all three. It had been a long time since I had read them. All three are excellent examples of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the height of his mystery-writing powers. If forced to pick a favorite of the three, I’d say “The Copper Beeches” for its atmosphere.

None of the three is explicitly the focus of any BBC Sherlock episodes on their own, but the deduction competition in the episode “The Empty Hearse” has a phrenology reference similar to the one in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Other than that minor reference, I can’t recall any references to either “The Copper Beeches” or “The Red-Headed League” in the series.

“The Blue Carbuncle” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Copper Beeches” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Red-Headed League” Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, and twenty-ninth stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Charles Augustus Milverton.”

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Sherlock Holmes: “The Engineer’s Thumb” and “The Cardboard Box,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Engineer's Thumb
Illustration for “The Engineer’s Thumb by Sidney Paget for The Strand

After finishing “The Engineer’s Thumb” and “The Cardboard Box,” I am caught up on the  Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It’s strange that these two stories would fall one after the other in the chronology as both feature grisly dismembered appendages.

“The Engineer’s Thumb” is unique in that Watson first encounters a mystery that he brings to Sherlock Holmes rather than the other way around, which is more typical. Watson receives a patient whose thumb has been severed—the patient says purposely and with murderous intent—and he takes Victor Hatherley, the unfortunate engineer of the title, to Sherlock Holmes so that his friend can look into the man’s case. Hatherley recounts his story to Holmes, and it is clear the man was lucky to escape with his life after discovering an illegal counterfeit operation. This story is unique also in that Holmes does not bring the criminals to justice, as the remote house where they carried out their operation has burned and they have escaped.

In “The Cardboard Box,” Holmes is consulted because a woman named Susan Cushing has received a mysterious package addressed to “S. Cushing” containing two ears, and she can’t imagine why on earth anyone would send her such a ghastly package unless it is a couple of disgruntled former boarders who happened to be medical students. Holmes deduces that the package was not meant for the Susan, but for her sister Sarah, who until recently lived with the woman. He also deduces that one of the ears belongs to a third sister Mary, based on its similarity to those of Susan. With a few quick deductions, he nabs the culprit, who confesses all.

Both of these stories are a bit more grisly than is typical for Sherlock Holmes stories, and both contain surprises, but I wouldn’t rate either among the best I’ve read. The BBC Sherlock series doesn’t allude to either story that I can recall. Also, it appears that Conan Doyle has mixed up his chronology, as Watson is living at Baker Street during “The Cardboard Box,” supposedly after he has married Mary. I’m not going to theorize that there was trouble in the Watson marriage. Looks like a simple goof to me.

“The Cardboard Box” does have an interesting and introspective ending, furnished by Sherlock Holmes:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

“The Engineer’s Thumb” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Cardboard Box” Rating: ★★★★☆

I read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is the final novel in the chronology, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

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Sherlock Holmes: “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Man with the Twisted Lip
Illustration for “The Man with the Twisted Lip” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m behind in the  Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. In an effort to try to catch up a bit, I read two stories this week, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Man with the Twisted Lip.”

Sherlock Holmes becomes involved in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” when Lestrade consults the detective after the murder of a landowner in Herefordshire. The murdered man’s son looks guilty, but Holmes doesn’t believe the son is the culprit. Using footprint analysis and a quick inspection of the grounds, Holmes affirms the son couldn’t have killed his father and unravels the mystery.

In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Holmes has gone undercover to determine what has happened to Neville St. Clair. Watson discovers Holmes in disguise in an opium den, where he has gone to retrieve a patient, who also happens to be the husband of Mary Watson’s friend Kate Whitney. Watson is shocked to see Holmes in such a place but quickly recovers when Holmes offers him the opportunity to be involved in the case of the missing Mr. St. Clair. Mrs. St. Clair is sure her husband is alive after receiving a letter from him that was posted after he went missing. A beggar named Hugh Boone has been arrested under suspicion of being involved in St. Clair’s disappearance, as Boone was in a room in that same opium den in which Mrs. St. Clair clearly saw her husband from a window. Holmes seems stumped by the case for a time but resolves the matter at last.

Of these two stories, I liked “The Man with the Twisted Lip” better, though both were fairly good. The opening of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is so compelling and well-written.

Isa Whitney, brother of the late Elias Whitney, D. D., Principal of the Theological College of St. George’s, was much addicted to opium. The habit grew upon him, as I understand, from some foolish freak when he was at college; for having read De Quincey’s description of his dreams and sensations, he had drenched his tobacco with laudanum in an attempt to produce the same effects. He found, as so many more have done, that the practice is easier to attain than to get rid of, and for many years he continued to be a slave to the drug, an object of mingled horror and pity to his friends and relatives. I can see him now, with yellow, pasty face, drooping lids, and pin-point pupils, all huddled in a chair, the wreck and ruin of a noble man.

I can’t find any reference to “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” in the BBC series Sherlock, but the story does involve a common trope in Sherlock Holmes stories—murder in the countryside, the most obvious suspect didn’t do it. However, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is alluded to in the episode “His Last Vow,” when Watson discovers Sherlock in a crack house similar to the opium den in the short story. He is undercover for a case, but Watson isn’t having it. As an interesting aside, opium wasn’t illegal when the story is set. It was definitely associated with the seedy underbelly of society, but the opium den in the story is a perfectly legal business. By the time in which the Sherlock series is set, such an establishment would definitely be illegal, and the dangers of drug use would be more widely known. I always appreciated that Conan Doyle’s Watson expressed disapproval of drug use even when it was legal and encouraged Sherlock Holmes to stop using cocaine.

As an interesting aside, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is also the story with the inconsistency regarding Watson’s name. He is usually called John Watson, but Mary calls him James in this story. It’s probably an oversight on Conan Doyle’s part, but much has been made of the confusion, which Conan Doyle apparently never addressed. Some have theorized that Mary calls him James because his middle name is Hamish, which is a variant of James. He is known as John H. Watson elsewhere. In the BBC Sherlock series, Watson tells Sherlock and Irene Adler his middle name is Hamish if they’re looking for baby names.

“The Boscombe Valley Mystery” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Man with the Twisted Lip” Rating: ★★★★★

I read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-second and twenty-third stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Engineer’s Thumb,” which I will read with “The Cardboard Box” in order to catch up completely.

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