I am not, in general, a big reader of historical fiction. Not anything against it, I think I’d just rather read the history itself. Nonetheless, when Hilary Mantel died last year I thought I probably ought to check out some of her work. A little leery of wading directly into the Thomas Cromwell books I scanned her bibliography and saw a book called The Giant O’Brien. It rang a small bell and, after a bit of poking around, I found it was about, perhaps, a distant relative.
Said giant was Charles Byrne, who measured over seven-and-a-half feet tall. As chronicled in Mantel’s book, he leaves rural Ireland to go to London and become an attraction. What’s really interesting about the man in the book (whether it tracks reality I don’t know) is that he was very much in control of his exploitation. He’s not a simpleton dragged away from home by someone out to make a quick buck. Rather, he’s well aware of what’s going on and happy to make his way in the world in that manner, with the possibility of a young death hovering over him the whole time.
In the book, Byrne is pursued by a surgeon, John Hunter, who is a collector of “specimens” and wants the giant’s skeleton once he’s dead. Byrne makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want this to happen, but is betrayed by the hangars-on that have come with him to London, who eventually make the deal with Hunter for a few hundred pounds. The result was that Byrne’s skeleton was put on display at Hunter’s museum, where it became the most famous part of its collection.
There is some dispute as to how, precisely, Byrne’s bones came into Hunter’s possession – let’s hope he wasn’t so cruelly betrayed – but there’s no doubt Byrne didn’t want to go on display like a museum piece. Nonetheless, he was and there he hung for the next two centuries.
Until just recently. The museum is nearing reopening after several years of renovation and have announced that Byrne’s skeleton will no longer be on public display:
“What happened historically and what Hunter did was wrong,” said Dawn Kemp, a director at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, of which the Hunterian Museum is now part. “How do you redress some of these historical wrongs? The first step is to take Byrne’s skeleton off display.”
The real question now is what else, if anything, should be done with it. On the one hand, if we’re rectifying historical wrongs and Byrne wished not to be a specimen that should be the end of the discussion. On the other, there is something to be said for having Byrne’s bones around for scientific study:
“We shouldn’t think that we now know everything,” said Marta Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology at Queen Mary University in London, who has researched Byrne’s genes.
The research “isn’t done and dusted,” she added.
Indeed, Byrne’s skeleton has offered up new answers as medicine has evolved. In 1909, an American surgeon studied Byrne’s remains, and discovered that he had a tumor in his brain. Then, about a century later, researchers including Dr. Korbonits extracted DNA from Byrne’s teeth and found that he also had a rare genetic mutation that had been unknown until 2006.
“Without the public view, we wouldn’t have made that link,” Dr. Korbonits said.
I’ll admit, I’m a little conflicted. On the one hand, since I believe that a body after death is just meat and bone and the person who it once was is gone, I don’t get too worked up over what people do with dead bodies, particularly at the remove of a couple of centuries. And if there is some broader benefit for mankind that’s a good thing, right? On the other, disrespecting a person’s wishes is a shitty thing to do and it seems if you’re going to right that wrong you have to go all the way.
In the end, there’s no good answer, given the proven good that having Byrne’s skeleton around has done, although I could see a compromise – since we’ve gotten more out of him than we ever should have, maybe it’s time to say “thanks” and let the guy rest? It’s the least we can do for cousin Charlie.
Sometimes, you just want to say a little about some interesting things . . .
Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide, by Eric Bogosian
On March 15, 1921, a man named Soghomon Tehlirian stepped up to a former high-ranking Turkish official, Talaat Pasha, and shot him dead. At his trial, Tehlirian told of how he had witnesses the murder of his family as part of the Armenian Genocide and had taken the chance to kill Pasha for his role in it (he’d been convicted of his complicity in absentia after World War I). Actor and writer Eric Bogosian thought that story would make a great movie and started writing a screenplay, only to find in his research that Tehlirian didn’t act alone, but was one part of a wide ranging conspiracy called Operation Nemesis to seek some measure of justice for those killed during the genocide. Bogosian wound up writing this book, which is plenty fascinating, but doesn’t quite live up to its goal of getting deep inside the conspiracy, focusing mostly on Tehlerian and his particular act. Fun fact – Bogosian was in Atom Egoyan’s brilliant Ararat, which is partly about making a movie about the Armenian Genocide – he plays the screenwriter.
The Bishop’s Wife
Every holiday season my wife TiVos just about every Christmas movie she can find and I’m always interested in something that’s older that I haven’t seen before. This one (from 1947) is one of the weirder holiday movies I’ve ever seen. Cary Grant plays an angel who comes to the aid of the titular bishop, mostly by wooing his wife (in some markets it was billed Cary and the Bishop’s Wife so as to not seem too religious). I’m not kidding. The bishop makes promises to do all sorts of thing with his wife, but has to cancel to go beg for money to build a pointless cathedral, so Cary steps in and does it all. I kind of like the theory floated by gpph at Rate Your Music that Cary might actually be a demon, more than an angel – that probably would have been a better movie! Still, this is a Christmas movie with precious little of “there’s only one proper way to celebrate Christmas and we’ll beat you over the head with it until you conform,” so that’s a major plus in my book.
Sea of Tranquility
I really really loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (and her recent work to get her divorce cited on her Wikipedia page) and so was a little disappointed with Sea of Tranquility. It starts really well, laying out multiple timelines and a singular bit of weirdness that appears to link them all. When things lose steam, for me, is when we get deep into the time travel stuff at the book’s core, which I just don’t find that compelling (it’s wrapped around the “what if we’re living in a simulation, man?” speculation and at least comes to the correct answer – who cares!). That said, Mandel is just great on a scene level and there are really excellent bits here and there that make it worth the (relatively short) read.
This Hulu series (18 episodes over two seasons so far) has been on our radar for a while, but we only got around to actually digging into it recently. Thankfully, it’s as brilliant as the reviews made it out to be. It’s about four Native American teenagers on a reservation in Oklahoma dealing not only with the regular realities of life, but also the suicide of their best friend, which hangs over the series thus far. If that makes it sound depressing and serious it can certainly be serious (and touching – a scene in the second season finale made me choke up), but it’s hilariously funny in other parts, as well.
The argument is as the headline states it – that novels used to be longer and the fact that people don’t read long novels anymore is a problem. I don’t find it a very compelling argument, for several reasons.
The jumping off point for this observation was the then-looming 100-year anniversaries of two very famous long books – James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (its English translation, anyway). The overwhelming mood of the column is a “they just don’t make ‘em like the used to” and wouldn’t things be better if modern popular culture supported such massive works? Fiction, the author argues, helps build empathy for others and generally leads to a more civilized, less violent society. I don’t disagree (although the cynic in me says look at the 20th Century), but I’m not sure book length makes much of a difference.
Joyce and Proust are odd standard bearers for this argument, too, given that they’re ultimately more talked about then read. Were either best sellers in their time? The author labels them “gravely under-read,” so presumably not. “Proust” has enough pop culture currency to be a solid basis for a silly sketch about trying to summarize his work, but how many people have any idea what it says? As for Joyce, even the author of this column concedes that there are parts of it that are “skippable,” which sounds like a concession that Ulysses is just too damned long.
More to the point, the column ignores or downplays evidence that consumers of media (in whatever form) are more than happy to give over lots of time to various works. He bemoans the fact that Netflix allows viewers to watch things a increased speeds, “as if 90 minutes is now considered an unreasonable amount of time to spend watching a 90-minute movie.” This is slightly out of touch, as the ballooning of movie lengths is pretty regularly commented on. As for Netflix itself, a recurring criticism of its popular documentary shows is that they take what should be a feature-length story and stretch it over hours and hours. Yet people still dive in.
There’s a glancing mention of popular fiction, specifically a recognition that the Harry Potter books that kids eat up are lengthy, but then regret that “between youth and middle age, out enthusiasm for chunky novels recedes.” But is that true? Fantasy and science fiction are two of the most popular fiction genres and they often produce true door stoppers. Per this graphic from Electric LitUlysses is 265,000 words, which is a bunch. But A Game of Thrones, which has sold scads of copies, is 292,000 and it’s the shortest book in that series. Eye of the World, the first of the Wheel of Time series is nearly 306,000 words. Again, it’s sold loads.
Both of those are the first installments of a lengthy series, of course, which gets another overlooked truth of the modern book market – readers really like long, mutli-volume works they can dive into and immerse themselves in. Those series run into the millions of words. In Search of Lost Time, of course, was itself a series of seven books (topping out at just over 1.2 million words – Martin’s at 1.7 with A Song of Ice and Fire and isn’t done yet!). Going back to movies, what does it say that the most successful popular film series of our era tells a complete, interwoven story, over two-dozen-plus movies (not to mention related TV series)? It’s not an indication that people aren’t willing to devote considerable attention to media that moves them.
I’m not trying to equate popular novel series or the Marvel movies with two classics of world literature, but the thesis of this column isn’t that people aren’t reading the right kind of books (although that’s implied), but that they’re not reading ones that are long enough. But that’s simply not true. In whatever form you consume you media – book, film, or TV – people eagerly consume epic stories all the time.
There’s a musical analogy here, too. Progressive rock is famous for artists who indulge in lengthy songs, including side-long epics like “Supper’s Ready” or “Close to the Edge.” It’s to the point that some newer artists think length is as important as anything else when it comes to prog. But the truth is that Gentle Giant did more interesting things in 4 minutes than many bands can do in 20. The only issue should be how long should a particular song – or book or movie – be to get the job done? Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s not.
Looking back on the various media items I consumed the past year – I really need to keep better track of some of them – I was looking for some kind of trend or meaning for what stuck with me. Alas, there really isn’t any, so here’s just a collection of interesting things, both new for 2022 and new to me for 2022.
I didn’t get to sample a whole lot of “new” music in 2022, but it’s unlikely that any would have perched higher in my soul than Marillion’s latest, An Hour Before It’s Dark.
Grappling with COVID-induced lockdowns and fears (which vocalist/lyricist Steve Hogarth initially said they weren’t going to do), the album manages to both dredge up some of the worst of it and still end on a beautiful, hopeful note. It’s not as great an album as Fuck Everyone And Run, but that’s not much of a criticism. That the band has been at it so long and is still so good is either inspirational or enough to make you give up. Either way, I can’t wait for the next one.
In terms of “old” stuff, the complete out-of-the-blue find I had in 2022 was Norwegian band Suburban Savages and their 2021 release Demagogue Days.
Stylistically they’re hard to pin down, with a foot each in surreal Canterbury-style progressive rock and the other in the more avant garde side of things. There’s also a lot of great synth work, which naturally attracts my ears. The title track may be the catchiest use of 7/4 since “Solsbury Hill,” too!
The wife and I still haven’t seen a movie in the theater since COVID hit (more out of inertia more than anything else, I think), so I didn’t get to see a lot of “new” movies in 2022, although we did get to catch up on several big-name flicks over the holidays, most of which (Nope, Glass Onion, etc.) were solidly “meh” in my mind. The standout from 2022, for my money, is The Wonder.
It’s a small, quiet film about an English nurse in post-famine Ireland who is brought in to observe a teenage girl who allegedly is surviving without eating anything. It’s no spoiler to say she’s not what she appears, but the way those around her deal with it are fascinating. The movie has a creepy atmosphere that doesn’t really read “horror,” but makes it feel that way anyway.
For some reason, in 2022, I decided to regularly take a look at the offerings on Turner Classic Movies. As a result, we wound up watching a lot of movies from the 1930s and 1940s, classics that I’d never seen before. Top of the heap for me was Double Indemnity, the 1944 noir classic directed by Billy Wilder.
It’s a pretty sleazy tale for the middle of Code-era Hollywood, but everybody gets theirs in the end, so I suppose that’s justice. All I know is that it’s a ball to watch the plotting and scheming unfold. You can see the DNA in a lot of modern thrillers in it.
I also wanted to give some love to a pair of documentaries I saw this year that dealt with overlooked aspects of music history.
The first, which hardly needs my approval (it won an Oscar, after all), is Summer of Soul, directed by musician Questlove.
It’s about a series of concerts held in Harlem during the summer of 1969, the same year as Woodstock (which overshadowed these shows in the popular conscience). A lot of them were recorded for proposed TV specials that never really happened, so there was a rich treasure trove of performances from the likes of BB King, Stevie Wonder, and Nina Simone. But the movie also gives a lot of context for why these concerts were such a big deal at the time, along with modern feedback from several attendees (and a few performers).
The other gets at the overlooked contributions of women to the development of early electronic music, Sisters With Transistors.
It focuses on real pioneers, including Delia Derbyshire (responsible for the Dr. Who theme, the assembly of which is amazing) and Wendy Carlos (of Switched on Bach fame), so lots of cool archival footage.
First, exiting the stage along with Better Call Saul was, for me, the best sci-fi series of its generation, The Expanse.
As it happens, I read the first book in the series (which I highlighted in my list of favorite recent books last year) before the TV show started so I was already primed to like it, but the adaptation was really excellent. Maybe it lacked swoopy spaceships, but it had compelling characters dealing with real human issues against a backdrop of an existential threat to our species. They didn’t even bowdlerize Avasarala!
One that both came and went in 2022, in that it won’t get a second season, is Archive 81.
Based on a podcast (which does continue past this only season), it’s about a guy hired to digitize a series of videotapes that pull him into a mystery/conspiracy involving a cult and a huge apartment fire decades before. It’s creepy and atmospheric and the cult aspect actually works better than I thought it would. I think the season could stand on its own, but there was clearly an expectation of more given the ending. Oh well.
Hopefully, since we’ve already gotten two (short) seasons, we won’t be denied more of Slow Horses.
Based on the books by Mick Herron, the series is about a clutch of essentially exiled British intelligence agents who either are, or are perceived to be, useless fuck ups. Until somebody thinks they might be useful and then the shit hits the fan. I read the first book before diving into the series and the adaptation was incredibly faithful, right down to Jackson Lamb’s championship flatulence.
I loved Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when it came out and had kind of given up on getting anything else from her when Piranesi appeared in 2020.
It took me a couple of years to get to it, perhaps worried that the slighter volume wouldn’t measure up to its predecessor. I shouldn’t have worried. It’s a beautiful, expertly crafted book and completely different from Strange & Norrell. If you’ve heard people praise Clarke’s work by find the first book’s length a bit daunting, start here. You won’t be disappointed.
After Salman Rushdie was cowardly attacked in New York in August I finally decided to jump into The Satanic Verses.
It was, admittedly, a lot, with a narrative that jumps all over the place in terms of time, place, and tone. Beyond that, Rushdie isn’t exactly sparse with words, spinning sentences that sometimes seem to wrap around you two or three times before the period comes. I found it challenging and exhilarating all at once.
Finally, 2022 was the year I finished up the saga of necromancer Johannes Cabal, with The Brothers Cabal and The Fall of the House of Cabal.
I had a couple of quibbles (I don’t find the fictional nations in the middle of otherwise recognizable Europe very compelling), but overall it was a great ending to the tale of one of my favorite characters. Johannes is deeply cynical, but also funny and honest. You may not like him, but it’s hard to argue with him (to borrow a phrase from Clerks, “he’s blunt, but he makes a point”). The story of his brother, Horst’s, struggles with being a vampire were a fresh take on that theme.
In spite of hosting one, I haven’t really been a podcast listener until this year. For the most part I cherry pick episodes here and there on things that interest me, but there are a couple that became more regular listens this year.
The more entertaining of the two is Discord and Rhyme.
It’s a podcast in which a rotating cast of young(ish) music writers gather to talk through one of their favorite albums. What drew my attention when I was scanning through the back episodes was how many of them involve progressive rock (and adjacent) bands. It’s heartening to hear people not raised in the early 1970s who genuinely like that kind of music (most of them have parents to blame). But even on other albums what works the best is that they’re all coming from a place of love (or at least like) for particular albums, so the talk is engaging, informative, and enthusiastic. It’s much more fun to praise something you love than to tear down something you don’t.
The more aggravating of the two was Hoaxed.
A six-episode podcast, it dives into an incident from the UK in 2014 in which two children accused their father of being part of a cult of devil-worshiping pedophiles. Shades of the 1980s Satanic panic when the kids recant and it turns out that they were put up to it by their mother and her very odd boyfriend. That’s enough to hook you, but the story goes on to cover the backlash against the community when the charges fell apart and whether anybody will ever be held accountable for the damage done. It’s like a QAnon story in miniature. All right – bring on 2023!