Books: 1491, How Conversations Work
Movies: Into the Spider-Verse
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
This is Mr. Mann's nonfiction treatise about what the Americas looked like just before the arrival of Columbus.
Obviously that's a massive topic, but Mann manages to keep it from feeling scattershot. Overall, things boil down to three points:
1. European diseases were more lethal than we had imagined, possibly killing off 95% of the Americas ahead of the colonists' expansion. Ergo:
2. Most of our written records of native populations are not of the pre-Columbian civilizations, but of the scattered, post-apocalyptic remnants of societies that had just collapsed. Meaning:
3. We've wildly underestimated just what those civilizations were doing, in everything from technology to art to land management.
That latter point — the land management — is just one fascinating example. History has been replete with, say, westerners wandering through the Amazon, remarking how wonderful it is that all these trees around them have edible fruit. Few westerners have remarked, "Hey, I wonder if other people planted these edible-fruit trees that are all around us." Nope, it's just colonizers who looked at some desperately-scraping-by band of survivors and thought, "*They* could never have had any effect on the ecosystem."
And so it is throughout the book — Mann builds his case carefully and patiently, drawing on a wealth of research, and steel-manning dissenters' counterarguments as best he can. And that through-line lets him present a wide range of material — we're talking about hundreds, if not thousands, of discrete societies in the Americas — as a single story.
It's fascinating, too, to see *how* archaeologists do their job — specifically, how they can find any information about ancient civilizations when the remaining information is scant. You see them patiently piece together old codices, or puzzle out the shapes of old burial mounds, or sort out animal bones from a midden. You watch them correlate dozens of references to, say, different parts of a Peruvian royal line, and eventually get the whole picture to emerge. And in the Amazon, where the location utterly destroys anything that's made of fabric or wood, the whole thing gets kicked up to the 'legendary' difficulty level.
The only drawbacks here are that (1) it is a pretty erudite subject — fun to learn, but you don't see any application for the knowledge, and (2) he presents so many figures who dissent from this archaeological consensus that one starts wondering how strong of a consensus it is. Though if I'm honest with myself, that latter point may have less to do with the book than with my own upbringing, with well-meaning Kentuckians either ignoring or minimizing the societies and accomplishments of the pre-Columbian world.
Still, it's a well-written work, and if you're into history, it's a fascinating look into a world that few of us really know anything about.
How Conversations Work: 6 Lessons for Better Communication by Anne Curzan [audiocourse]
This is the 2013 Teaching Company course with tips on how to be a better conversationalist.
Sadly, I can't really recommend this course. The structure is all over the place — there's no central thesis to the work, so it's sort of like an extended listicle of conversation tips. And even for a listicle, it bops all over the place, from general insights into how people converse, to having difficult conversations with superiors at work, to how to model good conversational styles for children, and on and on.
The material is mostly familiar. It's usually informed by psychological research, a lot of which is known to lay listeners. The research is presented very much in passing. I can't remember if the course cited Amy Cuddy's "power posing" research without mentioning that it's been entirely unreproducible, but it's the sort of course that would do that. The techniques themselves are often a little too vague — too much towards the "just be good at talking!" end of the spectrum — to be actionable and useful.
The lectures are ably presented — Curzan is good at presenting the material, and the occasional use of actors to demonstrate conversational styles helps illustrate her points nicely. But again, the material itself feels mostly unhelpful.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This is the 2018 surprise hit animated superhero origin story for Miles Morales. After being bitten by a science-lab spider, he becomes Spider-Man, only to be joined by a squad of alternate-universe Spider-People to take down Kingpin.
Yes, this movie is as good as everyone says it is. Yes, you need to see it. And yes, you probably need to see it in the theater.
That said, it's kind of hard to find anything to say about it other than shrugging and saying "It's a good movie."
The animation style is unprecedented. Yes, it's CGI, but I don't think I've ever seen CGI deployed with such style and intention. It's so affectionate to the form of comic books — from the speech bubbles, to the writer/artist easter eggs, to the carefully 3d-rendered ink lines, to "BAGEL!" — without feeling gimmicky about it. It's not "Oh hey look we did a comic-book thing", but rather "We love comic books so, so much."
And they're brilliantly using animation *style* to tell the story. Each Spider-Entity comes from its own universe, and each universe has its own artistic style. Even Spider-Gwen evokes a world that fans can pin down to one particular artist. And then they're able to use those different styles to convey the 'glitching' in Miles Morales's reality. And it's astounding to watch them go to (what I would clumsily call) "full Kirby" in the finale, with impossible color gradients, floating buses, and spinning, fractured city skylines.
It's deeply satisfying to see animation doing things that *had* to be animated.
The storytelling is very strong. You can quibble with how it relies on coincidences here and there, but they pick their improbable plot moves judiciously, and they tend to happen early in the story (where coincidence is more forgivable), and they inevitably move the story in a really good direction. So: when a hero just happens to punch more punchier at the end of a superhero story, that's shitty coincidence. But when, say, Spider-Gwen's spidey sense directs her to go straight to Miles's boarding school and pretend to be a student: that's coincidence, yes, but it's early on, it doesn't make life easier for *anybody*, and it moves the story along.
And beyond that, they just get the basic stuff right. They do an amazing job of quickly establishing a half-dozen minor characters — within about eight seconds, for example, you know exactly who Spider-Man Noir is and exactly how he'll roll with any given situation. They also blaze through exposition flawlessly — we get info-dumps when we desperately want the explanations, and they're provided concisely and humorously. Right, and the last point: the jokes work. They're able to parlay the strong characterizations into strong character humor — people are funny not because they're witty, but because they're just so strongly being themselves. (Think of Miles trying and failing to sing "Sunflower" at a crucial plot juncture.)
And the strong characters make the more standard superhero bits feel reinvigorated and engaging. Yes, they do the usual "the team splits up and does a few different action scenes simultaneously" thing towards the end, but it draws you in because, among other things, it's these sharp characters doing the action. And they build Peter Parker so strongly that his character arc — his objective to find his feet again after divorcing Mary Jane — is incredibly moving, even though it's absolutely by-the-numbers.
Anyway, everyone's been telling you that you need to see this movie, and now I'm telling you that you need to see this movie. Go and see it.
For next week: I'm watching season one of The Leftovers and season one of Wynnona Earp. I'm also reading Matt Fraction's run on Hawkeye and listening to an audiocourse about emergency medicine.
 Expect to shout some expletives every time you read about the Spaniards, for reasons most holy and sublime, obliterating yet another massive trove of irreplaceable native documents.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none