This was a fun read, and probably a pretty important book as well, for the point of view it offers: We obviously do not live in a post-racism world, but we definitely live in a more culturally cross-threaded one, which can help us confront and defray racism on an ongoing basis.
I had an interesting realization partway into this audiobook. Somewhere in my head I have a stereotype of what an urban black man is supposed to "sound like" when he speaks - a deep voice with an air of machismo and aggression woven into it. I remember my friends and I using that voice when we were joking around in high school. What was funny about it to us at the time was how totally badass it sounded. It was a "don't mess with me" voice, straight out of an episode of a Mr. T cartoon, and we were all white, middle-class, suburban kids - the opposite of badass - so we used it ironically. We knew that if we ever used it around any "actual black people" we would be completely mortified and probably die of shame, because Racism Is Not Funny, but meanwhile, crowding together at recess and calling each other names in an overblown street thug voice was freaking hilarious.
I stopped using that voice before I graduated high school. It wasn't really a deliberate decision; I just stopped being in a context where using it wasn't totally inappropriate or even dangerous. Since moving to Oakland, I sometimes hear it around me, coming out of the mouths of people of varying ethnicity, but uniformly disenfranchised. When I talk to them I sometimes have to concentrate to keep myself from speaking the same way, because I don't want them to feel like they're being mocked. Coming from me, that voice would sound like the ironic parody I learned it as, and that would just be lame. I'm better off sticking close to my Typical White Guy, like that voice Eddie Murphy used to use in his stand-up routines. It's the lesser of two evils.
Political correctness is weird, innit yo?
In How To Be Black, that macho urban voice is totally absent from Baratunde's performance, all way up until he suddenly invokes it deliberately, when he plays the role of his younger self reading a paper he wrote when he was in school. He doesn't explain or announce that he's using that voice, but nevertheless I found it instantly recognizable, and it even felt like a shock to hear him using it, by the bizarre scorecard of political correctness. He was overplaying it into parody, for comic effect, just like I'd done with my friends in high-school, and he was performing it for an audience, whose laughter you can hear spilling over into the background of the recording.
I can't even imagine a time far enough in the future when it would be acceptable for me to use that voice in public for any reason, but nevertheless it was strangely cathartic to hear Baratunde use it for his own humorous ends. It's as if he was telling me, "Yes, there actually is humor in this. You're not a jackass if you laugh."
And I certainly hope that's true, because sometimes when I'm playing cards with my older sister, her husband and I break out terrible accents, and I call mine my "Oakland accent". It's the old "urban thug" accent from high school but it's cranked up into an ear-grating falsetto and slurred into whiny mush. It sounds a bit like Towelie from South Park, come to think of it. Or something Dave Chapelle might do.
Uh anyway, yeah. Good book. Two un-ironic and totally politically correct thumbs up.
Discworld 34: Thud, by Terry Pratchett
An engaging story from beginning to end, with plenty of time in settings I like - underground rivers, dark caves, torchlit tunnels - and a murder mystery to solve at the same time! Pratchett almost always uses some mystery as the core of his City Watch novels, and here he proves his skill in the form.
As I listened to this I couldn't help imagining live actors in a cinematic version of the story. It was fun to try different faces on each character and see who fit where. After a while I decided that the best living fit for Sam Vimes would be Karl Urban.
On that note, I totally approve of the BBC's casting of Jeremy Irons as the Patrician - though yes, Alan Rickman (as Pratchett is claimed to prefer) would have done quite well too. Joss Ackland did an absolutely perfect Mustrum Ridcully. (Did you know he was also "Chuck" De Nomolos in Bell and Ted's Bogus Journey?)
Discworld 24: The Fifth Elephant, by Terry Pratchett
This book is a great read - don't get me wrong - but I'm critiquing it in reference to the other Discworld novels, and that makes for stiff competition.
There is a mystery to solve here, as is standard for the City Watch novels, but the two big twists in it were too easy to figure out, and the biggest shift in the plot - the one that sets things in motion for the resolution - seems to come too early. I remember I had the same trouble the first time I read this book some ten years ago. A short coda where the main villain gets a good whacking helps to avoid the feeling that the story is all downhill after the middle, but it doesn't quite help enough. Also, this time around I found the whole business with Colon going power-mad back at the watchhouse to be a bore - an unwelcome derailment of the story.
On the other hand, the vampire character was refreshing, the visits from Death were fun, Gaspode The Wonder Dog and all the wolves were great, and every scene with Lady Sybil in it was a blast. She really is a great character - a combination of vulnerability, earnestness, and guts - and you can't help rooting for her.
I've occasionally wondered who could play the role of Sybil in a film version of the Discworld, and so far I've come up completely blank. Sybil is not supposed to look like a movie star, but she still needs a strong presence. I haven't even seen any drawings that look right. The closest I can find to how I envision her is the Lady Fanny "Aunt Fanny" Janet Blunt, born in 1839, and pictured here.
Another unexpected highlight is when Cheery Littlebottom describes the conflict between old and new mining practices of the dwarves, taking the reader on a surprisingly creepy journey through the deepest caverns of the Disc. It's a wonderful example of how this book is still a very good read, even if it's not Pratchett's top form. Seven out of ten scones up.
T Rex and the Crater of Doom, by Walter Alvarez, foreword by Carl Zimmer
This is a short piece of scientific non-fiction that guides the reader along the chain of discoveries establishing the (rather strong) case for the extinction of the dinosaurs by a giant impact from space - a comet or an asteroid. It's particularly engaging when it describes the event of the impact itself, marshaling an impressive array of physics and geology to present a clear - and terrifying - picture of the devastation. You come away from it with a new respect for just how destructive a large impact can be.
The book is very well laid-out, highly informative, and fun to read, especially for geologists I bet. It made me want to watch that silly old film Deep Impact. (Which I did, about two days later.)
Good job, Zimmer and Alvarez! You get eighty million out of a hundred million hydrogen bombs up.