Seriously. I was up past bedtime, and I was reading Bryson's description of lame 1950's toys. I won't give it away, but imagine what he can do with the topic of "electric football". After a particularly vigorous episode of chortling, my wife trudged out of bed to decree that, if I insisted on continuing to read, I'd have to take it downstairs.
And that's what this book is, a laugh-out-loud remembrance of a simpler, sillier time. Bryson's travelogues are what made him famous, and he never would have made it without a fantastic memory for detail and an ability to convey a vivid mental picture of the topics he chooses. His descriptions of 1950's Des Moines are consistently evocative. It's like a travelogue unearthed from a 50 year old time capsule. I feel like I have visited there.
Still, readers of Bryson known that what truly sets him apart is his uncanny ability to attract and describe morons, as well as all manner of idiotic situations (generally self-inflicted). For a man who can do this on, say, a simple trip to Australia, imagine how much comedy gold can be mined from a childhood in the Midwest of the 50's. It is, as they say, a target-rich environment. His remembrances include family, friends, school, Des Moines, lame childhood toys, nuclear bombs, and more. Even things like TV dinners, which we have all heard mocked before, are skewered in new and amusing ways.
For all of that, though, the memoir is not mean spirited. I think that the ridicule works so well because it is easy to sense Bryson's real affection for his subjects (well, at least the ones who aren't carbonized by the x-ray vision of the Thunderbolt Kid). He's poking fun, but in a way that family and friends might poke fun at each other over old childhood foibles at a Thanksgiving dinner. It's the humor that you get when your wife knows that you're ridiculous, but loves you just the same. This book belongs with such classic tributes to youth as The Wonder Years, Stand By Me, and A Christmas Story. Buy it, and enjoy it. Just try not to read it next to someone's bedroom.
on October 18, 2006
This is a wonderful, funny, and ultimately very human book, which reminds us all, no matter who we are or where we live (I'm Australian) of the total joys of a happy childhood.
Bill Bryson is the first to confess that his was a normal, uneventful and by the standards of today, relatively bland childhood. But thankfully this has been rendered into a book that will have you laughing aloud, as we hear of his evolution into the fearless Thunderbolt Kid, complete with super hero talents; the list of alien (now commonplace) foods that never graced the family table, and the unique and gruesome ways he managed to hurt himself whilst playing (I was particularly fond of the tale where he hit his head on a rock and his friends bought pieces of his "brain" to his house - kids can be so thoughtful).
This is a ray of sunshine in the literary world. It is truly the most delightful thing that I have read in a very long time, and I am a voracious devourer of books. I enjoy Bill's travel books, as he is a talented and observant writer, but this is a cut above - I think his very best to date.
Do yourselves a favour. Buy yourself a couple of hours of happiness and read this book. Buy it for your friends and relatives, and relive your happy and normal childhood all over again. You will all treasure that moment where you remembered how you were a super-hero/alien/king or queen, and then get back to your normal, uneventful, adult lives.
"Getting into the strippers' tent would become the principal preoccupation of my pubescent years." - Bill Bryson in THUNDERBOLT KID
"Essentially matinees were an invitation to four thousand children to riot for four hours in a large darkened space." - Bill Bryson in THUNDERBOLT KID
As I mature gracefully, reading the coming-of-age reminiscences of others that grew up about the same time I did - the 1950s - becomes an absorbing leisure activity. Perhaps I just need to supplement my failing memory with theirs. In any case, several fine volumes of the genre come to mind: Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood by Susan Allen Toth, Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham, When All the World Was Young: A Memoir by Barbara Holland, and Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin. As you may have noticed, all four of these are by female authors who are recalling their girlhood. On the other hand, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID, by Bill Bryson, is all about boyhood. And, as I think you'll agree, boys are an entirely different species from girls. I should know as I used to be one of the former. For example, boys have a propensity for shenanigans that would elicit an "Eeeuw!" from the gentler sex, as the following passage on Lincoln Logs, of which I myself had a set, illustrates:
"What Buddy Doberman and I discovered was that if you peed on Lincoln Logs you bleached them white. As a result we created, over a period of weeks, the world's first albino Lincoln Log cabin, which we took to school as part of a project on Abraham Lincoln's early years."
Or this regarding the elementary school's space heaters:
"The most infamous radiator-based activity was of course to pee on the radiator in one of the boys' bathrooms. This created an enormous sour stink that permeated whole wings of the school for days on end and could not be got rid of through any amount of scrubbing or airing."
I'm virtually certain that Susan, Laura, Barbara and Doris never did either.
Bill's recollections otherwise ran the gamut of those of any kid of either sex from that era: family vacations, the first televisions, favorite TV shows, the nature of contemporary comic books, toys, soda pop and candies, parents' occupations and eccentricities, Mom's cooking, the specter of The Bomb and Godless Communism, drop and cover drills, Saturday afternoons at the movie matinees, the National Pastime (major league baseball), the State Fair, Dick and Jane books, visits to Grandpa's farm, paper routes, strange relatives, and Best Friends. Oddly, there's no mention anywhere of a family pet. Is it that he never had one? How is this possible?
Then, of course, there's the budding fascination with sex that includes the discovery of Ol' Dad's secret stash of girlie mags and the unfulfilled, feverish desire to see play pal Mary O'Leary nekkid.
As in the author's other books, his ability to tell the story with a wry and self-deprecating wit is unmatched by any contemporary writer that I've read with the exception of Barbara Holland. Both are national treasures.
Bryson's young adventures took place in Des Moines, Iowa, a much different environment than the Southern California in which I had mine. But, there's a degree of similarity that transcends region so long as that region lies in the U.S. of A. One of Bill's nostalgias in particular that I wouldn't have recalled in a million years but is oh, so true was:
"Of all the tragic losses since the 1950s, mimeograph paper may be the greatest. With its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, mimeograph paper was literally intoxicating."
It's in the nature of the aging human to recall previous times as so much better. Nowadays, as we're inundated with rampant political correctness, discredited heroes, and the pathetic likes of Paris, Britney and Lindsay, I can look back and say about many things, as Bill does:
"... I saw the last of something really special. It's something I seem to say a lot these days."
on January 24, 2008
Even though this is the era in which my parents grew up, and not me, I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir and would recommend it to people of all ages. While I'm sure the baby boomer generation would really find this book resonating with their life experiences, I think its an intersting look at a unique and fascinating time in our country's history and will appeal to a much wider audience, such as myself (I'm in my late 20's).
The author is hysterical and I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book. It was so interesting to learn about growing up in Des Moines in the 50s - everything from what people ate to how they shopped to the trouble kids and teens got into- it is indeed such a stark contrast to growing up in America today, regardless of where you live.
I think this book would make a particularly great book club selection and would also be interesting reading for history classes or classes on American culture, etc. I HIGHLY recommend it!
Any Baby Boomer who thinks fondly on a childhood in the 1950s will enjoy this book immensely. Born in 1951 and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, Bill Bryson had what we might consider the average middle-class life in the geographic center of America. As such, it's easy for us to nod in agreement at many of the details he recalls: spider-web-like strands of airplane glue that stuck to everything except small plastic model pieces; the confusion of having two different actors play the Lone Ranger on TV; the stilted and unrealistic conversations we read in our Dick and Jane textbooks; and the fact that we all spent our free time outside, making up our own games. Bryson additionally got into a few unusual scrapes with some of his neighborhood buddies, and the distance of time makes each one of their escapades a real hoot. Those post-war days were indeed the best of times and the worst of times. The nation grew wealthy and happier and stronger, and technological advances like television made us feel more powerful. Simultaneously the Cold War intensified, and we grew ever more fearful of a nuclear attack from Russia. It was a unique and great time to be a kid.
"Happily," Bryson writes, "we were indestructible. We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water, or the Heimlich maneuver. We didn't require child-safety caps on our medicines. We didn't need helmets when we rode our bikes or pads for our knees and elbows when we went skating. We knew without a written reminder that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when exposed to a match had a tendency to combust. We didn't have to worry about what we ate because nearly all foods were good for us: sugar gave us energy, red meat made us strong, ice cream gave us healthy bones, coffee kept us alert and purring productively." (pages 69-70)
To his own experiences, Bryson adds historical tidbits that now seem unbelievable, except that we suddenly remember when they were true. Everyone smoked. TV dinners were invented and enjoyed, even though each of the food components had an aluminum taste. The civil rights movement hadn't yet taken full form. No one knew or cared about the dangers of DDT or witnessing a nuclear test from a ridge a hundred miles away. And yet, most of us survived the decade.
Reading this memoir will make you wistful for those days of atomic toilets, comic book Kiddie Corrals, unrated movies, and grape Nehi bubbles up your nose. It'll also have you laughing right out of your chaise longue and Capri pants.
on October 26, 2006
Bill Bryson was born in 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa. Talk about lucky! "I can't imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s," he writes. "We became the richest country in the world without needing the rest of the world."
And Billy Bryson --- white, Protestant, son of a brilliant sportswriter and the home furnishings editor of the Des Moines Register --- was in just the right place to take full advantage.
As many of you know, Bryson grew up to live in England and write first class travel books --- A Walk in the Woods, his account of walking the Appalachian Trail with his out-of-shape friend, Steve Katz, is both informative and hilarious --- and serious studies of language, like Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. But as a kid, he was a pure doofus. He had no interest in school, his city's cultural institutions or its many opportunities for youth athletics.
By the testimony of this memoir, Billy Bryson had only one childhood obsession: trouble. Namely, how much damage to property and civility could one fresh-faced boy --- and, of course, his posse of equally privileged homies --- do each and every day.
And because kids roamed free in those days and time stretched to the horizon, Billy had all of Des Moines as his target.
Exhibit A: He liked to hide on the top floor of an office building with a central atrium. Seven stories below was a restaurant: "A peanut M&M that falls seventy feet into a bowl of tomato soup makes one heck of a splash, I can tell you."
Exhibit B: He delighted in using a magnifying glass to focus a beam of sunlight on the bald head of his napping Uncle Dick to see what would happen: "What happened was that you burned an amazingly swift, deep hole that would leave Dick and a team of specialists at Iowa Lutheran Hospital puzzled for weeks."
Exhibit C: He once peed on brown Lincoln Logs to turn them white --- and then watched, deadpan, as a teacher licked the toy logs to prove they'd been bleached with lemon juice.
Weird characters abound. Like Bill's mother, who wrote about the home, but was derelict in the domestic arts: "As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear potatoes exploding in the oven." Like Bill's father, who was so cheap that when the Brysons finally drove out to Disneyland, Bill asked his mother, "Have I got leukemia?" Like another kid's dad, doing a swan dive from the high board, changing his mind in mid-air and landing flat: "At such a speed water effectively becomes a solid." And like Uncle Dee, who had a surgically-made hole in his neck: "Whatever he ate turned into a light spray from his throat hole."
Are you laughing yet? Methinks you should be. There is funny, and then there is Bill Bryson, who makes you howl with laughter and fight for breath. "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" is not a book for the seriously ill, the commuter who uses public transportation or even the easily grossed-out. But for everyone over 50 who grew up in a house and had parents who owned a car, health and circumstances matter not --- this is the story of at least part of your youth.
It was a time of flattop haircuts ("landing spots for some very small experimental aircraft"). Cigarettes. Cocktails. Cars with no seat belts, drinks thick with sugar, medicine with no child-proofing. Televisions everywhere. Electric football games. Misbehave, and you get sent to "the cloakroom." Paper routes.
Every once in a while, Bryson sprinkles the pages with seriousness that is all the more powerful for its scarcity. Did you know that Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, started his career as a shoe salesman? Did you know that, at the peak of the Red Scare, "thirty-two of the forty-eight states had loyalty oaths"? Did you know about Lamar Smith, an African American, who successfully voted in Mississippi --- only to be shot dead on the courthouse steps?
Books that are nostalgic and funny and have seriousness just under the surface tend to have sad, "those were the days" endings. The first mall is built, and right there we know the central business district is doomed. Graduation is like a break shot in pool --- the old gang scatters and never reunites. And so on.
Bryson avoids the gooey emotions by saving his best crimes and his zaniest characters --- Steve Katz, co-star of "A Walk in the Woods" --- for last. Fake drivers' licenses. Beer robberies. And nobility, for in Des Moines, at least, there was, for one gang of kids, honor among thieves.
"I was," Bryson says, "enormously stupid." Yes. He was, and this book is the proof.
But he also says that his book is "about not very much, about being small and getting larger slowly." Wrong. "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" is about being wide-awake and seeing everything and getting every last weird detail down exactly right.
And that makes his memoir almost surely the most enjoyable book you'll read this year.
on September 30, 2006
This is classic Bryson. Full of the trademark gentle humour, charming observations, quirky asides and laugh out loud moments.
I'm a convert to Bryson and so pleased that I discovered this wonderful writer. It started after I read 'Shakespeare My B*tt!' by the UK based author John Donoghue who was described in a review as 'Bill Bryson with a bayonet' (see his work at [...] got the better of me and I decided to try the 'real thing'. What a discovery!
As a result I now have the full library of Bryson books and love each one. And this one is just as funny as all those that came before. He manages to capture some of all our childhoods in his writing.If you like Bryson, you'll love this. Vintage Bryson
on October 19, 2007
Bill Bryson has long distinguished himself as a gifted writer with a knack for entertaining us as he takes us on his travels around the globe. So he does, as well, in his memoir, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," although this time, it is time travel back to the 1950's. It is very much a window into the time in which he--and I--grew up, a retrospective for Baby Boomers. He captures it perfectly, and were it not for the fact that his childhood was in Des Moines, it just as well could have been mine, in Chicago. I found myself chuckling with familiarity at his memories, which parallel my own in so many ways, from penny candy to reversible jackets, and from air raid drills to dentist drills--sans novocaine. His sense of amusement, cynicism and even awe at that which went on around him, along with his wry observations of the family he grew up in, has no doubt been seasoned by his age, maturity and reflection, but in many ways, it is also an unfiltered look at a simpler time, with the perspective of his years burnishing, rather than altering, what it was like to grow up in mid-twentieth century middle America. I recommend "Thunderbolt Kid" highly to all who relish the chance to sit down and savor what could just as well be their own family album, in words that could just as well be pictures. A thoroughly enjoyable and magical read.
I always enjoy Bill Bryson's travel books (NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND, A WALK IN THE WOODS) and his books on language (THE MOTHER TONGUE).
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID is a memoir, and since Bryson and I grew up in the same decades, I found a lot to like in this book. His writing is always funniest when it's personal and self-deprecating, and his stories of himself as a child are vastly entertaining.
But this book is more than memoir or a string of funny stories about his childhood. Bryson captures the time and place -- 50's small-town America -- and serves those "simpler times" up with affection. In those pre-minivan days a bicycle was a kid's ticket to ride; the movies were a gateway to the world; and a costume, whether the Thunderbolt Kid or Annie Oakley (am I saying too much?), was the passport to bravery and adventure.
I thoroughly enjoyed THE THUNDERBOLT KID, and probably would have enjoyed it no matter which decades were mine. Maybe it's a book of particular interest to the first wave of Baby Boomers, but the humor and whimsy of its presentation are wonderful counterpoint to its well-researched social context.
You're bound to laugh out loud at this book. If you like laughing out loud, then by all means read THE THUNDERBOLT KID.
on October 28, 2006
I've read Bill Bryson before and usually I'm left wanting after a couple of chapters. Not this time! I was laughing so much my jaded 14-year-old stopped reading Stephen King, and actually took the book out of my hands. She laughed too, because she has an 8-year-old brother. I don't usually buy books for friends and family at the holidays -- tastes are too subjective -- but this one I probably will.
One warning: it is a TV-14 book, with an occasional f-bomb and some graphic descriptions of body parts (as told from a boy's perspective) so, although I recommend it, keep in mind that fundamentalist relatives and 10-year-olds are not the intended audience.