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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A MemoirIt may have been pushing 100 degrees with the heat index yesterday, and the BPL may have had no AC, but no one can accuse our book group of being lazy.  As I mentioned here, despite adversity, we took the Monday Book Club on the road for a field trip to the Riverside Public Library to discuss Bill Bryson's memoir of growing up, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Using his trademark humorous, but extremely informative style, Bryson recounts his childhood in Des Monies, Iowa, growing up with his parents (both reporters for the Register) and older siblings.  This is a memoir of his particular life experiences and of the country as a whole during the 1950s.

Click here to listen to this awesome 2006 interview with Bryson on NPR where he talks about the book.

We had lively discussion, especially considering last month's discussion of Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin another memoir of life in 50s.  So please click through and read that report, because we did a lot of comparisons between the two memoirs.

Here are the highlights of our discussion:
  • You know how we start by now.  8 liked, 1 disliked, and 3 were so-so on this book.
  • Our 1 "disliked" did not like the way this book jumped around.  She much preferred Goodwin's memoir which followed more of a plot.  Here, Bryson took each chapter to explore a facet of life during the 1950s, so his age jumped around quite a bit depending on what he was specifically talking about.
  • On the other hand another participant said this is exactly why she liked the book. It was written as if from a child's point of view.  It jumped around, it was playful, there was exaggeration.  All of this helped to underscore that it was a book about childhood.
  • Many people loved the insight this book gave them into what was going on in the brains of their brothers back when they were growing up.  Overall, my Midwestern participants could really relate to this Iowa story. Especially remembered were the rickety roller coasters at the local amusement park, the midday movies filled with kids without a parent in sight, the candy and popcorn flying. Also someone said her brother, like Bryson, would go into the public bathrooms and lock all of the stalls.  In general, they loved how this book made them remember things they forgot about their childhood.
  • But the most often cited reason for enjoying this book was the humor.  My favorite comment was how the book had "me laughing out loud, but when asked by my husband just what was so funny, I could not point to one thing."  "All of it," she said. The humor was pervasive, but it was also used to teach us something about the era. He captured the competing awe and ridiculousness of the time.
  • We talked about Bryson's parents.  They were definitely quirky. The mom was extremely forgetful and the Dad very, very cheap.  I have to say though, the group was not too interested in discussing them in any detail.
  • We were shocked that Bryson barely attended school.  With working parents he was able to skip more than he attended.  He really got away with murder at school, one participant observed. So I asked, how did he become so successful as a writer without going to school?  Answers from the group: luck, native intelligence, he read a lot, self educated, father was talented writer, creativity, his ability to take initiative.  One participant was more surprised that he became a more structured nonfiction writer as opposed to a genre fiction writer, as his imagination seemed to be leading.
  •  The style of this book was mentioned above, but we discussed it in more detail.  The way he bounces around made us think he might have a bit of ADD.  Besides the humor and the hodge-podge nature of the book, he also uses exaggeration, and funny pseudonyms (like the geeky friend, Milton Milton).  But then, in the "Farewell" chapter there is a different style. In this epilogue he is saying goodbye to his childhood; it is written in more of an adult's voice.  Overall though we felt that his writing style is very much in the forefront of this book and if you did not like it, it would be very difficult to like the book as a whole.  It did add to the reading experience for the majority of our participants and they appreciated the effort he put in here.
  • The title refers to the alter-ego superhero Bryson assumes as a kid.  We talked about how he did this so he could BE something, it gave him power over his environment, and it was a way to hone his creative skills which he uses as an adult.  One participant said her brother had an entire summer where he wore a cape. 
  • I also asked the group if they could be a superhero or have a super power what would it be.  Some responses: Wonder Woman, wiggle my nose and have magic, cape and be able to fly ("I was always in trouble for  climbing on people’s roofs"), cowgirl ("I spent part of summer on farm. I thought more exciting than living in city"), Superman.
  • We talked about the amount of kids that were around during the 1950s.  While Bryson did exaggerate the number of kids, he was not off by much.  There were more kids around than ever before or ever since.  The scenes of kids gathering were hilarious, but for my group also nostalgic.  One lady who grew up in the 50s said there was a park near her house where a few college kids were paid by the city to sit and loosely organize stuff for the neighborhood kids on summer days.  She would leave her house after breakfast and not get home until dinner.  This was free, fairly unorganized, only slightly supervised, but great fun.
  • Other childhood memories which were brought back by this book and discussed: the candy store, matinee movies, paper routes (everything he said was true, not an exaggeration even though it seemed so), the smell of the mimeograph machine and its copies. This led to a side discussion about a joint candy, ice cream, and cigar store under the El tracks.  That was a smell this woman would never forget from her childhood.
  • We talked about the ending.  It has a sad feeling about how he went back and everything is gone now.  But he is right.  That world is gone.  His childhood, but also America's childhood was ending. This led me to ask if the past was really as great as we remember it.  One lady said absolutely not. The innovation now makes life so much easier.  Another lady countered by saying that no, it was better then.  She misses how everyone knew each other and looked out for one and other.  Together we discussed and decided that if we could combine the innovation of today with the attitude of then, things would be close to perfect.
  • Finally, we ended with words or phrases to describe this book: nostalgia, funny, quirky, hodge-podge, hilarious, 1950s, memories.
Readalikes: For those who want more memoirs set in the 1950s, click here for when we discussed Wait Till Next Year.  Also The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less by Terry Ryan, Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, and This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolf.

For those who want more childhood tales that will make you laugh, try A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel, Me Talk Pretty One Day or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris and Why I'm Like This by Cynthia Kaplan.

For more books on the 1950s again click here or try The Proud Decade: America in War and Peace, 1941-1960 by Edward Teller, The Real Dr. Strangelove by Peter Goodchild, and Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America by Bradford Wright (we did talk about comic books for awhile too).

Suggested by the group: The Girls from Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow (similar atmosphere, 1970s Iowa) and Too Close to the Falls by Catherine Gildiner (it is cross between Bryson and Goodwin).

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