Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

Yesterday I finished listening to The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson on a device called a Playaway. Have you heard of these? They are little digital audio devices (smaller and lighter than a deck of cards) that come preloaded with an audiobook. The Madison Public library has recently begun lending them. They come complete with a battery and headphones (along with polite instructions about cleaning the earbuds with alcohol before using). The Playaway takes all the bother out of listening to audiobooks; no more bulky cassette players, no more ripping CDs to your iPod. The Playaway Web site says that the universal headphone jack allows use with different kinds of output devices including FM transmitters, so perhaps you could use one of these in your car. It even comes with a handy lanyard for hanging around your neck. I felt a tiny bit dorky wearing it this way but not enough to make me not do it.

Bryson reads this book himself; it’s his memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950’s and it’s totally entertaining. In truth, it’s more than a memoir, it’s a history of the 1950’s from the point of view of a child. Thus for example, atomic air raid drills are remembered not for the horror of possible nuclear annihilation but for the sight of the teacher (Mrs. Enormous-Bosom) taking shelter under her desk, her large behind not quite fitting underneath. Bryson avoids maudlin self-indulgence by anchoring his personal story in the larger world. He includes longer sections about U.S. society in the 1950’s: race relations, foreign policy, and an endearing portrait of his mother who worked full time as a reporter for the Des Moines Register back in the days when few women worked outside the home.

Bryson’s childhood sounds idyllic. He describes with delight the days spent on his bicycle, the hoards of children in his neighborhood, the endless road trips in the back of a station wagon, and the sights and sounds of downtown Des Moines before it was leveled for redevelopment. Bryson enjoyed the kind of freedom that was so common in the 1950’s and so uncommon now. While I am younger than Bryson, I too remember being kicked out of the house early on a summer morning with a peanut butter sandwich in my pocket, instructed not to return until dark. This book evokes great memories for baby boomers, but I think anyone of any age would enjoy it.

The book is (like all Bryson books) extremely funny. If you happened to see a woman walking around Madison wearing a weird square thing around her neck and giggling hysterically, that would be me.

(Book 17, 2009)


Nora said...

Sounds fun. We've got those things at our library too, sans battery and earbuds - the user supplies those. I haven't tried any yet because the selection is small, but my daughter has.

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Citizen Reader said...

I'm glad you liked this one, Becky, but it wasn't for me. Most of the time I'm a big Bryson fan but this one was a little "twee" for me--which shocked me because normally I'm a huge fan of all things 1950s. But David Benjamin's "The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked" was much more satisfying for me.

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