September 2006


Beware Thunderbolt!

I have favorite authors—I’ve named many in the past.

Today I want to tie together two of them: David Sedaris and Bill Bryson.

It turns out that both are American expatriates and both are great writers.

David Sedaris, through “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” accidentally colored how I view language acquisition. As he struggled to learn the gender of French nouns by thinking about how a sandwich is both like a female (both lose makeup) and a male (both grow beards if left alone), I started wondering why different things in German were either feminine or masculine. These musings have led me to ask Germans what various object have in common with women or men, and for me, upon occasional reflection, to burst out laughing.

Bill Bryson in “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” reflected upon his 20 years living in the United Kingdom from the safety of New Hampshire. It’s a book I can reread frequently—and still laugh out loud every time Bryson’s British friend witnesses his five year old daughter being interrogated by US Immigration officials (“Do you plan to practice polygamy in the US?”)

Sedaris hasn’t released any new books recently—his last one was “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” which I felt lacked the spark of his earlier works. There were some great stories in the book, but as a whole it didn’t drive my imagination as well as his earlier books.

Bryson, on the other hand, has just released his newest book, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” a memoir of growing up during the 1950s in Iowa. (I might point out the book has already been released in the UK, but its US release is not until 17 October. Germany has already imported the British books.) The book is incredibly amusing and well worth reading. Its chief contribution is that it provides an accessible narrative that brings into distinct focus what life was actually like for people living in the 1950s and early 60s, unlike other books like David Halberstam’s The Fifties and Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties (both are excellent books but they delve into the politics and social movements at such a level that the individual is often left behind).

Learning about America’s innocence during the 1950s is something worth reflecting upon. It was a day for excitement and dreaming: rocket mail, atomic detonations, and Lincoln Logs (white ones!). Elementary schools held regular duck and cover drills to help children survive the forthcoming Soviet nuclear holocaust (come to think of it, I used to do this useless drill in 1980s Denver, I wonder if it is still regularly done in the States).

I ended up laughing quite a bit as I read the book—whether describing the puritanical sex laws (14 years prison in Indiana if you got somebody under 21 to masturbate) or the more benign family dribble cup.

Other aspects were more sobering like the realizing that the Atomic Energy Commission wanted to blast a shipping canal through the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia with a nuclear bomb, just because it could. It’s painful to realize that white men who murdered a black teenager because he whistled at a white woman could get away with the crime.

I found myself crying at the end of the book as Bill brought everything together—he reflects that of all the people in the book, he used only one real name, that of his friend and literary agent, Jed Mattes, who died of cancer in 2003.

This one’s worth the 26€/25$/£19.

5 comments to Beware Thunderbolt!

  • MT

    Oh boy, I can’t wait until the public library gets a copy of this!

  • Wow, that comment regarding the Great Barrier Reef made me remember something about so-called peaceful uses of the bomb.

    When the US interstate highway system was being built in the 1950’s and 1960’s, there was a proposal to blast a mountain out of the way of the route of I-40 in California using the bomb. I’ve seen several comments about it since saying that it was a good thing that they didn’t as it would have become one of the most polluted and unihabitable places on the planet if they had.

    In the end they would have needed to put the road where it is now because the original alignment wouldn’t have been safe to cross due to the radioactivity.

  • koko

    I’m glad you made a comment about this…I’ve been trying to find good books to read and hadn’t found anything worth reading yet. Looks like you’ve made a good suggestion…though I’ll likely wait til it comes out at the ‘brary since i’m a poor girl.

  • MT & Koko: It’s a great book, fortunately the two of you are drawing from different libraries.

    CQ: Actually the idea you put forth, as well as Bryon’s Great Barrier Reef bomb were both part of Project Plowshare, an effort by the Atomic Energy Commission to find peaceful uses for nuclear devices. I wrote my Master’s Thesis on Wagon Wheel, which was a Plowshare project designed to get natural gas out of tight sandstone formations in New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. I can say that, to the best of my knowledge, I am the world’s leading expert on Wagon Wheel, the nuclear plowshare for Wyoming.

  • I’m always on the lookout for new & interesting books to read, and I’ve never read a Bryson book, so this one seems like a good place to start.

    Doubleday Canada will release the book in our market in mid-October. But, as you know, a significant percentage of books for sale in Canada are actually published in the UK, so we often get UK editions (and publication dates!). Also, a number of our books come from the US, and those raise ire due to the “dual sticker price” discrepancies and markups of up to 50% for the Canadian market.

    Thanks for the recommendation; I’ll look for this book at Munro’s Books in Victoria next month ! (And yes, the owner of Munro’s is the ex-husband of Canada’s short story goddess, Alice Munro).