April 26, 2011
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson
Nonfiction – Memoir
2006 Random House Audio, Unabridged Edition
Read by the author
Finished on 4/13/11
Rating: 3.5/5 (Enjoyable)
From one of the most beloved and bestselling authors in the English language, a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s
Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as "The Thunderbolt Kid."
Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and of his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.
Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young.
Last summer I attended my 30th high school reunion. This year I’ll turn 50. So, maybe it’s no wonder that I’m beginning to look back on my youth with wistful longing for what seems from this vantage point a more simple and carefree time. I was born in 1961, but in spite of the age difference, I could certainly appreciate Bryson’s memoir describing growing up in the ‘50s.
I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s. No country had ever known such prosperity. When the war ended the United States had $26 billion worth of factories that hadn’t existed before the war, $140 billion in savings and war bonds just waiting to be spent, no bomb damage, and practically no competition. All that American companies had to do was stop making tanks and battleships and start making Buicks and Frigidaires—and boy did they.
No wonder people were happy. Suddenly they were able to have things they had never dreamed of having, and they couldn’t believe their luck. There was, too, a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or waffle iron. If you bought a major appliance, you invited the neighbors around to have a look at it.
America in 1951 had a population of 150 million, slightly more than half as much as today, no interstate highways, and only about a quarter as many cars. Men wore hats and ties almost everywhere. Women prepared every meal more or less from scratch. Milk came in bottles. The mailman came on foot. Total government spending was $50 billion a year, compared with $2.5 trillion now.
I Love Lucy made its television debut on October 15, and Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy, followed in December. In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that autumn police seized a youth on suspicion of possessing narcotics when he was found with some suspicious brown powder, but he was released when it was shown that it was a new product called instant coffee. Also new, or not quite yet invented, were ballpoint pens, fast foods, TV dinners, electric can openers, shopping malls, freeways, supermarkets, suburban sprawl, domestic air-conditioning, power steering, automatic transmissions, contact lenses, credit cards, tape recorders, garbage disposals, dishwashers, long-playing records, portable record players, baseball teams west of St. Louis, and the hydrogen bomb. Microwave ovens were available, but weighed seven hundred pounds. Jet travel, Velcro, transistor radios, and computers smaller than a small building were all still some years off.
After reading one of Bryson’s books (A Walk in the Woods) and listening to this and one other (I'm a Stranger Here Myself), I have to say I prefer the audio books. He’s a delightful reader and I zipped through all six discs in no time. I found myself chuckling here and there, but I wouldn’t say that this book is laugh-out-loud funny. As a matter of fact, there were times when the narrative was actually pretty silly. The historical aspects of the memoir were informative and enlightening, but the tales of Bryson’s childhood superhero persona ("The Thunderbolt Kid") were distracting and seemed contrived.
Nostalgic, yet not overly sentimental, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is definitely a worthwhile read. Do yourself a favor, though, and listen to the audio. You’ll appreciate hearing Bryson narrate his own childhood vignettes and if you’re a Baby Boomer, more than likely you’ll find yourself nodding your head in agreement. I know I did, especially as I listened to him recall TV dinners, Dick & Jane books, and electric football, all of which I also remember, though dimly!
April 24, 2011
Joy For Beginners
by Erica Bauermeister
Coming June 9, 2011
by Erica Bauermeister
Coming June 9, 2011
Advance Praise for Joy For Beginners:
“Moving, touching, wonderfully written; inspiring to read.”
–Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain
“A literary confirmation of the power of friendship.”
–Carol Cassella, author of Oxygen
“This book is a joy to read. Bauermeister gives us characters who revel in the best of what life has to offer--loving relationships, fine food, good books, and travel--and she writes with keen observance and a wry wit.”
–Stephanie Kallos, author of Broken for You
“A warm and elegant portrayal of what makes women, well, women: strength, succor, healing, forgiveness, and ultimately, connection.”
–Jennie Shortridge, author of When She Flew
Erica Bauermeister is the author of the national bestseller The School of Essential Ingredients. Click here to read my review.
Click here to pre-order Joy for Beginners.
April 21, 2011
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
2005 Random House
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)
In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan country, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, or “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she has written a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men. As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on the fan and compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. They both endure the agony of footbinding and together reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.
This is the first time I’ve read a book in three different formats: print, digital and audio. I began with the paperback edition (which I’d had on my shelf for several years), but hit a slump about halfway through. I wanted to finish the book, but couldn’t stay interested. I don’t need a lot of dialogue to maintain interest in a book, but the descriptive nature of this novel made it a slow, plodding experience. However, just as I was ready to call it quits, I wound up manning the Nook desk at work. Between customers, I was able to read a couple more chapters on a Nook and was pulled back into the story. Later that night, having just finished my current audio book, I decided to download the audio version of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and wound up listening to a large portion on my Nano. Gotta love technology!
On the tradition of footbinding:
Mama and Aunt resumed their pre-binding activities, making more bandages. They fed us red-bean dumplings, to help soften our bones to the consistency of a dumpling and inspire us to achieve a size for our feet that would be no larger than a dumpling. In the days leading up to our binding, many women in our village came to visit us in the upstairs chamber. Elder Sister’s sworn sisters wished us luck, brought us more sweets, and congratulated us on our official entry into womanhood. Sounds of celebration filled our room. Everyone was happy, singing, laughing, talking. Now I know there were many things no one said. (No one said I could die. It wasn’t until I moved to my husband’s home that my mother-in-law told me that one out of ten girls died from footbinding, not only in our country but across the whole of China.)
All I knew was that footbinding would make me more marriageable and therefore bring me closer to the greatest love and greatest joy in a woman’s life—a son. To that end, my goal was to achieve a pair of perfectly bound feet with seven distinct attributes: They should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture. Of these requirements, length is most important. Seven centimeters—about the length of a thumb—is the ideal. Shape comes next. A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus. It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all weight borne by the big toe alone. This means that the toes and arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel. Finally, the cleft formed by the forefoot and heel should be deep enough to hide a large cash piece perpendicularly within its folds. If I could attain all that, happiness would be my reward.
On the laotong relationship:
“A laotong match is as significant as a good marriage,” Aunt might say to begin the conversation. She would repeat many of the matchmaker’s arguments, but she always came back to the one element she viewed as most important. “A laotong relationship is made by choice for the purpose of emotional companionship and eternal fidelity. A marriage is not made by choice and has only one purpose—to have sons.”
I’m glad I stuck with the book, if only to be able to discuss the plot and characters with customers (and to see what all the fuss was with regard to the footbinding), but it failed to live up to the hype I’ve been hearing for the past five years. If I decide to continue with the Peony in Love, I think I’ll listen to the audio version since I find See’s writing a bit long-winded.
I also think this is going to be a rare instance in which the movie is better than the book. I’m looking forward to seeing the film this summer! Click here to watch a trailer.
See what one of my favorite bloggers had to say about (over 4 years ago!):
What I enjoyed the most is how the author, Lisa See, delved into relationships. She showed us mother/daughter relationships, husband/wife relationships, friendships, and the clash between the rich and the poor. I also loved reading of China, with its food, silks, and landscape. I highly recommend this book. (Bellezza, of Dolce Bellezza)
Be sure to click on Bellezza's link to read her full review of Lisa See's novel.
April 20, 2011
April 18, 2011
You know life is what you make of it
So beautiful or so what…
I grew up in a household in which my parents listened to what we all thought was very hip music. Carole King, Jim Croce, Chicago, Cat Stevens, Carley Simon, Don McLean, Bob Dylan and, of course, Kris Kristofferson. It was not uncommon to hear Paul and Art crooning about bridges, boxers and bookends for months on end. Maybe even years. I loved the way their voices melded together and made me sing along, feelin' groovy. But I also enjoyed their solo albums equally. I bought Art's Breakaway back in the '70s (I Only Have Eyes for You was played at my first wedding), but it was Paul's There Goes Rhymin' Simon that made me realize he was my favorite of the duo. I'm immediately taken back to my childhood when I hear Kodachrome, Was A Sunny Day, and Love Me Like a Rock. Classic.
So when I heard a new in-store album playing early last week at work, I knew I heard a familiar voice. Paul Simon has a new album out and it's a winner.
Produced by Phil Ramone and Paul Simon, with liner notes written by Elvis Costello, So Beautiful or So What is one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year. Rolling Stone magazine recently declared it, "His best since Graceland," and National Public Radio affirmed, "...his new music balances great poetry and pop. Paul Simon is a national treasure." In their current issue, Filter Magazine calls the new album, "...a new masterpiece from the Picasso of music."
This is Simon's 12th (!) solo album and his first release in five years. You don't want to miss it.
Click here for more info.
Click here to view Simon's video for So beautiful or so what.
April 17, 2011
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson
Fiction – Mystery/Thriller
2010 Random House Audio, Unabridged Edition
Read by Simon Vance
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
“It’s over! And I feel the same sense of pleasure and loss that I did when I watched the finale of ‘The Sopranos’ and the last episodes of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ . . . Salander is, I promise, someone you will never forget . . . Anyone who enjoys grounding their imaginations in hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of exciting pages about the way we live now ought to take advantage of this trilogy.”
—Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune
The stunning third and final novel in Stieg Larsson’s internationally best-selling trilogy
Lisbeth Salander—the heart of Larsson’s two previous novels—lies in critical condition, a bullet wound to her head, in the intensive care unit of a Swedish city hospital. She’s fighting for her life in more ways than one: if and when she recovers, she’ll be taken back to Stockholm to stand trial for three murders. With the help of her friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, she will not only have to prove her innocence, but also identify and denounce those in authority who have allowed the vulnerable, like herself, to suffer abuse and violence. And, on her own, she will plot revenge—against the man who tried to kill her, and the corrupt government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life.
Once upon a time, she was a victim. Now Salander is fighting back.
END SPOILER ALERT
After reading the final pages of The Girl Who Played With Fire (and its cliff-hanger-of-an-ending), I knew it would be impossible to wait very long to read this third and final installment in Stieg Larsson’s marvelous trilogy. My husband and I had already seen both films and the third was waiting to be viewed as soon as I finished the novel. I couldn’t read fast enough. And yet, I found myself getting a little bogged down with some of the complicated details involving The Section and Sweden’s security police (aka Säpo). I was listening to the audio version and finally had to pick up the book just to see the words. I’m not sure why that helps, but simply hearing the names of the characters confused me greatly. So many of the Swedish names sound alike and I was afraid I’d miss out on a critical detail if I “skimmed” while listening. And it worked! Seeing the names helped to place the characters in my mind's eye.
Once I got to the courtroom drama, I found every excuse to listen to my Nano. Oh, no honey. I’ll do the dishes. You go read. No really. I don’t mind cleaning up the kitchen all by myself. Oh, look at the time. Annie-dog needs to go for another walk. No, don’t get up. Your foot is still hurting. I can walk her again. No, really. ;) I spent the next week with my headphones permanently attached to my head, listening with breathless anticipation to the outcome of the Salander’s trial. Annika Giannini (Mikael’s sister and Lisbeth’s attorney) was simply amazing. I loved her character and the smooth style in which she cross-examined Dr. Peter Teleborian. Excellent writing!
As soon as I finished the book, I couldn’t wait to watch the movie. Lucky for me, it was next in our Netflix queue. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was quickly dashed. What a disappointment! The movie lacked the finer details of the book and completely eliminated one of the best subplots of the novel. As much as I enjoyed the first two movies, this one fell short, leaving me rather anxious to see what Hollywood does with the same stories. And Daniel Craig is much easier on the eyes than Michael Nyqvist. Just sayin’.
Funny aside: I was listening to the book while out walking the dog one afternoon. I knew I was nearing the final chapter, but was quite honestly surprised when the story ended and Nowhere to Run To (Martha Reeves and the Vandellas) started to play. I assumed it was part of the audio version of the book and, quite honestly, the timing was very apropos. As I was returning home, another song (You Never Give Me Your Money by The Beatles) came on. Once again, I thought it was perfectly suitable for the conclusion of the story. But I had this niggling feeling that I’d missed something. It was the first time I had downloaded an audio book directly from our city library, so I decided to check my desktop just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. Good thing I did. I had missed an entire track of narrative! While on my walk, my Nano had inadvertently switched over from the audio book to one of my iTune’s playlists! Boy, did I feel silly. But I was also pleased to have the opportunity to continue listening to Stieg Larsson’s final words.
Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy is an E-ticket of a ride. What a shame he didn’t live to see how popular his books turned out to be. I will truly miss Lisbeth Salander.
April 13, 2011
April 11, 2011
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
2007 St. Martin’s Griffin
Finished on 3/24/11
Rating: 2.5/5 (Fair)
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten-year-old girl, is taken with her parents by the French police as they go door-to-door arresting Jewish families in the middle of the night. Desperate to protect her younger brother, Sarah locks him in a bedroom cupboard—their secret hiding place—and promises to come back for him as soon as they are released.
Sixty Years Later: Sarah’s story intertwines with that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist investigating the roundup. In her research, Julia stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah, and to questions about her own romantic future.
Over the years, I’ve become quite interested in World War II, and I’ve read several books about the Holocaust, so I was eager to finally get a chance to give Sarah's Key a read. I’d heard great things about this novel, but wanted to wait for the hype to die down before reading it myself. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the delay made any difference. The positives? Well, the short chapters made for a very quick read. Going into the book, I was not familiar with Vel’ d’Hiv, so I appreciated learning about this particular event in Parisian history. However, short chapters, alternating between time periods, does not a great read make. Julia’s narrative is trite and melodramatic, and it was all I could do to continue reading about her unhappy marriage and obsession with Sarah’s life. The novel’s conclusion is contrived and sappy, and I’m fairly certain I’ll take a pass on de Rosnay’s new novel, A Secret Kept.
On Vel’ d’Hiv’:
There had been over four thousand Jewish children penned in the Vel’d’Hiv’, aged between two and twelve. Most of the children were French, born in France.
None of them came back from Auschwitz.
On a memorial on the boulevard de Grenelle:
On July 16 and 17, 1942, 13,152 Jews were arrested in Paris and the suburbs, deported and assassinated at Auschwitz. In the Velodrome d’Hiver that once stood on this spot, 1,129 men, 2,916 women, and 4,115 children were packed here in inhuman conditions by the government of the Vichy police, by order of the Nazi occupant. May those who tried to save them be thanked. Passerby, never forget!
Final thoughts: This is most definitely not of the same caliber as The Book Thief.
And yet, these three words spoke to me:
Zakhor. Al Tichkah.
Remember. Never forget.
April 6, 2011
by Mary Doria Russell
Due out on May 3, 2011
by Mary Doria Russell
Due out on May 3, 2011
From Mary's blog:
At this very moment, sitting on my desk, just to my left, there is an unopened Fed Ex package containing a copy of Doc, almost warm from the printing press. I’ve worked hard on all my novels, but I have not loved a book so much since The Sparrow. I have not loved a character so much since Emilio Sandoz. If anything, I love John Henry Holliday more.
In a recent interview, John Connelly remarked, “Obviously it is different to write about, say, the real Doc Holliday than about an imaginary Jesuit in space like Emilio Sandoz. How does writing about a historical figure compare to writing about a fictional one?”
“Well,” I answered, “as terribly as I treated Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow, I was able to bring his crisis of faith to some resolution. At the end of Children of God, Emilio has gotten past his anger and bitterness. He has learned to put his pain to work on behalf of others. [Spoiler removed] I could leave him with the prospect of a contented and useful old age.
“John Henry Holliday spent 15 years – his entire adult life – dying of a debilitating and painful disease. Nothing I wrote could change that.
“It comes down to this: John Henry Holliday didn’t have a mother to love him when he was grown, so I have taken him for my own. I couldn’t give him a better life or a longer one. So I’ve told the story of a single season of happiness – the summer of 1878 – when he felt well enough to resume the practice of a profession that gave him great satisfaction in a place where he made a few good friends. I have tried to win him the compassion and respect I think he deserves.”
I've read all of Mary's novels and I'm very excited about her upcoming release. The Sparrow is my favorite, but I have a feeling this one is going to be a winner, too.
You can preorder a copy of Doc here.
You can read my interview with Mary (for Dreamers of the Day) here.
My review for The Sparrow can be found here.
My review for Dreamers of the Day can be found here.