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Bill Bryson

 

Despite living literally about three miles from Bill Bryson I have never had the pleasure of meeting him which is a shame because I love his sense of humour and fun that comes out in his books. I think I have read every single one of them apart from A Walk in the Woods (and there's absolutely no reason I haven't got round to that one as it sits on the shelf in my study).

 

Unfortunately I didn't review them as I read them so need to revisit them all again. Below is a review I did place on my web site.

 

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid  - 26

 

I always look forward with great anticipation to reading a new Bill Bryson and this one certainly doesn't disappoint. Bryson has a wonderfully "ordinary" and chatty writing style that just draws you into his books. It is only after some time that you realise that amongst the humour is often a serious message. Bryson writes as if he is your best mate chatting amiably over a pint at the local.

 

The Thunderbolt Kid not only draws you into the American boom of the 1950s but takes you on an historic drive through those years. Having been brought up in England in the 50s I can see so many parallels.

 

Bryson started his first book with the line "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to" as if he is apologetic. In this book he makes Des Moines sound the most wonderful place on earth, continually referring to the good humour and kindness of the people. It made me want to go there, although there is an edge to his writing towards the end when he charts the birth of shopping malls, the growth of racial unrest as the world "grew up"  - and not for the better. "All this disturbed tranquility occurred in the space of just over a year. People have never gone from happy to not happy more quickly," he writes.

 

At times he hits a few bleak notes about  the reality of growing up and the place in which he lived: "At just the point where I was finally growing up, Des Moines stopped feeling like the place I had grown up in."

 

It is so refreshing to find a book about a normal childhood - the kind of childhood experienced by the majority of American and British kids. Bryson is quick to point out that his kid days were good ones. His parents were patient, kind and normal. He wasn't chained in the cellar or called It. And there lies the vitality of the story.

 

I must admit to having read the three child abuse books by Dave Pelzer with interest. They are quite rightly shocking but they spawned a whole host of child abuse books, increasingly bizarre and shocking. Bryson suffered none of this. He was a regular American boy growing up in a regular American family. But that is exactly what makes this book so "peachy." You just know nothing bad is going to happen and so it becomes an antidote to all the abuse books.

 

Bryson embraces the politics of the time, the fears, but above all the modernisation of the world that was the fifties and which led to the explosion of freedom that became the sixties. There are wonderful lines and passages throughout the book. Stories of the toity jar for those young people taken short and who cannot reach the bathroom in time are wonderful evocations of less frenetic times. Similarly we see the 50s as a time of naivity with the start of commercialism, but a commercialism built on the gullibility of the people who really did believe that smoking was good for them and that Camel cigarettes were the choice of doctors.

 

He travels into the land of the adult historian where he gives us snapshots of the leaders of the day, but always returns to the mundanity of childhood. Thus we have an instructive passage on the fight for democracy in Guatemala and the work of the democratic Jacobo Arbenz and how he was overthrown by a capitalistic backed coup only to be brought back to the world of the young with the words "let us return to Kid World where the denizens may be small and often immensely stupid, but are at least comparatively civilized.

 

Ultimately he remembers the 50s with tremendous affection "The best I can say is that I saw the last of something really special. It's something I seem to say a lot these days."

 

Bryson is an entertainer, he is a storyteller, an historian and the Thunderbolt Kid is a wonderful evocation of 1950s Americana. Roll on the next book by an author who rather surprisingly has settled down to live about three miles away from where I'm writing this.

 

Shakespeare - 20

Like so many others I always look forward to a new Bill Bryson, but this one was rather strange. A small volume, the author spends most of it telling us that virtually nothing is known about our greatest playwright and then continues to prove it throughout the text.

So we skip over many lost years and hurtle from his productive period to his death in a matter of pages seemingly skipping over where he was, who he was, how he wrote, where he wrote, why he wrote, what he wrote and even how he died.

Shakespeare is a mystery and an enigma - Bryson tells us this on numerous occasions and this book falls into the same slot. It's almost as if he has decided to write a book about the man and then found out that there is very little to write.

That doesn't detract from the entertaining way Bryson sets the historical context of the times but we always return to the same premise - little or nothing is known about the man, his movements, his life, his family and so we go on. If Bryson went in search of Shakespeare he failed to find him. Much of the book debunks various theories. Certainly it isn't one to read if you want to learn about Shakespeare. It is one to read if you want to learn a little about Elizabethan and Jacobean England and that's really all there is to say about a good idea that just leaves you wanting more facts.