Friday, March 2, 2018

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

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Because I am such a fan of Bill Bryson, I have no idea why it took me so long to set about reading The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. This is an affectionate memoir of the author's childhood in the 1950s and '60s in Des Moines, Iowa. Both his parents worked for the newspaper there - his dad was a sports writer and his mom wrote a lifestyle column - so writing is in his genes.

He tells the tale with much humor - and I suspect just a touch or maybe a wallop of exaggeration - about his boyhood escapades and adventures - many of which did not resonate with me. For example, unlike him, I did not spend three summers wanting to go to the live strip show at the state fair. Nor did I ever imagine myself as coming from another planet. Nor did I have friends who experimented with gunpowder and homemade cannons.

What did resonate were his descriptions of what was going on in those decades and the amount of rapid change that was seen in America: color television; the Red Scare and the McCarthy hearings; learning to read with Dick and Jane books; morning and afternoon editions of the local newspaper; Sputnik and the space race; the polio epidemic; the Cuban missile crisis; major league baseball games played in the afternoon; and, of course, the threat of nuclear war.

He also recounts with sadness the eventual loss of downtown department stores, locally owned businesses and restaurants, small family farms, glorious movie theaters with bigger-than-life screens, and small amusement parks.

I have seen many of those same changes in my own hometown. His description of one of Des Moines's great 'ocean liner of a department store' brought to mind visits with my mother to Stewart's Department Store in downtown Louisville. In those days, we always dressed up to go shopping downtown. Stewart's boasted The Orchid Room, a restaurant on the sixth floor where we would enjoy a lunch of fresh fruit salad accompanied by little finger sandwiches of date-nut bread and cream cheese. 

One of the spectacular features of the store was that every spring shoppers were greeted by a woman in a swing that hung from the tall ceiling right as they entered through the revolving glass door. Flowers twined around the ropes of the swing and the young woman always wore a pastel pink or blue or green full-skirted dress. Believe me, the sight was a marvel to behold. 

You won't find such elegance in Target or Walmart!


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After reading Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, I rented the movie to see just how Hollywood handled the story. The film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as the sisters Sally and Gillian did manage to hit most of the highlights of the novel. My favorite characters were The Aunts played by Stockard Channing and Diane Wiest. Both woman had the most enchanting outfits (well, they were witches after all) and terrific hats. And as often happens, the movie's ending was very different from the book's. All in all, though, it was pleasant to watch.

What have you been reading or watching this week?


  1. I loved Bryson's book. He's about a year older than I am, so many of the things he wrote about were part of my childhood, too. There was a big department store here in Lancaster like the one you describe, with a book section and a tea room. We used to be much more civilized.

    1. Hi, Joan. While I enjoyed this book of Mr. Bryson's, I didn't find it as funny as some of his others. Maybe it was all the 'boy' stuff.

      The Stewart's Department Store building is still there. It now houses a hotel and maybe some offices. The front of it showed up in the movie 'Stripes' with Bill Murray.

      At one time, I wrote for a local business newspaper and its offices were on the first floor of the building. It was such a thrill to push through the revolving doors when I would deliver my copy (this being before computers!) Unfortunately, the lady in the swing wasn't there any longer. Sigh.

  2. I've also enjoyed quite a few of Bill Bryson's books, but haven't got around to this one yet. In Glasgow we had several really posh department stores, but there's only one there now. You had to put your elbow on a velvet cushion if you wanted to buy gloves - to have them fitted on you. However we didn't have a girl on a swing, I would have loved to have seen that.

    1. Hi, Katrina. Ooh, the elbow on the velvet cushion sounds so elegant. I remember going with my grandmother to the hosiery department at Stewart's. Stockings then came in a flat cardboard box. The clerk would put on a pair of white gloves and run her hand into the leg of the stocking to show the customer the color. Way before the invention of pantyhose! I think we lost something then...

  3. I'm catching up on your posts here today, Belle, and I can't believe I haven't already commented on this one as Bill Bryson is one of my favorite writers. He makes me laugh out loud, a quality I much appreciate. Thunderbolt Kid was good, but not my favorite (that still remains I'm a Stranger Here Myself). I found a copy of his At Home at the library bookstore and snatched it up for $1, and it will probably be one of the next books I read.

    As for what I'm reading and watching now, I just finished The Long Way Home by Louise Penny, and am just starting Great Expectations. I'm also reading Everything's Perfect When Your a Liar (OK, but not connecting with the author) and dipping into some of M.F.K. Fisher's writings. I really like the way she writes.

    My husband and I are watching taped reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show--guess we are feeling nostalgic for our childhoods!

  4. Hi, Kathy. I was vaguely disappointed in this one by Mr. Bryson but his books have brought me so much joy I’ll let this one pass. I loved At Home. I enjoyed the research he did in that one. Very enlightening.

    I’m watching episodes of ‘Monk’ on Amazon Video and delighting in every minute! He cracks me up. And what a terrific actor.