Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Bill Bryson is reading in Edmonton tonight, 7:30pm at the Royal Alberta Museum, presented by Greenwood's Bookshoppe (tickets $5 / info @ 780-439-2005). As this is also Halloween night I think there will be more than a few disappointed parents, like me, who can't make it.

Bryson is promoting his new book, a memoir of growing up in Iowa in the 1950s. I think this book will be a great read as one of his funniest pieces of writing is the first chapter of his first travel book, Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which he describes the family car trip vacations of his youth. I remember reading that piece as my wife drove somewhere, asking with exasperation “What? What’s so funny?” as I literally laughed out loud. In fact, I’d put it up there with the hangover scene from Lucky Jim [Kingsley Amis] as one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

The Globe and Mail had a positive, very gently critical review of Thunderbolt recently, written by New Yorker cartoonist/humourist Bruce McCall.

"It's an entertaining romp of a book, for at least three reasons. First, early boyhood is an empty-headed spring break of a life when nothing matters all that much, particularly oneself, so the autobiographical clay is as non-toxic as Play-Doh. Second, Bryson's boyhood was almost freakishly strifeless, a veritable pageant of Leave It to Beaver normality. Never fear, nothing really bad ever happens. Third, this is Memoir Lite, Freud-free, no greasy bathos. And anyway, the author seems just too sunny of disposition -- or too disciplined an entertainer -- to start dragging skeletons down from his childhood attic. His primary purpose, even in recounting the story of himself, is to give the reader a good time."

McCall published his own boyhood memoir in 1997 – Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Canada. McCall is a bit older than Bryson, so describes growing up in the 1940s, and he grew up in Canada, in southwest Ontario and Toronto. McCall’s book has a lot of humour in it but there’s also a fair amount of bitterness as well. He had an unhappy family life and he desperately wanted to get out of Canada and to the US. While some of the best humour comes from anger and sadness, I suspect Bryson’s memoir of a happy childhood will be more enjoyable.

A thematically similar memoir is Haven Kimmel’s 2001 book A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Moorehead, Indiana. Like Bryson, Kimmel had a happy childhood growing up in the American Midwest. I found the book slight (there truly is no conflict!) but enjoyable. And of course, one must mention another Indianan, Jean Shepherd, the humourist who wrote In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. The 1983 film, A Christmas Story, a holiday classic, was based primarily on the autobiographical humour found in this collection, in which a journalist returns to his Indiana hometown and reminisces about his small-town childhood with bartender Flick.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir

Today's Powell's Review-A-Day is a positive review from the Christian Science Monitor of a memoir by the formidable Robert Hughes, the longtime Times Magazine art critic. Hughes is an infamous curmudgeon - noted for his brutal honesty, for his unwillingness to pull his punches. Even Robert Enright, a erudite curmudgeon as well, host of CBC's Sunday Edition, seemed a bit in awe of Hughes in their interview on Sunday.

My first encounter with Hughes was with his history of modern art, The Shock of the New, in the 1980s. I was delighted to find a guy who was clearly knowledgeable but had little patience for the BS so prevelant in the art world, especially with postmodernism and the other -isms in full flower. But his 1986 book, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding, really rocked my world view. Until then I couldn't understand my friends' fascination with Australia - interesting travel meant travel to the old world, to Europe. Hughes' fascinating narrative history of Australia opened my eyes to the incredible stories of the new world, even pointing me back to Canadian history.

I look forward to seeing if Hughes goes easy on himself in this memoir.

The Ruins

Back in the heat of summer (yes, the term "heat" is used ironically, given the milquetoast warmth we had this summer) I recommended a new thriller by Scott Smith as one of my St. Albert Gazette Great Reading picks. After reading it I see why Stephen King liked it: it's horrifying! A delightfully scary read for Halloween.

Here's the blurb from August:

The Ruins
By Scott Smith

Stephen King calls this scary thriller “the book of the summer”, noting that “it does for Mexican vacations what Jaws did for New England beaches in 1975." Four American tourists in Cancun, Mexico decide to leave the beach and go to the jungle in search of a German friend’s brother. They really, really should have stayed on the beach.