The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

( 120 )


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 middle of the United States in the middle of the last century. A book that delivers on the promise that it is “laugh-out-loud funny.”

Some say that the first hints that Bill Bryson was not of Planet Earth came from his discovery, at the age of six, of a woollen jersey of rare fineness. Across the moth-holed chest was a golden ...

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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 middle of the United States in the middle of the last century. A book that delivers on the promise that it is “laugh-out-loud funny.”

Some say that the first hints that Bill Bryson was not of Planet Earth came from his discovery, at the age of six, of a woollen jersey of rare fineness. Across the moth-holed chest was a golden thunderbolt. It may have looked like an old college football sweater, but young Bryson knew better. It was obviously the Sacred Jersey of Zap, and proved that he had been placed with this innocuous family in the middle of America to fly, become invisible, shoot guns out of people’s hands from a distance, and wear his underpants over his jeans in the manner of Superman.

Bill Bryson’s first travel book opened with the immortal line, “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” In this hilarious new memoir, he travels back to explore the kid he once was and the weird and wonderful world of 1950s America. He modestly claims that this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting much larger slowly. But for the rest of us, it is a laugh-out-loud book that will speak volumes – especially to anyone who has ever been young.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Humorist Bill Bryson thinks of himself as middling: He was born in Middle America, halfway through the American Century at the very midpoint of the Baby Boom. Fortunately for us, there is nothing average or mediocre about his talent. The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid recapitulates the rich fantasy life and occasional rude awakenings of this once-budding Iowa superhero. Bryson's sly, lighthearted nostalgia will remind older readers of Jean Shepherd.
Jay Jennings
As a humorist, Bryson falls somewhere between the one-liner genius of Dave Barry and the narrative brilliance of David Sedaris…at his best he spools out operatically funny vignettes of sustained absurdity that nevertheless remain grounded in universal experience. These accounts, like the description of the bumper-car ride at a run-down amusement park or the tale of a friend's father's descent from the high dive at a local lake, defy excerpting; when taken whole, they will leave many readers de-couched.

Occasionally in the course of his reminiscences, Bryson abandons punch lines and demonstrates a lyrical gift for the tactile and noisome nature of childhood…that elevates the work to the level of classics in the genre like Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie.
—The New York Times

Juliet Wittman
Bill Bryson is erudite, irreverent, funny and exuberant, making the temptation to quote endlessly from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoirhard to resist. Bryson interweaves childhood reminiscences seamlessly with observations about 1950s America, evoking a zeitgeist that will be familiar to almost everyone past middle age. Though his memories are for the most part pleasurable, he doesn't evade the darker side of the times…
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

For most of his adult life, Bryson has made his home in the U.K, yet he actually entered the world in 1951 as part of America's postwar baby boom and spent his formative years in Des Moines, Iowa. Bryson wistfully recounts a childhood of innocence and optimism, a magical point in time when a distinct sense of regional and community identity briefly—but blissfully—coexisted with fledgling technology and modern convenience. Narrating, Bryson skillfully wields his amorphous accent—somehow neither fully British nor Midwestern—to project a genial and entertaining tour guide of lost Americana. In portraying the boyish exploits of his "Thunderbolt Kid" superhero alter ego, he convincingly evokes both the unadulterated joys and everyday battles of childhood. As an added bonus, the final CD features an interview with Bryson in which he reflects on the process of writing his autobiography and discussing the broader social and cultural insights that he gleaned from the experience. Simultaneous release with the Broadway hardcover (Reviews, July 10). (Nov.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"I can't imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s," writes Bryson (A Walk in the Woods), and his wryly amusing stories of his childhood in Des Moines almost convince the reader this is true. Bryson recounts the world of his younger self, buried in comic books in the Kiddie Corral at the local supermarket, resisting civil defense drills at school, and fruitlessly trying to unravel the mysteries of sex. His alter ego, the Thunderbolt Kid, born of his love for comic-book superheroes and the need to vaporize irritating people, serves as an astute outside observer of life around him. His family's foibles are humorously presented, from his mother's burnt, bland cooking to his father's epic cheapness. The larger world of 1950s America emerges through the lens of "Billy's" world, including the dark underbelly of racism, the fight against communism, and the advent of the nuclear age. Recommended for public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/06.]-Alison M. Lewis, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

A noted travel humorist and the author of several books on the English language, Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything) here offers a departure-a memoir about growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s. The title is taken from his childhood fantasy life where he existed as a superhero. Bryson effortlessly weaves together the national themes of the 1950s-civil defense drills and bland foods-with the Norman Rockwell world found in most small towns. Charming features long since gone include a downtown department store with a tea room (where children could select a toy from the toy chest), a cafeteria where you turned on a light for service, and a supermarket with a Kiddie Corral filled with comic books where children stayed while their mothers shopped. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone other than Bryson reading his words; his narration adds a special quality to the experience. Regardless of one's age, location, or gender, this book will fondly evoke memories of childhood. Alternately wildly entertaining and innocently nostalgic, this is a book not to be missed. Highly recommended for all public libraries.
—Gloria Maxwell

School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The Thunderbolt Kid was "born" in the 1950s when six-year-old Bryson found a mysterious, scratchy green sweater with a satiny thunderbolt across the chest. The jersey bestowed magic powers on the wearer-X-ray vision and the power to zap teachers and babysitters and deflect unwanted kisses from old people. These are the memoirs of that Kid, whose earthly parents were not really half bad-a loving mother who didn't cook and was pathologically forgetful, but shared her love of movies with her youngest child, and a dad who was the "greatest baseball writer that ever lived" and took his son to dugouts and into clubhouses where he met such famous players as Stan Musial and Willie Mays. Simpler times are conveyed with exaggerated humor; the author recalls the middle of the last century in the middle of the country (Des Moines, IA), when cigarettes were good for you, waxy candies were considered delicious, and kids were taught to read with Dick and Jane. Students of the decade's popular culture will marvel at the insular innocence described, even as the world moved toward nuclear weapons and civil unrest. Bryson describes country fairs and fantastic ploys to maneuver into the tent to see the lady stripper, playing hookey, paper routes, church suppers, and more. His reminiscences will entertain a wide audience.-Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A charming, funny recounting of growing up in Des Moines during the sleepy 1950s. Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, etc.) combines nostalgia, sharp wit and a dash of hyperbole to recreate his childhood in the rural Midwest. Using a homespun, idiosyncratic voice reminiscent of Jean Shepherd, he tells of a generally happy youth as the son of a loving but often absent sportswriter father and a dizzyingly absentminded mother, a "home furnishings" reporter at the Des Moines Register who once sent him to school wearing her own peddle-pushers. The journey includes visits to stately downtown Des Moines, where Younkers, the preeminent local department store, offered free gifts to patrons of its "elegant" Tea Room; the annual Iowa State Fair, where Bryson tried desperately to gain access to the notorious "strippers' tent"; and the bacchanalia of Saturday matinees at the local movie theater, where candy and popcorn flew through the darkened theater like confetti. We also meet some of Bryson's colorful comrades, like George Willoughby, an adept vending-machine thief who also placed bugs in his soup in order to get free ice-cream sundaes from the stricken restaurant manager; and the troubled Stephen Katz, a prodigious substance-abuser who organized the theft of an entire boxcar of Old Milwaukee beer. Eventually, progress caught up with Des Moines, and even young Bryson's imagined superpowers can't stop it. Holiday Inns and Travelodges replaced the town's stately Victorian homes, and the family-owned downtown stores, movie palaces and restaurants were undone by shopping malls and multiplexes. In that sense, the decline of downtown Des Moines mirrors that of hundreds of small andmidsized towns across the country. But in Bryson's bittersweet memoir, he reminds readers of the joys many people forgot to even miss. A great, fun read, especially for Baby Boomers nostalgic for the good old days.
From the Publisher
“Outlandishly and improbably entertaining. . . . An evocation of childhood that’s movingly true, no exaggeration necessary.”
The New York Times

“An entertaining romp of a book. . . . By the end of this vaudeville bill of a memoir, [Bryson] has you wishing you’d grown up in Des Moines in the 1950s yourself.”
The Globe and Mail

“Pitch-perfect, nostalgic, and tenderly ironic. . . . Wise. Somewhat innocent. This is a marvelous book.”
The Boston Globe

“A book about the joy of small things, about the rich and distinctive features that constitute normality, about the strange and singular ways in which everyday life is anything but quotidian. . . . Bryson is the master of the telling detail.”
Observer (UK)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767919364
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/17/2006
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 520,617
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s bestselling books include A Walk in the Woods, Neither Here Nor There, In a Sunburned Country, Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, the latter of which earned him the 2004 Aventis Prize. Bryson lives in England with his wife and children.


A backpacking expedition in 1973 brought Des Moines native Bill Bryson to England, where he met his wife and decided to settle. He wrote travel articles for the English newspapers The Times and The Independent for many years before stumbling into bestsellerdom with 1989's The Lost Continent, a sidesplitting account of his rollicking road trip across small-town America. In 1995, he moved his family back to the States so his children could experience "being American." However, his deep-rooted Anglophilia won out and, in 2003, the Brysons returned to England.

One of those people who finds nearly everything interesting, Bryson has managed to turn his twin loves -- travel and language -- into a successful literary career. In a string of hilarious bestsellers, he has chronicled his misadventures across England, Europe, Australia, and the U.S., delighting readers with his wry observations and descriptions. Similarly, his books on the history of the English language, infused with the perfect combination of wit and erudition, have sold well. He has received several accolades and honors, including the coveted Aventis Prize for best general science book awarded for his blockbuster A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Beloved on both sides of the pond, Bryson makes few claims to write great literature. But he is a writer it is nearly impossible to dislike. We defy anyone to not smile at pithy, epigrammatic opening lines like these: "I come from Des Moines. Someone had to."

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    1. Hometown:
      Hanover, New Hampshire
    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Des Moines, Iowa
    1. Education:
      B.A., Drake University, 1977

Read an Excerpt

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

A Memoir
By Bill Bryson


Copyright © 2006 Bill Bryson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7679-1936-X

Chapter One

Burns Unit

The only downside of my mother's working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway. My mother always ran late and was dangerously forgetful into the bargain. You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening. In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late. As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear baked potatoes exploding in the oven.

We didn't call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.

"It's a bit burned," my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something - a much-loved pet perhaps - salvaged from a tragic house fire. "But I think I scraped off most of the burned part," she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh.

Happily, all this suited my father. His palate only responded totwo tastes - burnt and ice cream - so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful. Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad.

As part of her job, my mother bought stacks of housekeeping magazines - House Beautiful, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens - and I read these with a curious avidity, partly because they were always lying around and in our house all idle moments were spent reading something, and partly because they depicted lives so absorbingly at variance with our own. The housewives in my mother's magazines were so collected, so organized, so calmly on top of things, and their food was perfect - their lives were perfect. They dressed up to take their food out of the oven! There were no black circles on the ceiling above their stoves, no mutating goo climbing over the sides of their forgotten saucepans. Children didn't have to be ordered to stand back every time they opened their oven doors. And their foods - baked Alaska, lobster Newburg, chicken cacciatore - why, these were dishes we didn't even dream of, much less encounter, in Iowa.

Like most people in Iowa in the 1950s, we were more cautious eaters in our house. On the rare occasions when we were presented with food with which we were not comfortable or familiar - on planes or trains or when invited to a meal cooked by someone who was not herself from Iowa - we tended to tilt it up carefully with a knife and examine it from every angle as if it determining whether it might need to be defused. Once on a trip to San Francisco my father was taken by friends to a Chinese restaurant and he described it to us afterwards in the somber tones of someone recounting a near-death experience.

"And they eat it with sticks, you know," he added knowledgeably.

"Goodness!" said my mother.

"I would rather have gas gangrene than go through that again," my father added grimly.

In our house we didn't eat:

pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayonnaise, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast;

bread that wasn't white and at least 65 percent air;

spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup;

fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange breadcrumbs, and then only on Fridays and only when my mother remembered it was Friday, which in fact was not often;

seafood of any type but especially seafood that looked like large insects;

soups not blessed by Campbell's and only a very few of those;

anything with dubious regional names like "pone," or "gumbo" or foods that had at any time been an esteemed staple of slaves or peasants.

All other foods of all types - curries, enchiladas, tofu, bagels, sushi, couscous, yogurt, kale, rocket, Parma ham, any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in - had either not yet been invented or was yet unknown to us. We really were radiantly unsophisticated. I remember being surprised to learn at quite an advanced age that a shrimp cocktail was not, as I had always imagined, a pre-dinner alcoholic drink with a shrimp in it.

All our meals consisted of leftovers. My mother had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of foods that had already been to the table, sometimes many times. Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years. (Her oldest food possession of all, it more or less goes without saying, was a fruitcake that was kept in a metal tin and dated from the colonial period.) I can only assume that my mother did all of her cooking in the 1940s so that she could spend the rest of her life surprising herself with what she could find under cover at the back of the fridge. I never knew her to reject a food. The rule of thumb seemed to be that if you opened the lid and the stuff inside didn't make you actually recoil and take at least one staggered step backwards, it was deemed OK to eat.

Both of my parents had grown up in the Great Depression and neither of them ever threw anything away if they could possibly avoid it. My mother routinely washed and dried paper plates, and smoothed out for reuse spare aluminum foil. If you left a pea on your plate, it became part of future meal. All our sugar came in little packets spirited out of restaurants in deep coat pockets, as did our jams, jellies, crackers (oyster and saltine), tartar sauces, some of our ketchup and butter, all of our napkins, and a very occasional ashtray; anything that came with a restaurant table really. One of the happiest moments in my parents' life was when maple syrup started to be served in small disposable packets and they could add those to the household hoard.


Excerpted from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 120 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 120 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2007


    Bill Bryson's books about cris crossing the world and experiencing different cultures are hilarious and even occasionally, touching. In this new book, however, he deals with his upbringing in the Central U.S. in Iowa. Bryson proves himself to be a renaissance man, writing about growing up and his strained relationship with his father. Everybody who's expierenced this, which is many, can relate. Bryson is at his FUNNIEST, WRYEST and most touching in this book. It'll make you laugh and maybe even cry. If you're the sensitive sort. This is one of the three books in the past few months that made me laugh out loud. Repeatedly. The others are 'Dave Barry's Money Secrets' a send up of investment books and Martha Boltons 'Maybe Life's Just Not That Into You' an EXTRAORDINARILY FUNNY spoof on self help books. I hope Bryson writes more books centering on his youth. Although I cannot relate in the least to growing up in this place called Iowa.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2009

    Enjoyable humor that cracked me up

    In Bill Bryson's The Life and TImes of the Thunderbolt Kid, he makes an exciting memoir of his formative years in the middle of the country. He retells the deailed past of his childhoods adventurous innocenc. Taking place during a politically hostile time, the 50's brought along its own interesting story. As Bill grew up his alter ego kicked in and thus the Thunderbolt Kid emerged as the hero of Des Moines, Iowa by narrating this hysterical comic series of stories.
    This story hit close to home. SInce I live in Des Moines I really made a connection to the setting. The multiple stories are all humorous and even more humorous knowing the town they're taking place. The authors style is humorous making every short tale have a kick to it. Bill and his buddies did all sorts of mischevious acts around town just to entertain themselves from utter boredom. Bill himself was a man of comedy, he enjoyed being the joker. Bill wrote a very accurate and detailed memoir that was quite refreshing to read and laugh. I hope to read more from this funny author.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A Trip Back In Time!

    This book is everything I hoped it would be and more! It was a glimpse back in time to when I was growing up (in the 50's and on). Some of the things he wrote about I remember, and some refreshed my memory. His use of humor throughout makes you feel like his pal, and makes you laugh at some of the weird things that our country went through. I laughed out loud when he described his crazy relatives, but even more, I felt a sense of nostalgia for the carefree way things used to be when we were kids, before the invention of modern toys and computers and other gadgets.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 9, 2009

    one of Bryson's best

    My husband and I rarely share similar taste in books ( he business, me fiction/biographies), but after catching myself laughing out loud in public while reading this tale, I insisted he give it a read. We both now pass it on as gifts to contemparies. If you or your parents are baby boomers, Bryson's childhood memories will resonate with you. If you can remember the days when parents allowed their children to go around the neighborhood without fear or wish for those times again, you will get a kick out of Thunderbolt Kid.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2012

    Highly recommend

    Great book that made me laugh and cry at the same time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2011


    Very entertaining and worth reading again and again.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 24, 2011

    Great book. Loved it all!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2010

    The Life and Times of Thunderbolt Kid

    A very entertaining book about Des Moines, IA as a child growing up. Attention to detail was noted. Very funny descriptions and memories of Des Moines.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2010

    Ahh, the good old days of youth

    Bill Bryson's "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" was a great, nostalgic trip into his childhood and youth, as well as my own. I remember the days of tying a towel around my neck so that I could fly like Superman! A fellow Baby Boomer, I laughed and got a little misty at some of the common experiences of growing up in America in the fifties and sixties that Bryson describes in his usual wonderful ways. I love his style of writing and can easily identify with this story. Although I didn't try to verify any of his many listed statistics about life in America during the described eras, I have to feel saddened at how much of our national productiveness has been lost. We used to be a nation that provided products to the world, but now only seem to be consumers. And what's worse, the products we have to choose from are not always of a very good quality, despite the ever increasing costs to purchase them. But if you are a Bill Bryson fan, I think that this is a book you will enjoy. At the very least, it will get you to remember some of the things you did or that happened in your youth that you may have forgotten, or not thought of in quite a few years.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Thunderbolt Wonderful

    Anyone who grew up in the 50's or was raised by those who did will appreciate this book. The "Toity Jar" was classic and hysterically funny, it reminded me of my child hood. If you want to start reading and be entertained and taught a bit of history at the same time, read this book.

    Bill Bryson is a genious. He'd probably laugh at that comment, but his wit makes me want to read more. I bought 3 more books of his after I finished The Thunderbolt Kid. You won;t be disappointed.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    This is a wonderful memoir and it will resonate with anyone who was a kid in the late 50's and early 60's-especially midwesterners. He paints a wonderful picture of Iowa in the days before TV and internet shrank the world. It is both laugh out loud funny and touchingly sentimental.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2015

    If you grew up in the 50s or 60s you will laugh out loud at this book!

    This book is SO funny! Even though I am a woman, I could totally relate to so much of what Bill Bryson wrote in his book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. It is an easy, pleasant, humorous read that takes you back to those days when life was simpler. I really enjoyed this book. In fact, I bought it years ago, read it and then loaned it out to a friend. Never got it back. I liked it so much that I recently bought another copy!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2014

    Alive and hilarious, this is perfect Bryson

    These memories from the fifties evoke guffaws even from those who don't remember them as Bryson presents them with his genius for comic writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2014

    This book was incredibly funny. I've read A Walk in the Woods an

    This book was incredibly funny. I've read A Walk in the Woods and its definitely on par with that book.

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  • Posted April 22, 2014

    Best Bryson book ever

    If you were born in the 40s or 50s, this book will have you laughing all the way through. And, if you were born in Iowa, it is a must-read. I'm a big Bryson fan but this is my favorite. I read it at night and found myself repeatedly trying to stifle my laughter so as to not wake my husband up. I think it is consistently the funniest of all of his books (with the possible exception of the chapter in "A Walk in the Woods" where he finishes his first day of hiking.) Enjoy!

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  • Posted March 4, 2014

    This is far and away the funniest book I've ever read. Perhaps y

    This is far and away the funniest book I've ever read. Perhaps you had to be there, i.e. from that generation, to relate to these tales of childhood but I seriously doubt it. It's just plain very engaging and full of humor. I read part of it on a plane trip and just couldn't help laughing out load.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2013

    Medicine Cat Den.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2013

    Love this book!

    I read this and passed it on to my sister and then she to my brother. We are all baby boomers but each born in different decades. This story transcended all three. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, just an all around great read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2012

    A must read!

    Anyone who grew up in the heartland should read this book. It's laugh out loud funny!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2012

    Apollo cabin

    In camp half blood

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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