Archive for October, 2011

Book review: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson published by Doubleday

October 26, 2011

Bill Bryson knows exactly how to tell a good story. With an enviably fluent style his words wrap around you like a cuddly teddy bear. You want to read and read on. You are spellbound, not by the drastic dramatic events that propel you from catastrophe to catastrophe but by Bill Bryson’s sheer unarming charm.

His childhood in Des Moines USA shares many similarities with our own. It is easy to identify with Bill as a small boy as he learns to cope with the environment he finds himself born to. His endearing parents, loving but aloof, give the young Bill room to explore his imagination and to enjoy a natural and free childhood in a way that is seldom possible now. Throughout his Dennis the Menace type tales of mischief, there is a keen sense of humour. Bill Bryson, above all authors, gives a delicious slant on the ridiculousness of some of the quirks of nature and traditions.

The gang mentality of his school buddies, the inclination of children to tease the weakest, the inevitable endeavour of young lads to indulge in the forbidden fruits of adult pleasures are all part of his story. With Bill, none of these a portrayed as the wickedness of naughty children to be expunged but rather a healthy developmental process as he and his buddies grow up in a world beyond their control and often beyond their understanding. However, it is Bill who is the only child who sees how nonsensical it is to hide under a desk as a protection against an atomic bomb. Why bother? His relaxed attitude is exemplified as he sits calmly behind his desk surveying his class mates crouching under their desks below. Such disarming common sense made him unpopular with his teachers but he soon overcame any anxiety over this by developing his own special technique of zapping them with his imagined out-of-this-world secret powers. Cigarettes, the female figure, forbidden films and the problem of acquiring supplies of alcohol by his under-age pals were all at the heart of many of the adventures he and his friends enjoyed.

If you are looking for a quiet entertaining read with some in-depth research into 1950s America (that you hardly notice as it is spun so easily into his entertaining stories), this is the book for you. Read this and you will understand why Bill Bryson is so popular; you cannot help but be captivated by his persuasively, charming personality.

Rosemary Westwell

Book review: ‘Human Traces’ by Sebastian Faulks

October 16, 2011

Human Traces is a thoroughly readable and informative novel.  There is nothing superficial, glib or glory-seeking in this fine author’s style. Reading his script brings respect and awe. Sebastian Faulks knows how to research his subject.

This novel succeeds on numerous levels. The one that appealed to me most was a description of the history of our understanding and treatment of mental illness. Having a member of the family suffer from this condition made the feelings and ideas of the lead characters, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebière, intriguing, effective and realistic.  Their enthusiasm in their youth and how this changed over the years was particularly well portrayed.

I identified immediately with the academic ambitions of Thomas and the problems I encountered during my own PhD studies matched his particularly well.  No matter how many facts can be unearthed proving their causal relationship with the issue is very difficult.

On the personal level, the relationships between Thomas and Jacques, their marriages, children and their ups and downs over the years also rang true, although for me, Jacque’s affair near the end of the book was perhaps a little ‘over the top’.

Events occur in numerous places spanning Europe, America and Africa. The history and significance of these locations were an interesting integral part of the story.

If you want to think deeply about a subject; if you want to know the detail of the history of mental illness and its treatment; if you want to be well informed and if you want a good, long read – then this is the book for you.

Rosemary Westwell