Tuesday, August 05, 2008

One to make you laugh and one to make you think

I've just finished two books that are about as similar as Michaelangelo's David is to Bugs Bunny. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson could be subtitled "Boys Behaving Badly," but I grew up with brothers so a lot of the trouble these boys get into sounds fairly familiar. I don't know whether little boys in the digital age still torture each other and blow things up the way Bryson recalls doing in his Iowa childhood--maybe they do it all online these days--but if you're nostalgic for the days when grubby boys dangled wads of saliva over each others' faces, this book is for you.

"I can't imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s," writes Bryson early on, and much of the book sets out to explore that time from the dual perspective of the child and the man. He writes joyfully of his memories of baseball, downtown Des Moines, and his family (which he describes as "radiantly unsophisticated"), mercilessly poking fun at the foibles of life in the midwest while demonstrating an undimmed appreciation for that life. His parents, he writes, had a marriage made in heaven, "for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad." His family feared food that wasn't bland, avoiding "any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in."

"All our meals consisted of leftovers," he writes. "Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years....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."

It's a funny book, but not as funny as his others, or perhaps the humor is not sustained as consistently. Or maybe I found parts of it trying because I spent my childhood amongst boys behaving badly and I don't really need a repeat engagement. Still, it has its moments.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 also has its moments, many of them. Unlike Bryson's childhood kitchen, this collection has a distinctly international flavor, with stories memorably set in Paris, Odessa, Thailand, and China, and one set close to home in a college classroom ("A Little History of Modern Music" by William H. Gass, which is oddly wonderful, but I suspect that my daughter the music theory expert picked up on the nuances better than I did.)

There was only one dud in the whole collection, only one story I couldn't force myself to finish; the rest were full of luminous moments and memorable prose. "Touch" by Alexi Zentner presents a chilling metaphor for the horrors of human alienation, while "Prison" by Yiyun Li examines the fragility of the ties that bind and the stresses that transform family members into strangers and strangers into family.

I heard Anthony Doerr read sections of "Village 113" last year and I liked it then, but I like it even better in print, where his lyrical voice conveys an elegiac quality glowing with suppressed anger. Doerr is master of the telling detail, such as when the seed-keeper in a village soon to be submerged by the Three Gorges Dam considers the past:

Every stone, every stair, is a key to a memory. Here the sons of her neighbors flew kites. Here the toothless knife sharpener used to set up his coughing, smoking wheel. Here, forty years ago, a legless girl roasted nuts in a copper wok and her mother once let her drink a glass of beer on Old Festivals Day. Here the river took a clean shirt right out of her hands; here was once a field, furred with green shoots; here a fisherman put his hot, dry mouth on hers. The body odor of porters, the white faces of tombs, the sweet, bulging calves of Li Qing's father--the village drowns in memory.

Few of these stories made me laugh (except, ironically, "Other People's Deaths," in which Lore Segal portrays those awkward moments that arise when death enters a circle of friends), but just about all of them made me ponder the human condition and appreciate the artistry of well-wrought prose.

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