Don't ever read a Bill Bryson book while drinking a carbonated soft drink, or (as in my case) draft root beer. A snort of laughter inevitable in a Bryson book will send frothing bubbles up your nose or (as in my case) out your nose, which can be momentarily very painful, albeit exceptionally amusing to anyone in your immediate vicinity. Bryson's latest, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, chronicles the writer's early years in Iowa, as well as the rich history of his alter-ego, the valiant Thunderbolt Kid, scourge of villains worldwide (well, perhaps just Iowa-wide). The Thunderbolt Kid arrived in Des Moines in 1951 (electron year 21,000,047,002), dropped off in a silver spaceship by his father, Volton, who hypnotized the Bryson family into thinking that Bill was a normal boy. In the manner of a latter-day Mark Twain, Bryson spins tales of everyday events that somehow transcend normality to a plane of wonderment and humor. When his father was once invited out for Chinese food, he reported back incredulously to the family: They eat it with sticks, you know. His mother's horrified reply? Goodness! In one of a series of Midwest-inflected vignettes, Bryson rats out his sister, who could spot celebrity homosexuals with uncanny precision: She told me Rock Hudson was gay in 1959, long before anyone would have guessed it. She knew that Richard Chamberlain was gay before he did, I believe. For boomers, Bryson's latest will serve up a steaming course of nostalgia for times long gone (he and I were born in the same year, as was Sting, but I digress): Sky King, TV dinners, the Brooklyn Dodgers, X-Ray Spex, Sputnik, Dr. Kildare, the Cold War, Tareytons and Strato Streak V-8 engines. For those who arrived later, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid will still be a hilarious look at bygone days, but you may need help from an old Saturday Evening Post or that old bald guy down the street to understand some of the references. Whatever your age, you will yuk it up big time reading Thunderbolt Kid. Just don't forget what I said about the soft drinks.

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