Bill Bryson is one of my all-time favorite writers. He's a master of observation, which makes him an ideal travel writer. His obsession with minutia and his pessimistic but abundant sense of humor, combined with a love for library-style research, results in engaging books that make me delighted, wistful, astonished, and nostalgic, often at the same time.
His latest book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, also happens to be his best book. It's his memoir of growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in Des Moine, Iowa, and it's as close to being a time machine back to that wonderful era than anything I've encountered.
His descriptions of the independently owned businesses in Des Moines in the 1950s — the diners, dime stores, theaters, department stores, and supermarkets — had me aching to return to an era where grocery stores had a "kiddy coral" loaded with comic books where kids could read in bliss while their parents bought TV dinners and chubs of cheese so shiny you could see your reflection in them (I'm paraphrasing Bryson on the cheese part).
He covers a lot of territory in under 300 pages: the cold war, the civil rights movement, the generally poor quality of kids toys (he goes off on a hysterically funny account of those old vibrating football games), farm living, juvenile delinquency, the postwar economic boom, Main Street, Disneyland, childhood friends, teenage lust, homemade explosives, and unfriendly dogs. Every page is laced with witty gems of rare insight and dry humor. He ends the book with a head-shaking look at the end of this magical era, where Wal-Marts have replaced dry goods stores and neighborhood streets, once full of kids riding bikes, rollerskating, playing kick the can, and running around in large packs, are silent, save for cars going by, because all the kids are locked up inside watching TV as a result of our culture being scared to death of everything.