Wednesday, June 29, 2016

My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber

There is a particular type of humor associated with The New Yorker.  It's dry and often depicts absurd little moments of modern life.  James Thurber practically invented this type of humor.  His stories and drawings appeared in many places, including The New Yorker, for the first half of the 20th century.  My Life and Hard Times was his first attempt at a memoir and it is unique to say the least.  What sets it apart from most books of this type is that Thurber was a fairly accomplished man of letters at the time he wrote it but none of his noteworthy accolades are included.  The book consists of humorous stories from his youth in Columbus, Ohio.  Several of the events and characters (his family) overlap from story to story, like the time his senile grandfather mistook a police officer in the house for a Civil War soldier and shot him is referenced once or twice.  The stories range from the small, a family dog who bit everyone, to the grand, when the entire town went running through the streets because they thought the dam had broken.  All of the stories are funny and characterized by Thurber's trademark wit.

The writing is simple yet fairly poetic giving an even more ironic sense to the proceedings.  Thurber talks about the silly, often embarrassing events from his own life with no regret and without tipping his hand.  He recounts the night a "ghost" was stomping around the house causing a great commotion as though describing a trip to the store.  He doesn't need to embellish because most of the stories carry the humor all by themselves.  It's impressive that a book written almost a century ago is still funny.  Thurber's sense of humor was ahead of its time and much of this reads like a modern, quirky memoir, though there are some terms and events that are very of their time and a modern reader needs to keep that in mind.  I was able to relate to a family very unlike my own (I didn't grow up with maids and cooks) and I was able to find laughs in stories from one hundred years ago, that's what makes this book worthwhile to me.

If you like My Life and Hard Times, you might enjoy The Thurber Carnival, a collection of his work, mostly from The New Yorker.

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