In My Life and Hard Times, Thurber returns to his starting point--the delightful chaos and frustrations brought on by family, boyhood, youth, odd dogs, and recalcitrant machinery in the quiet university town of his birth. This is one of the most deeply humorous books of our century. Not only is it a "memoir" that takes into account the crumbling of empires, it talks "largely about small matters and smally about great affairs." Mostly it is about the widely incredible things people do when they think they are acting sensibly. Yet Thurber does more than just tickle your funny bone. He has quietly and unobtrusively, but permanently, deflated your false pride in the essential sanity and prudence of the human race.
The whole short book is great, but my favorite moment came on the second page. When I read this on the bus Thursday morning, I made an ass of myself trying not to laugh out loud.
Thurber is cataloging the phobias of his family members. His cousin was terrified of suffocating in his sleep, and so kept a tin of camphor beside the bed to revive himself, should he wake up half-dead. His Aunt Grace kept shoes inside her bedroom door and, every night when she thought she heard burglars, would crack open the door and thrown shoes down the hall.
The one that made me snort and choke on the bus, though, was this bit:
Then there was Aunt Sarah Shoaf, who never went to bed at night without the fear that a burglar was going to get in and blow chloroform under her door through a tube. To avert this calamity-- for she was in greater dread of anesthetics than of losing her household goods-- she always piled her money, silverware, and other valuables in a neat stack just outside her bedroom, with a note reading: "This is all I have. Please take it and do not use your chloroform, as this is all I have."
Aristotle said: "The world is a tragedy to those who feel, and a comedy to those who think." Seeing the past through the wrong side of the telescope, Thurber is is able to invest apparently distressing events with the patina of humour which brings out his delightfully eccentric family (including himself) into focus. Read it, and remember similar "hard times" from your childhood...
Anyway, though, as I said, I'd never really read any Thurber. As I read this and talked to people about it, it seems that everyone I know has read quite a bit of his stuff. I can see why. It's funny, interesting, and light. Easy to read, gives you a little kick, and then you can move on. I'll probably read some of his other stuff at some point, I'd say. This one was fun.
There are other parallels between the two books, for instance, the suggestion that both are autobiographical, and both use the technique of the hyperbole to create hilarious situations. But where Thurber's stories are exceedingly funny, Burroughs are essentially sad; where Thurber's stories are incredibly funny and very recognizable, Burroughs are weird and disgusting.
James Thurber's short story collection "My life and hard times" consists of six, mostly very short stories, illustrated with Thurber's cartoons. The first story "The dog that bit people" describes in hilarious fashion the life of one of his family's dogs. The story is great for dog lovers. The second story, "University days" describes the protagonists' time at university. In three episodes it portrays more than anything else the despair of teachers to educate some truly resilient students, such as the immensely funny botany class and the protagonist's inability to see through the microscope, the portrait of the block-head student Bolenciecwcz, who excels at sports but is extremely dim. The attempt of the teacher to make Bolenciecwcz answer simple question is recognizable to any student, and painfully realistic to any teacher, and above all uproariously funny. These two longer stories are followed by three relatively short stories, which all describe hilariously funny situations, set in the family circle of the protagonist.
"My life and hard times" is a very short, and very light read, but very rewarding, and truly very funny. Part of the fun lies in the very recognizable situations, and part of it rests with the (imagined) mimick of the characters, and their highly authentic speech, in which Thurber has caught some typical American expressions. Although descriptions clearly betray that these stories were written in the early Twentieth century, and the stories are set in the 1910s, their humour is timeless.
Not to be missed.