Friday, January 6, 2012

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck (audio)

Listening to Travels with Charley reminded me not only of how much I love John Steinbeck's writing, but how much I enjoy travel writing in general. In 1960, Steinbeck was living on the Long Island Sound, approaching his sixtieth birthday, and feeling out of touch with a country he'd been writing about for decades. That fall, he set out with his beloved dog, Charley, in a specially designed pickup truck/camper (named Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse) on a journey across the country. His goal was to rediscover America and reconnect with her people.

Steinbeck's journey took him along the back roads of New England, across the New York State Thruway and into the Midwest. He drove through the Badlands, basked  in the majesty of the giant redwoods, and traversed the desert southwest. After a short break in Texas, Steinbeck was back on the road again and found himself in the midst of a civil rights demonstration in Mississippi. Figuring he'd seen enough, he turned Rocinante north and headed home.

Rocinante, fully restored, at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas

I have read many Steinbeck novels over the years, but in Travels with Charley, it felt like I was meeting 'the man' for the first time, instead of 'the writer'. While listening, it is easy to imagine Steinbeck speaking directly to you. I laughed at his subpar sense of direction and imagined how he would marvel at cars now equipped with built-in GPS systems. I enjoyed his musings on the sense of community among truckers, the 'mobile home' developments springing up across the country, and the impact of super-highway construction.
"When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing." (p.90)
The other star in this book is, of course, Charley. You'll have to take my word on this, but Charley is no ordinary dog. He's a black standard poodle, from France, with a personality as distinct and developed as your or mine. The relationship between man and dog takes center stage in several parts of the narrative. I fell in love with Charley, and think any man who forms such a strong bond with his dog can't be all bad either.

Now I'd like to read more of Steinbeck's nonfiction and a good biography, too. Do you have any recommendations?

Travels with Charley in Search of America
by John Steinbeck
Narrated by Gary Sinise
Penguin Audiobooks, 2011
7 hours and 58 minutes

My rating:


  1. I definitely have to get this for my parents, who just traveled to Florida with their standard black poodle. For some reason, I'd thought that this book was sad (like Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Ment). So glad to know that I think I'd like it as much as you did. He's a wonderful writer.

  2. Bellezza- I'm sure your parents would enjoy this, especially if they own a standard poodle. My family always had black miniature poodles when I was growing up - such an intelligent breed! The book may be a little wistful at times, but not sad. I should have put "Charley does not die!" at the end of the review... I remember Sandy was worried about that ;-)

  3. My husband loves this book and reads it again every couple of years or so! We went to the Steinbeck Center in Salinas last year and saw the Rocinante exhibit. It really looked quite comfortable inside, more so than I would have thought! For books, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters is supposed to be a "must" for Steinbeck fans. I have seen excerpts - all very entertaining.

  4. Oh man, I sure wish our library had this on audio! I think the combination of it being HIM and that it about his travels with his dog would make it a perfect read for me. I think I love it and I haven't read a word.

  5. I still haven't read anything by Steinbeck. This sounds like a good one.

  6. The Pearl sort of traumatized me about Steinbeck, I'm afraid. Maybe I should give him another try! Glad you enjoyed this.

  7. Rhapsodyinbooks - I'd love to visit the Steinbeck Center one day. Adding Steinbeck: A Life in Letters to my list - thanks!

    Sandy - I can't imagine anyone not loving this one. It's a little dated, but that just makes it more fun.

    Carol - It really is. Hope you get a chance to read (or listen to) it.

    Col - The Pearl was my first experience with Stenbeck (9th grade?) and I hated it. Steinbeck was part of the curriculum every year after that. I loved subsequent selections, so kept reading on my own. Still haven't revisited The Pearl though.

  8. This one definitely sounds like a must-read. I have certainly enjoyed Steinbeck's writing and the idea of getting to "know" him sounds like fun.

  9. Lisa - This was the first glimpse I've had into Steinbeck's life. Can see myself returning to this book again and again.

  10. I read several Steinbeck's when in high school (on my own, not part of the curriculm) but never 'the pearl' This sounds like a great read for while we are traveling on vacation this summer!

  11. I am a professed Steinbeck hater, but you have me thinking that this may be the one to change my mind. Charley sounds adorable, and I do like the idea of rediscovering America before interstates took over the world.

  12. This is on my TBR list for 2012 (print edition). Glad you loved it. I just saw Kurt Vonnagut has a new biography out. He is one author I want to try and also read his bio.

    Have a great vacation.

  13. I read this one several years ago and it's still my only Steinbeck. I'd love to read more of his works but really am not familiar with his non-fiction.

    What fascinated me so much about this one was seeing the 60s through immediate eyes. It is kind of sad that some of the old road trip charm is gone with the super interstate highways.

    Hope YOU are having a great vacation. ;)

  14. I loved that you listened to this one. You have inspired me to add more audio...I'm off to see if my library has this one!

  15. I've read this book three times now. My husband and I read it for the second time prior to our retirement. It helped reinforce our plan of traveling around the US. I agree with you that this book feels so much like the man Steinbeck, not the author. The only other nonfiction of his I've had on my list is Bombs Away. It was a book he wrote in WW 2 to help the Air Force recruit. Hopefully I'll get to it this year.

  16. It's been years since I read this, but oh, how I loved it. I wanted to buy an old truck with a camper and hit the road with my hubby and dog. I really need to get the audio version and give this a "re-read."

    My favorite novel of Stenbeck's is The Grapes of Wrath. I read it in 10th grade (Eee gads, that was over 30 years ago!) and absolutely loved it. I still have East of Eden on my shelf to read one of these days. The Winter of My Discontent and Cannery Row are two I didn't really love.

  17. This one has been on my wish list for years and after reading your review I think it might be best on audio. More in step with the spirit of the book.
    And yes, any man who loves his dog so well cannot be too bad :)

  18. Michelle - A professional Steinbeck hater? LOL! The Pearl almost made one of me, too, but this is really a wonderful book.

    Diane - I think you'll enjoy this book, too.

    Trish - Seeing the 60's through his eyes was so interesting. I was around then, but just a kid, so the excitement had little effect on me at the time.

    Staci - Keeping my fingers crossed that your library has this one!

    Margot - I love how this book influenced your desire to travel! It has made me long to see the giant redwoods, the Badlands, etc. Hope a journey like this may be in store for me one day, too.

    Les - The book had the same effect on me, too. I'm ready to hit the road! I loved The Grapes of Wrath in high school, then went on to read East of Eden on my own. That turned out to be one of my favorite books ever! We read The Winter of our Discontent senior year. I liked that, too, but want to reread it now. Many of the themes may have been beyond my grasp then.

    Stacybuckeye - I think the audio really added to my enjoyment. It really seemed like Steinbeck was sitting next to me talking about his trip!

  19. Interesting book, JoAnn. I can recommend highly another non fiction book by a doctor called Atul Gawande. The title is better. I did a post about it.

    1. Carole - Thanks for directing me to your review. I have read many of Gawande's articles in The New Yorker magazine and have been wanting to read one of his books, too.


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