Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Travels with Charley

Like most Americans with a high school diploma, I have memories of being assigned John Steinbeck books and hating it. It was an immediate reaction--I hated being forced to read books in school. I liked the element of choice and missed the days of decision-making, along with book reports, shoe-box dioramas, and Book-It (do any of you remember Book-It?!)

Once in high school, we were stuck with new monsters, especially in the honors courses, that went by the name of summer reading. The positive side to this was that I could pick my readings from a list that resulted in less foaming of the mouth. The negative side was, obviously, that I was being forced to do homework during summer vacation. While that was something I despised, these summer assignments provided some of my most steadfast reading memories from high school. Amongst these is John Steinbeck. I read Of Mice and Men in high school and... enjoyed it. I went into an assigned reading of The Pearl and didn't enjoy it as much. Steinbeck was always going to be in my mind as a school assignment author. Someone who used a lot of words to detail simple things of which I had to write about its themes and symbolism. I wasn't at all surprised when I found out the name Steinbeck left a nasty taste in the mouths of friends, too.

But now I am an adult who can make the decision of what I want to read. While in Northern California, where Steinbeck left his mark, I went on a small book-buying spree. Cannery Row was purchased at the Monterey Aquarium (which was the site of a former cannery) and Travels with Charley was picked up in San Francisco at City Lights

Travels with Charley was a complete break from the Steinbeck I was familiar with. I may have read his books but I knew very little about him. This ended up being a crash-course on who John Steinbeck was as a person and I found I really liked him. The book not only was easy to read, but didn't remind me of a school assignment at all.

Surprisingly, I found myself openly laughing while reading this book--particularly whenever Steinbeck wrote about his dog, Charley. The little annoyances of having a dog are put into detail and I found myself laughing over the antics of Steinbeck's furry friend. He often stole the show and, for me, made the book.

The plot is simple enough--after buying a camper of sorts, Steinbeck sets out to drive cross-country with his dog. Steinbeck recounts his journey through details of what sights he saw and more specific story telling of particular events that happened during that year. There's a lot of discussion of politics in a time that I'm not entirely familiar with, but it's something I feel my parents and grandmother would appreciate to read. Steinbeck reflects about older products that worked well and were then being sold at a great price as antiques, he pondered over what the future would hold and how the earth would be presented to our future offspring.

Many of his thoughts, just meandering and otherwise, could so easily be applied for the present day. The friendliness of people and easy allowance they give to a stranger parking on their land in what is ultimately an RV is, for me, the biggest indication of how times have changed from the time this book was written to the present day. I can't imagine many people being willing to let a stranger park on their land overnight.

The copy I purchased, Penguin's Steinbeck Centennial Edition, was absolutely beautiful. It's certainly one of the prettier books I've bought recently, both inside and out.

This book gave me a look to the past of America and a better understanding of John Steinbeck as a person. He is still a bit of that English-reading-assignment author that I viewed him as for so many years, but now I see him more as a person than an assignment, and I'm hopeful to read more of his books in the future with this new view of him.

Last Week's Review: First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
Next Week's Review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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