True confession: I’ve never been in a book club, real or virtual, much less organized one of my own. After years of graduate school literature classes, I didn’t want to discuss books for a while; I just wanted to read them without pressure to say what I thought. When I got over that, I was reluctant to have people that I didn’t know very well over to my house. Let’s just say I’m a bit housekeeping challenged.
So I’m a little nervous about this new venture. But I’ll try not to let it show. Besides, I hear wine is a key component of book clubs. And no one will know if you — or I — have a second or third glass, and at what time of the day or night we have it.
Book Club Logistics
Here’s how it works. Over at A Travelers Library, I wrote about Travels with Charley as a work of travel literature, and posed a few discussion questions at the end. I hope you will go over there and participate.
On this blog, it’s all about the animals — dogs, cats, camels, donkeys… whatever creatures come along on the trip described in the book. There’ll be questions here too. Feel free to ask your own or just say whatever you like as long as it’s more or less related to the book. Or book clubs. Or animals. Or wine.
I’ll never close off the comments (although I’ll monitor them, as I monitor all comments). I just might not engage in the conversation as vigorously after the first week as in the beginning.
We run a loose ship around here.
What I Expected from Travels with Charley
As I wrote over at A Traveler’s Library, I didn’t expect the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one who is known for his social consciousness, to write a book that was so much fun and that was so self reflective.
I also didn’t expect Travels with Charley: In Search of America, to have so many scenes with Charley in it. Sure, he’s the title character but I figured he might be a literary device. Steinbeck writes, “A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers. Many conversations on route begin ‘What degree of dog is that?'”
Moreover, I had read that taking Charley along was an afterthought, a suggestion by Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine.
I also imagined that back in 1960, when Steinbeck took the trip (the book was published in 1962), the man-dog interactions would be more, well, manly — as in silent, no emotion expressed. Maybe I was thinking of Hemingway.
I was delighted to discover that Charley is a full-fleshed character, that Steinbeck’s relations with him are quite tender, and the descriptions of him — dare I say it — a bit anthropomorphic. Their relationship struck me as remarkably contemporary, similar to those I read on my favorite pet blogs (maybe a bit better written; Steinbeck did deserve that Nobel Prize).
Here’s the book’s introduction to Charley, who is:
…an old French gentleman poodle… Actually his name is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris… and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Charley… prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, since he is very bad at fighting.
Charley is also quite expressive.
He is the only dog I know who could pronounce the consonant F. This is because his front teeth are crooked… and his upper front teeth slightly engage with his lower lip. The word ‘Ftt” usually means he would like to salute a bush or tree.
Finally, according to the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, taking Charley along was not an afterthought:
I remember when he asked to take Charley Dog,” [Steinbeck’s] wife later recalled. “He said rather meekly, ‘This is a big favor I’m going to ask, Elaine. Can I take Charley?’ ‘What a good idea, I said, ‘if you get into any kind of trouble, Charley can go get help.’ John looked at me sternly and said, ‘Elaine, Charley isn’t Lassie.’
Some favorite scenes
I savored almost all the scenes that had Charley in them, but some of my favorites that show Charley acting like every dog I know include:
Over the years Charley has developed a number of innocent-appearing ways to get me up. He can shake himself and his collar loud enough to wake the dead…. but perhaps his most irritating method is to sit quietly by the bed and stare into my face with a sweet and forgiving look on his face; I come out of a deep sleep with a feeling of being looked at.
And when Charlie tries to cheer Steinbeck out of a blue funk:
He came into the bathroom and that old fool played with the plastic bath mat like a puppy….Then he rushed to the door and barked as though I were being invaded.
These are too long to quote but, in no particular order, I was fond of the scenes where:
- The pair are stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border and, because Steinbeck doesn’t have proof of Charley’s rabies shot, they have to turn around and are hassled, even though they never enter Canada.
- Steinbeck tries to impress Charley with the redwood trees, to let him know that they are actually trees and that he therefore has permission to pee on them. Charley is not convinced.
- All the medical scenes: the one where Steinbeck tries to treat Charley’s prostate problems himself, and the ones with the vets, both the bad one and the good one. I tear up when I think how sweet Steinbeck is with Charley, how much he clearly cares about his pal.
The only thing that I found discordant — really, just clueless — is the scene where Steinbeck sprays his van, Rocinante, with insecticide and then seems surprised that Charley is “allergic” to the toxic stuff, sneezing his head off at it. Steinbeck otherwise seems savvy — indeed, prescient — about environmental issues, complaining about the pollution of rivers, etc.
What were your favorite Charley scenes?
What struck you most about the relationship between Charley and Steinbeck?
How do you think a trip like this would be different now?
Next month’s book
And here’s a bonus. Although it’s early in this book club for me to have a guest host, my friend Rebecca Boren is going to fill in for me. This is because, having seen the book in my house, she started reading it, bought a copy, and proceeded to read it three times.
You may have heard of Rebecca as Frankie’s rescuer. But she is also a respected journalist, the one-time senior editor at The Seattle Weekly and chief political reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. This is very relevant to this book, which has a newspaper publisher as the narrator, as well as relevant to the fact that I’m honored to have her as a guest poster. And then there’s the mini-schauzer connection.
But that will all become clear on December 8.
Photo credits & disclosures
John Woestendiek, whom I interviewed for Animal Cafe, set out with his dog, Ace, to replicate Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. He took this tribute photo in Monterey, California. You can read about the trip on his blog, Travels with Ace.
The photograph of Steinbeck and Charlie, by Vera Marie Badertscher — of A Traveler’s Library fame — was taken at The Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.
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