Come September, you will find yourself in a gathering where someone describes their summer vacation. If, like me, you live in Palo Alto, California, the home of Stanford professors and venture capitalists, you will most likely hear about a home swap in Oxford or a trip to the Beijing Olympics. If you did not go anywhere, you can always describe your "staycation"--a term coined during this summer's gas price hikes to glamorize staying at home or close to home.
Either way, past Labor Day, vacation nostalgia will be upon us as we gather for book groups. Which is why I often assign what I call the Great American Vacation Book--Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. This is a brief (210 pages) account of 58-year old Steinbeck's road trip across America with his French Poodle Charley. In failing health, and wondering if he will ever see the whole of his beloved country again, he leaves Sag Harbor after Labor Day in 1960 and arrives home in time for Christmas--traveling in a loop around the perimeter of the U.S. including New England, Washington State, California and Texas.
The book works well for book groups, because Steinbeck made many predictions about the United States that in the almost 50 years since have come to pass. He talks about the loss of regional diners in favor of homogenized chains and predicts the era of Holiday Inns and chain hotels. He talks about racism and school segregation as he visits New Orleans. He wants us to protect the environment.
Your book group can talk a great deal about "then and now" and as an icebreaker you can ask everyone to describe a memorable road trip. If you don't mind veering a little bit from the discussion with personal anecdotes, simply ask, "Have you ever traveled with a pet and if so, how did it go?" Then be prepared for some heartwarming and frightening tales.
If you are reading the book, get the Penguin Classics edition with the alternate ending omitted from the first Viking Press edition. If you are listening to the book, get the Highbridge Audio edition with narrator Gary Sinese--it is a fabulous theatrical oration including well done regional accents.
If you are looking for tales of international travel, one pairing that I recommend is travel writer extraordinaire Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975), with his latest travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On The Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar (2008). In the 2008 volume, Theroux retraces his rail journey of the 1970s--comparing and contrasting the sights and sounds. You will find his descriptions of the Republic of Georgia especially timely and fascinating--as are his descriptions of Vietnam then and now. Some of the countries that he visits both in the seventies and thirty years later, have experienced regime and name changes. You might want to read this with a world map or globe alongside of you and/or have one handy for your book group. Read one book in September and one in October or do both together .
All of this comparing and contrasting makes me wonder if a travel writer or wannabe or writer son, Thom Steinbeck himself, should buy a camper and grab a laptop, an I-phone, and the family dog--and head cross country to recreate Steinbeck's journey. Part of the journey would involve a visit to the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas, where the original camper named Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse, sits on display. The 50th anniversary is of the Charley triop coming up in 2010 and this could be a great tie-in. Tell your agent I sent you.
Causes Lauren John Supports
Keplers Bookstore Circle of Friends (Menlo Park)
Friends of the Menlo Park Public Library
Book Group Expo
Marin Agricultural Land Trust...