My rating: ★★★★☆
I had never heard of Travels with Charlie when I first saw a second-hand audio cassette copy of it sitting on the for-sale shelf at my local library; I recognized the author, however, having read The Pearl when I was eleven. Despite never being a fan of audiobooks, I opted to give Travels a try, and ended up listening to it over the course of several afternoons.
Before I say anthing further, I want to reiterate that this review is a reflection specifically of the audiobook narrated by Gary Sinise… and an unfortunate amount of my opinion resulted from the fact that Sinise has a voice I absolutely could not stand when I started listening. (Unfortunately, I have an unusual sensitivity to sound; everyday annoyances, like hearing people eat or sniffle, tends to make my skin crawl unless I’m intently focused on something else, and droning or nasal voices produce similar effects.) So the first few chapters of Travels were made almost insufferable by the narrator’s vocal quirks; eventually, the book picked up to the point that I could for the most part ignore Sinise and focus on Steinbeck. By the end of the book, Sinise’s voice had grown on me–or at the very least, I’d decided it matched the narrative enough to find it somewhat charming.
On the subject of Travels itself, I didn’t expect to enjoy it. Not a bit, really. I expected to plop the tape into the cassette player that’s been used on-and-off by my mother and me since at least the 90’s, and to listen to some boring white man reading a novel about another boring white man. I had no idea what the book was going to be about, nor whether it was fiction or memoir. I pressed play with only vague remembrances of my experience with The Pearl as a starting point for my expectations.
While I found Travels rather dull for the first few chapters, I came away from the listening experience rather pleased. I found Travels to be an interesting glimpse into an era I know very little about, the 1960’s being a decade that my parents are too young to clear remember (having been born in the middle of the decade themselves). The America of Travels is one I will never personally experience, but one that’s vastly interesting; with myriad aspects both strikingly familiar and wholly alien to someone born in 1993, Steinbeck’s 1960’s trip across the country provided insight into various American lifestyles of the decade, the mind-twentieth century’s social movements and evolving race relations (with one particular scene about Ruby Bridges and white protesters), and a quickly shifting nation. And yet all of this is presented from the point of view of a casual onlooker, not a political advocate. It’s refreshing in its detachment, and provided a much more enjoyable listening experience than I’d been expecting. All in all, I’m pleased to have picked up the audiobook.