Category Archives: Memoirs

Travels with Charley…60 years on

Sixty years ago this 2020 autumn, American author John Steinbeck took a cross-country trip with his French poodle, Charley.  Outfitting a small truck with a cabin/camper on top, Steinbeck left Sag Harbor, Long Island, and made his way across the U.S. to the West Coast, eventually ending up back in New York City 11 weeks later.  This road odyssey Steinbeck describes in his memoir Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

Initially, I first read Steinbeck’s memoir in the late 1990s.  It made me want to duplicate at that time, nearly 40 years later, a similar road trip. 

The United States in 1960 was more modernized than ever before and Steinbeck, at age 58, was able to document how life in America had changed from the America he remembered growing up. In some ways, however, he was very much of product of that era of the late 1950s/early 1960s as he marveled at such things as the emergence of mobile homes and trailer parks, believing these were the wave of the future for “restless” Americans.  In other instances, Steinbeck documents what has continued to be a problem in many cities where traffic and too many cars clog the streets. 

While much of the book is Steinbeck’s own observations, he would sometimes stop at diners and luncheonettes, sharing conversations with other customers, asking about their background and eliciting their opinions. In other instances, he would park his truck/camper along the side of a road or in a clearing and meet people who were similarly on the road. 

It is October 2020, and I’ve just now finished re-reading at this 60-year mark Travels with Charley: In Search of America.  It’s also a Presidential election time and very different than what Steinbeck encountered in 1960 where people did not often talk or share their opinions about either of the then candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.  Sadly, however, with other societal concerns, what I’ve found is that in autumn 1960 unresolved racial issues were also foremost in many people’s minds, similar to the situation in the U.S. all these years later.    

Earlier in 2020, during this 60-year anniversary, a teacher/author/playwright named Bryan Starchman, living and working in northern California, decided to take a cross- country trip in the spirit of John Steinbeck’s 1960 road excursion.  Starchman, after procuring a 6 month leave of absence from his job, planned to travel to 50 states in 120 days.  With the blessing of the National Steinbeck Center (a museum and non-profit organization located John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, CA), Starchman, also, created a blog of his travels that can be accessed on the National Steinbeck Center website.

To find out about Bryan Starchman’s plans, where he traveled and how Covid-19 affected his goal to see America, here is a link:

Postscript to blog about “Il Postino” (the book & the film)


It turns out while trying to refresh my mind about the 1994 film “Il Postino,” I ran across a reference that said an opera based on this story was produced in 2010 (starring well known opera singer Placido Domingo).  So, it seems, the story memoir of “Il Postino” continues on!

Here is an article from the LA Times describing “Il Postino” the 2010 opera based on the movie and the book:

There is a quote in the article attributed to Neruda concerning poetry:  “Poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all.”   The same can be said for the story about the postman and the poet — it’s been shared among several genres — from novel to play to movie to opera over the span of 25 years…

***PBS features in its series “Great Performances” a video of the opera “El Postino” featuring Placido Domingo as the poet, Pablo Neruda.

More Memoirs & Icons (this time fiction?)

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The Postman and the Poet

In 1994 an Italian film “El Postino” (“The Postman”) was released to some acclaim (Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor).  It is the story of a postman, Mario, who is  assigned to deliver mail to the exiled Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, living in the film on an island off the coast of Italy.  The film is based on the novel Aridente Paciencia (Burning Patience) by Chilean writer, Antonio Skarmeta and published in the mid 1980s (later editions of the novel can be found under the English language title The Postman).

In this memoir Neruda and his wife are banished to an island for his political/Communist leanings yet as a poet he remained beloved by the people of Chile.  The postman, having lived all his life on the island, is not a learned man.  Yet his curiosity about this famous man who writes poetry (& who seems to receive a lot of letters from women) motivates him to make Neruda his friend.  As their friendship evolves, the postman begins to understand poetic language.  When he finds himself falling in love with a local woman, the postman asks the poet for love advice.

The story, both funny and heartwarming, originally had fairly overt political undertones related to Chilean politics.  This 1994 film changes the location, however, to an Italian island in the Mediterranean rather than taking place on the book’s truer location of Isla Negra off the coast of Chile.  The timeframe of the film is also changed, and in the original story the postman is much younger in age than the Mario portrayed in the film.  It is not clear if this was an attempt on the part of the filmmakers to steer the story away from its original political nuances and more towards a story of how an unsophisticated man learns with poetic language how to woo and win the woman whose affection he desires.  Not all the political aspects of the original story are ignored in the film, however.

After seeing this movie people have wondered if this story is based on fact.  For some it doesn’t matter one way or another, it is a beautifully rendered situation regardless.

I had heard of the poet Pablo Neruda before seeing this film, however I didn’t know much about his poetry.  Here is a selection of his love poems.  These are translations from Spanish.

Leaning into the Afternoons

Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.

There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames,
its arms turning like a drowning man’s.

I send out red signals across your absent eyes
that move like the sea near a lighthouse.

You keep only darkness, my distant female,
from your regard sometimes the coast of dread emerges.

Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that beats on your marine eyes.

The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash like my soul when I love you.

The night gallops on its shadowy mare
shedding blue tassels over the land.

–Pablo Neruda

Clenched Soul

We have lost even this twilight.
No one saw us this evening hand in hand
while the blue night dropped on the world.

I have seen from my window
the fiesta of sunset in the distant mountain tops.

Sometimes a piece of sun
burned like a coin in my hand.

I remembered you with my soul clenched
in that sadness of mine that you know.
Where were you then?
Who else was there?
Saying what?

Why will the whole of love come on me suddenly
when I am sad and feel you are far away?

The book fell that always closed at twilight
and my blue sweater rolled like a hurt dog at my feet.

Always, always you recede through the evenings
toward the twilight erasing statues.

–Pablo Neruda

For people who know Neruda’s poetry there are some who have favorites among his poems.  I stumbled upon this web page recently where two additional love poems (Sonnets) have been posted:

Memoirs and Icons

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If a person writes about their own life, I don’t know what the difference is between it being called a “memoir” or being called an “autobiography.”   It used to be that if someone wrote about their life it was considered an autobiography.   In recent years the term “memoir” is being heard more often.  Memoir is perhaps a broader term in that it can be more than just a person writing about his/her own life and experiences – memoir can also refer to someone writing about his/her life experiences in regard to their relationship to another person and in most cases, a famous person.

I saw the 2011 movie “My Week with Marilyn” recently.  It’s based upon the book The Prince, the Showgirl and Me written by Colin Clark, a British man, who, when he was 23, worked on the set of the 1956 film starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier “The Prince and the Showgirl.”  The book The Prince, the Showgirl and Me was published in the mid 1990s and is based on the diary Clark wrote during the time he worked on the film.  What is interesting is a few years later Clark also published another memoir that details nine days during the filming where he spent concentrated time with Ms. Monroe.

The film “My Week with Marilyn” is pretty good.  It’s alternately humorous and yet sad, and depicts aspects of Marilyn Monroe that are closer to the bone than what’s been portrayed before.  Actress Michele Williams does a terrific job of capturing the persona of Marilyn Monroe, that’s for sure.


This memoir about Marilyn Monroe called to mind another film also based upon a memoir written about a famous person entitled “W.C. Fields and Me.”  Released in 1976, the film is based on the memoir written by Carlotta Monti in 1973.  Carolotta was Field’s girlfriend and lived with him for 14 years.  The film stars actors Rod Steiger as Fields and Valerie Perrine as Carlotta.  I remember liking this film and have now discovered it’s never been released as a DVD.

Of course, when it’s an icon being written about there is interest built into the memoir right from the start.  Have you ever wondered about the person who writes the memoir and publishes it – is he or she just cashing in on the other person’s fame?  If the person being written about has died along with other people who knew the situation being written about, how does the reader or film viewer know that what is being depicted really occurred?  I read, for instance, that only one incident from Carlotta’s memoir about W.C. Field was actually portrayed in the film.  Most of the incidents reflected in the film never actually happened.

Regarding the time frame for each of these memoirs, Clark’s memoir about Marilyn Monroe was published about 40 years after the event.  Similarly, Carlotta Monti’s memoir about W.C. Fields was written nearly 30 years after his death.   Marilyn Monroe is undoubtedly a larger more iconic personality of these two – someone recently commented that many young people today don’t know who W.C. Fields is and have little knowledge of his comedic talent or his films.

Addendum:  When I searched recently the Internet Movie Database (, the keyword “memoir” only listed 20 films.  This makes me think that yes, the term “memoir” is, in fact, of more recent vintage.