“Cannery Row” by John Steinbeck
(First publication: 1945 / This edition: Penguin Books, Steinbeck Centennial Edition 2012)
Taken during a latte break at Roast at EmQuartier. I love sitting out on the green terrace there—despite the heat.
Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars. (pg.61)
I love Steinbeck’s humorous side. 😉
I’ve been on a Steinbeck-craze lately after reading “East of Eden”. I ordered this a while ago along with “The Grapes of Wrath”. “Cannery Row” is pretty different from the two Steinbecks I’ve read (“East of Eden” and “Of Mice and Men”) because it has a more humorous vibe. The scenery’s still the same—I even got to wondering if the characters in these three stories ever ran into each other at some point since they’re all kind of wandering up and down California.
The plot is less “hectic” than the other two. It has a very laid-back vibe to it, and I felt like I was just situated somewhere high and just watched this “Cannery Row” community go about their days. The denizens are all interesting and unique characters and they all kind of grow on you. My favorites are Doc and Frankie.
Kind of a bad comparison, but my mind often linked it to the vibe you get when you watch “Desperate Housewives”—the story will jump from this person to that person, and show their quirky stories and quirky habits and the events that involve them. You just kind of get an overview of a community and see the care and affection that connect everyone. The community becomes like a “system” and runs on it—you do something wrong, the rest of the system will know and react; everyone knows what you’re up to and they accept you as an integral part of their “family”. Everyone has a heart and place in Cannery Row—from the prostitutes to the “bums”. The denizens just kind of stay inside that perimeter of their neighborhood.
Even though there doesn’t seem to be “much going on” in this book, there’s this beautiful but melancholic feel to it. It kind of shows “life as life is”—these people just go on day by day, living in the moment, and they’re still happy or content, in one way or another. Despite the hardships, Steinbeck shows that if you just take it easy, life can actually be so simple. I love this passage from the book:
Doc said, “Look at them. They are your true philosophers, I think, that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else. (pg.129)
Also, I really enjoyed Steinbeck’s descriptions of nature—I feel like he’s even more description and in-depth than usual about nature and “the circle of life” in this one. He can be so “National Geographic”, but in a wordy way—I love it. Some passages made me crave being in nature and not in this metropolitan city. Steinbeck managed to make me feel like I want to be a biologist (haha). For example, I really enjoyed this nature part in Chapter 6:
Doc was collecting marine animals in the Great Tide Pool on the tip of the Peninsula. It is a fabulous place: when the tide is in, a wave-churned basin, creamy with foam, whipped by the combers that roll in from the whistling buoy on the reef. But when the tide goes out the little water world becomes quiet and lovely. The sea is very clear and the bottom becomes fantastic with hurrying, fighting, feeding, breeding animals. Crabs rush from frond to frond of the waving algae. Starfish squat over mussels and limpets, attach their million little suckers and then slowly lift with incredible power until the prey is broken from the rock. And then the starfish stomach comes out and envelops its food. Orange and speckled and fluted nudibranchs slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers……… (pg.27)
…and so on. The descriptions are just so beautiful and vivid.
My most favorite part of the book is Chapter 31—a three-page chapter about…a gopher.
Just a gopher.
It talks about how this “beautiful gopher and in the prime of his life”—building his home in a vacant lot in Cannery Row, and spends so much time and effort in making his home comfortable and “ideal”. He even made chambers for his future babies and even emergency exits. After time, he got impatient because no female gophers came around—when he went out and found a female gopher, it turns out that she’s already taken and her hubby came out to beat him up, badly. The gopher then had to move somewhere else, and start all over—but then the area he moved to is full of traps.
It’s just a 3-page chapter but the actual narrative is so enticing and it kind of “sums up” every message in this book.
I would highly recommend this book to any Steinbeck lovers, or to those that want to read a “less intense” Steinbeck novel. It’s a bit longer than “Of Mice and Men”, but it’s a lot less intense and it’s just a nice, relaxing read. It’s humorous, too. It’s definitely a very memorable Steinbeck for me. 🙂
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
It’s all fine to say, “Time will heal everything, this too shall pass away. People will forget”—and things like that when you are not involved, but when you are there is no passage of time, people do not forget and you are in the middle of something that does not change. (pg.132)
Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress. (pg.96)
The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second. (pg.131)
Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too? (pg.131)
It’s all right not to believe in luck and omens. Nobody believes in them. But it doesn’t do any good to take chances with them and no one takes chances. (pg.143)
And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. (pg.168)