A keen American observer of life as we know it

January 14, 2020

“Perhaps that might be the way to write this book--to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.” ― John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

 

I had another early morning read as I started Cannery Row’ at a sleepless night at 1am and finished it around 4am in the morning, but it was so good I did not want to put it down. What I love about this book, and Steinbeck as an author, is that he writes about ‘the true things’ and has such an accurate grasp on human nature whilst still being kind about us humans too.

 

The plot centres around the daily life of a group of unemployed men who live in the sardine cannery area of Monterey, California. One of the unemployed men, Mack, has a desire to throw a good party for their neighbour, Doc, a kind biologist  who everyone in the neighbourhood respects. However, as Steinbeck says in ‘Of Mice and Men’, the best laid plans often go wrong...

 

What I like about Steinbeck most is that he writes intelligently but does not waste the readers time with long descriptions or big fancy words. He writes after long periods of deep thought, and then condenses that wisdom into a short turn of phrase or sometimes even just a line. For example She writes about the ‘hour of the pearl’ and ‘pearly time’ which is the moment in the early morning when all is quiet, still and hopeful and the ‘brilliant green’ of grass in the light. These things make intuitive sense to us as the reader, as we have also struggled to find a word magnificent enough to describe the exact hue of green of spring lush grass, or have noticed the optimism and hope of an early morning. An Alan Bennett quote from his play 'History Boys' once said 'The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours' and I feel that Steinbeck does this to point.

 

Another thing I like about the book is that it references what the characters eat and drink throughout, referring to a ‘quarts of beer’, ‘strong coffee’ and steak, which I like, as good food and coffee is central to my life enjoyment and the characters in Cannery Road grasp this too.

 

Steinbeck is a sharp observer of human nature and seems to see humans and the society we live in as a whole, as flawed, but in a wholesome way. He does not deride any character for their weakness and only emphasises the best qualities in them.

 

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “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.”

 

Overall, a book I would recommend to others. Perhaps not the book with the most plot or action- but a book that is a reflection of life as a whole and our place in it. A reflective book for a rainy day, train journey or lazy weekend.

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