Steinbeck Cannery Row Discussion

We had interesting discussions about American author John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row at Pageturners in May Evening and June Daytime meetings.

The slim classic book could be summed up by this quote at the beginning:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”

While some readers disliked it for its discomfort, sadness and lack of plot; others criticised it for being too nostalgic and sentimental while many loved the humour.

Pageturners comments included: ”well-crafted, loved this book, descriptive, extra points for the Model T scene, it was bittersweet, quite humorous in places, real acceptance of everyone, love his mind and how it operates, ecological writing, it is a series of vignettes, it is philosophical, I was a bit confused by the ending, get on with life – both the good and bad bits, analysing ordinary people, it is about collections, it is a take on corruption in society, resilience, sometimes it was too descriptive, it was experimental writing.”

“I didn’t get the poem at the end, it is a book of its time, loved the language and how they spoke, I think Steinbeck was Mack, it was so poetic, sadness of the circumstances, some part depressing, the two boys talking was cruel, I loved the parties for Doc, life is like a rockpool, there was the concept of family, it reminded me of Tom Sawyer, the characters were rough around the edges and the scenery was rough, they are misfits, there are parallels with Nomadland, there was a metaphyisical element – dream, faces, music; many funny little bits, it was captivating and entertaining,

In summary it brings up so many things – “judgement, humour, beauty, death, compassion and environment.”

And this: “We will still be reading Steinbeck in 50 years”.

The 5 star ratings ranged from 1.5 to “6” out of 5 with extra points for various scenes eg. Model T, frogs, boiler with no curtains.

Favourite quotes included:

“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.”

“Hazel did 4 years in grammar school and 4 years in reform school and didn’t learn anything in either place. Reform schools are supposed to teach viciousness and criminality but Hazel didn’t pay enough attention. He came out of reform school as innocent of viciousness as he was of fractions and long division.”

“Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and turn it into wisdom. His mind had no horizon – and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood. He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him.”

“It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itsel.f”

“If a man ordered a beer milkshake he’d better do it in a town where he wasn’t known.”

Extra resources (thank you Eric):

New Steinbeck Novel?:

John Steinbeck’s estate urged to let the world read his shunned werewolf novel 

Steinbeck on King Arthur:

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck – Reading Guide: 9780143105459 – Books 

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