Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

This is the fourth bookclub book I've read this year and I really enjoyed it. I've not read any Steinbeck before but, from what I knew of 'Of Mice and Men' and 'The Grapes of Wrath', I had always considered him a 'depressing' writer. 'Cannery Row' is not depressing, rather it is whimsical and charming - despite being set during the Great Depression. There's not so much of a story line in 'Cannery Row' (though there is a climax at the end), instead each (short) chapter describes a scene or character from Cannery Row, a strip of land in Monterrey California near a sardine factory.

I got the feeling that much of this book is based on people Steinbeck knew - the characters were described very affectionately, even when they weren't perhaps the most like able of people on the surface. One of the most interesting characters was 'Doc' a marine biologist who runs a business supplying biological specimens. It was great to read of pre-war science in such an unexpected venue. Apparently 'Doc' was based on Steinbeck's real life friend Ed Ricketts, real-life marine biologist and philospher. I was fascinated by the detail of biology and the sea that Steinbeck is able to provide, although also slightly alarmed at how Doc plundered the sea for specimens. Would that happen these days? I doubt it.

Anyway, the major 'storyline' of the piece involves the antics of 'Mack and the boys' who want to give Doc a party in appreciation of his help. Their plans initially have disasterous results and it's a tribute to Steinbeck's writing that I was genuinely concerned that their second attempt would end similarly. Fortunately the book ends on a contented note, with the second-to-last chapter describing the life history of a 'well grown gopher' being one of my favorites. I'd definitely be up for reading the sequel 'Sweet Thursday' (and also some of Steinbeck's more depressing reads too) and I'd love to read more about Ed Ricketts too.

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