Saturday, March 19, 2011

Books 'n' stuff

I read 'Cannery Row' when I was in my teens. I reread it whenever I need to. Recently I have been prompted to search it out from my chaotic bookshelves by Powells. 

Do you know of the wonderful, fiendish service Powells provide? Powell's Books is based in Portland, Oregon and their shipping costs, among other things, prevent me from buying from them and yet, generously, as any pusher will, they send me teasers to what my appetite. Every morning a little email of temptation arrives in my inbox. I first came upon the review service as a reference in Suzette Haden Elgin's live journal and signed up unthinkingly at the end of 2007. Since then I have received a book review every day. All sorts of books are reviewed, new and old. The reviews come from a number of sources. Some are dull and endless and I give up way before the end. Some are erudite and although I have no interest in buying the book I enjoy the easy acquisition of a superficial knowledge on its subject. Some are so tantalising that I buy the book. Amazon UK do very well out of Powell's generosity. The full list of books reviewed can be found here.

Actually, whilst I'm sharing I ought to note Sam Jordison's blog at the Guardian. I visit this page infrequently but when I do I can lose a whole afternoon. Currently he is revisiting the Hugo awards as well as the Bookers and has got up to Rendezvous With Rama. Intelligent, accessible and even the comments are worth reading.

Anyway, back to Powell's review a day. On the 5th March Cannery Row was reviewed by Doug Brown. This is a nicely short review that sent me searching for my dog eared old copy. It took a while to locate as the end of the alphabet hasn't been ordered on my bookshelves yet (it's only been 3 & 3/4 years). Finally there it was, socialising with the elderly Sturgeon books. They have a lot in common, not least a sympathetic understanding of the less than perfect members of humanity.

Cannery Row was based on Monterey in California. The days of the sardine cornucopia that fed the canneries is long gone and that area of Monterey has been tidied up. Monterey Bay Aquarium and Steinbeck memorabilia have taken the place of that industrial wasteland. The majority of the characters inhabiting this slender book would be treated with suspicion by the nice new attractions in the area, and rightly so. 

At the centre of this book are Mack and the boys living in the Palace Flophouse & Grill, and Doc, a scientist making his living by harvesting, preserving and sending off for study the various creatures of the sea edge. At the centre of the book is a party. These alone would make it a good book but the cast of characters from Lee Chong with his 'anything' shop, through Dora, the magnificent madam of the Bear Flag Restaurant to Frankie, a little boy unable to learn but full of yearning and love, make this book a wonder. The short chapters make it ideal for 5 minute train journeys and the sea shore makes it astonishingly beautiful. The 'orange and speckled and fluted nudibranchs' who 'slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers', the gorgeous but deadly anemones, the nervous Hermit crab moving house, the murderous octopi, inhabit the tranquil lovely pools of low tide as Doc picks his way through them looking for specimens. All this to the sound of sacred music and the crashing of waves in the distance. Even better, there is a sequel, Sweet Thursday, hiding somewhere in the bookcases. And before that, I am going to order Cannery Row in hardback so when this sad copy finally falls into separate pages I have a robust replacement. This is a book to keep forever.


  1. Ah yes, Cannery Row one of my favourite books too. I remember reading this as teenager along with Tortilla Flat which I also highly recommend. Eve also rated Travels with Charley very highly although she says Steinbeck appears to have tired of it towards the end. John (despite the Google account saying otherwise)

  2. I never finished Travels with Charley. I've also never read any of his more worthy books. I've pretty much restricted myself to the shorter amusing works. This is pretty much my position on all reading these days. As I get older I get shallower.I'm reading The Windup Girl at the moment but I keep being tempted away to 'Sexually, I'm more of a Switzerland' which I've stolen from Ian to be my current bathroom book.
    (I took a stab at what the book was called rather than going up to the bathroom for it - Amazon suggested 'The 2009 Import and Export Market for Unglazed Ceramic Flags, Paving Hearth or Wall Tiles, Mosaic Cubes, and the Like in Switzerland' which doesn't sound nearly so amusing and costs £66.30).