Saturday, 14 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I rarely reread books, even old favourites. I've found it can be a disconcerting experience, like meeting up with a great old friend only to find the same vibe isn't there anymore. The book hasn't changed; each and every word is the same. But I'm not who I was when I first read it - I'm in a new place, I've grown and learned, so that what I at first found so exciting now seems a little dull.

I'm sure this isn't always the case, and that's why I took a chance this week and got out a book that I count as being amongst my most loved. My previous reading of Cannery Row was a magical experience. I spent a wonderful afternoon stretched on my back in Big Sur National Park, on the California coast, looking up through the branches of the redwood trees, reading this extraordinary tale which is set just up the road from my forested nook, in Monterey.

The book is small, it clocks in at only 135 pages. But it is packed with the most warm, loving descriptions of the ragtag collection of inhabitants of Cannery Row in Monterey - where the sardines were brought in and canned in the 1930s. There are the local hobos and squatters, the Chinese store owner, the fishermen, the residents of the brothel and at centre stage is the remarkable Doc:

"Doc is rather small, deceptively small, for he is wiry and very strong and when passionate anger comes on him he can be very fierce. He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth. It is said that he has helped many a girl out of one trouble and into another. Doc has the hands of a brain surgeon and a cool warm mind. Doc tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up at him and smile."

The tale has the innocence of an earlier time, though there are dark undertones handled with the delicate hand of a master writer. There's warm humour that stems from an author's glowing love of his characters, and the way they care for each other. Steinbeck has written some more famous epic long books, but this little gem shows how much feeling he can create in a short space.

I'm often a bit daunted by the big five hundred page books, (and they're extra weight to take on a hike), so I think the little novel might be about my favourite type of book. I'd be interested to hear about any other great ones I should read!

In a word or two: Warm

I kept up the tradition of reading this book in beautiful places by taking it with me down into the Grose Valley on a sunny Saturday. 

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  1. I read The Grapes of Wrath recently, and some of Steinbeck's short stories, and loved them. I'll have to put Cannery Row on my list. As for short novels, two of my all-time favourites are An Open Swimmer by Tim Winton and Disgrace by JM Coetzee. Honourable mention to The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Don't think I'd like to try reading The Road on location in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, though. Your forest sounds much more enjoyable.

  2. Haha, no The Road doesn't need an appropriate setting to make it any grimmer. A great book indeed! I've read the other two you mentioned too, you seem to enjoy tales with a dark feel to them. I do too, not sure why.