Book Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (Classics Club Spin #30)

Title: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: 1945
Length: 181 pages
Genre: Fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live “up the hill” in the more respectable area of town. The flow of the main plot is frequently interrupted by short vignettes that introduce us to various denizens of the Row, most of whom are not directly connected with the central story. These vignettes are often characterized by direct or indirect reference to extreme violence: suicides, corpses, and the cruelty of the natural world.

The “story” of Cannery Row follows the adventures of Mack and the boys, a group of unemployed yet resourceful men who inhabit a converted fish-meal shack on the edge of a vacant lot down on the Row.

Cannery Row is my summer 2022 Classics Club Spin book, and I’ll admit that I felt a bit ambivalent when my spin landed on this book. I’ve had a copy of Cannery Row on my shelf for a few years now and have been wanting to read more Steinbeck, but meanwhile, my book group read Tortilla Flat last year, and that seemed like enough for the time being!

Still, once I got started, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Steinbeck’s descriptions and unique way with words.

In Cannery Row, as the synopsis above states, there really isn’t much of a plot. Instead, it’s a series of vignettes and moments that capture the spirit of a time and place. As the author explains in the very first passage of the books:

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.

I read that first line, and I was hooked!

It continues:

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 inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, 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 holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

If there is a main character in Cannery Row, I suppose it might be Mack:

Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment.

A less generous writer might describe Mack and his group as bums, but Steinbeck instead presents them as well-intentioned pranksters whose endeavors usually go sideways, but who never mean anyone any harm. They drink and go on adventures, and are admirers of Doc, who runs Western Biological, the laboratory and business where he collects, studies, and sells the specimens he finds along the shores and in the tidepools of Monterey Bay and beyond.

Others in the neighborhood include the Bear Flag Restaurant, which is actually a popular brothel run by the kind madam Dora, and Lee Chong’s store, where pretty much anything can be found at any time of year. Then there’s the couple who turned an abandoned cannery boiler in a vacant lot into a makeshift house, and then became landlords by renting out the random pipes on the lot as sleeping shelters for the various men needing a roof over their heads.

The characters interact through business deals and random conversations and unbalanced bargains. An ongoing thread in the book is Mack’s desire to throw a party for Doc to show him how much he and the boys appreciate him. Let’s just say that it does not go as planned — before the night is out, much of Doc’s home and lab is destroyed, and there are frogs everywhere! The gang’s search for frogs is another very funny saga, and even results in a brand-new Cannery Row economy based on the value of frog futures.

Of course, some pieces of Steinbeck’s writing don’t age well. He uses racial terms that would be unacceptable today (“Wops and Chinamen and Polaks”), although to be fair, I think he’s attempting to describe the variety of the people of Monterey — he isn’t being derogatory (although I was uncomfortable with how he writes Lee Chong’s dialogue; perhaps not considered out-of-bounds in the 1940s, but certainly not okay today).

I do love Steinbeck’s writing. He can be beautifully descriptive, and also terribly funny just by virtue of the words he uses:

He can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.

Describing a changing moment in a tidepool:

A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again.

Small moments made me laugh:

“Henri loves boats but he’s afraid of the ocean.”

“What’s he want a boat for then?” Hazel demanded.

“He likes boats,” said Doc. “But suppose he finishes his boat. Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water?’ Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water. So you see, he never finishes the boat — so he doesn’t ever have to launch it.”

And then there’s the time when Mack and the boys manage to restore an old truck just enough to get it running, but with small problems, like the fact that it can only make it up a hill if they go in reverse.

I am truly glad that I read Cannery Row, and I so appreciate the Classics Club Spin challenge that got me to finally take the book off the shelf and give it a try.

I would like to read more by John Steinbeck in the future. So far, besides Cannery Row, I’ve read East of Eden and Of Mice and Men (both very, very long ago) and Tortilla Flat, and I know I should read The Grapes of Wrath at some point too.

Do you have any favorite Steinbeck books? Please let me know if you have recommendations!

Today’s Cannery Row in Monterey

Who knew? There was a movie of Cannery Row released in the 1980s!

The Monday Check-In ~ 2/18/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev: My book group’s February pick. My review is here.

The Secret of Clouds by Alyson Richman: A new release for this week. My review is here.

Golden State by Ben H. Winters: Weird and wonderful. Finished late Sunday. My mini-review is here.

Fresh Catch:

I treated myself to the newest book by Charlie Jane Anders. Looks amazing!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

I have two books on the go right now:

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls: Filling in yet another gap from my childhood reading.

That Ain’t Witchraft (InCryptid, #8) by Seanan McGuire: Love, love, love this series (and pretty much everything written ever by Seanan McGuire). I’m so excited to be starting the newest InCryptid adventure!

Now playing via audiobook:

Mastiff (Beka Cooper, #3) by Tamora Pierce: The third and final Beka Cooper book… and I’m loving it!

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing reads with my book group, plus one more on my own just for kicks:

  • A Plague of Zombies by Diana Gabaldon: Continuing our journey through all of the Lord John books and stories.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Our group classic read. The audiobook version is fantastic.
  • The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens: It’s been a while since I’ve used my Serial Reader app (which is awesome — see here for more info). I’ve been wanting more Dickens in my life, and figure that 10 – 12 minutes a day is a reasonable investment!

So many books, so little time…


Take A Peek Book Review: Golden State by Ben H. Winters

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought. My newest “take a peek” book:


(via Goodreads)

A shocking vision of our future that is one part Minority Report and one part Chinatown.

Lazlo Ratesic is 54, a 19-year veteran of the Speculative Service, from a family of law enforcement and in a strange alternate society that values law and truth above all else. This is how Laz must, by law, introduce himself, lest he fail to disclose his true purpose or nature, and by doing so, be guilty of a lie.

Laz is a resident of The Golden State, a nation resembling California, where like-minded Americans retreated after the erosion of truth and the spread of lies made public life, and governance, increasingly impossible. There, surrounded by the high walls of compulsory truth-telling, knowingly contradicting the truth–the Objectively So–is the greatest possible crime. Stopping those crimes, punishing them, is Laz’s job. In its service, he is one of the few individuals permitted to harbor untruths–to “speculate” on what might have happened in the commission of a crime.

But the Golden State is far less a paradise than its name might suggest. To monitor, verify, and enforce the Objectively So requires a veritable panopticon of surveillance, recording, and record-keeping. And when those in control of the truth twist it for nefarious means, the Speculators may be the only ones with the power to fight back.

My Thoughts:

Golden State is a weird mind-f*ck of a novel, and that’s what makes it so wonderful. In a society where adherence to the Objectively So is the primary goal, the crime of telling a lie can lead to lengthy imprisonment or even exile, a fate assumed to be equivalent to death. Law enforcement agents like Lazlo can feel when a lie has been told, and their ability to sense anomalies leads them in pursuit of those who attempt to subvert the State with their untruths. People greet each other on the street by stating absolute facts (“A cow has four stomachs.” “A person has one.”), and the ringing of clock bells leads to streams of statements about the time, hour after hour.

I loved the explanations for the rules and moral certainties of the Golden State, which we’re led to believe has been in existence for several generations already as of the start of this story:

You go back far enough in history, ancient history, and you find a time when people were never taught to grow out of it, when every adult lied all the time, when people lied for no reason or for the most selfish possible reasons, for political effect or personal gain. They lied and they didn’t just lie; they built around themselves whole carapaces of lies. They built realities and sheltered inside them. This is how it was, this is how it is known to have been, and all the details of that old dead world are known to us in our bones but hidden from view, true and permanent but not accessible, not part of our vernacular.

It was this world but it was another world and it’s gone. We are what’s left. The calamity of the past is not true, because it is unknown. There could only be hypotheses, and hypotheses are not the truth. So we leave it blank. Nothing happened. Something happened. It is gone.

Golden State is a book that I’ll need to revisit, probably a few times. The writing is spot-on, conveying the strange realities of its world from an insider’s perspective, immersing the reader in the weird double-speak of Speculators and Small Infelicities and Acknowledged Experts — it’s strange and alien, yet we inhabit it through the characters for whom it’s all just part of the normal lives they lead.

Reading Golden State is a treat. I wanted to stop to highlight passages practically everywhere — there’s so much clever wordplay and inversion of our understanding of what things mean. It’s a great read, highly recommended. Now I need to get back to the other books on my shelves by this author, because I’m pretty sure I’m going to love them.


The details:

Title: Golden State
Author: Ben H. Winters
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 319 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.


(via Goodreads)

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.

My Thoughts:

While I love the premise of this book, the execution screams “literary fiction” rather than “science fiction”, and that may be why The Dreamers didn’t thrill me in the end. It’s an awesome set-up: A mysterious illness begins spreading through a remote college town, with no known cause or cure. People infected simply fall asleep, and stay that way. Without medical care, they’d die of malnutrition and dehydration, and soon the hospitals and emergency triage centers are overflowing with these strange sleepers. As the weeks drag on, those who remain awake find themselves trapped within the quarantined area, living in an eerie world of deserted homes and stray dogs.

Should be exciting, right? And yet, the narrative isn’t focused on the epidemiology or the science, but rather on the individuals, their relationships, and their meditations on the meaning of life, connection, time, and reality. How do we know that what we think is reality isn’t really a dream? How do we know that our dreams aren’t an alternate reality? When does the passing of time represent a loss? Can we mourn what we’ve never had? Is it more ethical to save many strangers than to save one person that you love? On and on.

While there are some interesting developments and characters, the metaphor-heavy presentation didn’t particularly work for me. As with this author’s previous novel (The Age of Miracles), I felt that a nifty sci-fi scenario became the canvas for a meditative literary piece, and that just wasn’t what I was hoping for. Perhaps this author just isn’t for me. I don’t regret reading The Dreamers, but I can’t help wondering how the story might have gone if written by a more action-driven, science-driven sci-fi writer.


The details:

Title: The Dreamers
Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Science fiction/comtemporary fiction
Source: I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway








Book Review: Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman


When the California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions, one teen is forced to make life and death decisions for her family in this harrowing story of survival from New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman.

The drought—or the Tap-Out, as everyone calls it—has been going on for a while now. Everyone’s lives have become an endless list of don’ts: don’t water the lawn, don’t fill up your pool, don’t take long showers.

Until the taps run dry.

Suddenly, Alyssa’s quiet suburban street spirals into a warzone of desperation; neighbors and families turned against each other on the hunt for water. And when her parents don’t return and her life—and the life of her brother—is threatened, Alyssa has to make impossible choices if she’s going to survive.

This father/son-written novel starts at a point not so foreign to our world today — a drought in California that’s gone from bad to worse. Water restrictions have been in place for a while. Lawns are brown, swimming pools are empty, and the Central Valley, California’s agricultural hub, has become a new Dust Bowl.

As the story opens in a Southern California suburb, Alyssa’s mother turns on the kitchen faucet, and nothing comes out. Is this the result of yet another plumbing mishap on the part of Alyssa’s father? When the family turns on the news, they discover it’s the Tap-Out — there is no more water. Outside of California, the situation is slow to draw attention, as there’s a major hurricane wreaking havoc on the East Coast. It doesn’t seem so dire at first. Surely, the water will be back soon.

A visit to stock up at Costco that afternoon reveals the panic already setting in. The bottled water shelves are already empty. So are the shelves of Gatorade, juices, and anything else to drink. People are intense and possessive, in competition for the remaining liquids. Alyssa and her brother fill a cart with bagged ice, which they then need to fiercely protect from predatory adults. It’s only been a few hours, and already kindness is evaporating along with the water supply.

Alyssa’s next door neighbor Kelton and his family are “preppers” — survivalists in suburbia, with a well-stocked safe room, an armory, and all sorts of defensive perimeter booby traps, as well as a bug-out location in the mountains. But as the neighborhood becomes more and more tense, even this well-guarded and provisioned home won’t remain safe for long.

As is typical for a YA adventure/survival tale, we eventually end up with the teens cut off from their parents and forced to make life-or-death decisions if they’re to have any chance of survival. Things get violent and scary very quickly. Panic leads to riots and death. Martial law is declared and people are herded into evacuation camps — but even there, there’s only enough water for about a tenth of the people cramming into the centers. As people get more and more desperate, safety becomes even more elusive. Finally, Alyssa and Kelton, joined by two other teens, are on the run with Alyssa’s younger brother, seeking hydration and safety from the masses, just looking for a place to hole up and wait out the Tap-Out. It can’t last forever… can it?

Of course, the danger isn’t only from desperate mob violence and panic. Dehydration sets in quickly. People find all sorts of inventive ways to find sips of water, just trying to stay alive — but reading about the early and then more advanced stages of dehydration is plenty horrifying.

Dry takes place over little more than a week, and it’s fascinating to see how quickly society disintegrates in the face of such a catastrophe. Alyssa’s brother Garrett refers to the people so desperate for water that they’ll do anything as “water-zombies” — and it’s no surprise that some scenes reminded me of The Walking Dead, as normal life and the moral standards of civilization break down in the face of a very basic threat to survival. I was also reminded in many ways of Mike Mullin’s Ashfall series, in which a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions leads to this same type of societal collapse.

Dry is a quick, pulse-pounding read — I finished it over a day and a half of intense reading. I was drawn to this book because I’d just read Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman over the summer, and found those books deep and thought-provoking (as well as being outstanding adventures). Dry doesn’t provoke the same sort of queries about life and purpose as those books, and it lacks the character development I found so engaging in Scythe. I was absolutely caught up in the story of Dry, but didn’t find myself caring deeply about any of the specific characters, who all sort of blended together as the POV shifted from chapter to chapter.

An additional minor quibble is that reasons and consequences are glossed over for the sake of moving the action forward. I would have liked to learn more about the events that led to the Tap-Out, and how the water was able to be restored finally. Reading Dry, we just have to accept these developments as fact, but more detail would have helped make it all seem more real.

I do recommend Dry. It’s a scary, intense adventure, as well as a cautionary tale about climate change and the need to pay attention, NOW, before things get so much worse.


The details:

Title: Dry
Author: Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley