Book Review: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (Classics Club Spin #32)

Title: O Pioneers!
Author: Willa Cather
Publication date: 1913
Length: 159 pages (Kindle edition)
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis (Goodreads):

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

And from Wikipedia:

O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by American author Willa Cather, written while she was living in New York. It was her second published novel. The title is a reference to a poem by Walt Whitman entitled “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” from Leaves of Grass (1855).

O Pioneers! tells the story of the Bergsons, a family of Swedish-American immigrants in the farm country near the fictional town of Hanover, Nebraska, at the turn of the 20th century. The main character, Alexandra Bergson, inherits the family farmland when her father dies, and she devotes her life to making the farm a viable enterprise at a time when many other immigrant families are giving up and leaving the prairie. The novel is also concerned with two romantic relationships, one between Alexandra and family friend Carl Linstrum and the other between Alexandra’s brother Emil and the married Marie Shabata.

O Pioneers! is my most recent Classics Club Spin book, and once again, it’s been a great experience getting that little push to read a book that I might have missed out on otherwise.

Prior to O Pioneers!, the only work of Willa Cather’s that I’ve read was My Antonia, which I read once during high school and again more recently when I came across a copy at a library sale. I loved Cather’s writing style and the sense of beauty that comes through her descriptive passages, and I’ve always meant to seek out more of her books.

O Pioneers! centers on Alexandra Bergson, whom we first meet as a young woman. From the earliest chapters, we understand that she’s the backbone of her family. Her parents arrived on the Nebraska plains years earlier as immigrants, struggling to establish a home and a livelihood in harsh conditions. As the book opens, Alexandra’s father is dying. While she has three brothers — two teens and five-year-old Emil — her father’s dying instructions are clear:

“Boys,” said the father wearily, “I want you to keep the land together and to be guided by your sister… I want no quarrels among my children, and so long as there is one house there must be one head. Alexandra is the oldest, and she knows my wishes. She will do the best she can. If she makes mistakes, she will not make so many as I have made.”

As the book continues, we see Alexandra doing what no one else in the family can. She keeps the farm going, but not only that — she’s determined to do more than scratch by. She learns, thinks, and grows, and despite her brothers’ objection to what they see as risky ventures, Alexandra uses her wits and strategic planning to acquire more land, invest, and ultimately succeed in becoming one of the best established farmers and landowners in the region.

Of course, the older brothers aren’t always content to abide by Alexandra’s decisions. Rather dull-minded and resentful of hard work, they still uphold the manly tradition of being sexist jerks when it comes to their sister:

Oscar reinforced his brother, his mind fixed on the one point he could see. “The property of a family belongs to the men of the family, because they are held responsible, and because they do the work.” Alexandra looked from one to the other, her eyes full of indignation. She had been impatient before, but now she was beginning to feel angry. “And what about my work?” she asked in an unsteady voice.

[…]

Lou turned to Oscar. “That’s the woman of it; if she tells you to put in a crop, she thinks she’s put it in. It makes women conceited to meddle in business.”

Success takes a toll, as Alexandra remains largely alone. She has friends and neighbors and community, and while she seems content with her life, she’s never pursued romantic love of any sort. As she moves through her adult years, she’s devoted to Emil, now a young man, envisioning herself making a future and inheritance for him. Emil, though, like many young people raised on the plains, doesn’t necessarily want a life as a farmer — he attends college, travels, and seems to have a myriad of options available to him. Ultimately, though, a passionate love affair threatens his and Alexandra’s dreams for his future.

O Pioneers! covers about 20 years of the family’s lives, and we see how time changes them all. Through it all, Alexandra remains the steady, devoted head of the family and keeper of the land, and it’s only a tragedy near the end of the story that forces more extreme change upon her.

The writing in O Pioneers! is simply lovely. Willa Cather’s words are spare, but evocative. From her descriptions of the land itself to her illustration of the characters’ lives and thoughts, the words she uses bring the people and place to life.

ONE JANUARY DAY, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

But this land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces.

He best expressed his preference for his wild homestead by saying that his Bible seemed truer to him there. If one stood in the doorway of his cave, and looked off at the rough land, the smiling sky, the curly grass white in the hot sunlight; if one listened to the rapturous song of the lark, the drumming of the quail, the burr of the locust against that vast silence, one understood what Ivar meant.

A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves.

But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.

The dawn in the east looked like the light from some great fire that was burning under the edge of the world.

One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.

Other versions of O Pioneers!:

As far as I could discover, there’s been just one O Pioneers! film adaptation — a 1992 made-for-TV movie starring Jessica Lange and David Strathairn. I have no idea if it’s easily available, but I’d love to check it out!

Wrapping it all up:

I’m so happy to have finally read this beautiful, powerful book. Many thanks to the Classics Club for inspiring me to read O Pioneers! and other classics!

Can’t wait for the next CCSpin!

My Classics Club Spin book for winter 2022/2023 will be…

Earlier this week, I shared a post with my list of books for the newest Classics Club Spin challenge (see it here), and today, this spin’s number was announced. (For those keeping track, it’s CC Spin #32, and for me personally, #4!)

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that corresponds to the “spin” number that comes up.

For CCSpin #32, the lucky number is:

And that means I’ll be reading:

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (published 1913)

Synopsis:

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels, O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

I’m excited for this one! I read My Antonia many years ago, but haven’t read anything else by Willa Cather, and I actually have a few of her books on my (never-ending) to-read list.

O Pioneers! is relatively short (just 159 pages), so I may wait until early January to get started. The target date for finishing is January 29th, 2023, so I should be in really good shape.

It turns out that this is my third American classic in a row for my CCSpin books. That’s okay… but I may need to revise my list to try to broaden the selections a bit more before the next spin comes along.

What do you think of my newest spin book?

Here’s my list of 20 titles for Classics Club Spin #32:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Peony by Pearl Buck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

My previous Classics Club Spin books:

Are you participating in this Classics Club Spin? If so, what book will you be reading?

Getting ready for the Winter 2022/2023 Classics Club Spin!

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin!

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up. This will be my 4th time participating — although for The Classics Club, it’s spin #32!

Here are the dates and guidelines from the host blog:

On Sunday 11th, December, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by the 29th January, 2023.

We’ll check in here on Sunday the 29th January, 2023 to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

What’s Next?

  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Sunday, 11th December.
  • We’ll announce a number from 1-20. 
  • Read that book by 29th January, 2023.

I’ve had so much fun with my previous CCSpin experiences, so of course I’m going to do it again! I’m going back to my list from last time, and other than replacing the book I just read, I’m going to leave the rest of my list as is. I’d be happy to read any of these!

And now for the good stuff…

Here’s my list of 20 classics for my 4th Classics Club Spin:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Peony by Pearl Buck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

Wish me luck! I’ll post again on Sunday once the spin results are announced!

My previous Classics Club spins:

Spring 2022 (CCSpin29): The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer
Summer 2022 (CCSpin30): Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Fall 2022 (CCSpin31): A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

Book Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (Classics Club Spin #31)

Title: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Author: Mark Twain
Publication date: 1889
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Synopsis (Goodreads):

One of the greatest satires in American literature, Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ begins when Hank Morgan, a skilled mechanic in a nineteenth-century New England arms factory, is struck on the head during a quarrel and awakens to find himself among the knights and magicians of King Arthur’s Camelot. The ‘Yankee’ vows brashly to “boss the whole country inside of three weeks” and embarks on an ambitious plan to modernize Camelot with 19th c. industrial inventions like electricity and gunfire. It isn’t long before all hell breaks loose!

Written in 1889, ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ is one of literature’s first genre mash-ups and one of the first works to feature time travel. It is one of the best known Twain stories, and also one of his most unique. Twain uses the work to launch a social commentary on contemporary society, a thinly veiled critique of the contemporary times despite the Old World setting.

While the dark pessimism that would fully blossom in Twain’s later works can be discerned in ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ‘ the novel will nevertheless be remembered primarily for its wild leaps of imagination, brilliant wit, and entertaining storytelling.

And from Wikipedia:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an 1889 novel by American humorist and writer Mark Twain. The book was originally titled A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Some early editions are titled A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur.

In the book, a Yankee engineer from Connecticut named Hank Morgan receives a severe blow to the head and is somehow transported in time and space to England during the reign of King Arthur. After some initial confusion and his capture by one of Arthur’s knights, Hank realizes that he is actually in the past, and he uses his knowledge to make people believe that he is a powerful magician. He attempts to modernize the past in order to make people’s lives better, but in the end he is unable to prevent the death of Arthur and an interdict against him by the Catholic Church of the time, which grows fearful of his power.

Twain wrote the book as a burlesque of Romantic notions of chivalry after being inspired by a dream in which he was a knight himself, severely inconvenienced by the weight and cumbersome nature of his armor. It is a satire of feudalism and monarchy that also celebrates homespun ingenuity and democratic values while questioning the ideals of capitalism and outcomes of the Industrial Revolution. It is among several works by Twain and his contemporaries that mark the transition from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era of socioeconomic discourse. It is often cited as a formative example of the time travel genre.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is my fall 2022 Classics Club Spin book, and once again, I’m delighted that the CCSpin has given me reason to finally read a classic that I might never have considered otherwise.

Way back in my middle school days, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were both required reading, and that was about it in terms of my experience with Mark Twain. Still, I’d been more or less familiar with the general plot of this book as well as The Prince and the Pauper, which have both been adapted and retold in countless formats over the years.

1889 frontispiece by Daniel Carter Beard, restored

In Connecticut Yankee, a “modern” man of the 1880s finds himself transported back in time to the world of King Arthur. Being a proud Yankee, our narrator isn’t content to just find a way to fit in and survive, but instead decides to bring 19th century civilization to life a full thirteen centuries early.

First, seeing the power that Merlin holds over King Arthur and his court, the narrator proclaims himself to be an even greater magician, and uses his 19th century scientific knowledge to create supposed miracles — for example, using dynamite and fireworks — to astound and frighten everyone there. Quickly, he is given the title of “the Boss”, second only to Arthur himself in power and authority.

From there, the Boss begins a plan to introduce modern technology to the kingdom, instituting factories, newspapers, electricity, schools, currency, and more. Determined to improve health and sanitation, he introduces soap, then has the knights roam the countryside carrying advertising shingles to promote it! Of course, obstacles arise, and the Boss finds himself challenged and inconvenienced many times throughout his adventures, but his knowledge of unknown mechanics, science, and communication techniques help him triumph, again and again.

The writing in Connecticut Yankee is sly, sardonic, and often outright funny. From the earliest chapters, I was charmed and entertained, as in this encounter with a young boy as the narrator enters the court at Camelot:

He arrived, looked me over with a smiling and impudent curiosity; said he had come for me, and informed me that he was a page.

“Go ‘long,” I said, “you ain’t more than a paragraph.”

Mark Twain satirizes and skewers concepts of class throughout the book, as the main character — while appreciative of Arthur himself — is determined to do away with nobility, chivalry, and all the inherent injustices of a societal order that holds some people to be better than others.

Intellectual ‘work’ is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer, is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the magician with the fiddle-bow in his hand, who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him – why, certainly he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair – but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash also.

The application of justice, as portrayed in this book, is particularly brutal, and there’s one especially heartbreaking scene of a young desperate mother’s punishment that’s truly haunting.

Still, even during scenes of great violence or inhumanity, Twain’s humor shines through. Even the more serious situations are lightened by his skill with words, and I couldn’t help laughing at so many of the small little lines and comments that are thrown in throughout the story.

His head was an hour-glass; it could stow an idea, but it had to do it a grain at a time, not the whole idea at once.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an early example of a time-travel novel, and while the genre has certainly changed over the years, it’s a fun look at the concept. Mark Twain does it well, showing both the influence of the 19th century on Arthurian times and offering a solid set of circumstances to explain why history continue on as expected.

There have been many, many movie and TV adaptations of this story over the years, including a musical version from 1949 starring Bing Crosby, a 1989 TV movie starring Keshia Knight-Pulliam, and a really strange-looking 1995 movie called A Young Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, starring Michael York as Merlin and featuring a guitar-playing teen in the lead role.

I’d decided to read Connecticut Yankee via the Serial Reader app — which I did — but instead of sticking to just one 10-minute installment per day, I got caught up in the story and finished well ahead of the October 30th deadline. I expected to be interested in the story, but I didn’t realize just how entertaining it would turn out to be.

I’m really glad to have read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’m not sure that I’d pick up more Mark Twain immediately, but I think at some point, I’ll want to read more of his works, perhaps venturing into some of his non-fiction writing.

Are you a Mark Twain fan? Which of his books would you recommend?

Once again, I’m so happy that I decided to participate in the Classics Club Spin! Looking forward to the next one!

My Classics Club Spin book for fall 2022 will be…

Earlier this week, I shared a post with my list of books for the newest Classics Club Spin challenge (see it here), and today, this spin’s number was announced. (For those keeping track, it’s CC Spin #31, and for me personally, #3!)

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that corresponds to the “spin” number that comes up.

For CCSpin #31, the lucky number is:

And that means I’ll be reading:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (published 1889)

Synopsis:

One of the greatest satires in American literature, Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ begins when Hank Morgan, a skilled mechanic in a nineteenth-century New England arms factory, is struck on the head during a quarrel and awakens to find himself among the knights and magicians of King Arthur’s Camelot. The ‘Yankee’ vows brashly to “boss the whole country inside of three weeks” and embarks on an ambitious plan to modernize Camelot with 19th c. industrial inventions like electricity and gunfire. It isn’t long before all hell breaks loose!

Written in 1889, Mark ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ is one of literature’s first genre mash-ups and one of the first works to feature time travel. It is one of the best known Twain stories, and also one of his most unique. Twain uses the work to launch a social commentary on contemporary society, a thinly veiled critique of the contemporary times despite the Old World setting.

While the dark pessimism that would fully blossom in Twain’s later works can be discerned in ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ‘ the novel will nevertheless be remembered primarily for its wild leaps of imagination, brilliant wit, and entertaining storytelling.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve read anything by Mark Twain — probably going back to reading Tom Sawyer in middle school — but I’m excited for this one! I’m assuming this will be a lighter read relative to some of the other classics on my list, although it does sound like there are some heavier themes as well as the playful elements.

I’ve been trying to figure out how long this book is, but because it’s public domain and there are so many versions published, I’m seeing everything from 271 pages to 480 for an illustrated edition!

For my own reading adventure, I’ll be using the Serial Reader app, which has this book available in 54 installments. If I start now, reading one installment per day would push me past the October 30th deadline, but if I double up at least some of the time, I’ll make it!

Wish me luck!

Here’s my list of 20 titles for Classics Club Spin #31:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Peony by Pearl Buck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

My previous Classics Club Spin books:

Are you participating in this Classics Club Spin? If so, what book will you be reading?

Getting ready for the Fall 2022 Classics Club Spin!

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin, and I can’t wait!

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up. This will be my 3rd time participating — although for The Classics Club, it’s spin #31!

Here are the dates and guidelines from the host blog:

On Sunday 18th, September, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by the 30th October, 2022.

We’ll check in here on Sunday the 30th October, 2022 to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

What’s Next?

  • Go to your blog.
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Sunday, 18th September.
  • We’ll announce a number from 1-20. 
  • Read that book by 30th October, 2022.

I’ve had so much fun with my previous CCSpin experiences, so of course I’m going to do it again! I’m going back to my list from last time, and other than replacing the book I just read, I’m going to leave the rest of my list as is. I’d be happy to read any of these!

And now for the good stuff…

Here’s my list of 20 classics for my 3rd Classics Club Spin:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Peony by Pearl Buck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

Wish me luck! I’ll post again on Sunday once the spin results are announced!

My previous Classics Club spins:

Spring 2022 (CCSpin29): The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer
Summer 2022 (CCSpin30): Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

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:

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!

My Classics Club Spin book for summer 2022 will be…

Earlier this week, I shared a post with my list of books for the Classics Club Spin challenge (see it here), and today, this spin’s number was announced. (For those keeping track, it’s CC Spin #30, and for me personally, #2!)

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up.

For CCSpin #30, the lucky number is:

And that means I’ll be reading:

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, published in 1945, 181 pages.

Synopsis for the edition above:

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.

And a synopsis for a different edition:

Unburdened by the material necessities of the more fortunate, the denizens of Cannery Row discover rewards unknown in more traditional society. Henry the painter sorts through junk lots for pieces of wood to incorporate into the boat he is building, while the girls from Dora Flood’s bordello venture out now and then to enjoy a bit of sunshine. Lee Chong stocks his grocery with almost anything a man could want, and Doc, a young marine biologist who ministers to sick puppies and unhappy souls, unexpectedly finds true love. Cannery Row is just a few blocks long, but the story it harbors is suffused with warmth, understanding, and a great fund of human values.

First published in 1945, Cannery Row focuses on the acceptance of life as it is—both the exuberance of community and the loneliness of the individual. John Steinbeck draws on his memories of the real inhabitants of Monterey, California, and interweaves their stories in this world where only the fittest survive—creating what is at once one of his most humorous and poignant works. In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck returns to the setting of Tortilla Flat to create another evocative portrait of life as it is lived by those who unabashedly put the highest value on the intangibles—human warmth, camaraderie, and love.

I have to say, I’m not especially excited that this is the book that came up this time around — I have been intending to read Cannery Row for years, but there are other books on my list that were more strongly calling to me.

Cannery Row was published ten years after Tortilla Flat, which I read with my book group a couple of years ago. Having spent lots of time in Monterey, I’m familiar with the area as it exists now, and I do think it’ll be interesting to finally read this Steinbeck classic.

And fortunately for me, I actually own a copy! I have the edition pictured above, and since it’s under 200 pages, I don’t think I’ll have any problem finishing before the August 7th deadline.

I’m a little bummed that I’m feeling so hesitant about this book… but I’m sure once it’ll all work out. Wish me luck!

Here’s my list of 20 titles for Classics Club Spin #30:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

My previous Classics Club Spin book:

The Black Moth (read 4/2022)

Are you participating in this Classics Club Spin? If so, what book will you be reading?

Getting ready for another Classics Club Spin!

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin, and I can’t wait!

Hosted by The Classics Club blog, the Classics Club Spin is a reading adventure where participants come up with a list of classics they’d like to read, number them 1 to 20, and then read the book that correponds to the “spin” number that comes up. This will be my 2nd time participating — although for The Classics Club, it’s spin #30!

Here are the dates and guidelines from the host blog:

On Sunday 12th, June, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by the 7th August, 2022.

We’ll check in here on Sunday the 7th August, 2022 to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

What’s Next?

Go to your blog.

Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.

Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Sunday, 12th June.

We’ll announce a number from 1-20. 

Read that book by 7th August, 2022.

I had so much fun with my first CCSpin — my book was The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer — that I can’t wait to do it again! I’m going back to my list from last time, and besides replacing the book I already read, I’m swapping out a few of my previous picks to replace them with books that have a bit more appeal for me right now.

And now for the good stuff…

Here’s my list of 20 classics for my 2nd Classics Club Spin:

  1. Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne DuMaurier
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
  3. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
  4. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  5. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  6. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  7. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  8. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  10. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  11. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  12. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  13. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  14. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
  15. Passing by Nella Larsen
  16. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  17. The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
  18. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  19. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
  20. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Porter

I think I’d be happy to read any of these! I’m mostly going for shorter books, trying not to be too ambitious given how many other books I already have lined up for this summer.

Wish me luck! I’ll post again on Sunday once the spin results are announced!

Book Review: The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer

Title: The Black Moth
Author: Georgette Heyer
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication date: 1921
Length: 355 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A disgraced lord, a notorious highwayman

Jack Carstares, the disgraced Earl of Wyndam, left England seven long years ago, sacrificing his honor for that of his brother when he was accused of cheating at cards. Now Jack is back, roaming his beloved South Country in the disguise of a highwayman.

And the beauty who would steal his heart

Not long after Jack’s return, he encounters his old adversary, the libertine Duke of Andover, attempting the abduction of the beautiful Diana Beauleigh. At the point of Jack’s sword, the duke is vanquished, but foiled once, the “Black Moth” has no intention of failing again.

This is Georgette Heyer’s first novel, a favorite of readers and a stirring tale to be enjoyed again and again.

The Black Moth was Georgette Heyer’s first novel, published when she was just 19 years old. The author went on to publish over 60 novels and became known as the queen of Regency romances. Apparently (according to Wikipedia and other online articles), she wrote The Black Moth in serial installments as a way to entertain her ailing, bedridden younger brother, and her father thought the story was so good that he encouraged her to publish it. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The Black Moth is quite the adventurous, swash-buckling tale, full of men behaving badly and women steeling their spines and standing up for themselves (with a little swooning thrown in too). Set during the Georgian era, the plot revolves around aristocratic men bound by family loyalty and what would now be considered out-of-proportion concern for honor and reputation.

Jack Castares, the elder son of the Earl of Wyncham, has been living in exiled disgrace for years as of the opening of the book, ever since he was caught cheating at cards — a fatal blow to a gentleman’s reputation. He spends his days as a highwayman, raiding carriages and terrorizing travelers — although he’s actually a highwayman with a heart of gold, more often than not helping the helpless or “donating” his ill-gotten gains to those in need.

But Jack’s younger brother Richard knows the truth. Richard was, in fact, the one who’d been cheating, but Jack took the blame rather than see his brother shamed and disgraced, which would have resulted in him losing the woman he loved.

Richard’s wife Lavinia’s oldest brother, Tracy Belmanoir, the Duke of Andover, was the one who “caught” the cheating. A man nicknamed “Devil”, the Duke is cold, decadent, and deadly when provoked. When he attempts to abduct a young woman who’s caught his eye, Jack intervenes, at risk to his own life. Family secrets, love, and honor become intertwined, until a final showdown involving yet another abduction, a duel, and (naturally) a happy ending.

The Black Moth is highly entertaining, but clearly a product of its time. I had to leave my feminist sensibilities firmly tucked away on a shelf while reading this book, or the paternalism and disrespect toward women would have driven me crazy — although to be fair, there are two lead women characters who are strong-willed, determined, and capable, and I love their portrayals.

On the negative side, however, is the plot climax that includes threat of a forced marriage — or, if the woman will not consent, the implied threat of a rape and marriage anyway. These fates are avoided by the hero’s arrival and success in a duel, but the fact remains that the evildoer goes unpunished and the incident is largely resolved through a gentlemen’s agreement that everyone will be better off keeping this a private affair.

Daring adventure and danger is the name of the game in The Black Moth, and the scenes that include either action sequences or social manners and maneuvers are the most enjoyable. I was less enthralled by the gambling and settling of debts and manly men being manly in their men’s clubs… but there was enough good stuff in the mix to outweigh these bits.

I ended up reading The Black Moth for the Classics Club Spin challenge, and I’m so glad I did! This book has been on my shelf for several years, and I’m happy that I finally had an incentive to pick it up and read it. I started The Black Moth via the Serial Reader app, thinking I’d read it over the course of a month in daily installments, but this approach ended up not working for me. The small bites didn’t give me enough immersion in the story and made it hard to keep the characters straight — I was much happier once I picked up my paperback edition and read straight through to the end.

This is, I believe, my 7th Georgette Heyer book, and I have a stack of unread books by her still sitting on my bookshelf. Overall, The Black Moth was a great pick for a light and easy classic read, and I’m glad to have gone back to this author. And now that I have, I’m feeling motivated to squeeze in at least one or two more this year!

If you’ve read any Georgette Heyer books, please let me know — which are your favorites? I’d appreciate any and all recommendations!