1001 Books, 2012 TBR Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Community, Depression, Fiction, Friendship, John Stephens, Literature, Loneliness, Mental Health

Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck


Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 54

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Cannery Row is a unique stand-out amongst Steinbeck’s works, for many reasons.  One of these is that, unlike with East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, or Of Mice and Men, for example, there is not much of a plot.  Instead, what Steinbeck does is open up to his readers a place – typically American (and Californian)- where its people and its mood can be felt, captured, and understood.  This place is Cannery Row, a small cannery district in Monterey, California.  The people are a mix of shop-owners, layabouts, migrant workers, “girls for hire,” and others who are either genuinely worn down or who have chosen to live humbly in this out-of-the-way town, rather than move on up to the more prosperous areas.  The story itself centers on a man named Mack and his group of pals, all of whom are without work but who get by on their resourcefulness and their ability to find work when it becomes absolutely necessary.  The gang decides to do something nice for the town doctor, who does so much for the town without ever asking for anything in return.  Their first attempt at ‘thanking’ him goes terribly wrong, but they vow to make up for it and, in the end, they succeed.  Their gift to the doctor brings everyone together but, what the reader will realize, is that amongst the friendship and revelry is a deep sadness and loneliness which both the town and its inhabitants, but particularly the doctor, suffer from.

4 – Characters extraordinarily well developed.

Cannery Row is similar to The Grapes of Wrath in that the main story is frequently interrupted by short vignettes.  In Grapes of Wrath, these intercalary chapters served to widen the lens from the Joad family and onto the plight of the Great Depression and migrant workers in general.  Here, in Cannery Row, the interruptions often introduce the reader to minor characters – residents of or visitors to the town who emphasize certain extremities of real life, most of which are cruel in nature (dead bodies, violence, suicide, etc.).  Many readers are critical of Steinbeck’s method of interrupting the primary story in this way, but the purpose is to shape a world, to give feeling and context to a group of people, without having to focalize on one person or one family in particular.  This allows the story to be about a general community rather than individuals, which allows the conversation to be about a class or type of people, a region, rather than a character – the place, in fact, becomes the person.  This is what regionalists (like Faulkner) do best.  In addition to this, the specific characters who are introduced and witnessed, such as Mack, Doc, and Lee Chong, the shop owner, are all distinct, realistic, and purposeful.  Their interactions with one another are interesting and believable, but their internal thought processes are perhaps the most fascinating of all.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I am a fan of Steinbeck’s prose.  In this book, he opens many of the chapters with incredible descriptions – short passages that are almost poetic in their beauty.  He has a talent for not just seeing but also feeling people and places, then somehow reimagining these sensations into written language.  While Steinbeck employs an intercalary method, as mentioned above, his narrative asides and detours are brief and his description of those things taking place outside of the primary story are shortened.  While we might leave the main story from time-to-time, it does not feel, as it sometimes does with Grapes of Wrath, as if we have been completely separated from it.  Steinbeck also manages to capture mood and tone with his narrative voice and through his use of dialogue.  We learn much about the character Frankie, for instance, without necessarily being granted access to Frankie’s point of view.  Instead, we learn about him through others’ treatment of him, through Steinbeck’s description of him, and by the way his and the Doctor’s relationship is presented in the narrative – subtle descriptions and meaningful allusions.  Frankie, one single character, comes to mean much more on the narrative level.  He represents a type of person but, due to the straightforward and bare, sometimes raw, way Steinbeck approaches his descriptions, he can represent a group of people without becoming a grotesque.  Ultimately, the prose and style are generally sparse with brief interludes of poetic, almost romantic language.  The style suits the tone of the novel as well as the nature of its characters and “plot” or, more accurately, situation.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Cannery Row, unlike many of Steinbeck’s other works, is not quite as politically charged or socially sentimental.  It is still about people and place, exactly what one would expect from such a brilliant regionalist writer, but its purpose is much more ambiguous.  The emotion and pathos is still there, but the reader is allowed simply to bear witness to a community, perhaps even becoming a part of it, without necessarily being guided toward feeling one way or another about anyone in the town (even the Doctor, lauded by his townspeople, has his faults).  Certain themes from Steinbeck’s other works, such as mental health, community-families, survival, depression (economic and psychological), and labor are present again in this book, but in a much more subtle way.  For those who enjoy Steinbeck but who might be put off by his “peachiness” or heavy-handedness of politics/morality, Cannery Row might be exactly what you are looking for.  There is also a good amount of humor, counterbalancing a relatively sombre tone.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest:  Great Depression, Community, Loneliness, Mental Health, American West, Friendship, Society

Notable Quotes:

“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.” (5)

“Man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.” (13)

“Casting about in Hazel’s mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum.” (34)

“It is the hour of the pearl – the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”  (82)

“The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system.  And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success.  And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” (135)

Book Review, Fantasy, John Stephens, Young Adult

Review: The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 24

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

The Emerald Atlas is Book One in a new and exciting series by John Stephens, called The Books of Beginning.  This is where Lord of the Rings meets Harry Potter – a realistic everyday world, where orphaned siblings are suddenly thrust into a coexisting world of magic and magical beings.  Kate, Michael, and Emma are the “P” children.  They were swept away from their parents by a mysterious man when young and, for ten years, spent their lives being shuffled around from orphanage to orphanage.  When the trio is kicked out of the “Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans,” they are sent to Cambridge Falls, a village whose sole orphanage is run by the strange and allusive Dr. Stanislaus Pym, his housekeeper Miss Sallow, and the servant-of-sorts, Abraham.  Immediately, the children are off exploring the expansive home and their curiosity soon leads to trouble – the kids discover a large green book with mysterious powers, which has them whipping back and forth through time, eventually into the hands of the evil Countess, whom they – with the help of a magician, dwarfs, giants, and townsfolk, must defeat, or be doomed forever.  Along the way, the kids learn more about each other, themselves, their long lost parents, and their own important, cosmic destinies.   

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

As a writer for various television series’, such as Gilmore Girls and The O.C., Stephens clearly has experience writing and developing characters, young and old.  That talent and experience shine through in The Emerald Atlas.  The three siblings are interesting to watch because they are each unique and independent, but also function together as a family unit.  Sibling rivalry rears its ugly head on more than one occasion, at times leading one or another of the characters into dubious territory.  Kate, the older sister, feels responsible for her younger siblings, and her actions are largely based on the need to protect them.  Michael, the middle child, is intelligent, bookish, and, well, a know-it-all.  This can be exasperating, but also comes in handy (sometimes reading books really can save your life!).  Emma, the youngest, is clearly the youngest – she is bold, precocious, and loves attention.  She also looks up to her brother and sister, modeling her own behavior after them, though she would rather die than admit this.  Watching the three interact with each other, as well as with other characters (particularly when they are separated from one another) is interesting and allows room for character growth and development, which readers and fans of this book can only hope is taken advantage of in later installments.  The secondary and tertiary characters, too, are interesting – from Gabriel the giant and Wallace the dwarf, to the Countess and the nameless monsters who serve her, good and bad characters are given equal time and attention, which makes the overall conflict stimulating and workable. 


 4– Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Another clear talent for Stephens is his ability to construct and deliver a story in an effective way.  The prose is highly attractive – it is challenging and complex, more so than others which this book might be compared to (A Series of Unfortunate Events or Percy Jackson and the Olympians, for instance).  Though this book will likely be marketed to a similar audience, it is equally attractive to more experienced readers.  The dialogue and description are well developed as well.  There were some grammatical issues, but my copy of the book is an Advanced Reader’s Copy, so it is likely these will (or have) disappeared in the final stages of editing, and they do not detract from the overall effectiveness of the delivery.   While the story is interesting and exciting, it is almost too fast-paced and large in scope.  So much is covered in this first book, it is hard at times to catch one’s breath.  Also, though plenty of time is spent with each of the three children (singly and together), the creative range and pace at times do a disservice to their deeper story and growth.  Despite this one minor complaint, the plot is solid, engaging, and incredibly interesting, and the prose is appropriate to the story itself and helps to progress it without any choppiness or confusion, so it is a solid effort overall.  

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

While this is a great fantasy novel, it is more as well.  The book pays homage to many of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, whether subtly or overtly.  At times, I was reminded of The Chronicles of Narnia, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Percy Jackson, The Kane Chronicles, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and even The Dark is Rising.  Now, whether or not the author actually ever read any of these books (it would be hard to imagine a genre author not being intimately familiar with his predecessors), their concepts are certainly there – but in a way which makes it impossible to claim any simple re-working of old plots.  Some of the best elements of each – such as family, the nature and purpose of magic, responsibility, growth and discovery, and coming-of-age, are present here and work together intricately and seamlessly.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the mystery aspect of the book (as a Poe fan, the “Poe House” and another Poe reference in Dr. Pym make me tingle), something not always at the forefront of fantasy novels – but which add another level of intrigue here.  The sibling rivalry is also something present in a few of The Emerald Atlas’s predecessors, but Stephens does such a remarkable job of writing it, one wonders if he has a background in child psychology (or perhaps it’s simply all that screenwriting experience).  These additional elements, done so well, add layers of complexity and interest to the traditional fantasy plot and make for one fantastic read. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult +

Interest: Fantasy, Magic, Family