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Friday Favorites: Cannery Row

The other day I spent a few hours clearing out my brain with one of my favorite books of all time, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I'm not saying this to show you I'm cultured because I love a book by someone like Steinbeck because, frankly, who actually likes Steinbeck? He's depressing as hell.

Cannery Row is different in that it's depressing but also hilarious. As Valentine Michael Smith said, we laugh because it hurts not to. The book has no real plot (though I suppose the quest to have a party might count) or discernable character arcs (the sequel/companion Sweet Thursday does) and is essentially a collection of short stories held together by place and the progression of time. Interspersed are random side stories and abstract digressions which are painfully beautiful.

I love all the characters. Every. Single. One. They are lovely and raw, startlingly complex but simple and easy to understand.

Each vignette is only a few pages and can stand alone (though better once you know the characters). Some are entirely exposition on a character. You can read the book in a few hours, easy.

In a class I taught recently, I used the beginning of the book as a successful example of prologue and opening. It's very difficult open with all exposition (the first three pages of Chapter One are a description of a grocery store and its owner), though it was fairly common in literature of the time. Even by today's standards, Steinbeck nails it. Within one paragraph, you can't look away. Even more remarkably, Steinbeck makes readers love and admire Lee Chong, a member of a much discriminated-against and caricatured culture (see the upstairs neighbor from Breakfast at Tiffany's). He does the same in Sweet Thursday with JosephandMary Rivas, who takes over Lee Chong's store. Brave work, for the time.

Anyway, I have favorite reads that come and go, but if there's one book (or books, since Sweet Thursday can be included) that I can always go back to and will consistently name as a favorite when asked, it's Cannery Row.

The movie's not bad either.

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