Remember a favorite author

Published 4:50 pm Friday, June 26, 2009

I was reminded recently of one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors—Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.

The book is an amalgam of fictional characters living within a commercial zone of sardine canneries along the Pacific Coast of California during the 1940s. It’s a real place, a place you can physically visit today. Although the book is not about the canneries themselves, but about the people and their mischievously after hours antics, and about Doc, a marine biologist running a lab in a rundown waterfront shack, frequented by the local luminaries coercing beer money.

Cannery row exists today in Monterey, Calif., its street name the same as the book, although it was once known as Ocean View Avenue. The street and its canneries are the end of the line going West, that great American experience of moving west, conquering new frontiers, “westering” as the pioneers in one of Louis L’Amour’s books called it.

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Here begins the Pacific Ocean, the end of the continental United States, the end of “westering.”

Although I have never been there, traveling no farther north in California than Los Angeles, when you read this book, written in 1945, you get a sense of place, you can feel the characters in their environment, you can almost smell the sardines.

These great characters of popular literature are here—Doc and the boys, Mack, Dora Flood, Lee Chong, and one of the most colorful, Henri, building a boat that he is afraid to set sail in. These characters depend on one another to survive their loneliness.

Don’t look for a hero here or a dreamer, just simply people living on the edge of life.

Steinbeck returned to Cannery Row in 1954 with a sequel titled Sweet Thursday. Doc comes back from the war, two years actually after it is over because he messed up some government programs so bad that it took him two additional years to get them straight again.

In Sweet Thursday, Doc finds his marine lab shack in shambles. One of the character in the previous book, Mack, was assigned guardianship, but instead used it as Cannery Row party headquarters during the war.

One might wonder are there any novelist today writing like Steinbeck. Some of the newer novelists who compare would be Nicholas Sparks whose novels, The Notebook, and Message in a Bottle, have been made into movies. His books continuously hit the best-seller list.

Also, David Gutterson, whose novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, never fails to capture our imagination of what life might have been before and during the Second World War in the northwest with its imprisonment of native American Japanese.

We get great stories today from John Grisham, using lawyers and the legal system as his backdrop, and from James Lee Burke, an award-winning mystery writer, whose locales take place in and around New Iberia, La.,

If you are not reading a book, you are missing out on a lot of good stuff. I never could understand why some people are proud of the fact that they don’t read. They absolutely believe it’s a badge of honor.

Kudos to the summer reading program for the upper level students at Bainbridge High School. For extra credit, students must read several books during their summer vacation, and in some cases prepare reports on what they have read.

English teachers Heidi Chambers, Joan Beers and Janine Halada have assigned a good mix of authors and subjects, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

And I am particularly delighted that they have included The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, who reports from the Mideast for “The New York Times.” Friedman in my consideration is one of the few writers who has a firm grasp of the issues facing the world, from the perspective of an informed reporter on the scene rather than from biased opinions garnered from talk radio.

Summer reading is a good time for all of us to get lost in a good book.

Besides, it’s too bloomin’ hot to do anything else.