Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row, Monteray

Cannery Row, Monteray

The last emotion I expected to experience with a John Steinbeck novel was laughter. My first encounter with him (Grapes of Wrath) hadn’t given me the impression he was anything other than depressing. So I resisted him for years. It was not until I joined a local book club who just happened to be reading Of Mice and Men that month, that I got an inkling that I’d misjudged the man. True it wasn’t very uplifting but there was a sense of  warmth and affection in his characters and tinges of humour mingled with the dispiriting nature of their predicament. Not quite ready to do battle with Grapes just however, I opted for the much shorter novel Cannery Row. It brought tears to my eyes, not of pity but of joy resulting from Steinbeck’s ability to wrest humour out of the most unlikely circumstances.

The is a novel which doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s more a collection of episodes about the people who live in the sardine canning district of Monterey, California. Today this is a small area crowded with tourists who swarm in and out of  souvenir shops and food outlets. In Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row is populated mainly by working-class people and a group of down-and-outs who live from one drink to another, begging, borrowing, stealing and fighting.  Their ringleader is the charismatic Mack, a man who if he put his mind to it would be smart enough to get a good job. But he prefers to lounge about on the fence, drinking a cocktail of slops from a local bar and doing odd jobs. He does however recognise a good turn when it comes his way. And no-one has been kinder to him and ‘the boys’ than Doc, a gentle, cultured man earning his living as a marine biologist.

Mack hits on the idea of trying to do something nice as a thank you for Doc: a surprise party.  Overcoming their first problem (a lack of money to fund the venture), they set about the plan with gusto.  Of course it all goes disastrously wrong causing extensive damage to Doc’s laboratory. Most people would have just given up at that point, but Mack is a resilient guy. He decides the only way to make amends is to throw another surprise party……. Is this any more successful? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

By the end of the book,  nothing has really changed. The characters go on living exactly as they have, good-naturedly co-existing within the community, through natural wit, innate goodness and genuine sense of community.

Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think… that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that ever will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.

Reflective at times, black comedic at others, this is a novel that seems to look fondly back to a time when Steinbeck believed life was somehow simpler;  a time when people could survive without money valued more for their companionship and the goodness of their hearts than the thickness of their wallet.  A little sentimental perhaps, maybe even naive but writing in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War 2, it’s hardly surprising that Steinbeck del that his world had seen better days.



From a Crooked Rib by Nurruddin Farah

from a crooked rib

In his debut novel Nuruddin Farah turned the spotlight on the restrictions and limitations experienced by women in his native Somalia where women are considered not only inferior to men but as inherently flawed.

Woman has been created from a rib and the most crooked part of the rib is the uppermost. If you try to straighten it, you will break it.

From  a Crooked Rib is written from the viewpoint of one girl’s experience but through her, Farah shows that her predicament is one faced by many of his countrywomen. Ebla is an uneducated eighteen year old orphan who runs way from her nomadic settlement when she discovers her grandfather has promised her in marriage to an old man.  She hopes to make a new life for herself with a distant cousin and his wife in the city of  Mogadishu, but her inexperience and naivety make her ill equipped to deal with the reality of city life. She has never seen a plane or a car, has no idea what a policeman is and doesn’t know how to cook. Instead of enjoying an independent life, she is effectively sold in marriage by her cousin, then experiences sexual violence, poverty and a sham marraige.

Reflecting on her life, Ebla sees that she has simply swapped one form of servitude for another and is as powerless and dependent on men as she was in her desert home. She and other women are merely chattels in the eyes of the men, theirs to be “sold like cattle.”

In a short text of just 180 pages Farah challenges many of the preconceived and traditional values of his society. It’s a powerful story told through a character whose innocence and resilience engage our sympathy. As a work of fiction it has a number of flaws. The writing style for example often feels belaboured and sometimes the narrative seems to leave out critical pieces of information so we’re not entirely sure what is happening. But the importance of this work lies more in the subject matter than the way the story is told. In 1970 Farah dared to bring to attention and to question long held beliefs in the need for subjugation of women and practices like arranged marriage and female circumcision. From a Crooked Rib is not a book I will want to reread but it provided a fresh perspective on an issue I knew little about.

About this author

Nuruddin Farah (Somali: Nuuradiin Faarax, Arabic: نور الدين فرح‎) is a prominent Somali novelist. He was awarded the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Books the Man Booker judges missed

When the judges of the Man Booker prize announce their long and short lists, you can bet there will be some surprise omissions. This year was no exception. Donna Tartt had been considered a certainty for her long awaited novel The Goldfinch which had already gained her the Pullitzer Prize. But she didn’t even make it to the long list.

That was a big mistake according to readers of The Guardian who have been taking part in the newspaper’s Not The Booker Prize “award”. Tartt has made it to the shortlist of six novels, chosen by readers although interestingly she didn’t get the hugest number of votes.

Here is the shortlist in full. I haven’t heard of any of these books before – have any of you read them? Did the Booker judges miss a trick in not including them on their award contender list? Are they more worthy winners of a literary prize than any on the current Booker long list?

Simon Sylvester – The Visitors (Quercus) with 63 votes
Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch (Little, Brown) with 39 votes
Tony Black – The Last Tiger (Cargo) with 39 votes
Louis Armand – Cairo (Equus) with 39 votes
Iain Maloney – First Time Solo (Freight books) with 37 votes
Mahesh Rao – The Smoke Is Rising (Daunt) – with 36 votes

Yiu can follow the Guardian prize selection at

A place in the case: cast your vote

I’m off on holiday to the Basque region of northern Spain next week and, as usual, the biggest challenge is not deciding what clothes to take, but what books will accompany me on the trip. I’m certainly not short of choices. Although my TBR mountain has shrunk a little, I still have well over 100 novels and non fiction books yet to read.

I started thinking about my holiday reading last night and came to a fairly rapid decision that Javier Marías’ murder mystery The Infatuations would certainly go in the case. I  like to read something by an author from the country I’m visiting and the Guardian’s description of this as “an instant Spanish classic” sold it for me. I just need one other ‘real’ book (I’m taking my Kindle so I can finish Niall Williams’ History of the Rain) but I’ve changed my mind four times already. Just when I thought I’d come close to making the decision (Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, or  Angel’s Game, the follow up to Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon), I found a copy of The Observations by Jane Harris at the back of the shelf. I wasn’t as wowed by her earlier novel Gillespie & I as many other readers seemed to be so I always meant to give her another chance. Onto the pile she went. But which to remove??

The Observations

Does she deserve a place in my suitcase?

Decisions, decisions, always too many of these. Am I just being ultra indecisive or is this a common issue with book lovers??

I thought about leaving all the shortlisted books together in a dark room overnight so they could fight it out amongst themselves. But then I decided a better idea would be to get you to vote. So can you help me decide which to take:

The Observations by Jane Harris OR

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters OR

Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon OR

The Infatuations by Javier Marías

The good news is that while I’ve been procrastinating I was able to do a bit of a purge of the TBR. Gone to a good home (i.e., my mum) is Victoria Hislop’s The Thread which was a Christmas present from maybe 4 years ago. Her first novel The Island was ok but 20 pages into this one and I just couldn’t get interested. Out has also gone Dublinesque by Enrique Villa Matas which I started reading in March but stopped at around page 100. Quite a number of people commented when they heard I was struggling that they really enjoyed it so I kept it intending to give it another go. But it’s still not calling to me so off to the charity shop it’s gone. Small chinks I know but it’s a start….



The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

country girlsThe Country Girls sent shock waves through rural Ireland when it was published in 1960. Across the sea, London was about to enter the Swinging Sixties but in Eire, sex was seldom mentioned openly and especially not when it involved unmarried girls.  Edna O’Brien’s novel about two girls who leave their convent upbringing and small village life in search of life and love in city, was castigated for daring to break the silence.  O’Brien, who was living in London at the time, found her novel banned in her home country and her parents so ashamed that they refused to speak to her.

Reading the book now, the elements that were considered so startling in the 1960s, seem creepy rather than shocking.

This is essentially a coming of age story of Caithleen and Baba, two young country girls on the verge of womanhood who leave the sheltered environment of their convent school for the city in search of life, love and fun. Before they get to Dublin however we learn about their childhood, about drunken fathers, and impoverished families, of convent education and schoolgirl acts of rebellion and misbehaviour..

All of this would make for a novel that is nothing remarkable, those themes and events having been played out in many other works already. O’Brien signals that something is different however when she introduces a figure known only as Mr Gentleman. Although he is decidedly older and also married, he begins to take the 14-year-old Caithleen out in his large black car; first on a shopping trip to Limerick and then dinner where he encourages her to drink wine (she decides she prefers the taste of lemonade). Each time they meet, he edges across the barrier of acceptability, hand holding turns into kisses of her hand then all the way up her arm. By the time she’s in Dublin, they’re  spending the whole night kissing and canoodling in his car watching the sun rise over the sea. Our Caithleen isn’t exactly reliable – there are lots of gaps in her accounts of what really happens between them – but it’s not difficult to fill in the blanks. Is she really as innocent as she seems? She’s an intelligent girl but she doesn’t seem to realise that she is slowly being groomed and that there really is no happy ending possible.

O’Brien brings the spirit of Eire vividly to life through two characters who make you laugh one moment and make you cringe the next as yet another example of their naivety is revealed. On the whole though I found it a bit so-so. The story of how O’Brien actually came to write this book and the repercussions on her marriage (as revealed in her 2013 memoir Country Girl), is far more interesting than the book itself.

Sunday Salon: Not reading but flying

sundaysalonI have a manager who apparently gets so completely absorbed in her book on an international flight that she doesn’t notice the slow passage of time. I wish my own experiences were of a similar nature.

Every time I get ready for one of these trips, whether its for business or pleasure, I start anticipating all the time I’ll have to do nothing but sit and indulge in something that in the normal course of a day, gets scrunched into the last 30 minutes or so. That dream never really materialises quite the way I imagine. Partly its because there is just so much stuff that distracts me on a flight and makes it hard to concentrate for any length of time when I’m in a packed-to-the-gills economy section.

I open my book before take off but there are constant interruptions via the PA system. Instructions to do X and Y ready for take- off; safety instructions about what to do in the event that we gently on top of a calm ocean instead of some hard tarmac and have to go whooshing gaily down a slide. Then there’s the captain’s welcome and the steward’s welcome and then the second officer to the co pilot adding his words of wisdom, none of which we can actually hear clearly but maybe important. Then of course there are more interruptions with drinks and meals to be served, duty free sold and landing cards despatched (and if you’re on one of the cheap and cheerful holiday flights you’ll get the added joy of being able to lottery cards and bottles of water).

Just when you think you’re in for a moment of peace, the person next to you decides they just have to go to the loo so you have to fumble with the seat belt which by now has managed to twist itself around your headphones cords and your ankles. Then the passenger in front thumps the release button so his seat back is now two inches in front of your nose. And the kid behind thinks its tremendous fun to start kicking the back of your seat.

Two hours have now elapsed and you’re only 30 pages into your book. Actually you’ve read 40 pages but since you keep losing the thread of what you’re reading, you’ve had to double up on some of the pages.

By then its time for the ice-cream to come around or the water. Or there’s been a slight wobble in the stratosphere so now you have to buckle up again.

An hour passes and you get into your book again.

But then the baby three rows down wakes up and realises it hasn’t achieved its daily quota of lung exercise. So makes up for this with double volume. And the baby three rows back thinks a little harmony wouldn’t go amiss so joins in.

Another hour of reading is enjoyed. But then its time for another loo visit by your neighbour. And since we’ve all been starved of calories for some time now, the food and drinks trolleys make a re-appearance. By the time that’s all cleared away, we’re nearly landing so we have to have a weather report and thank you for flying message from the flight deck.

Seven hours of reading time has got shrunk to maybe three or four at most.

Only once on a flight have I ever managed to read a book from cover to cover and that was because a) it was a night flight when everyone went to sleep except me b) I had a whole row to myself so no disturbances from passengers in the next seat.

Knowing this is the reality doesn’t stop me dreaming however, or stacking my carry on bag with way too much reading material.

Anyone have a strategy that has worked for you in these circumstances?

The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz

Holy WomanAncient customs and family traditions clash with personal desires and aspirations of freedom of a modern day Pakistan woman in Qaisra Shahraz’s The Holy Woman.  

Zarri Bano is the 28 year old daughter of a wealthy Muslim landowner. Breathtakingly beautiful and intelligent she has an independent streak and a strong will that has seen her reject the overtures of many suitors, none of whom meet her exacting standards. Just when she does meet someone who awakens the passionate side of her nature and is her intellectual match,  a family tragedy disrupts the wedding plans. Her elder brother, heir to the family’s lands, is killed in a riding accident and Zarri’s father decides to make her his heiress. In doing so, he resurrects an ancient tradition of the Holy Woman or Shahzadi Ibadat, a woman committed to a life of celibacy and knowledge of the Holy Quran.

Zarri feels obliged to obey her father’s will, putting aside her own desires of a life as a publisher and a wife. She thus relinquishes her jewels, make up and designer clothes for a black Burqa and turns her back on her fiancé for marriage and devotion to  the teachings of her faith.

The book traces her internal struggle between her ambitions and personal desires and her sense of honour and duty towards her father and her clan. Along the way we get an insight into the attitudes of women who adopt the veil and of the  way in which women feel powerless in a patriarchal society.  That was the aspect of the book that caught my attention when I first heard of The Holy Woman. Although it doesn’t appear that there really is a role in the Muslim world called the  Shahzadi Ibadat, I was still hoping that by reading this book I would learn something of the ideology behind the concept of the veil and its importance in Muslim society which might help me also understand the controversy it attracts in many western countries. But the way Shahraz deals with this theme didn’t bring any great new insights or appreciation.

We get rather too many laboured intrusions of the narrator’s voice to make the reading enjoyable. This is just one example:

Zanni Bano had no chance, crushed against this wall of patriarchal tyranny. Even with her youth, feminism and a university education, and with an outgoing and assertive personality on her side, she was still father to be the loser in this game of male power-play. Like her mother, it had been drilled into her from infancy to both respect and pay homage to her father’s wishes and those of the male elders.

Even when Zanni speaks in her own voice, her speech pattern feels forced and unnatural.

I am not only your daughter. I am me! But you and Father have brutally stripped me of my identity as a normal woman and instead reduced me to a role of a puppet…..You have all jailed and numbed me into a commitment which I will have to go along with – but not willingly.

I saw one comment on Goodreads to the effect that the characters in this novel are “without exception 3 dimensional and full of life”. I had the exact opposite reaction. They all came across as pedestrian, cardboard-cut-outs to me who speak in very unnatural ways. Sharaz could have done so much more with this book but instead allows it to descend into a second rate romance with a very predictable, and to me, unbelievable ending.

A good idea but the execution didn’t live up to my expectations at all.

Sunday Salon reading horizons

sundaysalonOne of the regular features on the The Readers podcast is Reading Horizons where Simon and Thomas talk about what they have been reading, what they are reading at the time of the show and what they may very well be reading next. Listening to their recent episode got me thinking about my own reading horizons.

In recent weeks I’ve been making some small inroads into my world literature project with A Parachute Drop by Norbert Zongo, a writer from the small land-locked African state of Burkina Faso; The Spinning Heart by the Irish author Donal Ryan and The Book of Gaza, a collection of short stories by ten writers from the Gaza strip.

What I’m reading now is a wonderful novel from 2013 by the Irish writer Maggie O’Farrell, Instructions for a Heatwave. Set against a background of a summer of unusuallly high temperatures for the UK, it shows how a family is thrown into crisis by the sudden disappearance of its patriarchal figure. His three children are summoned to support his wife as efforts are made to find him. It soon becomes clear however that they are also lost, floundering amid problems of disintegrating marriages and sibling relationships. All of them are harbouring secrets. I’ve loved every other book I’ve read by O’Farrell. This one is one of her best.

I’m also reading a curious book by Qaisra Shahraz, an author born in Pakistan though raised in England. The Holy Woman, which is her debut novel, examines the tension between the desire for freedom and the pressure to conform felt by women in Pakistan. It features a woman renowned for her beauty who dons a Burqa and immerses herself in a life of celibacy in obedience to the will of her father. The writing style is rather lacking in finesse but the concept of the Holy Woman is interesting enough to keep me reading.

As for reading horizons, I have a few of the Booker longlisted novels waiting my return to the UK. A colleague from Korea has also given me a book which apparently was a huge best seller in South Korea and then wowed readers in North America – it’s called Please Look After Mom, by  Kyung-Sook Shin. It’s about a devoted mother who becomes separated from her husband when they are travelling from their rural home to visit their grown up children in Seoul. I’d never heard of this author or the book but it seemed that it garnered a lot of praise when it was published in 2011 – the Times Literary Supplement called it “captivating…  nostalgic but unsentimental, brutally well observed.. a sobering account of a vanished past.”  Sounds just the thing for my return flight home…..

Classics Club Spin #7

classicsclub3The Classics Club is giving all participants another nudge to read some of the books we have on our lists. I’m still making my way through the book I got through the last spin (Canterbury Tales) but since the challenge for spin number 7 doesn’t have to be completed until October, I figure I have plenty of time to complete the task.

The rules are:

  • by next Monday, August 11, list any twenty books left to read from our Classics Club list. They could be five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • The Classics Club hosts will announce a number from 1 through 20.
  • The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on our Spin List, by October 1.

I’m not playing exactly by the rules since I don’t see the point of having any books on my list that I am dreading – that would be like being forced to swallow medicine rather than chocolate.  ISince my list is in order of publication date, I simply took the first five, the last five and ten from the middle.

Admittedly, there are some here that I might not be thrilled at the prospect of reading but I wouldn’t dread them if they came up. I don’t really understand the point of listing a book  that you’re dreading reading – the Classics Club is meant to be fun, not the equivalent of taking medicine.

Here’s my list:

  1. Candide – Voltaire 1759
  2. Vicar of Wakefield – Oliver Goldsmith 1766
  3. Evelina – Frances Burney 1778
  4. Mansfield Park  – Jane Austen 1814
  5. Old Gariot – Honore Balzac 1835
  6. Washington Square/Daisy Miller – Henry James 1880
  7. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner 1883
  8. The Diary of a Nobody – George Grossmith 1888
  9. The Invisible Man – H G Wells 1897
  10. The Riddle of the Sands – Erskine Childers 1903
  11. Nostromo – Joseph Conrad 1904
  12. The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf 1915
  13. Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton 1920
  14. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf 1925
  15. The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf 1927
  16. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  17. Silent Spring – Rachel Carson 1962
  18. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov 1967
  19. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985
  20. Half a Yellow Sun- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2006

A soldier’s footsteps

William Burton before embarking for France,with his wife and brother.

William Burton before embarking for France,with his wife and brother.

I wasn’t able to participate in any of the events marking today’s 100 year anniversary of the day marking the start of World War 1 or to watch as large swathes of the country went dark as a mark of respect to the millions who lost their lives in the conflict. But I did want to remember the past and what better way than to celebrate the role that one of my own family members played.

My great grandfather William Burton was 42 years old in August 1914. Like thousands of other men he voluntarily enlisted shortly after war was declared, travellling 20 miles to the nearest recruiting station to join the South Wales Borderers. By September 1915 he was in France and marching to the Somme. William was one of the lucky ones, despite the horrendous loss of life on the French and Belgian fronts, he saw out the war and returned home to his wife and three chilren in 1919.

What happened to him during those years is something his family never knew since apparently he never talked about it. All my mother can remember about him is that on Armistice Day every year until his death he out on some medals kept in a purple cloth bag and went to carry the standard at the village cenotaph. It wasn’t until I started digging around our family history that we learned how this man from a tiny village in South Wales had served in three theatres of war, in France, then Salonika and finally in Egypt. He had even taken photographs of his time in Egypt, tiny sepia pictures showing a camel train of supplies, soldiers relaxing in the sand in what we think is Port Said, and a military funeral.  I wish I knew what stories lay behind these pictures but they died with him.

Fortunately he left some kind of a trail.  A diary kept by the commander of his batallion gives a remarkable insight into the daily life he would have experienced. I know that on Oct 1, 1915 when he was marching towards the lines on the Somme,that the batallion was shelled. I know when he was sent back from trenches to take a hot bath and when he was given further training. I also know when he had to spend the night sleeping in the snow and without any shelter in the mountains of Salonika.

Through this meticulous account I will be able to follow in his footsteps as he protected his country so that I could live in peace. If only I had a chance to say thank you…….