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Shooting An Elephant And Other Essays by George Orwell (1931-1949) 375 p.

A few months ago I was quite impressed by George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris And London, in which he recounts his experiences on the fringes of society with a healthy measure of social commentary and sparkling wit. I was keen to read some more of Orwell’s non-fiction, and this collection of essays seemed to fit the bill quite nicely.

The essays span a period from the early thirties to the late forties, shortly before Orwell’s premature death in January 1950. They cover a number of topics, some personal and some political, ranging from his experiences as a policeman in Burma, lofty dissections of the works of Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift, all the way down to simple observations about the coming of spring.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Down And Out, because a lot of the political essays were largely theoretical – I preferred those in which Orwell discusses his own experiences, such as “Shooting An Elephant,” “How The Poor Die,” and “Such, Such Were The Joys.” Unfortunately these were a minority in the book, and it was somtimes hard going reading about politics sixty-five years out of date, or a 60-page analysis on Dickens when I’ve never read a lick of the man’s writing.

Nonetheless, Orwell was one of the most gifted writers of the 20th century (and easily its greatest journalist), and even when discussing unfamiliar subjects his prose is easy and enjoyable to read. He is exceptionally articulate, and his similes are quite imaginative:

[Dickens’] imagination overwhelms everything, like a kind of weed.

When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

At eight years old you were suddenly taken out of this warm nest and thrown into a world of force and fraud and secrecy, like a goldfish into a tank full of pike.

He also expresses some thoughts I’ve had myself while travelling through Asia:

With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet through a Buddhist priest’s guts.

While I didn’t enjoy this as much as Down And Out, I still believe that all of Orwell’s non-fiction is worth reading. Orwell was above all an honest writer, a man who could admit his errors, confront what he truly believed and write in plain English what he thought. That’s a rare thing. He was not just one of the greatest writers of our age, but also one of the noblest.

He also totally shot an elephant in the face. What a man!

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) 221 p.

Kidnapped is the third-most famous of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels, overshadowed by Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but it’s the first of his that I’ve read. If it’s anything to go by, I should definitely check out his other works.

The novel begins in 1751 with David Balfour, our young and resourceful Scottish protagonist, setting out to the house of the Shaws upon the death of his parents. Here he meets his uncle Ebeneezer, a wheedling little man who, rather than welcoming him with open arms, attempts to murder him to seize the family fortune. When this fails he sells David into slavery aboard a ship bound for the Carolinas.

What follows is a swashbuckling adventure of the highest order, containing shipwrecks, gunfights, sword duels, murder, pursuit by the British Army, outlaw hideouts and all manner of boy’s adventure tropes. Yet it’s a far more serious and polished novel than I make it sound, set against a well-developed political and historical backdrop and featuring several real-life figures – most notably David’s friend and mentor Alan Breck, a Scottish Jacobite. I don’t quite know what that is! Nonetheless, it grants Kidnapped a solid sense of time and place, which drags a little during David’s endless flight across the heather but which, on the whole, contributes into making it a more refined novel than the sort of typical adventure tale that any halfway decent writer can churn out (and which, indeed, I have been churning out for many years).

It’s also, despite being written in the nineteenth century, a remarkably easy book to read. Writers back then often had higher standards of vocabulary and style, which means contemporary readers often have trouble reading them, but Kidnapped could easily have been penned in the mid-twentieth century. This is probably the oldest book I’ve read that I found both enjoyable and worth my time. (Moby-Dick, written in 1851, was certainly worth my time, but “enjoyable” is not the first word it brings to mind.)

Overall Kidnapped is a pretty fun read, and I’ll check out Treasure Island when I get the chance.

On Writing by Stephen King (2000) 297 p.

Say what you will about Stephen King’s fiction, but in all his non-fiction – his forewords, his introductions, his EW column and this book – he’s refreshingly honest, down-to-earth and easily readable. On Writing is part memoir and part writing guide, written as King was entering his fourth decade of being an author (and, if I’m not mistaken, had only recently been unseated by J.K. Rowling as the world’s most popular author).

On Writing begins with about a hundred pages of vignettes across King’s life, beginning with his earlist memory and ending with him kicking his drug addiction in the 1980s. It moves on to a central section full of King’s thoughts about writing (theme, plot, characters, dialogue etc) and advice on how to become a writer, and finishes with a section about his near-fatal 1999 car accident (painful even to read about, particularly since he chose to weave it into The Dark Tower series). One of the most interesting things throughout is his little thoughts on all kinds of things related to the trade: genre prejudice, the reliability of agents, anecdotes about writing at Rudyard Kipling’s desk, and so on.

King said he was aiming to write a book on writing without any bullshit, and I think he succeeded. He makes it quite clear throughout the book that there is no magic solution or bag of tricks to being a writer. You just have to work very hard. You have to write a lot and read a lot, and there’s no getting around that. Creative writing classes and writing guides (including On Writing) may help a little, but nothing will get you there in the end except hard work. Lazy people won’t be writers (which I shirk from hearing, since I’m very lazy indeed).

He also shoots down a common myth in the creative writing world – something that’s almost taboo, in fact – which is that a bad writer can ever become a good writer, or that a good writer can ever become a great writer. A mediocre writer can become a good writer, but other than that, you either got it or you don’t.

It only took me a couple of days to breeze through, since Stephen King (being Stephen King) is quite easy to read:

Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn’t they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius.

A refreshing change after the Byzantine prose of Kim.

Whether you’re a Stephen King fan, or an aspiring writer, this book is definitely worth a read. Roger Ebert (one of the greatest writers in modern America) called it the best book on writing since Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which I’ll also have to get around to reading someday.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1900) 321 p.

This is the 100th book review I’ve done for Grub Street. I was hoping to time it so that I could review The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the first novel David Mitchell has released since I discovered him, and the first novel I can remember really looking forward to, but I’m travelling with my friend at the moment and we’ve only got the one copy between us and he’s taking forever to read it. So Kim it is.

Which is a shame, because I don’t have a lot to say about Kim. It’s a classic novel by Rudyard Kipling, often considered his finest, which follows the early life of Kimball O’Hara: an Irish orphan who grows up in India, speaking the language and living as a native, who is picked up by the British and groomed to become a spy.

Kim is ostensibly a spy novel, but Kipling spends far more time being enchanted by the bustle and whirl of India, like a giddy schoolchild with his hands clapped to his cheeks. I understand that he loved the country, but there’s a difference between creating a vibrant setting and having the setting completely overwhelm the novel.

The prose is also quite stilted (“thou,” “thee,” “hast”) and the many social layers and relationships and castes of India are downright confusing. Throughout the majority of this book I had only the faintest idea of what was going on, which is always maddening. The middle section, where Kim is picked up by his father’s old regiment and then sent to a British school, was the most understandable and thus the most enjoyable, because Kim was surrounded by the plain and easy-to-follow British rather than the confusing whirlwind of Sikhs, Jains, Bhuddists, Hindus, Muslims, Urdu, Punjabi, lamas, chelas, etc. Maybe I’m missing the point of the book, but I’ve been travelling through Asia for four months now, and exoticism no longer holds any lustre for me.

Overall, Kim was not the kind of book I was expecting it to be, and not an easy book to read. Oh well. Happy 100th book review, Grub Street!

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002) 176 p.


As critically acclaimed as it is, I just could not get into this novel at all. It has three interweaving stories: one about a Jewish village in the late 18th and early 19th century, one about the same village in the lead-up to World War II, and one in the late 1990’s where Jonathan Safran himself travels to the Ukraine to try to locate the village with the assistance of Ukrainian lad Alex, who serves as narrator.

Every single one of these stories is dull and tedious. It’s heavily Jewish, and reminded me of all the worst and most sentimental aspects of Michael Chabon. In fact, this may be the most perfect example I have ever found of Chabon’s Epiphanic Dew Theory. Virtually every chapter in the story is overflowing with ham-fisted life and love and loss. Foer cannot restrain himself from trying to instill a deep profundity into almost everything that exists, and it’s an absolute drag to read. The final revelation about Alex’s grandfather was bleedingly obvious from the early chapters, and I wasn’t exactly astounded to discover that – shock horror – the Nazis were really evil and some atrocious things happened during World War II.

Thumbs down, won’t be reading any of his other books.

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August 2010