Albert Camus, 1913-1960 by Philip Thody: reviewed

This fascinating text discusses the life and work of a major contributor to thinking in the twentieth century. It is a revealing and illuminating book which traces the development of a philosopher, writer and activist. A lot of information can be gleaned from a fairly thorough piece of scholarship.

Clearly, the main problem with writing about Camus is to avoid hagiography. Thody managed this in diverse ways. Firstly, he stressed the importance of context in influencing the reception of the contributions of Camus. Secondly, he was critical of some of the work of Camus, particularly the attempts to compose political dramas for the theatre. Thirdly, he outlined the strength of some of the contentions of Sartre in the debates between the two writers.

Nevertheless, the biography does have its limitations. Importantly, it could have been more interesting if a wider range of sources had been used in its production. Furthermore, it should not have been excessively preoccupied with matters of trivia epitomised by clumsy analysis like this:

“The difficulty here is partly the traditional one of distinguishing the author from the narrator in almost any novel written in the first person…There are so many cases where Clamence is expressing Camus’ own ideas that it is impossible to see at what point we should start to reject his views because, after all, he is intended to be a false prophet.”

The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf: reviewed

This fascinating novel is really special. It won a significant literary award back in 1996, and you can see why. The characters, the atmosphere and the plot combine to make something that resonates with the reader. The proficient Colm Tóibín has praised the “poetic” style of the book.

If a novel should take a reader on a thought-provoking journey, ‘The Conversations at Curlow Creek’ certainly hits the mark. At times, I was reminded somewhat of Sir William Golding- however, there is a refreshing shot of optimism in what Malouf produced that makes his narrative quite different from the typical output of the winner of the Nobel Prize.

When it comes to possible flaws, ‘The Conversations at Curlow Creek’ is a little brief. However, the content of the tale could not be stretched out without damaging the structure of the story. This reflective work is enjoyable and worth obtaining if you have not read it.

The Spirit Level. Why Equality is Better for Everyone: reviewed

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have done a lot to draw attention to the social and environmental costs associated with inequality. This impressive book has a robust evidence base to support their central argument that less equal societies have a deeper set of social problems than their more egalitarian counterparts.

Nonetheless, there are some weaknesses associated with the largely empirical approach that they have adopted. Firstly, there is a danger that they are actually stigmatising the poor by suggesting that single parenthood may be a social ill, for example. Secondly, there is a major difficulty associated with their apparent lack of political insight. This is best illustrated by the seeming complacency evident in the following quote:

“Rather than challenging the causal role of inequality in increasing health and social problems, if governments understood the consequences of widening income differences they would be keener to prevent them.”

Energy and Equity by Ivan Illich: reviewed

This short political tract was published about 40 years ago. Reading it, one wishes that public authorities around the world had paid some heed to it. Long before global climate change became a matter of huge public concern, the iconoclastic Illich attacked the way people ruined parts of their lives via inappropriate transport choices.

Illich noted that the bicycle was an efficient means of transport, nor did he dismiss walking. In contrast, he argued that cars and aeroplanes were wasteful menaces that reinforced inequality. He contended that the car industry had acquired a “radical monopoly” and that this had a variety of negative consequences. He wrote:

“Any industry exercises this kind of deep-seated monopoly when it becomes the dominant means of satisfying needs that formerly occasioned a personal response.”

Any reader who has waited for a bus while parents drive their obese children to school will understand some of what the deceased anarchist was getting at. This work deserves a bigger audience!