“…a tragedy and a personal disaster.” #camus @OxUniPress #veryshortintroduction


Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction by Oliver Gloag

I can’t recall when I first stumbled across the “A Very Short Introduction” series from Oxford University Press; however, I know I seem to own increasing amounts of them, and the ones I’ve read have been most helpful (The French Revolution springs to mind!) So I was very interested to see that a new volume, taking on Albert Camus, was about to be released and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.

You may well be familiar with the format of the “Short” books; mostly under 200 pages long, they’re designed to give a concise and readable introduction to what can be a complex subject, although they aren’t just *definitions* as such. As the publisher’s website points out, they’ll often offer provocative discussions of the subject in question – which is what can make them even more interesting!

Albert Camus is, of course, a favourite author of mine; I first read his work in my 20s and was bowled over, particularly by his novel “The Plague“. It’s a remarkable piece of writing and has stood up to sustained re-readings (though I *don’t* think I’ll revisit it right now…) However, I wouldn’t claim to have completely understood the thinking and theories behind his non-fiction works, so I would keen to find out what the “Short” book would reveal.

And author Oliver Gloag does take an intriguing approach to his subject. He considers Camus’ life and work from a number of different angles which are broadly chronological but take in different aspects of the writer’s beliefs. The opening chapter, “Camus, son of France in Algeria”, I found particularly revealing; Gloag clearly lays out the history of French colonialism in Algeria, Camus’ status within that regime and the pivotal upbringing he had which was behind so many of his views. I confess to having had a very sketchy knowledge of the Algerian situation and this lucid chapter clarified many of Camus’ attitudes for me, and also the context of much of his work.

Gloag goes on to follow Camus’ career as he moves from journalist to novelist, his philosophies and beliefs, as well as his relationships with fellow authors and intellectuals in France of the 20th century. He is very good on delineating the differences between the theories of Camus and Sartre, who I’d always rather lazily bracketed together but who in fact seem to have had very different philosophies (the absurd vs existentialism). He also concisely covers their many schisms and that chapter was also particularly interesting.

See page for author [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the thread running through the narrative seems to be Camus’s complex relationship with Algieria, a country which features in so many of his works. Troublingly, Camus did not support Algerian independence, instead wishing to maintain a colonial status quo which simply improved conditions for the native Algerians. This *is* problematic, and Cloag demonstrates how this stance recurred regularly in Camus’ writings. Camus appears to have been a man of contradictions: wishing to avoid conflict yet fighting with the resistance; espousing freedom but not necessarily extending his views to women. I guess he was human; we expect our philosophers and humans to be perfect, but they *are* as fallible as us at the end of the day.

As I read through the Camus Very Short Introduction, I realised that I actually have a very sketchy idea of his life and so the book was a fascinating primer on that. It’s clear, concise and illuminates many aspects of Camus which I hadn’t considered or come across before. However, as I read I did realise that the book was coming from a very particular angle. Cloag specialises in post-colonial literature and because of this particular discipline, he does insist on viewing Camus pretty much exclusively through a post-colonial lens. This does add some fascinating insights into Camus’s life and work, but I did find myself questioning this slightly as the book went on. Camus was a product of his time and upbringing; he transcended this in some ways with his wish to change the French colonisaton of Algeria to one of a fairer basis (though not to fight for its independence); however, I’m not sure that this is the *only* aspect of his life that influenced his work and I wondered whether it was slightly limiting to look at him only in this context. However, this is a minor quibble and I think I’ll have to read up a little more on Camus’ life and thought before making any final judgement!

So “Albert Camus: A Very Short Introduction” turned out to be a fascinating and very stimulating read. I  did get much from it, particularly in my understanding of the Algerian situation, where Camus sat within that and how it might have influenced his work. The section on Camus and Sartre was very enlightening too, and the whole book was beautifully lucid and very readable. (I harp on the lucidity because so often books about people and ideas *aren’t* that clear…) As I’ve said before, I have a very grasshopper mind and I do love to hop from topic to topic, exploring new concepts and philosophies. The Very Short Introductions are therefore ideal for me – I could do no worse at the moment than attempt to educate myself during lockdown by reading a whole chunk of them; and the Albert Camus volume is an excellent and thought-provoking entry in the series!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

On My Book Table…6 – a bit of a shuffle!


The world is a little bit scarier than usual at the moment, as we’re all quite aware, and so I’m trying personally to balance keeping my awareness of what’s happening at a sensible level and trying to keep myself on an even keel. Books have always been my go-to in times of stress and frankly are being a little bit of a lifeline right now. Anyway, after all the recent excitement of the #fitzcarraldofortnight, plus a number of new arrivals, I thought it was time to take stock and reorganise a little. Reading from one publisher is a lovely experience, but as I have so many other books lurking I wanted to try to clarify what I planned to pick up next. Of course, I never stick to reading plans, but it’s always fun to spend time shuffling books, as well as being very therapeutic… 😀

After spending some time digging among the stacks and moving books about, I ended up with a few piles I currently want to focus on and here’s the first:

This rather chunky pile has some of the weightier books (intellectually and literally!) that are calling right now. Some of these were in my last book table post, but some have snuck in when I wasn’t looking. There’s a lot of French writing there and both the Existentialist Cafe and Left Bank books sound excellent. Barthes is of course still hanging about in the wings even though I haven’t added him to the pile. I could go for a Barthes fortnight (or longer…) quite easily, but that might a bit brain-straining. Some of the volumes *are* reasonably slim so I might be able to slip them into my reading between bigger books – we shall see! 😀

Next up, some of the review books I have pending:

These are only *some* of the review books lurking, but if I put them all in a pile it looks scary and I panic, so I thought a modest selection would do. There are some beauties from the British Library Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics range, as well as Camus and a classic Russian play and Frankenstein! They all sound so marvellous….

And this is the pile of recent finds or other titles I really want to read at the moment:

More French writing. The top two are books about French authors – I’ve read the start of each and they’re marvellous. The Queneau is short but essential (and another play! I’m reading more drama!!), the Hitchens and the Christiansen arrived recently, as did the beautiful Persephone (which I think I might well pick up soon). And the Makioka Sisters is there because there’s a readalong going on. I doubt I’ll get to it – I’ve failed every one so far this year, getting nowhere near either Proust or Musil. But it’s there just in case.

However, there *is* another pile of interest lurking. Coming up in April, Simon and I will be hosting the #1920club, the next in our themed weeks of reading from a particular year. I’ve been thinking ahead about which books I’d like to spend time with, and there really are some wonderful titles from 1920. I always try to read from the stacks and a quick dig revealed I had these books on the shelves:

All of them are beautiful titles, and most of them would be re-reads – which is not really what I want to do with the reading clubs. I have another new title lurking digitally which I am definitely going to overcome my aversion to e-reading and get to; but with the re-reads I shall have to be picky so that I can perhaps focus on unread books. Though it *would* be nice just to spend the week re-reading Agatha, Virginia and Colette…

And of course, just after I had finished writing this post, a lovely collection of review books popped through the door looking like this:

There are some wonderfully exciting titles there, including a new Crime Classic from the British Library; two editions from their new imprint focusing on Women Writers (which is being curated by Simon – well done, that man!); and a fascinating book on Artemisia Gentileschi with an introduction by Susan Sontag – how timely!

So there we go. The state of the books at the moment. I have just finished reading Lennie Goodings’ wonderful book about her life in the book trade and with Virago which I will eventually get to reviewing (I’m very behind…) – I highly recommend it. And I confess to being unsure as to what I’ll pick up next, although it may have to be escapism in the form of Golden Age crime. As usual, watch this space! 😀

Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !


It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

An unexpected and entertaining treat!


A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities by J.C. McKeown

Being a bit of a fusspot about what I read (and bearing in mind that I’ll *never* have enough time in my life to read all the books I want to) I tend to be a little careful about review books, only requesting or reading ones that I think I’ll like. However, occasionally an unexpected volume pops through my door and that happened recently with this lovely new hardback from Oxford University Press. I was a bit flummoxed at first, but when I started exploring the content I found that it was quite a little treasure! “A Cabinet…” is an anthology; compiled by classicist J.C. McKeown, it draws from a wide range of texts from the early days of medicine and presents them in user-friendly chunks organised by categories, ready for the casual and untrained reader to enjoy. The results, as they say, are fascinating!

I should say up front that I’m a poor student of the true Classics, never having got back quite as far as Ancient Greece and Rome in my reading. I know the names, but not the content, so I approached the book as a complete novice. Interestingly, however, many of the texts here have never been translated into English before, so McKeown is charting new territory. He’s previously produced other “Cabinet of…” books, cover Roman and Greek Curiosities generally and on the evidence of the Medical book they should make good reading.

As McKeown points out in his erudite introduction, the science of medicine has changed dramatically since its early days; much of what the ancients took for granted, such as links to religion and magic, are dismissed out of hand nowadays (well – in professional circles, anyway!). Used as we are nowadays to constant medical innovation, back in the classical past medicine was a fairly unchanging art, with those practicing drawing on their forebears rather than innovating. And what we would nowadays call ‘quack remedies’ were treated with all seriousness; some of them sound remarkably grim, one of the milder examples being binding a horse’s teeth around a child’s neck to cure teething pains…

McKeown is upfront about the reasons he’s chosen many of the extracts; he sets out to entertain the modern reader and certainly he did this one! I thought it would be fun to share a few favourite quotes from this eminently dippable book; it’s an ideal gift for any medic or hypochondriac you might know, or anyone who likes to read about the horrors and peculiarities of medicine of the past!


From the section ‘Sex Matters’:

“Sexual intercourse gives relief to a man who has been bitten by a snake or stung by a scorpion, but it harms the woman who is his partner.” Pliny

“Uninhibited fornication cures dysentery.” Hippocrates

From the section ‘Women and Children’:

” If a nursing infant has a fever and you lay him down to sleep surrounded by cucumbers of the same length as the child, he will be cured immediately, since all the heat will be drawn off from him into the cucumbers.” Anonymous Byzantine

“Moistening a child’s skull with a cold sponge and then tying a frog to it belly up is a very effective treatment for heatstroke.” Pliny (what *was* he thinking??)

From the section ‘Preventative Medicine’:

A sick person is beyond all hope of recovery if his doctor urges him to live with no regard for moderation.” Seneca

From the section ‘Treatment and Cures’:

‘Eating boiled viper meat makes the eyesight keener, tones up the nervous system, and checks scrofulous swellings.’ Dioscorides
(I could go on and quote the preparation instructions but as a vegetarian it makes me a bit queasy…)

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