Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Weeks Eleven and Twelve - Jude

Coasting by Jonathan Raban (1986)
Recommended by Richard Thackeray

I've read this book slowly over the last fortnight, dipping in and out, like a ship on the waves, like I think you should. (Yes, I'm still behind, but I'm getting better, and I've got a few clearer weeks coming up, all the better to help catching-up.)

There could've been no better book for me this last couple of weeks, or no better experience for me to plunge into than this one. Welcome to a strange, sleepy world with a lovely salty guide - one man, Jonathan Raban, who bought a ramshackle boat, a vehicle he'd never captained before, and took it to sea.

I'd never heard of Jonathan Raban before, and I'm mad that I hadn't, because this book is fantastic. Good old Richard Thackeray recommended it to me, another of life's lovely, salty travellers, and - lucky me - my sort-of brother-in-law (or to give him the full family tree treatment, my husband's sister's husband). Richard is fantastic too. Always on hand with a shockingly placed euphemism or plain old-fashioned rude joke, he is also a thoughtful, clever soul under the salvo of fart gags. A consultant by trade, he's also training to become a ranger, and likes nothing better than yomping up the great Yorkshire hills with the lovely Hannah. He also loves music and books, and has a big old curious brain. He picked this one out for me on mine and Dan's recent trip up North, about a bloke travelling around the whole blustery, briny coast of the UK. Thanks, Thackers. It's the book I've loved most this year.

Jonathan Raban is that rare kind of writer: someone who can do funny as well as he can do melancholy. When Coasting begins, you expect the latter tone to prevail. Here's an opening segment about his late father, a man who came to represent the idea of 'old England' to his son, suggesting we're in the company of a solitary soul bob-bob-bobbing along. There's a particularly incredible passage about the moment Raban realises, as an adult, how young his father had actually been when he was a boy, which I'm going to quote in full, as I dream of writing stuff as good as this:

"At thirteen, I was easily fooled by clothes, and this aged cassock made my father himself seem like a very old man to me, a tall and shaggy Abraham whose presence in a room was enough to make any child shiver a little in awe at a famous patriarch. He was thirty-six. Sitting now in another dusty room, its air thickened with pipe smoke of the same brand, I find myself staring back puzzledly at a man much younger than myself - a man with a pained boy's face, his own hurt showing, as if it was himself and not his son who was being dressed-down by schoolmasters.  His hair is black and thick, his skin unlined. His preposterously old clothes only serve to underline his youth as he returns my gaze - astonished to find himself the father to this bulky balding fellow in his forties."

Raban's lovely, dry humour is hinted at as this paragraph comes to a close, but it really flourishes soonafter. Raban talks of his desire to coast as an adult, of it being "only a matter of time before the metaphor insisted on making itself actual".  He gives us hilarious outlines of the other mad sods who had done the same: the "crashingly hearty" John MacGregor, the "mortally bruised" Empson Edward Middleton, the Mussolini-loving "rambling" Hilaire Belloc, and the "testy" R.T.  McMullen, who died of a heart attack as he was at the ship's wheel, "his limbs locked in rigor mortis, [still] keeping a firm grip on the tiller".

And then we're off, joining a "moon-faced gang" of divorcees and lost men on various English quaysides, before finding Raban's new home: the abandoned Gosfield Maid at Fowey. (Raban renames it in an anagrammatic fashion: Die, Dismal Fog.) The journey that follows is not chronological, but scattershot, and oh, the writing's wonderful. We find the Irish Sea like "an upturned pudding basin". We navigate the difficult waters off Portland Bill, "a pendulous dew-drop hanging from Dorset's nose". We skim the gentle waters of Lyme Bay "as sedately as a tram", we encounter the shallows of the Thames "glossy with oil".

We also wonder what happened to the South Stack, which appeared, like people do sometimes, without trace. "First you are steaming along under a blue sky, and then you are sunk. For a few minutes you leave a trail of bursting bubbles - then nothing. Not even bubbles." A few lines to jolt the senses, there.

Sometimes we have to head for land. We get marooned for a bit on the Isle Of Man among accents that Raban writes out in musical notation, and are entertained by tax-dodging businessmen in casinos that use pre-decimal currency. We gatecrash Scottish country house parties. We even meet men who navigate the seas on maps that are crumbling to dust.

But the quality that makes this book really majestic is its anger. It is set in 1982, during the Falklands War. The other role the sea takes - in the romantic, dramatic narrative of conflict - is the unnegotiable current that tugs this book along. Raban sees the new armada leave for South America on his boat's rigged-up TV, and acknowledges the yank of patriotism that he feels, which is firmly against his nature. He mention letters written by Welsh Guards on their way across the Atlantic, and picks apart how antiquated their tone is, how very "new Elizabethan". He also notes how The Sun newspaper is "squealing with infantile excitement" as his boat makes a journey so many men, over so many centuries, have made before.

More than anything, Raban shows us how his feelings of wanting to coast, to escape, have always been there, just like others' desire to conquer distant lands, and prove one's might and mettle, have too. I'm with his side of things. His journey seems all the more human to this particular soul in watery London, bob-bob-bobbing along. And I know this a book I'll return to again and again, like the sailors, with the tides, and with the bubbles.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Week Twelve - Jeanette

Open City by Teju Cole (2011)
Recommended by Oliver

A Tale Of Two Readers reaches its first crossover point…

You may remember in Week Two, when I was cogitating on the Armenian genocide with Black Dog Of Fate, Jude was both amused and touched by Danny Baker’s autobiography, Going To Sea In A Sieve. It’s now my turn for a gift from the Oliver library.

Interestingly enough, most mutual friends of Jude and I have chosen different books for each of us. And the one Oliver picked for me is a book without a narrative arc, told by a grown-up only child, a loner without much family who feels cut off from his roots, and who likes to wander around city streets tossing around the contents of his head.

More, far more, on this in a moment. But first: Oliver.

For a good few years, during London life in my early twenties, I liked Oliver – how could one not like such a warm and funny man? – but really, I knew him only superficially. He was the first one to career onto a dancefloor. He was the last one left awake at a party. He was the music fan with every one of the good (and plenty of the shit) pop CD singles of the 1990s. He was the one who made up silly affectionate names for his friends. He was from Sheffield, and thus my first taste of a city that I came to settle(ish) in. 

In short, if there seemed an opposite to Open City’s protagonist, Oliver was it.

As we all started to grow a little older, entertainments became calmer, and it was then when I really felt Oliver and I became better friends. At that point, he was going out with my best friend and flatmate Kathryn, so there was watching CD:UK over Saturday morning breakfast as well as drinking the night away. Of course he was still a natural extrovert, and remains one of the most sociable people I’ve ever met, but it was so nice to grow into the nuances of his personality (which had previously, and perhaps inevitably, been blunted in noisy North London pubs).

One of those nuances is his love for, and knowledge of, modern fiction. Whilst I snuggle into the known-quality of past writing, Oliver is a voracious consumer of the new: so it was not a surprise, but still a delight, to get a book of such recent vintage from Oliver.

Unimaginable how many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.

Julius is a doctor-researcher, specialising in older people’s mental health. Born in Nigeria to a German mother and Nigerian father, he left the country in his late teens to study in New York. Fifteen or so years later he’s still in the city. He spends most of his time (when not working) indulging his cultural and intellectual interests, and unpicking his own opinions, observations and history.

That’s how little, and how much, Open City is about.

A typical passage from early on reads:

In that sonic fugue, I recalled St. Augustine, and his astonishment at St. Ambrose, who was reputed to have found a way to read without sounding out the words. It does seem an odd thing – it strikes me now as it did then – that we can comprehend words without voicing them. For Augustine, the weight and inner life of sentences were best experienced out loud, but much has changed in our idea of reading since then. We have for too long been taught that the sight of a man speaking to himself is a sign of eccentricity or madness.

Extracts such as these reminded me of a work that impressed me greatly last year – À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, a French book written in 1884. In that, the ‘plot’ consists of the narrator surrounding himself with intellectual stimuli and then chatting about it. Open City isn’t quite as balls-out solipsist as À Rebours, but the idea of retreat into one’s head, combing over its landscape and often in reaction to what art, literature and music tells us of life, is similar. Also, Cole’s writing is really very, very good, and almost up to Huysmans’s astonishing standard.

But what Open City has – and what À Rebours largely does not – is human contact. Julius analyses the microscopic encounters of a day.

At a light on 124th were two men in their twenties, fragments of whose conversation floated around me as we crossed the street. He come up, word? said one. He come up yo, said the other, I thought you knew that nigga. Shit, said the first, I don’t know that motherfucker. They acknowledged me, and I them, then they turned right and went down the street, toward the south.

Open City is the most layered book to deal with ethnicity that I’ve ever read. Julius considers his position as a mixed-race, non-American man in a multi-ethnic city. For instance, when he attends a classical music concert, he notes that the overwhelmingly white audience seems unsurprised and even pleased that he’s there, but is nevertheless relieved that he’s a rarity. His encounters with African-American people are often difficult. Julius is particularly uncomfortable when he meets a post office worker, who moonlights as a radical poet.

Brother Julius, he said, with great feeling, you’re a visionary, keep hope alive. I think we should see some poetry together. I can see that you instinctively get it. We must be a light for this generation. This generation is in darkness, you feel me?
I made a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.

Julius is not perfect, by any means; he’s a snob and show-off, and his attitudes to women and relationships leave much to be desired (and may even be very dark indeed).

      What does it mean when, in someone else’s version, I am the villain?

Despite the differences in gender, race, and geography between Julius and I, I have not felt as if a character so mirrored me, and my own mental situation and coping methods, for a long time. I responded to his only-child haughty autonomy keenly. But, even more so, I related to Julius’s relationship with Nigeria. He says he left for America ‘to begin life in the new country, fully on my own terms’. Yet, even though he never admits it explicitly, he often seems unmoored: there is a hole within him.

I wrote briefly during Week Eight (inspired by Italo Calvino) of my relationship with the city I live in, Sheffield, and the emotional dramas its streets had staged. Open City had me thinking of Norwich, my birthplace and home until I was eighteen. I have no parents and no siblings and so I rarely visit. Still, Norwich’s absence is a presence. It is like a bubble inside of me. That bubble gets bigger, taking over my whole heart, until it’s unbearable, and I pop it. There’s nothing, nothing there, and I ache for this nothing, before I shrug, and get right back on with my Julius-esque inner monologue.

Meanwhile, the bubble renews itself, hiding in a ventricle, expanding silently once more.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Week Eleven - Jeanette

The Lady In The Lake by Raymond Chandler (1943)
Recommended by Helen

My last book of 2012 – and the final one before this project dictated my reading – was A Bright And Guilty Place by Richard Raynor. This told the true story of various characters in Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a city fatted with corruption, where high emotion and personal recklessness met icy determination and ruthless dollar-chasing. It was absolutely brilliant.

A Bright And Guilty Place was an excellent omen for A Tale Of Two Readers. It was recommended to me – well, enthusiastically pressed onto me – by a friend, Aaron, over a quiet drink in a Soho blues bar (itself rather a bright, and perhaps guilty, place). As I read it, I thought: if this is the kind of book that’s clogging up my closest peeps’ shelves, then A Tale Of Two Readers is utterly the right thing to do.

Raymond Chandler observed the world of A Bright And Guilty Place incredibly well.

‘I thought they cleaned this town up,’ I said. ‘I thought they had it so that a decent man could walk the streets at night without wearing a bulletproof vest.’
‘They cleaned it up some,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t want it too clean. They might scare away a dirty dollar.’

Raymond Chandler is that uber-rare writer: someone who has near-universal appeal. His books captivate across a broad spectrum of literary tastes. There really is something for everyone. His storylines are intricate yet logical; his characters archetypal, but not clichéd; and his descriptions things of snowflake beauty. Reading A Bright And Guilty Place also helped me understand the deeper intent of Chandler. There was a web of sleaze strangling LA. Shady motives are not limited to individual antagonists. They are a collective problem, an almost inevitable product of their environment.

In The Lady In The Lake, Phillip Marlowe dots between his native LA, a sleepy resort called Little Fawn Lake, and the neighbouring small town Bay City. He’s been hired to track down the AWOL Crystal Kingsley, primarily to prevent her rash ways from bringing scandal to her estranged husband, Derace. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a simple job for Marlowe. It uncovers extortion, dysfunctional relationships, drug abuse, police brutality and, of course, murder.

If murderers didn’t think they could get away with their murders, very few would be committed.

The grace and economy of this book is stunning. Chandler tells you so much about someone simply by the way he or she lights a cigarette. This approach means the reader picks up the essentials of character quickly (sometimes misinterpreting, with devastating effect later in the book), and is free to concentrate on the plot. And it is a mentally demanding storyline – far more so than the other Chandler I’ve read, Farewell, My Lovely.

Chandler’s style also allows for some tartly funny moments.

      ‘You’re to wear Derry’s scarf. […] It’s distinctive enough.’
It was all of that. It was an affair of fat great kidneys laid down on an egg-yolk background. It would be almost as distinctive as if I went in there wheeling a red, white and blue wheelbarrow.

I did go through a phase of detective novels, perhaps six or seven years ago. However, I tended to privilege the early English detectives over the hardboiled American dicks. I missed out. The Lady In The Lake tells me of how many satisfying reads – Chandler wrote seven Marlowe books – I have awaiting me.

A movie was made in 1947. Unusually for the time, The Lady In The Lake was shot from the point of view of Philip Marlowe. (Note: there are spoilers in this clip, but unless you have a very good memory or plan to read The Lady In The Lake next week, they’ll probably wash over you).

I might give that one a miss. The first ten minutes of Hallowe’en will do for me, thanks very much.

And I’ve written all this without yet mentioning the woman who recommended it to me. She’s married to Alex (who is coming up later), and Alex has been a good friend for more than ten years. Alex and Helen got together after I left London, and I infrequently see Helen. Thus, she could have just been one of those people, a friend’s partner, who meant little more than a hug and a ‘how are you?’. But, no.

My 2011 was gruelling.  Although my spine was straightening as 2012 reached springtime, I was still dealing with fallout. It was at this point, at a wedding reception, that someone came up behind me, put her hands over my eyes, and said ‘guess who?’ in a melodic voice. I knew who it was, and I was so pleased to know that such a sunny person was close, that it was all I could do to keep a little splash of a tear from wetting her palms.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Weeks Eight to Ten - Jude

The City & The City by China Mieville (2009)
Recommended by Dan Cuthill

Reading is an escape, an adventure, a pleasure, an opportunity to run away from the world and lose yourself in another. But sometimes, you just can't. Sometimes your brain just doesn't work. Sometimes it is everywhere else but on the page, and for good reasons. The last three weeks have been like that for me. The words have been there on the page – I can see them, all inked and set, and I can read them – but the words go in at my eyes, swirl around my brain, and dribble out of my ears.  Things are getting better now, but it's taken time.

This is a book recommended to me by one of my oldest, dearest friends. Dan Cuthill, Danny, Welsh Dan, the daft lad from Penllergaer who apprehended me one lunchtime in the Gorseinon College canteen in his holey jumper, and started talking about PJ Harvey, and said he'd make me a tape. Who *was* this odd boy? He made me a tape. He made me many tapes, most of them copies of albums he'd bought – Tori Amos, Throwing Muses, Nine Inch Nails, such cheer – then recorded over dodgy cassettes from the United Arab Emirates, which had a tell-tale piece of sellotape over the gap at the top. Now there's a detail that will mean nothing to teenagers these days. I don't know why, but it really wish it would. These little details, this little pieces of day-to-day life, somehow seem to hold so many tiny bits of meaning.

Dan and I have so many stories together that we should write our own bloody book. Our teenage years have enough. Nights out in Barons and The Zone in Swansea (details: coats piled on floors, getting sore ankles jumping to Cannonball, snogging boys (me), girls (him), being sick in the toilets (both of us)). Nights after the nights out at Dan's house in Top Hat Road (details: Gary Crowley on TV, the Whitney Houston poster with the bifter, Tiger sitting on my head, me sitting on the kitchen floor crying into a pizza, and Big Jude, Dan's mam, laughing at us all). My favourite memories are of a night driving down the Kingsway in Swansea in Dan's car – she was called Polly – playing The Dancer from To Bring You My Love at full-blast at a crowd of kids trying to get into Ritzy's (what knobs we were). Then there's that night in Fallowfield, when Dan was at university in Manchester, first drinking Lambrini on the swings, and later swopping tops (I wore his 70s shirt, he wore my Orbital t-shirt and pulled in it). Then there's the sadder stuff. Big Jude dying and the wake in The Old Inn. Always helping each other through difficult times. Dropping everything, texting, going round each other's houses with a packet of biscuits, and a book to read. Those little details again.

I've read Between The City and The City, but I haven't really taken it in. It's about a strange township divided into two places, Besz and Ul Qoma, both of which have different languages, customs, and rules, but – as we slowly find out – they share the same land. When you're in one, you have to unsee the other. Sometimes though, the two cities join at cross-hatches, although you still have to unsee anything and anyone belonging to the other place. And if you cross the divide between the two places, you face Breach, a thing, a force, that no one understands. The only thing people really know is that it has power to do anything it likes, which it wields.

As this book gets going, the two-city landscape in which its narrative it set is described simply and matter of factly. The idea is that we, the readers, understand this world in obvious terms. Of course, we don't. Mieville is trying to show us how readily we accept the absurd, as well as the cultural divisions in our minds and in the world. Besz and Ul Qoma also make us think, of course, about West and East Berlin, about Israel and Palestine, while Breach makes us think about George Orwell's 1984. Thie book's a compelling world to be in, but also incredibly unsettling. I didn't know where I was, but that sort of made sense. The characters in the book had convinced themselves that they knew where they were, as I was trying to, as I read. I didn't quite get there, but the mood, and the moments within it, spoke to me. I got there.

After this book, I'm going Coasting, travelling around the shoreline with Jonathan Raban, coming out of the mists. Then I'll slowly try to catch up with Jeanette. I'm determined to, even if it will take me more drawn-out bits of time, or shorter books. I want to. The thing this project's taught me so far, above everything, is about how nice it is to be able to escape, to have a different kind of adventure, and take your friends with you at the same time. The best ones have always been there for me, after all. You know you have, Danny. So let's go.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Week Ten - Jeanette

The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Recommended by Lucy

‘That’s my favourite book’, said a barkeep to me in a Dalston pub.

‘It was recommended to me by a friend,’ I said.

‘Your friend has good taste.’

There’s no denying that my friend does have good taste. I was told I’d love Lucy before I even met her. And so I did: ridiculously knowledgeable about music and, moreover, deeply, joyfully, inspiringly enthusiastic about it. She runs her own music PR, and I can’t imagine a better person to shout an artist's praises.

But… erm… I didn’t share the Dalston barkeep’s opinion of The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay. I’m sorry, Lucy. Let me explain.

There’s a particular school of modern American writing that seriously doesn’t appeal to me. These are very well written books, usually with a man in his thirties or forties at the centre, and they’re about some kind of crisis in male identity, or a crisis in modern life, or a crisis in father-son relations, or a crisis in baseball. I generally stop reading them a third of the way in.

I dislike them mainly because they, and their authors, come across as pompous. No better example of this was when Jonathan Franzen had a pop at Oprah Winfrey for including The Corrections in her Book Club, as if she and her viewers (mainly women) were somehow not capable of understanding its highbrow literary merit. Fuck off, Franzen.

These books are in love with their own panache. You can smell it in the numerous metaphors and similes they over-employ. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay has all of these on the same page (p530):

      Grey light was smeared across the sky like ointment on a bandage.
The slow, dull, dark, submarine of the lives in which they were the human cargo had abruptly surfaced.

      Their blood was filled with a kind of crippling nitrogen of wonder.

Atop the concrete parapet of the eighty-sixth floor, like a bright jagged hole punched in the clouds, balanced a smiling man.

‘Hello,’ says Chabon, ‘don’t forget that you’re reading a very good book here!’

In some ways, it was a shame that I couldn’t get over my irritation at Chabon’s style, because I really like parts of the story, and some of the book’s themes. The action kicks off in the 1930s when Joe (or Josef, as he is at the beginning) flees Nazi-annexed Czechoslovakia for America, staying with Sam (his cousin) in Brooklyn. Joe and Sam, both in their late teens, strike up a deep friendship and creative partnership: Kavalier & Clay. Together they invent The Escapist, a phenomenally popular comic book superhero.

The second quarter of the book, when Joe and Sam become successful, was the best for me. I particularly enjoyed the debates over whether comic books, still a very young medium, could be considered art. There’s a wonderful chapter where Sam and Joe go to see Citizen Kane. Dazzled by the cinematic and narrative inventiveness of the movie, the pair vow that their work will ‘break free, forever, of the nine little boxes.’ Kavalier and Clay go on to chop up storyline, focus on ordinary people rather than superheroes, dislocate panels, play with perspective: they transform not only their own comics, but also the genre itself.

Another intriguing component, but less well developed by Chabon, is Joe’s ambivalence towards his new American home. Joe expresses his European Jewish identity in his comics. The Escapist’s primary foes are thinly disguised Nazis, something that occasionally gets Joe into trouble with his editor; but increasingly Joe himself worries about the way he characterizes the American superhero as ‘good’. In one passage, he questions whether the American might will eventually lead to that nation itself becoming a too-powerful oppressive force, springing up in the cut-off head of the Nazis. It would have been interesting to hear Joe’s thoughts on the iron curtain separating post-war Europe, and the American influence over the West, but we never do.

Another big problem I had with The Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay was its female characters, principally Rosa. Although she’s in this book a lot, she doesn’t do much more than act as a muse to Joe and a mother to her son. She cleans and cooks and wants to settle down. She’s an illustrator, yes, but in contrast to the way Chabon constantly stresses Joe’s genius, he has Rosa stuck at competent level (and more interested in baking cakes). While Chabon might argue that this represents woman’s status in the America of the 1940s and 1950s, I found much of it was unthinking prejudice on the part of the author, who simply doesn’t believe women are as interesting as men. Rosa is in telling contrast to the way in which Sam’s (male) lover is portrayed: he is full of passion, complexity and autonomy, even though he’s in the book for probably about a third of the time that Rosa is.

The Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer Prize and near-universal acclaim. I’m not saying I know better than they (or Lucy, or the barkeep in Dalston). Although I didn’t like it, I did read it through to the end as I promised I would for every Two Readers book. In doing that, I’ve found something valuable: I've articulated to myself, for the first time, what I find so difficult to enjoy in this type of American fiction.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Week Nine - Jeanette

The Panic Hand by Jonathan Carroll (1996)
Recommended by Ellen

I was on the phone to my esteemed co-blogger.

‘Yeah, I can talk, that’s fine, Jude. I’m at home. I’ve just had a tea of chips and vanilla vodka.’

After our chat, I picked up The Panic Hand and immediately read the following line:

Some people change as they grow older, while others only become more of who they were at fifteen.

I have read a Jonathan Carroll book before – actually, I’ve read it three times. I was given The Land Of Laughs, Carroll’s 1980 debut novel, in my early 20s; it was a present from a man I didn’t know very well. I was grateful, because it was a nice gesture, but I was rather perplexed. My confusion was not as to why he’d given me a book (I hoped it was because he liked me as a person, but also suspected there might have been a more, erm, ‘earthy’ motive); but rather why he’d given me this book.

As you can see, it is part of a series called ‘Fantasy Masterworks’. Orcs and elves and forests and sun gods and women in Red Sonja costumes. Not for me! I liked Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Angela Davis.

I slung The Land Of Laughs on my bookshelf and I didn’t read it.

A year passed. One day, I got sick. A week later, the lurgy still hadn’t gone anywhere. Confined to bed, wastepaper bin emptied out for a sick bucket next to me, I needed something to distract me from self-pity. Dostoyevsky and Davis weren’t about to do that. So I picked up The Land Of Laughs.

It wasn’t ‘fantasy’ in the way I had pigeonholed the genre, at all. It was easy to forget it was anything other than well-written realistic contemporary fiction until the last third. Then – holy, holy! – it slides into something completely incredible, yet at the same time, utterly logical. It’s about how we escape from the world into books. I escaped from my illness into The Land Of Laughs, and the other two times I’ve read it have also been when my body wanted to hide for a while.

The Panic Hand, a collection of Carroll’s short stories, was the trickiest of my Two Readers books to track down so far: out of print, not in the library, not in any secondhand shops. Less than twenty years old, and the recipient of great reviews, it seems to have sold little and faded quickly.

Which brings me nicely to a conversation I remember having with Ellen. A brilliant singer-songwriter, and former part of the psychedelic folk band Saint Joan, Ellen and I had met through a mutual friend at 2008’s Green Man Festival. I was immediately taken with her: charming, literary, funny. We both loved many of the female artists who had spent years in obscurity before being (re)discovered: Bonnie Dobson, Linda Perhacs, Vashti Bunyan, Susan Christie… ‘They were so good,’ Ellen said. ‘Why didn’t people pay attention at the time?’

Ellen’s own album, 2009’s The Crescent Sun, was poetic and nuanced and superb, but also served to answer her question: why people don’t pay attention at the time. Put out by a label that almost immediately went under, the album got snagged in the record industry’s cogs. The Crescent Sun wasn’t widely reviewed, and was difficult to find even in the early days of its release.

As for The Panic Hand, it too seems to have been badly served by its industry. That terribly misjudged cover must have had something to do with its failure. Just as I was put off The Land Of Laughs because of its association with stereotypically nerdish fantasy, The Panic Hand screams trashy-horror-bought-at-a-petrol-station. That embossed font! That blue demon claw! That small (i.e. not ‘literary’) paperback size! Toss it back in the bargain bin.

The panic hand is not a blue demon claw. It is a computer game played by Heidi, a twelve-year-old girl with a stutter. Heidi also conjures up a beautiful mother, Francesca, because she wants to see men falling in love and having sex with Francesca. These men always do, that is apart from our narrator: he’s far more interested in Heidi (in her personality, and in her vagina).

And that’s Carroll in a nutshell. We don’t get caught up in how Heidi created Francesca, she just did, because magic is everywhere, and the reader must accept this. In fact, it might have even been the narrator who invented both Heidi and Francesca. At the end of the story, we’re left wondering about the narrator’s intentions towards the daughter of his real-life girlfriend. Many of Carroll’s narrators are, to put it mildly, flawed.

It’s hard to précis these stories, because they usually only sound worth reading once you’ve given away the ending. The same with quoting chunks of prose: his writing is good, yet it’s the plot and its twists he excels at rather than any stand-alone lyricism.

A bizarre obsession of Carroll’s – it’s there in The Land Of Laughs, too – is of how animals watch us, judge us, relate to us. He imbues his animals, usually pets, with as much character as his humans. There’s also a powerful quasi-religious element to The Panic Hand stories. Just as Carroll accepts the personality of animals and the existence of the supernatural, he deals in hell, God, and angels throughout the book. The divine might not be conceptualised in the usual way, but its essence is consistent. It adds a magical realist morality to these tales.

I didn’t think this was as fabulous as The Land Of Laughs, but I think that’s because it frustrated me to get into one of Carroll's intriguing concepts, only to have it end five pages later. I like Carroll when he explores his ideas, revealing them slowly, rather than just exposing their raw meat. It felt as if many of these stories should have had more time invested in them.

            Nevertheless, even if those ideas aren't fully developed, they're original, and have a lot in 
            common with children's literature in both their whimsy and their scale.

For years, this small house had hosted family after family of losers, creeps, cheque-bouncers and wife-slappers who hadn’t paid their bills, loved their children, cared for anything other than their own thin skin. Then one day a family moved in and suddenly everything was different. These people loved each other, their lives, the house. […] The house gave back whatever it could to show its appreciation. It kept its windows from breaking in a storm, when the roof leaked into the parents’ bedroom, the house kept the leak from falling on the bed and ruining the patchwork quilt.

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So if your guttering keeps breaking, look to your humanity as well as your drainpipes. The Panic Hand: where the world is alternately sinister and hopeful.