Saturday, 3 March 2012

Shropshire romantics, American humorists and Dutch Zen detective fiction


My friend Linda recently asked me to name my favourite writers. The question took me rather by surprise and I actually found it quite difficult to answer spontaneously so I thought it would be a useful exercise to try to compile a list. Scouring my bookshelves, it's interesting to realise how few of my books I would consider real favourites but some authors keep cropping up so, if frequency of appearance is anything to go by, fellow Shropshire romantic Mary Webb would appear to be a favourite novelist and American humorist William Saroyan a favourite short story writer.

Jerome K Jerome is dotted around the house and his Three Men in a Boat is one of the few books I have read more than once. There are the tatty old copies of classics I was required to read at school or university -- Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Dickens’ Hard Times, DH Lawrence's The Rainbow and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn along with Voltaire's Candide and Rousseau’s Meditations of a Solitary Walker. The fact that I haven’t got rid of any of these indicates I still hold them in some affection. Classics that I wasn’t required to read but remember enjoying included Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (and they remain on my shelves, along with the short stories of Kafka and Chekov).

More modern classics that might fall into the category of cult fiction include Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I went through a craze of collecting Persephone books (publisher of ‘rediscovered’ inter-war novels and twentieth century fiction by neglected mainly women writers). Among these, I recall particularly enjoying Monica Dickens’ Mariana (which has since been adopted as one of my daughter's favourite books) Denis Macrail’s Greenery Street (which has quite a lot in common with the aforementioned Jerome K Jerome) Jocelyn Playfair's House in the Country and highly evocative wartime short story collections by Elizabeth Berridge and Mollie Panter-Downes.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince left a lasting impression on me, as did Patrick Leigh Fermer’s luminous A Time of Gifts. People seem to think my own writing is influenced by Garrison Keillor and he does make a couple of appearances on my bookshelves, as do the books for adults written by Finnish novelist and painter Tove Jansson (best-known as the creator of the Moomins.) I enjoy Simenon's Maigret books but, more obscurely, I'm a great fan of Janwillem van de Wetering, purveyor of Dutch Zen detective fiction.

Some of the more contemporary discoveries I’ve recently savoured include Gil Adamson's Help me, Jacques Cousteau, Leonardo Padura Fuentes’ Adios, Hemingway and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, (though I found his novel When We Were Orphans disappointing.) Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, Alice Munro's Runaway and Owen Shiers’ White Ravens were all a pleasure but the book I enjoyed most in recent years was Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, whose other books I am slowly working through. I'm not sure I can distil this down to a 'Top Ten' but perhaps this goes some way towards answering Linda's question and may also prompt me to revisit some of those books I should reread (and whittle out some of those books I'll never read again.)

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Worcester. An award-winning mental health nurse, he is also a freelance writer and musician, has published numerous articles and is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing'.