Tag Archives: Hans Christian Andersen

Other People’s Bookshelves #66 – A.M. Bakalar

Hello and welcome to the latest Other People’s Bookshelves, a series of posts set to feed into the natural filthy book lust we all feel and give you a fix through other people’s books and shelves. This week we are in London, I will be staying in The Shard again I am sure, to meet author A.M. Bakalar, or Asia, and to have a nosey around her bookshelves. Before we do though do grab some Paczki, Sernik or maybe some Piernik (they are all delicious) and a drink and let’s get to know Asia and her shelves…

A.M. Bakalar is the author of Madame Mephisto, published by Stork Press in 2012. Madame Mephisto was among readers’ nominations to the 2012 Guardian First Book Award. She is the first Polish woman to publish a novel in English since Poland joined EU in 2004. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian and The International New York Times. She was the editor of Litro Magazine Polish Issue and recently her essay ‘The Future of Paper Books’ has been published in Wasafiri Birthday Edition. Asia was born and raised in Wroclaw, Poland. She lived in Germany, France, Sicily and Canada before she moved to the UK in 2003. She lives in London, with her partner, a drum and bass musician.


Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?

Everything I read I keep on my bookshelves or any other space I can find for them. But a few months ago I was told there were cracks in the walls which hold some of my shelves, and the living room was becoming a danger zone, in case the books start falling down. Which, frankly, has happened a few times when I tried to place one more book on top of the other so with a heavy heart I began to stack the books I can live without on the floor until I give them away. Now, I try to keep only the books I really really love, and if I read something I’m not super excited about, I add it to the pile of give aways. This is incredibly hard for me because if I could I would make my house one big library but my partner is not too thrilled by the idea. He has a big collection of drum and base vinyl records but his takes less space. There’s a lot of negotiation going on when new books arrive as I try to find place for them.

I keep books in my home in London and I also have boxes of hundreds of books in Wroclaw, Poland, my mum is taking care of them. One day I’d like to ship them to London, when we have a bigger house. I used to have a flat back in Poland and I had to pack all the books in boxes and store in the basement. One day my mum called me there was fire in the basement. I almost had a heart attack thinking all my books are gone. Then my mum said: ‘Guess what, everything burnt except the books.’ Call that luck or some intervention of a Book God, if one exists.

Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?

I have to organise otherwise I wouldn’t be able to find anything but it still takes me a while to find what I want. In the kitchen I only keep books by African authors and theory of literature; postcolonialism, comparative literature and world feminism. I was doing PhD in Nigerian and Zimbabwean women’s fiction before I decided to write fiction. A lot of books in that section reflect that period, and any new fiction out of Africa goes there. This is a place where I write as well so there’s a big section of research books depending what I’m working on. And, there’re a few shelves with books that are waiting to be read. I pile them in the kitchen until they are read and moved around. And some cook books as well. In the bedroom I only keep science fiction and books by my bedside.


The living room is devoted to fiction in translation, British fiction, books from Poland, non-fiction, poetry and drama, graphic novels and books by Middle Eastern authors. In the bathroom I keep a few titles as well, for a quick read when taking a bath. Once I finish reading something I pile it onto a small table until there’s no space and then I distribute them to various sections around the flat and I stack them alphabetically. A few years ago I had a personal book stamp and used to add a date and place where I got a book but there’re so many of them I can’t be bothered anymore. I have a Kindle but can’t stand reading eBooks which my partner finds incredibly disappointing because he thinks one day we will both be buried under the books and it will be all my fault.

What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?

Honestly, I don’t remember the first book I bought. I remember the first money I ever made was weeding out the garden of my grandmother’s neighbour and I spent it on books but I have no idea what I bought then.

Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?

I have some books which disappointed me but I still keep them, until I give them away of course. One man’s thrash is another man’s treasure. Reading is so much fun I don’t really care whether people feel embarrassed when they look at my books. One of my friends told me she only reads very violent crime fiction and her mother suggested perhaps she should not invite men for tea to see her book collection as they will be scared of her. But she loves her books so they are stay where they are. I had people feel uneasy about some of the books I have, e.g. Dying for the Truth. Undercover inside the Mexican Drug War by the Fugitive Reporters of Blog Del Narco, but there’s a yellow tape around it with a warning so they think twice before opening it.

Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?

There’s a book my mum read to me when I was a child, a collection of all Hans Christian Andersen’s stories published in 1969 in Poland. It has my drawings in it when I was small and some over thirty year old dried flowers between pages. For a long time my mum refused to give to me but I managed to convince her. Apart from emotional value it is simply a beautiful book, bound in orange cloth with incredibly delicate pages, and front and back pages of dark indigo sky with stars.


What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?

Both of my parents love reading and my dad has a wonderful collection of science fiction books, while my mum reads everything else. I was always encouraged to read pretty much everything.  But there was a book they kept hidden behind their collection: John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. It was a true undercover operation I had to resort to in order to lay my hands on this book. I would wait until they were both gone to work or ran some errands. I would sneak into the room to read a few pages at a time until I heard a key turn in the lock and frantically place the book the way it was on the shelf so they wouldn’t notice. I would always pretend I was just looking at something to read, with my cheeks burning and praying they would leave again so I could finish it! I think I read this book a few times like that, even memorised some fragments, but sadly I don’t remember any of it now.

If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?

I try not to borrow books from friends as I never give them back. I usually write down the title and the author and buy it. Every year I buy a small notebook where I write down titles of books I want to read. Once I buy it I cross it down so I know I got it. I still go back to some of the notebooks from few years back and slowly go through them. I read over 100 books a year and buy around 150. And my parents buy me books as well, especially books translated into Polish which are not available in English, and some Polish books as well. I’m beginning to think I have OCD when it comes to buying books.


What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?

1988 edition of Ernesto Sábato’s On Heroes and Tombs, which is waiting to be read. A massive over 800 pages long Mrs M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal  I love reading on herbs and plants and their history. Davi Kopenawa’s The Falling Sky  on Yanomami culture and cosmology. I’m finishing Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice  which I really enjoy reading. And there’re some science fiction books as well: Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Peter Watt’s Echopraxia and Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. I also got really cool collection of drawings by a Lebanese author Mazen Kerbaj, Beyrouth. Julliet-Août 2006, in French, English and Arabic. During the Israeli attack in 2006 Kerbaj posted a kind of cartoon diary on his blog and it was published in a book form.

Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?

Complete translation in ten volumes of The Mahabharata. I have the first three volumes translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen, the great Indologist who began the translation at the University of Chicago. When I studied English Literature back in Poland we had an amazing Sanskrit scholar, professor Joanna Sachse, and once every week we had lectures on Indian literature. For an hour professor Sachse was telling us the story of The Mahabharata. I was mesmerised. It really made the huge impact on how I perceive books. (Talking about the power of storytelling!) And since then I’ve always wanted the read the whole thing. The problem with The Mahabharata is that it’s the longest epic poem ever written, almost two million words! So it’s physically impossible for one translator to finish the work because a lifetime is not enough. I’ve been buying each volume every few years. I hope I can still read the ten volumes before I die.

What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?

I was told I’m slightly mad because of the amounts of books in my place and I guess I am. I’m just totally obsessed with reading but I love it anyway.



A huge thanks to Asia for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, you can find out more about her at her website here! If you would like to catch up with the other posts in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves have a gander here. Don’t forget if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint as without you volunteering it doesn’t happen) in the series then drop me an email to savidgereads@gmail.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of A’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?


Filed under Other People's Bookshelves

In The Dutch Mountains – Cees Nooteboom

Before I go any further I think that Cees Nooteboom may have the best name for an author ever. There, now that’s out of the way we may move on as usual, well possibly after saying Cees Nooteboom again a few more time to ourselves, see it is an amazing name. In the latest post during my week ‘going Dutch’ with you all (friends will note I may have been going Dutch on the blog but alas not in the real world, sorry) we take a look at an author who is often described as ‘one of the best living Dutch authors, Cees Nooteboom, and his recently reissued novella aptly named ‘In The Dutch Mountains’.

Maclehose Press, 1984 (2013 edition), paperback, translated by Adrienne Dixon, 159 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I should state that any book which starts with ‘Once upon a time there was…’ is going to most likely become a firm favourite with me, fairytales are not something that I have grown out of though I will admit I do now prefer the full ‘uncut’ originals to the Disney versions. So the signs were good from the very start of ‘In The Dutch Mountains’ and got even better when I discovered that not only was this going to be a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Snow Queen’ it is also a book that looks at what makes a fairytale and the nature of writing one.

In the heat of the summer a road inspector sits in an empty classroom and writes. Inspired by one of the years he spent inspecting the roads from the North to the South of the Netherlands he is inspired to retell the tale of ‘The Snow Queen’ only set in a more current climate and one that shows the harsh differences of the same country in its northern and southern divides. He tells the tale of two circus children, perfect beyond compare, who become lovers and marry until the interest in circuses wanes and who must seek stardom in some other way. Reality TV could be the answer but it is short lives and so they must descend to the darker side of the country and indeed the land of the woman many call the Snow Queen.

As Alfonso, our narrator and also third person in many ways, writes on he simply cannot stop himself from interweaving himself and his thoughts, as a road inspector who also writes, about the world of books, writing and literature into the narrative thread himself. Thus creating a really interesting mixture tale and tale telling and also a sense of oral storytelling yet via print on the page, it is very cleverly delivered so that, as could easily be the case, it never gets on your nerves or really interrupts the flow of the actual story, on the whole.

As we have been formed by the conventions of European literary culture, there is little scope for an individual writer to exercise his imagination; the terminology has been fixed ever since writing began. Lucia’s hair was, of course, golden. (Like honyseime, the fat of the honey, as someone in the South was to say later.) She had clear blue eyes like a summer sky, her lips were red as cherries, her teeth as white as milk. Anyone who tries to think of other words is mad.

As the book went on I found myself thoroughly enjoying Alfonso (well Nooteboom) and his modern twist on the famous fairytale and also hoping that every page or two he would pop in with a few comments. Towards the end I have to admit there were a couple of occasions that this didn’t work quite as well. At one point when he went on about God and religion for a little too long and I frowned and that really jarred with me. In another Alfonso ends up having a conversation with Plato, Christian Anderson which threw me completely though in the context, and in hindsight, I rather liked.

What is so marvellous about this book is it a case of ‘meta-fiction’ where a story is told, the story behind the story and the telling of it is told and a conversation between the author, or in this cases authors, and reader all plays out in one go simultaneously. It is the first time that this very cunning trick has worked so effectively on me and actually made me want more. The discussion about fairytales, their history, their rules and them vs. myths was so fascinating and so brilliantly done I was hoping Nooteboom, no Alfonso sorry, would decide at the end to retell another so we could natter about it further… in my head, which makes this all sound very weird but is what happens.

‘In The Dutch Mountains’ not only reminded me of why I love a fairy tale but also why I love them…

As soon as you have said “once upon a time”, you have created an extratemporal and extraterritorial reality in which anything is possible. A free-for-all. The characters travel by wild goose or reindeer.

I think it is that sense of endless possibility and escapism that sums up not only what I love about fairytales but what I love about reading. No, I know you might not find characters travelling by reindeer or wild goose in a book by every book you pick up, yet the excitement of experience something ‘other’ is always there when you open the first page. It is rare a book makes you talk to the author, metaphorically and in a one way conversion, about this yet somehow as if by magic that is what Nooteboom does when you go on a journey with him and Alfonso ‘In The Dutch Mountains’.

Have a gander at Stu of Winstons Dad Blog for more thoughts on the book. Who else has read this and what did you make of it? Are you a Nooteboom (I can’t get enough of that surname) and if so which other of his novels would you recommend? What are your thoughts about meta-fiction and those narrators who interject and discuss things with the reader, does it work for you or simply put you off?


Filed under Cees Nooteboom, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review

Why Do We Love A Good Fairytale?

As the air has taken a rather autumnal feel here in the Wirral and after reading the quirky ‘Topsy Turvy Tales’, I have turned to reading the Grimm Brothers fairytales (between all the other reading I am doing that I can’t discuss) and I was wondering why as adults we still find fairytales so appealing.

Now if you are thinking that I am happily sat reading the old ladybird classics of an evening you would be wrong. Though I do have my old (very) battered versions from my childhood which I think I actually pilfered was passed on from my mother and aunties and uncle and then saw my siblings reading them (and battering them more) before I managed to get my mitts on them again. Anyway, I have been reading the ‘uncut’- as it were – versions of these tales and yet again, as I was with Perrault’s collection and Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, I am shocked at how much darker, twisted and gruesome the tales really are. Disney this is not.

I was actually thinking that children might be more scared of these versions and hence that is why they have been edited, but actually I bet kids would love them, especially when the baddies really come a cropper. I know as an adult I am, but what has led me back to reading them from those initial days a few decades (ugh!) ago?

As a child I loved fairytales for the following reasons…

  1. There was invariably a wood in them and my childhood home was surrounded by them meaning I thought these adventures could have happened in my childhood (particularly my favourite ‘Rapunzel’ as shown below as on our hill we had a very similar type of tower in the woods, seriously look below)
  2. There was generally a sense of menace, something I still love in a book now.
  3. There were elements of the magical and was invariably a witch or talking animal involved, I believed in both of these things vehemently for years, until I was about 24 in probability, ha.
  4. There was a happy ending and love conquered all, naive and slushy but true.
  5. They were a complete escape.


I was very lucky as apart from pilfering being loaned the Ladybird Classics, of which my favourite was Rapunzel as I mentioned, I had an amazing Granddad, called Bongy, who made more fairytales for me when I went to Newcastle with my mother while she was at university. Each week, or every few weeks, another tale of ‘The Amazing Adventures of Esmerelda and her Friends’ would arrive in the post, all hand written and hand drawn. Again real life and fiction merged as Esmerelda would visit her friend Simon bringing all her friends including a duck called Rapunzel and nine hens, all of which I had back at my grandparents in Matlock waiting for me in the holidays.

So where is this nostalgia trip leading? Well that is my point. I think one of the reasons we love fairytales is the nostalgia, well at least it is for me, and the fact there is something very safe in a fairytale no matter how menacing they get. I think, even if we know it might not always be true or run smoothly, we believe in love and the idea of a, hopefully, happy ending for all of us one day. It’s the ideal isn’t it? I also think it is the escapism, even if the world is quite similar there is something ethereal and magical about it that makes us know it is not our world but just tangible enough that it could be. Am I making sense?

It isn’t just the ‘adult’ (only not adult-adult you understand) versions of the tales we had as children though. Authors like Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, John Connelly and soon Philip Pullman have re-worked or used the ideas of traditional fairytales in their fictions. Authors like Dan Rhodes, Lucy Wood, Ali Shaw and Eowyn Ivey have also created their own original fairytales for an adult audience which are working wonders and shows we do still love them.

I also wonder if a fairytale is really the true essence of stories. Tales made from folklore, legends and myths handed down by word and discussed before they were ever put to paper, it is what stories and therefore, I think, novels originate and even when you are reading a modern novel with no sign of magic or talking animals your still being told a story and a fairytale of a kind because none of it is real, just a little more cloaked.

What do you think, and what is your favourite fairytale?


Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness

Occasional Shorts: The Little Mermaid – Hans Christian Andersen

I’m currently recovering from a big bout of biopsies earlier in the week and so sadly ‘Middlesex’, which I was reading and loving, has gone to the bedside table for a while and hasn’t been picked up. Oops. I have started cracking open some short story collections and thought ‘ooh if there is a short story that takes hold of me then maybe it would be nice to do a post based on just that tale’ and after  the very first short story in my Hans Christian Anderson I already had a post. So today introduces ‘Occasional Shorts’. Now if you have only seen the film of ‘The Little Mermaid’ or haven’t read the tale then you might not want to read on as there is a rather massive spoiler coming, you have been warned…

I was surprised when I read Perrault’s ‘Fairytales’ a while back that the endings of the tales were nothing like the lovely ladybird editions I was read as a child. Imagine my shock and horror when I read ‘The Little Mermaid’ and it was nothing like the Disney film that I watched, slightly excessively, as a child. You see everything starts as I remembered.

The youngest mermaid princess in the kingdom, both are unnamed in the edition I have read, wants to see the world above the waves and waits and waits until she finally turns fifteen after which she becomes a little obsessed with the world beyond. One night when viewing life above the ocean a boat sinks and she saves a handsome prince and falls in love, so much so she gives her voice (and her tongue, Disney didn’t feature that did they?) to an evil witch in return for legs and the condition that she must make the prince fall in love with her. So far it was much the same as I thought… so far!

However this then completely changed when her legs caused the pain of a thousand knives every time she walked. Poor thing, I thought, she better get the blinking Prince. So imagine my utter shock (spoiler coming) that she didn’t and instead he meets someone else and she is given the option of killing him, his blood turning her legs back into a tail, or turning into sea foam and dying. I wont say which it was but I was mortified.

This may seem a silly post, it could be the painkilling drugs, but I genuinely am quite disturbed and as I read on its getting darker and darker. Normally this would be something I would really like, oh ok I am enjoying how different and dark they are, but would I read these versions to a child? Is it changing my childhood subconsciously as ‘Sleeping Beauty’ did when I read the Perrault tales? Naturally I will have to read on to see what further shocks await!

Have you re-read any fairytales and been rather shell shocked by it all, or is it just me? Oh, and what’s your favourite fairytale?


Filed under Hans Christian Andersen, Occasional Shorts, Short Stories