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Other People’s Bookshelves # 81 – Susan Davis

With Savidge Reads being back up in action it seems only right that the Other People’s Bookshelves series returns almost instantly. If you haven’t seen them before these are a series where a guest takes over the blog and feeds into the book lust we all feel by sharing their shelves. This week we are off to Shropshire, just down the road from my mum, to join author Susan Davis and have a nosey through her shelves. Before we do Susan has kindly put on a lovely afternoon tea for us all and is going to introduce herself before we rampage through her bookshelves…

I write in a converted coal shed in Shropshire which sometimes feels like an anchorite’s cell. If I stand on a chair I can just glimpse a slice of Wenlock Edge through the tiny window. Back in the nineties and noughties I published Y/A fiction along with short stories under my real name, Susan Davis. I now write psychological thrillers under the pseudonym Sarah Vincent, most recent of which is ‘The Testament of Vida Tremayne.’ When I’m not writing my own stuff, I work as an editor and mentor for ‘The Writers’ Workshop.’ I don’t have any cats, just a terrier who likes to chase them.

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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?

They need to be special to earn a permanent spot these days. ‘Special’ would mean: Virago classics by old favourites like Elizabeth Taylor, or Barbara Comyns. Also contemporary fiction that gets better with every re-read like Sarah Water’s ‘The Little Stranger’ or ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris. All books written by friends and acquaintances. You can’t very well give them away, unless you’ve fallen out! Books with gorgeous covers – can’t resist the Scarlett Thomas books, although for me ‘The End of Mr.Y’ was the one that really lived up to its cover. Non-fiction and reference books which feed into my fiction, art books with lots of lovely pictures – a refreshing break from words. Otherwise books that have that read-and-let-go quality, are likely to be shipped off to charity shops when I’ve finished or passed around friends.

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?

Mostly by category. There are three main bookshelves in the house and a few smaller ones. The study bookshelves go something like this: top shelf for poetry and writer biogs which I’m addicted to. When I’ve got a dose of tortured artiste syndrome, I dip into Sylvia Plath’s journals for reassurance. A few Viragos up there also.  Second shelf: esoteric tomes and all the fiction I’ve published over the years, including anthologised stories. Also the teen trilogy ‘The Henry Game’ – their bright sweetie coloured covers do jump out a bit. Third shelf down: Art books, more weirdo esoteric stuff, reference, and so on.

Upstairs bookcase is all fiction, novels written by friends, some children’s books and short story collections. Living-Room book shelves are a mess. Which is odd when you consider that they are the only shelves on public display. This is because I share them with my husband – so the top shelf harness-making, birdie and crafty books are all his. Honest. No categories on my second shelf down. They just loll about together in a drunken fashion. I’m keeping a space for my daughter’s overflow of books as she’s moving house shortly.

I had a major book cull around four years ago in a mad de-cluttering moment. We were moving to a tiny cottage by the sea, or so we thought, so I had to be ruthless. Whole shelves were cleared, and I invited friends to come and take their pick from the boxes. They gaily carried off some gems, which I now regret chucking out. Sadly, our house sale fell through, leaving me with huge gaps to fill. I now cull regularly in case we decide to move again. Trouble is, every time I take books to the charity shop, I come back with another bag full.

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

It’s a toss-up between ‘Teach Yourself Astrology’ which I think I bought with money for my 11th birthday, or it could have been ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in hardback when I was 12, having just been introduced to ‘The Hobbit’ at school. I think my son must’ve nabbed that one when he left home because it’s not on the shelves now. Here I should perhaps explain that I grew up in the fifties, in a working class household where buying books was considered a dreadful extravagance. Why buy them when you’d only read once and could go to the library and read for free? My parents were avid readers, bless them, so the Saturday trip to the library was the highlight of my week.

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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?

No, nothing to hide!  If I had I’d be more likely to have them on Kindle. I’d probably have squirmed a bit about the esoteric books at one time, books about ley lines and fairies and so on. Would people think me strange? Nowadays, I know they do, so I don’t care!

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?

That has to be a dusty black hardback, a first edition of Ursula Bloom’s ‘Wanting to Write’, published in 1958. It was published well before the Creative Writing Industry took off, and is full of gems like: I have always found that the ordinary pen which requires dipping in the inkpot is far more helpful than the fountain pen or ballpoint which today is so much to the fore. When I stumbled upon it in a junk shop in the early seventies, I was a young mum bashing out novels on a Remington typewriter in my kitchen, and feeling almost ashamed of my compulsion to write. Bloom made me feel less alone. I do have a special shelf for these early ‘writing’ books which I collect, (which I haven’t included in the pics.) Which books would I save in a fire? I wouldn’t. I’d be more likely to try and save old photo albums. Books can always be replaced.

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 is it on your shelves now?

I discovered copies of ‘Fanny Hill’ and ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in my dad’s dressing table drawer once, but they seemed dull at the time. When I searched again as an adolescent they had magically disappeared. I suppose the first ‘grown-up’ book must have been ‘Little Women’ which was one of the few books my mum actually owned and was much prized on her shelf. Is that grown-up enough? Followed closely by the usual suspects, classics like ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ which I loved.

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?

Yes, occasionally. I’m more likely to do that with non-fiction books, often about rural life or travel, like Robert Mcfarlane’s wonderful ‘The Old Ways’ which I originally borrowed, then treated myself to. The same thing happened with ‘The Morville Hours’ by Katherine Swift, a beautiful book which is of local interest so good to dip into.

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

Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Albion’ ‘the origins of the English Imagination.’ Brand new and a bargain find in an Oxfam shop. Looks stunning on the shelf but I haven’t got around to reading yet.

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

Hundreds. I’m looking for a copy of George Borrow’s ‘Wild Wales’ which I first read on my Kindle. However I’d rather have the real thing to take on trips to Wales with me. Oh, and there’s a beautiful new edition of Elizabeth’s Taylor’s Complete Short Stories. I plan to treat myself to that one soon.

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

What would I like them to think? Hah, what an interesting person, she clearly possesses exquisite taste. Seriously, they’d probably be left scratching their heads. Who knows?

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And a huge thanks to Susan for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves, apologies again for the delay but it was so worth the wait. 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, I am catching up with all the latest volunteers. In the meantime… what do you think of Susan’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that she mentions?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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