al-Shaykh’s One Thousand and One Nights | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this column, Shahrazad spins her tales and leads me down a winding path.


al-Shaykh, Hanan. One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling. Pantheon. 2013. 328p. ISBN 9780307958860. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780307958877. F
al-Shaykh’s engrossing retelling of 19 stories from the masterpiece of Arabic, Persian, and Indian folktales sizzles and crackles with a lush, bawdy, and brutal sensibility. Here, stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba, magic carpets, and most gift-granting Jinnis are ignored in favor of ribald, violent, and clever tales of love, betrayal, murder, and magic. Many of the stories center on women, their relationships with men, and how they are judged and punished—from beatings to imprisonment to dismemberment. Some recount the ways women survive, and often outwit, the men set against them while others chronicle violent ends. For example, “The Fisherman and the Jinni” and others are straightforward and even slightly nostalgic, but “The First Dervish” and others are complex and subversive. All share a languid pace and fresh, vibrant use of language, and are overall brilliantly arranged. Like Shahrazad spinning out her stories to the king for 1,001 nights in order to stay alive, al-Shaykh’s writing flows from tale into tale, seducing readers and luring them ever deeper into the conjoined narratives until, like the violent sultan, they are completely caught within the storyteller’s net. [See LJ 6/15/13 and a Q&A with Hanan al-Shaykh.]


Donoghue, Emma. Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins. HarperTeen. 1999. 240p. ISBN 9780064407724. pap. $11.99. F
Readers who enjoy al-Shaykh’s linked tales might also enjoy Donoghue’s luminous and lyrical stories based on familiar fairy tales. Cleverly joined as well, each story flows into the next as Cinderella, Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, and others tell, with sparkling new voices, their own stories; stories that have a decidedly feminist slant. Cinderella rejects the prince to love the fairy godmother; the fairy godmother, once married to a wealthy man, yearns for escape and feels the beat of freedom and self-determination in her heart; Beauty finds not a beast but a queen unwilling to follow the path put before her. As with al-Shaykh’s reinventions, Donoghue’s tales of love, deception, and self-realization are engrossing and unhurried. They share as well an iconoclastic and modern sensibility that makes these well-known stories appear newly conceived and delightfully upended.

Valente, Catherynne. The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden. Spectra. 2006. 496p. ISBN 9780553384031. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780553903102. F
The desire to be told a story and the practice of deeply listening to the tales is explored by Valente in this first collection of magical treats (after In the Cities of Coin and Spice). While Valente owes much to the scaffolding of One Thousand and One Nights, her work is her own—bedazzling, textured, and lushly detailed. The frame begins with a young girl abandoned in a sultan’s garden. She bears strange markings on her eyes—dark lines that hold a story only she can tell. When a young prince musters up the courage to approach her, she begins to read him her stories, one at a time, one unfolding through the next. The nested stories are of beasts, kings, and princesses; true love and cruelty; and creation and destruction. Stories that are at times as unfamiliar as a foreign land and at other times chime with the echo of the wondrous, dark, and magical tales remembered from childhood. With a pace that matches al-Shaykh’s and with much of the same richness of imagery, Valente’s jewel of a novel should please fans who found themselves deeply unhappy when Shahrazad’s tales concluded.

Hughes, Ted. Tales from Ovid. Farrar. 1999. 272p. ISBN 9780374525873. pap. $16. POETRY
al-Shaykh’s stories are created from source material dated hundreds of years ago and even farther removed in its sensibility from modern readers than the dates of publication suggest. Hughes undertook a similar project when he decided to retell 24 tales written by Roman poet Ovid and taken from The Metamorphoses. Just as al-Shaykh selected and reshaped the folktales of Arabia, Hughes takes the Greco-Roman myths of well-known figures such as Narcissus, Bacchus, Venus, and Hercules and breathes into them fresh life. His poetic remaking is as bold, witty, violent, and enthralling as al-Shaykh’s, and while the poetic form might be very different from the continuously unfolding prose stories of One Thousand and One Nights, the pacing feels familiar, as the emotional weight of each poem builds upon the next. Readers interested in al-Shaykh’s process as much as the stories themselves should enjoy the sharp, clear, and astoundingly beautiful work from Hughes.


The Arabian Nights. Norton. 2008. 560p. ed. by Muhsin Mahdi. tr. from Arabic by Husain Haddawy. ISBN 9780393331660. pap. $17.95. F
Readers who become intrigued with al-Shaykh’s 19 retellings might want to read more complete versions of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights. There are many options, including this single-volume edition translated by Haddawy based on a 14th-century manuscript and considered by some as the most definitive and authentic copy. Haddawy’s translation of the ancient tales is decidedly contemporary, vibrant, and highly accessible. For readers hoping for a taste of the best-known stories or those added by later-date translators, there’s Haddawy’s companion volume Sinbad: And Other Stories from the Arabian Nights. If your library already owns either, then suggest the 1990 Routledge new edition four-volume set translated by J.C. Mardrus and edited by E.P. Mathers or the 2010 Penguin Classics three-volume set translated by Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons. Both editions are highly regarded.

Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke. 2003. 360p. ISBN 9781860649837. pap. $21. F
Those wanting more of the history and details on the origins of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights will find much to interest them in novelist Irwin’s scholarly, exhaustive, yet accessible guide. He takes readers through the cultural history of the medieval world in which the stories were first written as well as the older eras that gave birth to the oral versions in pharaonic Egypt. He outlines how the tales migrated outward to Europe, where they were changed and extended as translators sought to reach the magical number of 1,001 tales. In relation to these additions, he weighs the merits of several translations and takes issue with most. He concludes by tracing the many children of Shahrazad as well as the influence of the stories on writers such as Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, and Salman Rushdie.

Mahfouz, Naguib. Arabian Nights and Days. Anchor: Random. 1995. 240p. ISBN 9780385469012. pap. $15. F
Based on the structure and the stories of One Thousand and One Nights, Nobel Prize winner Mahfouz begins his reimagining of the tales on the day after Shahrazad spins her last yarn. Her father, the sultan’s trusted adviser, walks to greet the ruler and hear his daughter’s fate—she is to live. While the sultan is satisfied, and her father relieved, Shahrazad seethes with anger built over years of saving herself and her community from the rages of a jealous, all-powerful, man. Out in the streets unrest still swirls as factions and corrupt officials vie for power. In Mahfouz’s mix unfolds stories straight from the tales of Shahrazad, peopled with characters she once used as shields. Mahfouz’s clever, spare, and brilliantly told novel unwinds and rewinds the tales and their meaning, creating an original new work. This heady, richly magical, and disquieting novel should please readers who want to stay in al-Shaykh’s world but are looking for a different take.

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. ed. by Kate Bernheimer. Penguin. 2010. 576p. ISBN 9780143117841. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781101464380. F
Fans of al-Shaykh who are intrigued with the idea of recreating something shimmering and fresh out of centuries-old tales will find much to enjoy in this collection of 40 new stories built from the threads of classics. Stories such as Kevin Brockmeier’s “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin,” turn familiar plotlines inside out. Brockmeier inserts a Mad Lib into his story as he chronicles the day of half of Rumpelstiltskin (the other half, as the Mad Lib reveals, is still caught in the grip of the Brothers Grimm). The author contributor list is a huge draw: Neil Gaiman rubs shoulders with Michael Cunningham, Shelley Jackson keeps company with John Updike, and Aimee Bender shares page room with Kelly Link. Witty, gruesome, eerie, funny, and as fresh, surprising, and vividly sharp as al-Shaykh’s retelling, this collection offers surprises and delights at every turn.


Pullman, Philip. Grimm Tales for Young and Old. 10 CDs. library ed. unabridged. 10½ hrs. AudioGO. 2010. ISBN 9781408470671.$39.95; digital download. F
Unfortunately al-Shaykh’s version of the stories is not yet available in audio. However, listeners who are interested in other story collections retold and made new might enjoy Pullman’s take on the Brothers Grimm. He dives into the tales, transforming selections into crisp and enchanting modern versions that maintain respect for the original. His take is altogether delightful and engaging, with a sprightly pace and a deliciously gleeful tone. Narrator Samuel West perfectly matches Pullman in his approach, offering up the tales in a cunning, seductive, and thoroughly inciting voice. His pacing and cadence is as energetic as Pullman’s, his tone is as thrilling, and his accents and voice work are simply splendid. Frogs, hedgehogs, princesses, and witches are each vividly portrayed in this charming production.

Byatt, A.S. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. 4 CDs. library ed. unabridged. Brilliance Audio. 4 hrs. 2012. ISBN 9781455852437. $54.97; 1 MP3-CD. library ed.; digital download. F
Another choice for audiobook lovers is Booker Prize winner Byatt’s astounding take on the Norse myth Ragnarok that tells the tale of the end of the world. Somewhat in the style of One Thousand and One Nights, Byatt frames the myth in another story and braids it into the tale of a frightened little girl forced to leave her home for the countryside during the London Blitz of World War II. As the child copes with her isolation and separation, she clings to the Norse story, full of the reckless and fickle gods, Odin, Thor, and Loki among them. The story shimmers with an ageless power, vibrantly evoking terror, majesty, and wonder as it tracks the death of the gods. Narrator Harriet Walter is astounding in her performance, nothing short of a wise woman of old telling stories around a fire trying to keep out the terrors of the dark. She booms and whispers, creates a rich texture, and paces her reading so it becomes its own addictive spell. Fans of Byatt might also enjoy her collection of adult fairy tales The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at