57th Street Books' Jeff Waxman picks three Scandinavian books in translation.

Jeff Waxman works at 57th Street Books, the Hyde Park indie bookstore and sibling to the Seminary Co-op Bookstore around the corner.  As a Jeff-of-all-trades, he's a book buyer (though he doesn't work directly with me and my publishers), returns manager, one of the stores' Web site administrators, and editor of The Front Table on the Seminary Co-op web site.  As Jeff told me, in short, he's a bookseller.  No matter what else he's doing, he's selling books to people.

Since he originally sent me this post, but before I could get it posted on my3books, word came out that Jeff is one of the Fiction Judges for the 2010 Best Translated Book Awards, sponsored by literary blog Three Percent, a "resource for international literature at the University of Rochester."  The longlist for the 2010 awards in fiction was announced on January 5, and the shortlist will be announced on February 16.  The shortlist in poetry will be announced on February 16.  The final winners will be announced in March.  It's a really strong list in fiction.  Check out the longlist if you need more suggestions beyond Jeff's 3 picks below.

Welcome to the winter, friends. Grab some cocoa, a little something to fortify it, a few blankets, and get ready to hunker down. That's right, it's hunkering weather, and I've got three Scandinavian novels that will freeze your hearts while they warm your little book-loving souls.

The Discoverer
by Jan Kjaerstad
translated by Barbara Haveland
Open Letter Books (dist. by University of Nebraska Press) | 9781934824122 | $17.95 | Aug 2009

The final and, honestly, most crucial tome of the Jonas Wergeland Trilogy.  Never heard of it? Doesn't matter, mon frere. Each of these books stands alone, and The Discoverer stands tallest.  Jonas Wergeland is a disgraced (wife, dead) former television personality and this novel is an extraordinarily well-wrought examination of the man's life and mind. More, it's a virtuosic exercise in heroic narrative; Jan Kjaerstad and translator Barbara Haveland have created a book that interweaves paragraphs of past and present experience into something of grave and moving beauty.

*** 

The True Deceiver
by Tove Jansson
translated by Thomas Teal
NYRB Classics (dist. by Random House) | 9781590173299 | $14.95 | Dec 2009

This slender novella is one of my favorite books of the year, and new only this month. An austere and modern novel, The True Deceiver is about the relationship of an affect-less Swedish woman, her brother, and an overly affected children's book illustrator in one of the few Swedish communities in Finland. This is a book that plumbs the nature of familial love, and the depths of manipulation and inscrutability. A masterful study in opposition and confrontation, this book simmers with aggression, and the reader will never be quite sure who the title refers to, the cold Katri Kling, or the apparently vapid Anna Aemelin.

***

The Twin
by Gerbrand Bakker
translated by David Colmer
Archipelago Books (dist. by Consortium) | 9780980033021 | $25 | Apr 2009

Are the Dutch even Scandinavian? Probably not, but this novel has a striking, ice-bound personality at its center and fits this post like a warm and woolly glove. Bakker's book is the story of a lone twin, Helmer. Aching, inert, and incomplete, Helmer has not recovered from the loss of his twin brother, Henk, more than twenty years ago. Neither has his father, and as the old man's health fails, the fifty-seven-year-old Helmer finds himself at the sort of emotional crossroads that most men reach forty years earlier. To add poignant contrast, a sullen teenager named Henk (!) comes to live with him— and to underscore everything that Helmer might have lost forever.

***

The Final Word:
Here's a stat for my3books readers: only three in one hundred books published each year in the United States are original works in translation. Three Percent. That that's true or may be true is troubling, but it's also very exciting. We have an opportunity here to read again as children, as cultural strangers, and experience familiar things made strange and new. Forgive me for evangelizing, but these three books are part of a groundswell of outstanding international work brought home, and only some very serious talents make the trip.

Jeff Waxman 

***

Learn more about these three excellent publishers (one of whom I DO represent) and their extraordinarily rich publishing programs:

Open Letter Books: TwitterBlog (yep, Three Percent)SiteCatalog

NYRB Classics: TwitterBlog (A Different Stripe)SiteCatalog (direct download)

Archipelago Books: TwitterSiteCatalog

 

UPDATE: I've modified the first paragraph and post title to correctly describe Jeff's position & bookstore.  But he's still an awesome bookseller, no matter where you come across him.