At my previous job, I was fortunate enough to travel to international book fairs and visit bookstores. When I travel now for fun, the impulse sticks: find the best local bookstores, and buy at least one book. The list below is based partly on countries I’ve found myself in over the last few years and partly on my destination wish list. Join me as I try to discover more foreign authors and beloved books, and hopefully get the opportunity to pack a few bags for some on-site explorations.
Translated from Spanish by Camilo Ramirez
I have to start this off by saying that Buenos Aires, where THE DESERT AND ITS SEED is set and where Jorge Barón Biza was from, has its own book fair every April. In 2015, the city was called a “novel oasis” by The Guardian because it has “more bookstores per person than any other city in the world.” Biza’s personal story is as dark and captivating as the book itself, more so once you realize the two are intertwined; self-published three years before he died and then going on to become a fixture both in Buenos Aires’ literary scene and beyond, Biza’s shocking opening with powerfully descriptive language bounces readers along on Eligia’s ride to the hospital with a face full of acid, a consequence of a messy divorce from an abusive husband. The Argentina setting becomes almost a character itself in the months that follow, a backdrop for reconstructing a face, a life, and an identity.
While in Buenos Aires, Argentina, visit El Ateneo Grand Splendid.
Translated from Portuguese by Jull Costa
I’m the kind of person who likes to know all of the answers, the origin stories, and the analyses that will run circles around circles until some sort of conclusion is met. Imagine me in today’s climate, and understand why my roommate handed me this book and how much it immediately changed my life. A stream of consciousness construct to be read in sections whenever you need to remember that it’s okay to feel lost or uncertain, Pessoa ruminates on his daily life, his stray thoughts, his confusions, and his compulsion to write. Through his pacing and observations without striving for closure, you emerge with a certain calmness over how you might survive in a world that provides endless complications. Translated from Portuguese, THE BOOK OF DISQUIET is perfect for reading as you travel around Portugal, as the sense of place is reflected strongly in Pessoa’s writing.
While in Porto, Portugal, visit Livraria Lello.
Translated from Swedish by Henning Koch
A MAN CALLED OVE is the kind of book laced with the inexplicable optimism that causes you to believe in humanity once again. Picture an older man who lives alone, who shuts his curtains and continuously re-evaluates life without his wife, making frequent journeys to her grave. Add to that new neighbors and a young family next door, who attempt to connect over a flattened mailbox and refuse to balk at the older man’s apparent bite. The unexpected mix of characters ignites a funny and poignant story of friendship, understanding, and survival.
While in Uppsala, Sweden, visit The English Bookshop.
“If you like to laugh AND feel moved AND have your heart applaud wildly for fictional characters, you will certainly fall for the grumpy but lovable Ove (it’s pronounced “Oo-vuh,” if you were wondering).”
Translated from Norwegian
The unique format of THE HISTORY OF BEES is what first attracted me to this book pitched as “The Leftovers, but with honey” (Elle), not to mention the idea of learning more about the endangered bee and pollination crisis within the construct of a fictional novel. Spending time with three different families over three different time periods, you slowly learn not just the timeline of crucial and devastating events involving bees, but also what connects the three stories. Tao’s world in particular, set in a future China in 2098, offers a humbling view of humans’ relationship with nature, and the destructive capabilities of both sides.
While in Oslo, Norway, visit Tronsmo Bokhandel or Sagene Bok og Papir, and take a book with you to read at the Kulturhuset.
Translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman
There are certain books that have lingered in the zeitgeist long enough to be adored and discussed and declared must-reads hundreds of times over, and yet somehow you feel you’ve missed these moments and will never go back to them. That was LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA for me, until I stumbled upon it on the shelves in my local coffee shop. Out of curiosity, I flipped through the pages and became inexplicably caught up in Florentino Ariza’s great love and persuasive dedication to Femina Daza, as well as how he kept himself busy as he waited.
While in Cartagena, Colombia, visit Abacus Books and Coffee or Librería Wilborada 1047.
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
Translated from French by Lydia Davis
This was one of my favorite books from my college English classes, one I may not have picked up on my own. There’s something indelibly enticing about the combination of settings, time periods, and pacing, creating an immersive experience into characters’ daily lives that I needed to see play out. Maybe it was the fact that the narrator is unnamed, reflecting back on his younger self in a coming-of-age tale, in love with Monsieur Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. Maybe it was the startling prose or the tangible repetitive elements like the madeleine. In any case, consider me a fan.
While in Paris, France, visit Shakespeare & Co.
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Translated from Icelandic by Philip Roughton
I visited Iceland in March 2017 and became fascinated with the landscape and the culture. I love Icelanders’ phrase “Ad ganga med bok I maganum,” meaning “[everyone] has a book in their stomach,” possibly a trademark of both their story-laden past and their designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. LAND OF LOVE AND RUINS highlights the continual debate between preserving Icelandic culture and accepting Western influences, as well as the personal and philosophical journey one takes when confronting emotional life changes. Set after Iceland’s financial crisis, a young author pens a diary of her journey inward to her family’s land and then abroad to other European cities, reexamining her relationship with nature, love, and life.
While in Reykjavik, Iceland, visit Bókakjallarinn, Mál og Menning, or Bókin.
Translated from Finnish by Owen Witesman
Novels that push against form and more traditional plot elements are favorites of mine, and ONEIRON is one to remember. Like the shockingly white cover, the setting is a sea of blank space where seven women meet after they die. Memories are fuzzy, time is nonexistent, and no one appears to know one another. What’s left is the chance to make sense of what’s here, what’s left behind, and what we value as both a people and as an individual. The mystery of why these women have been sentenced together propels the novel forward as much as the desire to understand their final moments on earth and how they might find peace.
While in Helsinki, Finland, visit Academic Bookstore.
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky
Who would guess that so much depth, meaning, and understanding could come from a family of polar bears? Told in alternating perspectives from three generations of bears, MEMOIRS OF A POLAR BEAR covers a son born in a zoo in Germany, a mother and her time in the circus, and a grandmother in the Soviet Union whose autobiography takes the world by storm. On the surface, an inquisitive, inventive novel looking at life in a variety of circumstances; below that, an examination of the human and animal relationship, the nature of love and belonging. The author, Yoko Tawada, was born in Japan but now lives in Germany, writing in both Japanese and German.
While in Tokyo, Japan, visit Tsutaya Books Daikanyama.
The title alone spiked my curiosity, an unknown woman worthy of further study living outside of Istanbul. The first line, too, had me wondering what could convince someone to move from passions of the mind to work with their hands: “I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor.” The narrator goes on to describe the last time he saw his father in his pharmacy, about his father’s disappearances and reappearances over the years, and his summer working at a bookstore. When he finally abandons his own structured life to become an apprentice to a well-digger, he falls for a mysterious young woman in a manner that borders on obsession.
While in Istanbul, Turkey, visit Minoa Books and Coffee or Ensar Kitap.