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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Exceptional and Unusual Array, 29 July 2012
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This review is from: East of the West (Paperback)
A sense of disconnection, even alienation, can occur any place, any time, as the stories in this collection attest. Written by a young Bulgarian immigrant to the US, the protagonist of each story is somehow distanced or isolated, even if he (or she) is in the land of his birth.

The "east" of the title refers to Bulgaria's location, part of the former Eastern Bloc of Communist countries, now grappling with capitalism and democracy. And each main character strives to find a place in whatever new order is arising.

Penkov leaps from an old man struggling with his wife's dementia as well as new information about an old love who died years ago, to a boy's infatuation with an untouchable cousin, to an immigrant revisiting the old country in search of a cure for his wife's infertility and his own secret shame. The work also illustrates the basic truths of several American homilies: home is where the heart is; and east, west, home is best.

In its attention to detail, its well drawn characters and surges of emotion, his writing gives the reader faith in the universality of good literature regardless of the author's birth place. An exceptional and unusual array of views of life, enjoyable to all.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The heart of rural Bulgaria, 30 Nov. 2014
This review is from: East of the West (Kindle Edition)
In Bulgaria, the short story is not a lesser literary form as it is in the UK. Quite the reverse, it is highly valued. There are some fine Bulgarian writers of short stories and this post concerns just one.

Miroslav Penkov‘s short story collection, East of the West, is the most powerful of reads. We are taken into the heart and bowels of Bulgaria through the voices and situations of the various characters. This is very fine writing, and not just the name story. That won the BBC short story award of 2012 (by unanimous vote of the judges).

The story is full of symbolism. A village is divided by river and that river is used as a boundary between west and east at the end of World War II. There is jealousy caused between the villagers because those on the west bank have access to western materialism. The eastern bank villagers long for jeans and Nike trainers, however worn-out.

The villagers are allowed to meet once a year, but they try to keep contact other times by shouting across at its narrowest point, or, in the case of young lovers, by swimming to the centre and risking shots from the armed guards. The villagers once tried to maintain their identity by diverting the river so that it kept the village undivided. The result was a flooding, the church being completely drowned. The protagonist is encouraged by his loving, but aggressive cousin, to meet her at the submerged cross of this church.

His sister makes a similar swim to meet her fiancé, to show the ‘diamonds’ for her wedding the next day. Both are shot by guards. They are dressed in their finest, dead, for two funerals, each on its own bank of the river.

Somehow, in the face of his own love and career disappointments, the protagonist must move on, a metaphor for Bulgaria.

It seems opportune, at the very time that the number of Bulgarian immigrants (amongst others) is being agonised over, that the harsh lifestyle Bulgarians suffer is brought to the consciousness of other nations. It may be that it takes someone raised in the culture, but career-boosted outside of it, to write about Bulgaria with that telescope of understanding.

Penkov studied so hard that his English was excellent by the time he reached the US to further his studies. Therefore, his stories have the advantage of being written in English, not translated. Each of these stories is entirely absorbing and thought-provoking. The choice of words often holds a significance that points to larger issues. It was sobering to find that several stories were written when the author was very young. No-one, we would think in the West, should have inside knowledge or direct experience of such dark matters: the hanging of dissidents, the enforced changing of names, the lack of medical aid to severely ill people, the poverty and hunger, the lack of corporate compassion for the young or needy.

Penkov manages to get within the head of young and old Bulgarians, male and female. Filtered through the narrative is the history of a once-strong country beleaguered by political discord and powerful nations. The consequent poverty and desperation that cause alienation and anarchism come through these stories in a way that is fresh and bleeding.

The stories are both warm and dark, some so dark that it is difficult to read on. Why turn to fantasy and horror when more real events are offered here? For instance, the dead (accidentally killed?) child being lifted into position for a family photograph. Or the almost dead vagrant on the church plinth being readied, or is it desecrated, for eternity? An adolescent with his sidekick, running loose, alienated, anarchic and yet retaining some humanity, ends up in the church tower pissing down on his compatriots who are literally jumping to political command – a darkly humorous message.

The tragic and emotionally neglected young girl, her head shaved so that she can be like her dead brother, is trained to make bagpipes, their soft section the nearest to a comforting breast her world provides. When her father is arrested, she is left to care for her terminally ill mother and ultimately is left alone with her bagpipe. The reader can almost hear its plaintive sound.

A young man goes against home politics by being in America, wars with his grandfather who is eventually proved to be in the more enviable (Bulgarian) position. The Bulgarian desire to receive good education, career opportunity, a decent lifestyle, conflicts with all those values and close family ties that make life worthwhile.

The *yan* that drives and threatens to destroy the individual has a meaning beyond mere envy. It almost has a personality of its own, defining the Bulgarian and almost, his culture.

Like the medlars prevalent in the countryside of Bulgaria, these tales are bitter but necessary to assuage (literary) hunger. We can understand why Bulgarians, despite loving their country, need to emigrate to gain the basic necessities of life.

I feel the richer for reading these stories, and their content will stay with me.Penkov is due to publish a novel shortly. It is something to look forward to.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Superb book!, 13 Mar. 2013
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This review is from: East of the West (Hardcover)
I find myself privileged to have been introduced to Penkov's talent so early in his career and I cannot wait for his next writing.

As for East of the West, this book contains amazing characters, places and stories. And albeit everybody is meant to relate to them, through Penkov's worldly voice, I was happy to find that Penkov is so skillful at bringing and mixing the best and worst of Bulgarian culture and masterfully invokes dreams of returning home!

I recommend this book to everybody who has lived abroad or who has ever felt the need to sing about home during his travels in lands far, far away.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Country in Stories?, 8 May 2012
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This review is from: East of the West (Hardcover)
The subtitle of this book is 'A Country In Stories' and I can't honestly say I'd go for this conceit, not because I know Bulgaria well, but because no book is ever going to do that. However, at the same time I'm happy to be convinced that Miroslav Penkov did his best to sum up his country in these tales. They are all a little longer than I like short stories, but so superbly written that I soon got lost in them. He chooses a range of characters of all ages, both genders and many different backgrounds to tell his stories. The narrator of Makedonija, the first story, says in his opening line, 'I was born just twenty years after we got rid of the Turks, 1898', which immediately sets the scene of a man who has seen a lot. The title refers to his wife's first love, and goes into the background of Balkan wars and the uneasy relationship Bulgaria has always had with its Macedonian neighbour. The title story also tells of a relationship between a man and a woman, and this time the neighbour in the story is what was Yugoslavia, and Serbia, in particular. It seems that you can't really tell Bulgarian stories without this reference to neighbours and outsiders. In Buying Lenin, the narrator's grandfather is an old communist, a bit of a diehard, but Penkov has avoided making him overzealous or unpleasant - you had to be a pragmatist in post-communist times as well as during them. The Letter and A Picture With Yuki have a more serious side to them - the first portraying the corruption in the post-1989 state at all levels, as it is clear that capitalism is not working for everybody, and the second with an incident at its centre that is ugly enough to affect the lives of everybody involved in it. The only story I didn't enjoy was Cross Thieves, focusing on clever, sassy, cynical juvenile delinquents, but it's hard to write about such characters without them becoming too clever, sassy and cynical, and I didn't think the author quite pulled it off in this one. Both The Night Horizon and Devshirmeh go far back into Bulgaria's history, and to that uneasy relationship with the Turks who dominated them. All in all, the negative things in this collection never overcame the positives, and I look forward to reading a novel by Miroslav Penkov.
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4.0 out of 5 stars sule, 1 Feb. 2014
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This review is from: East of the West (Paperback)
Bulgaria was a closed book to me. This collection of stories lets the reader get a glimpse of the experiences and inner lives of those who live there. Not a cosy read, but then Bulgaria is hardly a cosy country.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 18 Jun. 2015
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This review is from: East of the West (Hardcover)
Great book, thanks!
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East of the West by Miroslav Penkov (Hardcover - 4 Aug. 2011)
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