Bulgarians, both at home and abroad, are the subject of the wistful, tragic, and funny stories in this impressive debut. The title story opens in 1970 with a boy meeting his cousin, Vera, at a reunion held every five years. Her home, previously located in his village, is now in Serbian territory, and the river that divides them plays a central role in their ensuing relationship. In "Buying Lenin," a young Bulgarian in college in Arkansas enjoys a deepening relationship with his grandfather, who sees the West as morally corrupt. In "Devshirmeh," a divorced Bulgarian man living in Texas relays his great-grandmother's story to his young daughter. The standout "A Picture with Yuki" finds a Bulgarian man bringing his Japanese bride to his native land in the hopes of overcoming fertility problems. Deep in the countryside, among Gypsies, the hope of life and the sadness of death combine and a tourist's camera is put to use in ways no one could have expected. This rich and serious work by Penkov, who was born in Bulgaria and came to America in 2001, marks him as a talent worth watching. (July)
Bulgarians experienced an array of political systems in the 20th century. As a result, considerable effort has been expended in capturing Bulgarian oral histories during those turbulent times, Georgi Gospodinov's edited work, I've Lived Socialism. 171 Personal Stories being the most famous. In this debut collection of short stories, Penkov (creative writing, Univ. of North Texas) illustrates the way in which memories shade, as opposed to illuminate, understanding. This theme emerges in a character who has a photographic memory but is detached from the world around him. In another story, a grandfather uses an obsession with the failed revolution to conceal the truth of his young adult life. Though fraught with tragedy, loss, and stunted desire, these stories are written with lightness and humor. Penkov's characters explore their memories of Bulgaria in order to find liberation from the past. VERDICT An entertaining debut from a very promising young writer; readers who enjoy the work of Daniyal Mueenuddin and Jonathan Safran Foer will find a new favorite in Penkov.—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
A gifted Bulgarian writer explores the history of his country in eight sharp, heartfelt stories about home.
This debut collection from Penkov spotlights the best of the young (he was born in 1982) writer's output, much of which has been published in literary magazines. The opener, "Makedonija," sets the bittersweet scene, depicting a disgruntled old man nursing a grudge against the fellow who wrote letters to his wife 60 years earlier. "East of the West" is aForrest Gump–like romance 30 years in the making between a young man with a busted beak and the lovely cousin for whom he pines. "Buying Lenin" also presents a romance of sorts, between a grandson enraptured by America and the Stalinist grandfather who teases him. In all the stories, Penkov so fully occupies his narrators that one can almost hear their voices. In "The Letter," a thieving young minx plays a British transplant for an easy grand, then blows the cash on a spa day instead of her friend's abortion. "A Picture with Yuki" demonstrates the strangeness of the immigrant experience as deftly as stories by Ha Jin, as a young man and his wife return from Chicago to participate in an in vitro fertilization program in the capital of Sofia. Often these stories link the banality of day-to-day survival to the magic of Bulgarian myth, as in the final story, "Devshirmeh," about a divorcé father telling his daughter the story of a blood tribute.
An unapologetic love letter to a culture of many colors.
“An agile and assured debut . . . In each of these stylistically old-school yet freshly envisioned morality tales, Penkov burnishes brute circumstances to surprising beauty.” Elle
“Splendid . . . These stories are not the promising work of a first-time author. They are already a promise fulfilled--wise, bright, and deep with sympathy.” Alec Solomita, The New Republic
“Like Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, and Edwidge Danticat, Penkov is a translingual. . . . His dexterous English prose [portrays] human beings left in limbo, without a compass.” The Dallas Morning News
“Penkov's stories combine toughness, vulnerability, and bravado. . . . This is a sparkling collection.” Catherine Taylor, The Guardian (London)
“A fantastic collection that lives up to its audacious subtitle . . . Penkov's writing style is clear and startling, filled with warmth and wisdom. . . . These are fearless, gutsy stories with tremendous impact.” Philadelphia City Paper