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July 27, 2011

Book Notes - Miroslav Penkov ("East of the West")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

I was first introduced to the fiction of Miroslav Penkov through his Eudora Welty Fiction Prize-wining story "Buying Lenin," which appeared in the 2008 Best American Short Stories anthology and easily won my heart. His debut collection East of the West offers tales of everyday Bulgarians, both at home and abroad. These are powerful short stories, but taken together their brilliance magnifies with a skillful combination of humor and pathos.

This volume sits proudly among Alan Heathcock's Volt and Seth Fried's The Great Frustration as one of the year's finest debut story collections.

The Outlet wrote of the book:

"Perhaps the greatest marvel of East of the West is its vast spectrum of characters, varied in both age and gender. "Buying Lenin" and "Cross Thieves" evince Penkov's talent for creating distinct young adults, but "A Picture with Yuki" and the eponymous "East of the West" give voice to thirty-somethings with equal believability. "Makedonija," the opener, is told from the perspective of an elderly man who feels comic jealousy over his dying wife's old flame. And Mary, the acerbic thief of "The Letter," shows that Penkov can create a convincing female lead. That a 28 year-old Bulgarian can create such diverse characters in a skillful English, an English he only began to develop in high school, is a feat in itself."

In his own words, here is Miroslav Penkov's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, East of the West: A Country in Stories:

"Don't Cry" by Guns N' Roses

I write with the music on. And I started listening to music with some dedication fairly late in high school, after I visited the US for the first time. This was in 1999 and my best friend had moved with his family to Minneapolis for a year. They invited me to visit them in the spring and my friend asked me to bring him a few CDs of bands I considered idiotic. Guns N' Roses, Metallica, stuff you were allowed to listen to only if you wore black, and boots, and metal chains, and green, tarpaulin bags, and liked your beer with vodka in it.

One of the few things I purchased during my Minnesota visit was a CD player and sometimes, while my friend was at school, I'd borrow a CD and walk to a half-priced bookstore and browse the Stephen King section. "Don't Cry" and a rainy sky above a lake with ducks in it, and the smell of old books, and the hurt in my heart that if I bought this, this and this book I'd be spending way more than I could afford, have all mixed in my mind in one very sweet memory. I never buy used books any more because I hate that feeling of poverty they bring up; I never saw a Minnesota lake again after I left; but when I wrote many of the stories in East of the West I listened to Guns and was immediately teleported to a time when I was just sixteen and wanted to write more than I wanted to do anything else, and the whole world was full of unlimited possibility, of great freedom…

"Zableyalo mi e agantse" by Boris Mashalov ("Заблеяло ми е агънце" / Борис Машалов)

There is a lot of Bulgaria in this song. I wish I knew how that was achieved, so I could pack this much Bulgaria in my stories. Maybe it's because this is a folk song, maybe it's because no one man has written its music and lyrics, but all men. The National Singer. That's how we call the persona of all folk songs in Bulgaria. But there is one man who sings it better than all others and his name is Boris Mashalov. He was born in 1912 not forty miles from where I was born, eighty years later. I know of this song from my father. Every time this song came up on the radio, my father, then a little boy, would sit quietly and listen and feel great sadness. The first time he told me this, I made fun of him. I called him a girl. Then I listened to the song and I wept. I was away from Bulgaria then and I wept because of that. But I also wept because of the voice, and because of the gadulka, which has to be the saddest of all instruments, and because of the lyrics. In this song, a white lamb approaches its shepherd. "Why did you sell my mother to the merchants?" the lamb asks and then reminds the shepherded of how its splotch-faced mother once saved his whole herd from a flood. By the end of the song, the shepherd too is weeping. I listened to this song often while I wrote, especially while I wrote "The Night Horizon" – the story of a girl up in the mountains who makes bagpipes and who loses both her parents and ends up alone.

"Run for the Sun" by Aria ("Беги за солнцем" / Ария)

The first time I ever heard of Aria was after I'd returned from my 1999 vacation in Minneapolis. My friend too was back by that time and, because of a similar musical esthetic, had made friends with people who wore black, and boots, and metal chains, and green, tarpaulin bags, and liked their beer with vodka in it. We were at someone's birthday – a party that had extended late into the night – when we saw this guy, with these sideburns, a hairy motherf—. Beside him Wolverine would look the way a Swede would look beside a Bulgarian. He wore a black t-shirt with big, red ARIA on it. He asked us if we'd ever heard of Iron Maiden. We rolled our eyes, offended. "Well," he said, "this is the Russian Iron Maiden."

I suppose you could call Aria that; it's a fair comparison. I often listen to them while I write because no neighbor could be as loud Aria, even though a few have come close. I don't speak Russian and understand only those words that strike a similarity with their Bulgarian brothers. I have some idea of what "Run for the Sun" is all about, but I might be wrong. I don't care much. I like to listen to songs whose lyrics I don't really understand. This is an old habit from the days when I didn't know a lick of English. I'm used to lyrics floating through my head without leaving a mark of meaning. Even nowadays with songs in Bulgarian or English I sometimes forget to pay attention to the words and I let them flow without interruption. This way, the words of others don't interfere with the ones I'm trying to put on paper.

"Kosti" by Isihia

Isihia are one of my most favorite bands. I wish they were famous the world over because they certainly deserve world fame. I implore you to look them up on YouTube. In their music they combine elements of Bulgarian folklore with Orthodox chants and all their songs are rooted deeply into Bulgarian history. Take "Klyuch" for example, a song which bares the name of a Bulgarian village where in 1014 AD the Byzantine Emperor Basil II defeated the Bulgarian army and blinded 15,000 soldiers. He spared one of every one hundred, leaving him with a single eye so he could lead the others back to their tsar Samuil. When he saw the multitude Samuil died of a heart attack. And this is how Basil II earned his name The Bulgarslayer (Boulgaroktonos). Isihia's are cheerful tunes. Really, look them up.

Miroslav Penkov and East of the West: A Country in Stories links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book ("Makedonija" at Five Chapters)

Contrary review
Dallas Morning News review
Full Stop review
Kirkus Reviews review
The Outlet review
Publishers Weekly review
The Story Is the Cure review
Washington City Paper review
ZYZZYVA review

Art & Seek profile of the author
One Story interview with the author
Orion Magazine interview with the author
Work in Progress essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists