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Books About Bulgaria

My boyfriend took me on a surprise birthday trip to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital city, at the end of May.  We had the most excellent time, but I could not help think that I have hardly read any literature set within the country.  I am aiming to remedy that, and have chosen ten Bulgarian books (those either written by Bulgarian authors, or set within the country) to feed into my reading as and when I can find them.  I have copied their blurbs, and will ask of you two questions; firstly, which of them have you read, and secondly, which is your favourite book set in Bulgaria

110762441. East of the West by Miroslav Penkov
‘A brilliant debut from a rising talent praised by Salman Rushdie, among others.  A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the waters of the river that divides their village into East and West. These are some of the strange, unexpectedly moving events in talented newcomer Miroslav Penkov’s vision of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his extraordinary debut collection.  In East of the West Penkov writes with great empathy about 800 years of tumult in troubled Eastern Europe; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as the characters wrestle with the weight of history, the debt to family, and the pangs of exile, the stories themselves are light and deft, animated by Penkov’s unmatched eye for the absurd. In 2008, Salman Rushdie chose Penkov’s story “Buying Lenin” (which appears in this collection) for that year’s Best American Short Stories, citing its heart and humour. East of the West reveals the full realization of the brilliant potential that Rushdie recognized.’

 

2. Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova
Kassabova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and grew up under the drab, muddy, grey mantle of one of communism’s most mindlessly authoritarian regimes. Escaping with her family as soon as possible after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, she lived in Britain, New Zealand, and Argentina, and several other places. But when Bulgaria was formally inducted to the European Union she decided it was time to return to the home she had spent most of her life trying to escape. What she found was a country languishing under the strain of transition. This two-part memoir of Kapka’s childhood and return explains life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

 

3. Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov 599370
Gospodinov flits and buzzes among various subjects — from graffiti in public toilets to the movies of Quentin Tarantino — in this tale of a young Bulgarian writer who decides to create his own version of a “natural novel” assembled from the bits and pieces of everyday life. At its center is a poignant story about the narrator’s divorce and the fact that he isn’t “the author” of his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s pregnancy. Maybe he’s suffering from attention deficit disorder; maybe he’s just stuck with a skewed if stoic appreciation of life’s messy flux. Whatever the cause, his monologue turns into a quirky, compulsively readable book that deftly hints at the emptiness and sadness at its core.

 

4. The Elusive Mrs Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
While waiting for a view of her night-blooming cereus, the mild-seeming Mrs. Pollifax received urgent orders for a daring mission to aid an escape. Soon, the unlikely-looking international spy was sporting a beautiful new hat that hid eight forged passports….

 

81846255. Solo by Rana Dasgupta
With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.  In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams—and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.  Intertwining science and heartbreak, the old world and the new, the real and imagined, Solo is a virtuoso work.

 

6. Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Bulgaria, 1934. A young man is murdered by the local fascists. His brother, Khristo Stoianev, is recruited into the NKVD, the Soviet secret intelligence service, and sent to Spain to serve in its civil war. Warned that he is about to become a victim of Stalin’s purges, Khristo flees to Paris. Night Soldiers masterfully re-creates the European world of 1934–45: the struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia for Eastern Europe, the last desperate gaiety of the beau monde in 1937 Paris, and guerrilla operations with the French underground in 1944. Night Soldiers is a scrupulously researched panoramic novel, a work on a grand scale.

 

7. The Making of June by Annie Ward 1536476
At first, June appears to be the ideal California girl-blond hair, blue eyes, a production assistant at a film company, and married to a hot property about to get his doctorate-but she abandons her home and job to follow her husband to Bulgaria. Within a month of their arrival, June turns thirty and her husband leaves her for a young local girl. As difficult as it is for her to be without him and virtually friendless in a country on the verge of civil war, June doesn’t run home. She drinks too much, falls into the arms of a Mafia kingpin, gets caught up in the revolution, and little by little revels in her new vision of the world outside the American periscope. She survives and learns that loss can be an opportunity and that loneliness gives a person time to change her life.  More than just a compelling story, The Making of June offers an authentic portrait of the Eastern European political landscape by an author who lived in Bulgaria for several years.

 

8. Wunderkind by Nikolai Grozni
Life in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the late 1980s is bleak and controlled. The oppressive Communist regime bears down on all aspects of people’s lives much like the granite sky overhead. In the crumbling old building that hosts the Sofia Music School for the Gifted, inflexible and unsentimental apparatchiks drill the students like soldiers—as if the music they are teaching did not have the power to set these young souls on fire.   Fifteen-year-old Konstantin is a brash, brilliant pianist of exceptional sensitivity, struggling toward adulthood in a society where honest expression often comes at a terrible cost. Confined to the Music School for most of each day and a good part of the night, Konstantin exults in his small rebellions—smoking, drinking, and mocking Party pomp and cant at every opportunity. Intelligent and arrogant, funny and despairing, compassionate and cruel, he is driven simultaneously by a desire to be the best and an almost irresistible urge to fail. His isolation, buttressed by the grim conventions of a loveless society, prevents him from getting close to the mercurial violin virtuoso Irina, but also from understanding himself.

 

136683209. A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov
After deciding to take a semester off their studies to think about future plans, long-time friends Maya, Sirma, and Spartacus decide to hitchhike to the sea. Boril Krustev, former rock star and middle-aged widower who is driving aimlessly to outrun his grief, picks them up and accompanies them on their journey. It doesn’t take them long to figure out they’re connected to each other by more than their need to travel—specifically through Boril’s daughter, whose actions damaged each of the characters in this novel.

 

10. And Other Stories by Georgi Gospodinov
Wildly imaginative and endlessly entertaining, Georgi Gospodinov’s short stories provide a hint of the narrative complexity of Borges and a whiff of the gritty realism of pre- and post-Communist life in Eastern Europe. These stories within stories and contemporary fables-whether a tongue-in-cheek crime story or the Christmas tale of a pig, a language game leading to an unexpected epiphany or an inward-looking tale built on the complexity of a puzzle box-come together in unique and surprising ways, offering readers a kaleidoscopic experience from one of Bulgaria’s most critically acclaimed authors.

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Books I Probably Should Have Read…

As a voracious reader, I have always been aware that there are several (hundred) tomes which I should have read already, but haven’t.  I’m almost entirely sure that most readers have the same problem.  Rather than make this a self-pitying post to the tune of my never having picked up anything by Umberto Eco, for instance, I thought I would make a post detailing some of the books which I Probably Should Have Read to date.  I’m aware that I could probably fill a whole fortnight’s worth of posts with such material, but have decided to be relatively selective to compile a manageable list of ten.  (NB. It was not my intention at all to list almost solely books by men!)

 

86940051. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, the empirical insights of Roger Bacon – all sharpened to a glistening edge by wry humor and a ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where “the most interesting things happen at night.”

 

2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

 

402003. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds.

 

4. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
An American classic rediscovered by each generation, The Story of My Life is Helen Keller’s account of her triumph over deafness and blindness. Popularized by the stage play and movie The Miracle Worker, Keller’s story has become a symbol of hope for people all over the world.  This book–published when Keller was only twenty-two–portrays the wild child who is locked in the dark and silent prison of her own body. With an extraordinary immediacy, Keller reveals her frustrations and rage, and takes the reader on the unforgettable journey of her education and breakthroughs into the world of communication. From the moment Keller recognizes the word “water” when her teacher finger-spells the letters, we share her triumph as “that living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” An unparalleled chronicle of courage, The Story of My Life remains startlingly fresh and vital more than a century after its first publication, a timeless testament to an indomitable will.

 

176905. The Trial by Franz Kafka
Written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, The Trial is the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, The Trial has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers.

 

6. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
Steppenwolf is a poetical self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf. This Faust-like and magical story is evidence of Hesse’s searching philosophy and extraordinary sense of humanity as he tells of the humanization of a middle-aged misanthrope. Yet this novel can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of the intellectual hypocrisy of the period. As Hesse himself remarked, “Of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other”.

 

7. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess 227463
A vicious fifteen-year-old “droog” is the central character of this 1963 classic, whose stark terror was captured in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent film of the same title.  In Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of the future, where criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology. A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. When the state undertakes to reform Alex—to “redeem” him—the novel asks, “At what cost?”

 

8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.

 

183067239. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society.  Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.

 

10. The Stranger by Albert Camus
Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” First published in English in 1946; now in a new translation by Matthew Ward.

 

Have you read – or not read – any of these?  I’m not going to pretend that I’ll get around to reading them very quickly at all, but hypothetically, which do you think I should begin with?

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Halloween Reads

Happy All Hallows’ Eve, everyone!  As well as posting a review of Marina Warner’s most recent fairy tale book, I thought that I would make a list of the books which I plan to read over Halloween and the coming weekend.

1. Coraline by Neil Gaiman (re-read)
“There is something strange about Coraline’s new home. It’s not the mist, or the cat that always seems to be watching her, nor the signs of danger that Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, her new neighbours, read in the tea leaves. It’s the other house – the one behind the old door in the drawing room. Another mother and father with black-button eyes and papery skin are waiting for Coraline to join them there. And they want her to stay with them. For ever. She knows that if she ventures through that door, she may never come back.”

Carving by Hugh McMahon

2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (re-read)
“When a baby escapes a murderer intent on killing the entire family, who would have thought it would find safety and security in the local graveyard? Brought up by the resident ghosts, ghouls and spectres, Bod has an eccentric childhood learning about life from the dead. But for Bod there is also the danger of the murderer still looking for him – after all, he is the last remaining member of the family. A stunningly original novel deftly constructed over eight chapters, featuring every second year of Bod’s life, from babyhood to adolescence. Will Bod survive to be a man?”

3. Terror Town by Marcus Sedgwick
“Terror Town is Trouble with a capital T. What will happen to our intrepid trio (that includes Rat) when the Tears of the Moon are taken, and Terrible Tim and the Trolls are on their trail? There are tempers (Elf Girl’s), tests (for Raven Boy), tunes (the Singing Sword’s), oh and Zombies, with a capital Z, too. If you love Lemony Snicket, Araminta Spook or the Spiderwick Chronicles, you’ll love Elf Girl and Raven Boy’s hilarious adventures.”

4. There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya
“The literary event of Halloween: a book of otherworldly power from Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer Vanishings and aparitions, nightmares and twists of fate, mysterious ailments and supernatural interventions haunt these stories by the Russian master Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, heir to the spellbinding tradition of Gogol and Poe. Blending the miraculous with the macabre, and leavened by a mischievous gallows humor, these bewitching tales are like nothing being written in Russia–or anywhere else in the world–today.”

5. The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales by Kate Mosse
“A wonderfully atmospheric collection of stories from one of our most captivating writers, inspired by ghost stories, traditional folk tales and country legends from England and France. These tales are richly populated by spirits and ghosts seeking revenge; by grief-stricken women and haunted men coming to terms with their destiny – all rooted deep in the elemental landscapes of Sussex, Brittany and the Languedoc.”

 

Which books are you planning to read for Halloween?  How are you marking the day?