East of the West: Stories                    


US cover: FSG Canadian cover: Doubleday Canada UK cover: Sceptre


Interview Magazine ^top

Twenty-eight-year-old Miroslav Penkov is a Bulgarian immigrant with a tragicomic overflow of Shteyngartian perceptions of life in a new heartland. His short-story collection East of the West (FSG, 6/21) mythologizes his own immigration narrative - watching the Iron Curtain fall at age 8, leaving Sofia a decade later to attend college in Arkansas, and accepting a professorship at the University of North Texas before the age of 30 - all seen through the lens of outsize characters. These protagonists range from a young capitalist who tries to buy his communist grandfather Lenin's corpse on eBay to a divorced father who recounts epics of Ottoman warriors while outrunning a tornado. They're heart-crushingly funny, stereotype-splattering creations.

— Madeline K.B. Ross
Interview Magazine

Elle  ^top

Bulgarian-born writer Miroslav Penkov’s agile and assured debut, East of the West: A Country in Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), vivifies his characters’ hard-set lives: In the title story, cousins meet every five years in a river dividing their town; in “The Night Horizon,” a girl given a boy’s name performs an unforeseen act of heroism. In each of these stylistically old-school yet freshly envisioned morality tales, Penkov burnishes brute circumstances to surprising beauty.


Publishers Weekly 

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.

Reviewed on: 05/30/2011

see original review

Kirkus Review

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 a Forrest 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.

Review Date: June 1, 2011
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Library Journal

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

Philadelphia City Paper  ^top

In 2001, 18-year-old Miroslav Penkov moved to Arkansas from Bulgaria on a college scholarship. By 2008, he'd won the Eudora Welty Fiction Prize, and Salman Rushdie had selected his autobiographical "Buying Lenin" for inclusion in that year's Best American Short Stories anthology. That story closely follows Penkov's real-life move to the U.S., a choice that, as the piece describes, prompted bitter responses from relatives: "You rotten capitalist pig, have a safe flight. Love, Grandpa."*** There's sharp humor like this throughout the eight stories in East of the West. Jokes echo across generations of Bulgaria's violent, complicated history, making this a fantastic collection that lives up to its audacious subtitle, A Country in Stories. Penkov's writing style is clear and startling, filled with warmth and wisdom. And he's adept at both realism and surrealism. In "Makedonija," a husband worries his wife never loved him. As she recovers from a stroke in a rest home, he thinks, "A man ought to be able to undress his wife from all the years until she lies before him naked in youth again." In "Cross Thieves," we enter bitter, youthful revolutionary territory. The title story, "East of the West," is amusing and heartbreaking, soaring from a moment when "the grownups danced around the fire, then played drunk soccer," to the scene where a boy mourns his dead sister as he stands on the dome of a church sunken beneath a river. Penkov's true focus is how people struggle to preserve their love for each other. These are fearless, gutsy stories with tremendous impact. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 240 pp., $24, June 21.

—Matthew Jakubowski
Philadelphia City Paper

*** I love this review and I'm so thankful to Mr. Jakubowski for his time and kind words. But I owe my family this correction - "Buying Lenin" is not an autobiographical story and everyone in my family, without exception, was immensely pleased to ship me off to America...

The Outlet: The Blog of Electric Literature   ^top

an excerpt

.... 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.

...For now, we must make do with the short stories, and at 28, it’s not a stretch to say that Penkov has mastered the form, or come very close. His work resists categorization in all the right ways. He does not write comedy, or even tragicomedy, though many of the plot twists are shocking when read out of context. And he is not a regional writer per se, though the reader will learn a ton about Bulgaria in the process (for more info, check out Penkov’s blog).

But because East of the West is his first release, the labels will abound – “dark Bulgarian comedy,” this may very well be called. But if the content is any indication, Penkov will be his own label, as he will likely be writing for a long time to come. At your next literary cocktail party, perhaps five years in the future, you may simply be able to ask, “have you read any Penkov?”

—Stephen Spencer
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Washington City Paper  ^top

an excerpt

Melancholy and magic glimmer through Miroslav Penkov’s new collection of stories about Bulgaria, East of the West, in a manner that brings to mind the world of Zamyatin, Bulgakov, and Babel. That universe of onion-domed churches, black bread, devils clustered in trees, and witches’ houses on chicken legs finds echoes in Penkov’s Bulgaria, with its mad bagpipe makers who steal and slaughter goats at night, magical mountains capable of disguising a woman’s beauty to protect her, ferocious Turks, communists who hang kulaks from walnut trees, and explanations such as “the village children made fun of Kemal because her head was shiny like a lizard, because she smelled like a goat and because her father was crazy.” It all seems like classic Eastern European literature, but there’s a difference: These stories are written in English and have an understated American perspective.

—Eve Ottenberg 
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Full Stop Magazine  ^top

an excerpt

The stories in East of the West are strong alone, and several have been published previously. But together they create something exceptional. Setting out to write a work of literature on the subject of one whole country would be an ill-advised task no matter how talented the writer. But Penkov tackles his subject with vigorous specificity, bringing together a flock of small, often tragic experiences into something that becomes more than a portrayal of a chunk of land arbitrarily confined by lines on a map, and begins to draw out the fraught relationships that exist between people and the things that chunk of land embodies: homes, histories, and nations.

—Helen Stuhr-Rommereim
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an excerpt

The narrator of “East of the West” is typical of the pieces in the collection. Besides being a Bulgarian man, the Penkovian hero is tough in a wounded, suspicious way. He is hapless, slightly bewildered (but not so much that he can’t crack a joke) by his bad luck, by how differently from what he imagined everything turns out: the move to America that leaves him depressed and homesick, the early talent that never amounts to more than a parlor trick, the girl who finds someone else. The collection coheres in a way most anthologies don’t, perhaps because the stories are close to one another chronologically. (At 29, Penkov hasn’t had time to go through different “periods” yet.) But it can’t be accidental that the first and last story mirror one another, bending the book into a parabola like a piece of flexible wood: Penkov is too skilled an architect.

—Marianne Moore
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The Boston Globe ^top

an excerpt

Eleven years after arriving in America, Penkov has published one of the most exciting debut collections in recent memory. The eight stories contained in “East of West’’ are funny and sad and wonderfully natural. Their best heroes feel like Eastern European cousins to Quentin Compson, the genteel Southerner who washed up at Harvard in William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!,’’ a man inexorably tied to a place, but determined, for his own survival, to leave it.
        In the end, Compson could never leave the South. The same can be said of Penkov’s characters and their Bulgaria. However aggressive Penkov’s young men and women are about getting green cards and emigrating to the West, their families tug even harder in the other direction.

John Freeman
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The LA Times  ^top

Miroslav Penkov hit American shores in 2001 (he was 21) from his native Bulgaria, and he hasn't stopped writing (or winning prizes for his wild, homesick short stories) ever since. Comrades, girlfriends, bagpipe makers, Turks, Greeks, Slavs, grandparents, miners, ghosts and photos — Penkov's teeming stories accomplish in phrases what lesser writers take chapters to convey — the immigrant's disorientation, the homesickness for things like bread, the strange humor of the displaced family.

It is a collection of triumphs; consider the father who teaches his daughter to play the bagpipes: "'You are,' her father told her, 'a conqueror of songs.' And so they played together, days on end, long hours; they danced in circles around the lathe, with shadows of words on their faces, Kemal's chest ablaze, her fingers enflamed."

—Susan Salter Reynolds  

The A.V. Club  ^top

an excerpt

...at its best, East Of The West paints an eastern-European portrait similar to what Junot Diaz’s debut collection, Drown, did for the Dominican Republic. Both authors even translated their collections into their own languages themselves. Penkov’s imagination creates a country with loose historical borders, a people stranded across the world, trying to preserve some kind of cohesive personal history in contrast to the back-and-forth, ever-changing story of their homeland.

—Kevin McFarland
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The New Republic  ^top

an excerpt

... Heirs to a country where every ethnic and religious group has at one time or another been the outsider, all of Penkov’s characters are displaced persons, at home or abroad. By letting them tell their grim, funny stories, Penkov has afforded them a kind of asylum. And by returning the American language to us in a reinvigorated form, he has given his adopted countrymen a gift, and his literary peers something to live up to. 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
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The Barnes and Noble Review  ^top

an excerpt

A young man -- he was born in Bulgaria in 1982 -- Miroslav Penkov possesses an old soul. Such is the conclusion to be drawn, at least, from the haunting, haunted stories in his debut collection East of the West. They all exhibit an elegiac, melancholy wisdom more fitting for some aged, seasoned Isaac Bashevis Singer or even Tolstoy. They evoke tears, but not a frenzy of wailing; sorrow, but not utter despair. They seem reflective of the period after everything has collapsed, when people realize life continues, post apocalypse, and they must now figure out how to carry on. Of course, the disintegration of the Soviet empire plays a large part in all this.

—Paul Di Filippo
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Toronto Star  ^top

an excerpt

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary North American urban writer expressing him or herself in this way. Penkov’s Bulgaria is a postmodern multicultural mix, but there is also something primitive and tribal about the place. A poor, culturally divided and frankly backward country, with many of the people we meet dreaming of Western lifestyles and trying to make it to America, it nevertheless exerts an elemental force of attraction through its land, history and powerful family ties. Blood binds and blood divides but home is where the heart is.

—Alex Good
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Financial Times  ^top

an excerpt

Penkov has a fine ear for cross-bred languages, mixing cliché and misunderstanding in comical ways (“The second stroke”, writes the narrator of “Makedonija”, “left half of Nora paralysed, and all of her mute”).

The irascible, energetic spirit of East of the West is perhaps best encapsulated by the narrator of “Devshirmeh”, a father who has lost his wife and job and who, on watching his wealthy neighbours sail their luxury yachts, experiences yad – a Bulgarian word whose meaning is, he says, “like spite, rage, anger, but more elegant, more complicated”.

—Emily Stokes
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The Guardian  ^top

Bulgaria past and present, its magical fables, absurdist realities and political exigencies, are presented through the eyes of homesick emigrés and those who have remained. Penkov's stories combine toughness, vulnerability and bravado: from the sorrow of the young man in the title piece, divided from nearby Serbia and his tantalising westernised cousin by a river-crossing and a lifetime of hesitation, to the jealousy and eventual tenderness of an old man when he discovers ancient love letters sent to his now stroke-paralysed wife. Penkov's heavily American-accented English can grate, but he applies humour and compassion in equal measure: this is a sparkling collection.

—Catherine Taylor
The Guardian


"Miroslav Penkov spins magical tales. There is great humor here, and wonderful characters you will never forget. You will love this book. I cannot praise it highly enough."

Ellen Gilchrist, author of Nora Jane  and Victory Over Japan

"Miroslav Penkov is an extraordinary writer. There is a kind of magic at work in EAST OF THE WEST, a beautiful alchemy that combines wisdom and imagery, soul and story to render, finally, the pure gold these tales truly are. May many more books follow this one!"

Bret Lott, author of Jewel and Reed's Beach

"Miroslav Penkov has successfully trapped two elusive creatures: the absurd beauty of Eastern Europe and the emotional paradox of self-exile from that absurdity. His sense of history, his sense of humor, and his ability to create lasting characters make this book a dark yet hilarious pleasure."

Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian and The Swan Thieves

"I suspect that Miroslav Penkov would be a wonderful writer in any language, but lucky for us, it happens to be English, and what funny, tender, tragic, and soulful stories he spins from his adopted tongue. East of the West is, simply put, one of the best collections I have read in years, ambitious and accomplished enough in scope to encompass east, west, and all stations in between."

Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

"Miroslav Penkov unpacks his stories with great skill, drawing the reader so deeply into the world he has created that when the magic comes - a father wrapping his son's eyelash in a handkerchief - it knocks the wind right out of you. EAST OF THE WEST captures the moments that prove we are truly living."

Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief

"There is something magical in Miroslav Penkov's stories. They evoke the forested mountains and peasant villages of the Balkans... But there is also something un-charming, un-picturesque, and un-romantic in Penkov's work, and this is what makes it important. His tough, true depiction of his tragic homeland's long history of wars, oppression, division, and genocide provides the real magic of this wonderful book."

Molly Giles, author of Creek Walk and Iron Shoes

"East of the West is an astonishing debut—a work of singular vision, part fictive history, part fairy tale, that somehow explains this mysterious country. Yet the work is hardly enigmatic: rather than use exoticism as a cloying curtain, it presents the scent of the unfamiliar to draw us to a nuanced understanding—revealing yet universal—of what it is to be a small part in a large story."

Sabina Murray, author of The Caprices and A Carnivore's Inquiry


Miro Cover illustration: Peter Sis
Miroslav Penkov