Book Review: East Of The West by Miroslav Penkov

My review of East Of The West
Not only are we the only people to reverse the head signals for yes and no, but we Bulgarians also hold the dubitable honor of being really sad people. To some readers, Miroslav Penkov’s East Of The West: A Country In Stories may not seem to dispel the idea much. There is a profound difference between sad and melancholic and a large chasm between lugubrious and stoically wistful. Penkov’s book is about Bulgaria and a very Bulgarian ethos informs it, but ultimately, it is a thoroughly moving, beautifully-written collection of short stories about love, blood, ideals, and borders. Its stories are the product of exile–literal and metaphorical, yet this homelessness is also the story of a journey–at times a very Odyssian journey to a place that only exists in one’s mind and resides in our blood.
Language plays an integral role in East Of The West–like a lot of writers for whom English is a second language, Penkov’s love affair with it is palpable and he engages the readers’ senses with its richness. He is “lexicon drunk.” With great ingenuity, Penkov wryly inserts Bulgarianisms throughout the book [Sinko, for example, refers to a “young son,” and is not just a proper name] or yad is defined as “what lines the inside of every Bulgarian soul. Yad is like spite, rage, anger, but more elegant, more complicated. It’s like a pity for someone, regret for something you did or did not do, for chance you missed, for an opportunity you squandered.”
East Of The West is also an eerily accurate yet non-didactic primer on Bulgarian history–it manages to cover almost all pivotal points such as the Ottoman Empire [or Turkish yoke, as it is commonly referred to], komiti, gorilla fighters living in dugouts, the advent of communism, the Macedonia-Bulgarian separation, the fall of communism. To read it is to inhale and grasp some important milestones in the shaping of the Bulgarian spirit, if you will. At times the “centuries-old wrath of the slave,” moves mountains, literally, at other times, these ideals ring hollow and only reaffirm their own meaninglessness as in the story of “East Of The West” where a young couple dies just because they live on the opposite sides of a river separating Bulgaria from Macedonia. As the protagonist’s seemingly-communist-for-life Grandfather in “Buying Lenin,” says “What kind of a world is this where people and goats die in dugouts for nothing at all? And so I lived as though ideals really mattered.” Ideals are simultaneously metaphoric and metamorphic.
One of these ideals is the struggle for freedom/liberation and here the very Bulgarian theme of the mountain really towers. The mountain is where all the freedom fighters hide, where people live in hideouts, but more than its geographical advantage, the mountain is literally the mother that holds anyone in need in her bosom and protects those who call for her help. People move mountains and the mountain is moved by them/moves for them. In “Devshirmeh,” the girl beset by the sultan’s army begs, “Planino, please hide us in your bosom.” The song, “I got no father, I got no mother. Father to scorn me. Mother to mourn me. My father – the mountain. My mother – the shotgun,” really underscores its mythical, moving power.
Penkov also uses incredibly evocative metaphors to underscore the pull of that blood–not in a literal genetic sense but in the sense of some ancestral knowledge or visceral call that cannot be erased by distance or time. In “Buying Lenin,” he poignantly describes the intense loneliness and longing for [a] home he feels as a student here in the US; he has mastered the language but this knowledge is at times pointless and even worse…poisonous in further removing him from home: “My ears rang, my tongue swelled up. I went on for months, until one day I understood that nothing I said mattered to those around me. No one knew where I was from, or cared to know. I had nothing to say to this world…I cradled the receiver, fondled the thin umbilical cord of the phone that stretched ten thousand miles across the sea.” He desperately wants to make anyone hear, or at least feel, what he is experiencing in this exile, but ultimately, he can only reassure himself that “blood is thicker than the ocean.” And even though he had rebelled against his Grandpa’s seemingly laughable veneration of Lenin, he comes to realize that he and Lenin are alike in some small but human sense –“Like me he had spent his youth abroad, in exile. He sounded permanently hungry and cold.” In “Devshirmeh,” blood literally speaks, underscoring the pride in one’s heritage that is so integral to the Bulgarian ethos: “It is your blood you spill. My blood runs in her veins and hers in mine. Blood will make us see.”
The life in exile is a thread that runs through many of the stories and is a trenchant commentary on the immigrant limbo. One of the characters yearns to just sit with his Grandfather under the black grapes of the trellised vine. They are all looking back, nostalgic and wistful, to a place that really only lives in their minds, but looking back is dangerously heavy and weighs one down–“you either turn to a pillar of stone or lose your beloved into Hades.”
East Of The West’s heroes are not heroic in the traditional sense–in an incredibly creative way, the book lauds the “un”heroic cowards, if you will, because “cowardice” is reality and living alone takes courage. In “Makedonjia,” a husband bravely reads to his ailing wife letters she had received from her first love–“their love was foolish, childish, sugar-sweet, the kind of love that, if you are lucky to lose it, flares up like a thatched roof but burns as long as you live. I am just her husband and she is my wife.” The story is a melancholic but beautiful rumination on aging and love and love’s aging as well. “Isn’t it good to be so young that you can lose a tooth and not even notice?” it asks. The line “a man ought to be able to undress his wife from all the years until she lies before him naked in youth again” illustrates Penkov’s brilliant gift of prose and profound skill at character studies. East Of The West is not a sad book–it is existential yet thoroughly in touch with magical that lives in everything seemingly pedestrian. Ultimately, it is a truly penetrating yet drolly mirthful look into the “deep dark Slavic soul.”

Book Review: Another Bullshit Night In Suck City by Nick Flynn

My book review

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City [on which the film Being Flynn is based] is Nick Flynn’s autobiographical memoir, yet it is as much his story as it is his father’s story, especially apropos because his father’s “literary masterpiece,” will not see the light of day save through his son’s pen. It’s as though through the chain of words, like a literary trail of crumbs, he is attempting to both know and locate his absentee father. The book simultaneously constructs a father out of letters and words, and masterfully documents Nick’s bifurcated take on him—equal parts fascination with this man who or may not be the literary genius he proclaims himself to be and equal parts dread that he may be “like his father.”

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City is set in and around Boston, where Nick grows up with his brother, raised by his far-too-overworked Mom, after his father leaves when he is 4. After a stint in jail and a series of alcohol-induced screw ups, Jonathan resurfaces when he comes to the homeless shelter where Nick works. His limited sense of his father up to that point comes from the bravado-laden letters to Nick, filled with Jonathan’s self-avowals about his earned spot in the pantheon of great American writers and his always upcoming but never really materializing masterpiece of a novel. While Jonathan manifests as an absence in his son’s life, his non-presence couldn’t be more momentous to Nick, not the least of which because Nick is a writer. That very absence is ample kindle for the “who am I and what is my blood” fire and the mythos of him can only grow by virtue of his larger-than-life persona. At its most fundamental level, the source of the tension of their father-son relationship is not wanting to be like his “deadbeat Dad” while wondering how much like him he really is, especially if he really is the undiscovered writing genius he says he is. Discovering the family history is, thus, a road to a more complete sense of personhood yet it is littered with emotional potholes and craters.

Nick Flynn is a talented poet and it shines in his prose, which often flows like a Zen koan. For one, the story is not told chronologically and relies on some really interesting devices—there is a play in one of the chapters, a poem in another, extended allegories in several other spots, like the ones about Noah and Dostoevsky. His language is phenomenally rich and vibrant and beats with a life of its own. And more importantly, while the subject matter is sad, it is not lugubrious or self-pitying, nor is it matter-of-fact. A beautifully-written, instantly gripping story, refreshingly devoid of hero-villain dichotomies, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City’s title rings especially true–this story could take place in any city, on any night. One gets the sense that this is some kind of archetypal tragi-comic play that has been and will be acted out eternally: “Each man has a role—one will be the lunatic king, one will be the fool. One will offer dire warnings, one will plot against us, one will try to help.” And the role of the son will, inevitably, be played by Nick or someone else. The parts of the book that narrate Nick’s time at the Pine Street Inn offer a rare glimpse into the lives of the nameless and the faceless. Nick steers clear of moralistic asides, instead opting to offer us a glimpse of the daily but not the pedestrian. “Nothing in this shelter makes more sense, makes me understand my purpose more, than to kill bugs on a homeless man’s flesh, to dress him well in donated, cast-off clothes, to see him the next day laughing besides a burning barrel.”

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City is, essentially, about homelessness—literally and in the sense of being permanently lost and adrift in the sea of life. Nick Flynn’s metaphor of standing in one place, if you are lost, so you may be found is especially poignant when he adds, “but they never tell you what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting.” Later on, he continues, “I see no end to being lost. It isn’t a station you reach but just the general state of going down.” The novel is haunted by the specter of the ever-presence yet utter invisibility of being lost, especially palpable and trenchant when personified by the ghosts of the homeless who are seemingly all around us, yet entirely invisible to us. The vent that his father sleeps on in the winter is no less a prison because it has no walls: “The blower is a room of heat with no walls. My father stands in this room, an invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city.” He has “plenty of places to go, but no place to be.”

My Interview With Chef Jacob Hunter from Matchbox

Fashion District Flavors w/Chef Jacob Hunter of Matchbox

Chef Jacob Hunter of Matchbox literally wears his love of cooking on his sleeve–he’s got a vibrant, palate-stirring/palette-spanning array of food tattoos on his forearms, including a so, so scandalously delicious giant scanwich. And like a true Atlanta-ite, he references Outkast as one of his favorite groups, who often give nods to Atlanta’s rich culinary heritage in their lyrics [“And if you like fish and grits and all that…”].

Growing up in Atlanta, he was cooking with family from an early age–his Mom is Italian and he cooked BBQ and gumbo with his Dad. “In high school, I worked as a busboy and server and eventually, when it was time to go to college, I decided to go to culinary school because it sounded kind of easy–I hadn’t really thought about how much work and what long hours chefing is. It’s intense.”
After attending the Art Institute of Atlanta, Jacob started working with Levy Restaurants, a massive food group that works with most of the major arenas and stadiums. One of the perks of the job was getting to see concerts. Jacob rattles off The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, Tool, Bjork, and his hometown Outkast as his favorites. After stints in Chicago, and travel in Florida, California, and Wisconsin, he joined McCormick & Schmick’s as executive chef. He was looking to move South until things went south with his girlfriend and he stayed in DC, finding a job with Matchbox as a sous chef. “I turned down a lot of money to start at what seemed like a lower position, but you gotta go with your gut, you know. It just seemed like the right move for me.” Working his way up, he is now an executive chef and also serves on the operations board, which allows him to consult on the opening of new locations.

“I still really enjoy cooking Italian, BBQ [we participated in the BBQ Battle last year and it was a lot of fun and a lot of work–there is an art to good BBQ], and Asian. I also really like putting a fine dining spin on comfort food, kind of like what Thomas Keller does at the French Laundry.” He laments the lack of a proper taco stand here in DC and cites Little Serow, Toki Underground, Mandu, Mike Isabella’s Graffiato, and small noodleshops in Chinatown as some of his haunts.
“Sandwiches are my favorite food and I love Scanwiches so much that I got one of theirs as a tattoo. I also have a beet, fried eggs, a pig, and utensils on my forearms. I plan on getting some peanuts, as well as bottle of wine pouring out a giant wave ala the stylized Japanese waves. I go to Butch at Champion Tattoo. Some of these he did totally freehand–like the beet one, he just drew on there with a Sharpie! I was a little nervous, but it turned out amazing!”

For Fashion District, Chef Hunter will be preparing a tuna tartare in a crispy rice paper cup [fry a rice paper wrapper normally used for spring rolls], with some sesame, sriracha, soy sauce, nori, and a diced apple and golden beet.