Interested in Bulgaria? Moving to the country? Like to read?
Funny, me too.
You can see what I’ve read (and what I’d like to have the time to read) on goodreads. Friend me if you want! I’ve also started a bookshelf for books that are Bulgarian and/or Balkan in scope on goodreads check it out. This said, I am always looking for the next great book on Bulgaria, written by a Bulgaria or set in Bulgaria so let me know. The same goes for the Balkans.
How did this interest in Bulgaria start? Well, I currently live in the country and I like to read.
When I moved to Bulgaria in August 2008, I didn’t know much of anything about the country. I read as much as I could on the internet (thanks wikipedia) and got my hands on a couple of general books including the Lonely Planet Bulgaria travel guide. Since then, I’ve read much, much more about the country, the culture and the region.
Sure it’s been a little bit haphazard. But that’s just how my life has been since I moved to Bulgaria.
So here’s a rundown of things I’ve read, have been reading and have been intending to read.
- Balkan Ghosts: a Journey through History by Robert D. Kaplan. In a word, this is required reading if you’re moving to the Balkans. Even better there’s an excellent chapter on Bulgaria. Kaplan lived here as a young journalist and he paints a good picture of his life here. Oh and as an aside, the Bulgarian-journalist-mentor Kaplan finds upon moving to Sofia and references regularly throughout the book attended the American College of Sofia (where I currently work) before WWII.
- Street without a Name: Childhood and other Misadventures in Bulgaria by Kapka Kassabova. This is a memoir that I love and I think is also required reading for anyone moving to Sofia. It’s a look at life in the 1980′s under communism for a teenage girl and then the act of return as a grown-up and a tourist to the country that she grew up in. It’s bittersweet and I think it encompasses the complexities of change and national identity.
- Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: a Journey in Yugoslavia by Rebeca West. I know, I know. This a book about Yugoslavia and a tome of a book to boot but she’s a story teller–an excellent one. And you can’t (or you shouldn’t) live in Bulgaria and not wander to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia, Macedonia and Kosovo. Which is why you should read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.
- Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories by Cynthia Morrison Phoel. Is a collection of short stories written by a former Peace Corps volunteer in Bulgaria. It’s set in an imagined village so you wont read these stories for a sense of place. Rather you’ll read these short stories for a sense of the people in post-communist Bulgaria.
- Under the Yoke by Ivan Vasov. This is often considered the Bulgarian novel written by one of the Bulgarian authors. I’ve read and re-read the first 75 pages a few time but I’m afraid that I’ve had a hard time getting into it. Basically, it’s a look at life in Bulgaria under the Ottoman Empire with a dash of adventure, rebellion, life and love. The basic problem at the center of the novel is that Bulgarians have been living under foreign domination for 500 year and want to be free but have been unable to achieve this dream.
- The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Kostova’s novel The Historian is a book that you should read for the pure pleasure of it. It’s a mystery, thriller set broadly in the Balkans. Characters find themselves in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Turkey, Greece and a number of other Balkan-ish countries as part of the adventure. While the story requires a decent dose of imagination, Kostova does a great job playing with the sense of mystery Westerners impose on Eastern Europe/the Balkans and an even better job capturing the physical place paper.
- How I Survived Communism & Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulic. This is another not-exactly-Bulgaria book but it’s still worth reading. This memoir is written by a Croatian woman and spans the end of communism in the former Yugoslavia and the lead up to the war. Her look at women’s lives during communism reads as both honest and thoughtful and the book gave me a better sense of life in the Balkans in the late 1970, ’80s and early 1990s.
- Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. This is a strange and wonderful novel that plays with the Baba Yaga myth and cris-crosses Eastern Europe from Croatia to Bulgaria (Sofia and Varna) to the Czech Republic. The women in the novel are wonderful and the parts of the novel set in Varna are heart-wrenching.
- Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey by Isabel Fonseca. The author decides to live with Roma across Eastern Europe in order to research this book–from Albania to Bulgaria to Poland and Romania and a number of countries in between. She identifies the kinds of problems that Roma minorities in Europe face from poverty, language to discrimination. It seems like a pretty honest straightforward look at life for this minority. At times though the structure of the book lacks purpose and direction. Each chapter is a country and Fonseca basically tells some version of the same story for the Roma people in whichever country is currently writing about. This narrative technique isn’t very engaging but the content is.
- Zift by Vladislav Todorov. This isn’t normally my kind of a book. I don’t generally do pulp fiction or crime noir but when it comes to current novels set in Sofia I’ll make an exception. Good thing I did. I really liked this fast paced, gritty but still funny novel. I recognized glimpses and snatches of Sofia today in the piece but at the same time I often felt like this was a city I’d never been to and I’ve lived here for nearly three years.
- East of the West: A Country in Stories by Miroslav Penkov. I devoured this book in an evening. The short stories are engaging, moving and at times incredibly sad. The only thing I felt meh about was the fact that Penkov seems to have a compulsion to work in every possible type of person found in Bulgaria into his short stories including the foreigner, gypsy, the Turkish Muslim minority and even the Bulgarian who has lived abroad and now returns to live in a village. This hit-list of characters felt a little forced but the individual stories are beautiful.
- The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. Is a novel that has been garnering a lot of attention and why not the author is young, beautiful and she has written a incredible story. It’s set in the former Yugoslavia and I couldn’t get enough. I thought that the main character was wonderfully written and that the setting of the story matched my experiences in Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia. What I found most interesting was the way folk-tale and fairy-tale like elements were woven into this otherwise very realistic novel.
- Solo by Rana Dasgupta. There has been a lot of chatter about this book. I don’t know what Dasgupta’s actual relationship is with Bulgaria but by in large he gets the parts set in Bulgaria right from the people to the place and the atmosphere. The novel crosses more than a century and a number of different countries including Bulgaria and at the end the United States. At moments the novel is funny and at times incredibly sad. I’m still not sure what to make of the ending and I am not sure that I loved the ending but I whole-heartedly recommend this book.
The Fulbright recommended these books to me when I won my Fulbright (but most of them are close to 20 years old at this point):
- Bulgaria in Pictures
- A Concise History of Bulgaria (on Kindle and I book that I should probably read)
- Bulgaria at the Crossroads
- The Bulgarian Economy in Transition
- Summer in the Balkans: Laughter and Tears after Communism
- Bulgarian Contributions to European Civilization
- A History of Bulgaria. An Outline (only available from the St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 1998. Yep. A Bulgarian press)
- Imagining the Balkans (on Kindle)
- Bulgarians: Civilizers of the Slavs
- Ancient Gold: The Wealth of the Tracians
- Poets of Bulgaria
- Young Poets of a New Bulgaria: An Anthology
Only I never read a single one of them. Most of them are history books that are currently out of print. Some are available on Amazon.com. Most are out of stock and start at about $50 and seem to cost up to $120. And as much as I love books, even a $120 is too much for me. If you’re in the States though, you might be able to grab some of them through inter-library loan.
Any other books that I should be reading?