Monday, 31 January 2011

Life According to Lubka or How an English Woman Perceives Bulgarians

Life according to Lubka is simple. It is all about the little pleasures of life, which we see all the time but somehow fail to notice. It is about dressing up nicely when you are home alone just to watch a movie. Out of respect for yourself.

Life according to Lubka is about facing all the obstacles in front of you with a smile and positivism. Lubka's husband and child died but she didn't give up her life. She continues to grasp every opportunity and to enjoy it. Life according to Lubka is to be a fighter.

Life according to Lubka is to understand that whatever happens to you is the right thing at the moment. Life according to Lubka is to accept it, deal with it and continue your life in the best possible way.

Life according to Lubka is to do the right thing even if no one is watching you. Life according to Lubka is to believe in God or in some universal power that guides you through. After all, as Lubka asks "If there was no God, why are there stars and sky. It could have been nothing"

Life according to Lubka is to sing. Sing with your heart even if you have a terrible voice. Sing even if you don't know the exact words. Sing in front of other people or alone. Sing to live.

Who is Lubka? Lubka is a 40 something year-old Bulgarian grandma, part of Gorni Grannies - Bulgarian singers that perform typical folklore music. They are on a tour in the USA and the UK under the control of the nervous and cold-hearted PR consultant Buzz Wexler. Having never left their (or should I say my?!) home country the grannies are perplexed by the luxurious hotels, the free staff, the shops, and the foreign culture. The five grannies, which of which more lovingly weird, and their unbelievable vicissitudes are about to change the control-freakish Buzz, who has not cared for anything in her life besides botox, alcohol, drugs, and success. The clash between the Bulgarian quintet and the "American dream" is hilarious -
insane incidents filled with humour, irony, and a lot of wisdom. Kichka, a kleptomaniac, gets kidnapped by mistake. Stanka is constantly surrounded by her grandson, most probably connected to Eastern European mafia, and his bodyguards. Dora cries constantly about her goat and from time to time calls her on the phone. Tsveta meets her daughter in the US, who joins the singing grannies. And finally - Lubka. Lubka is a fighter and a leader. Having lost her husband and child, the Bulgarian singer continues to explore life with a child-like fascination. Her passion for life is about to change the cynical Buzz Wexler. And even help her when the unbelievable happens to Buzz.

If you are looking for a serious book close this review straight away. However, if you want to laugh with five Bulgarian grannies on the verge of civilization, Life according to Lubka is your book. Funny, light, and seemingly unpretentious, the novel offers truths about life, well hidden between humorous situations, scandals, and troubles. Laurie Graham created her heroines with such vivid imagination and satire that they quickly become favorites of the reader.

I have lived for almost three years now in the UK and I still have no definite answer to how the English perceive us, Bulgarians. Some are fascinated with our distinct culture. The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices even had a show in Manchester a few months back. Many want to visit Bulgaria because of the great ski tourism or alternatively for the so called sex tourism on the seaside. Others are politically skeptical about Bulgaria joining the EU. They see us as a poor slowly developing country pushing the EU backwards. Some ask whether we will have electricity on Christmas day due to the gas crisis in Russia. And still there are those who do not even know whether Bulgaria is in Europe or in Asia. All of them are fascinated with the way Bulgarians drink and party, comparing us even to Russians ( I don't know whether to take this as a compliment or as an insult).

Laurie Graham offers another perspective. The perspective of the Bulgarian folklore and the way it teaches you to live. According to Lubka.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Benefits of Insomnia for the Literary Talent (or the lack of such)

In the light of my exam period (which is stressing the hell out of me) I started searching for ways to relax myself after endless hours spent with financial textbooks. Having drunk more than 2 l of coke and several coffees a day, I found myself at about 2 am every night no closer to sleep but absolutely unable to memorize anything more. Thus, I looked for things to do until sleep rescued me from my insomnia.

Reading (surprisingly) was out of the question. When you spend 12 hours a day reading, the last thing you want to do at 2 am is read again. Even if it is the most interesting novel ever. Movies? After watching movies three nights in a row I got bored. Facebooking? People seem not to be very active after midnight (don't they have exam?) so this was pretty boring as well. Finally, I started looking through my folders for old forgotten pictures, weird documents, funny presentations, etc. And then I found it. The folder titled "The Book". Last modified July, 2010. The book I bragged to everyone, who was willing to listen that I am going to write. Like most of the things I start and never finish. My first literary attempt was staring at me from the computer desktop. I had written 1 chapter. 1 chapter for all the bragging I had done. Shame on me.

I read the chapter and believe me I didn't recognize the person, who has written it. Had I changed so much for the past 6 months or is it normal for an author not to recognize his voice after a certain period of time? But the period of time was only 6 months? So I disregarded my second proposition and sticked to the first one - I had changed a lot. Thus I needed a new book. A new start.

I deleted the whole folder and I started over again. Slowly but surely, for the past three nights I have written three chapters. I have noticed that inspiration always hits me at about 2am and lasts till about 6am. I can never write during the day.

I have changed the whole concept of the book I am about to write (hopefully). First, I decided to write it from 1st person point of view. Now it is 3rd person point of view. First I decided to write it chronologically. Now it is a mixture of going backward and forward. First, I wanted to keep the original names of all people. Now I am changing them.

Obviously you realized it is going to be a story about me. About my life. Or most specifically, about a certain period of my life. I am not sure whether someone will be interested in reading about me. Even if it is in 3rd person point of view. But I feel that I want to share it. I feel that I want to show what I have learned through my numerous mistakes. I want to show how many times I have fallen down and how I managed to get up. Even if one person finds wisdom in my writing, I will feel I have reached my purpose.

There is only one problem with my book. I know the beginning. I know what I want to say in the middle. But I don't know the end. I think I am very far from the end, actually. So I will keep writing until I feel I know the answer to what the ending should be. I will revise and change and one day I hope I will see my writing attempts in someone else's library.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Carlos Ruiz Zafon and The Shadow of the Wind

Imagine a novel that features suspense, tension, surprise, unexpected turning points, and an unbelievable outcome. Imagine a novel about adulthood that combines history, drama, love, and crime. Imagine a novel that offers excellent plot combined with triumphant writing style. Imagine a novel that keeps you awake during the night just to discover what happens at the end. Imagine a masterpiece. This is Carlos Ruis Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. The novel, set in post-Civil war Barcelona is a story about a boy that starts a strange and dangerous quest upon the discovery of a mysterious novel.

Daniel is a 10-years-old boy, who is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten books, a collection of rare and old forgotten titles collected by passionate readers. According to the tradition the boy has to pick one novel and protect it for life. The book that Daniel chooses is about to change his life for real. The Shadow of the Wind is a novel by the mysterious Julian Carax. The author has disappeared a few years ago (most probably killed) and a dangerous stranger goes around burning any left copies from his works. The stranger calls himself Lain Coubert, the devil from one of Carax's novels. The copy that Daniel has is the last one and the boy is ready to do anything to protect it. Together with his friend Fermin and his beloved Beatrice Daniel starts an adventure to discover the true identity of Julian and the reason for the destruction of all of his novels. Completely immersed by Carax's talent, Daniel risks his life and the life of his friends and family to discover a secret kept hidden for several decades. As the story unravels and Daniel uncovers Julian's tragic destiny, the boy grows up, reevaluates love, betrayal, and loyalty and realizes the similarities between his life and the life of Carax.

Ruiz Zafon is a phenomenon in contemporary world literature. The Spanish writer takes the reader on a road through the amazing sites of Barcelona, encompassing multiple story lines to arrive at a complicated plot definitely worth experiencing. Once acquainted with Safon, I cannot wait to get more. Next on my wish list are The Angel's Game and The Prince of Mist. These three novels are part of Safon's tetralogy, which promises to stay in literature history as one of the best mystery collections ever.

If you are fascinated with Carlos Ruiz Zafon, be sure to visit his UK website at It features an interview with the author, interesting trivia about why he became a writer, and lists of things he likes or admires. For the first time I happen upon a website, where the author communicated directly with his fans. I would like to see more of that.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A Clockwork Orange - Burgess's Rebellion against Political Brainwashing

"A clockwork orange is a creature capable of doing only good or evil - an organic entity, full of juice and sweetness and agreeable odour, being turned into an automaton". A Clockwork Orange is Anthony Burgess's rebellion against brainwashing and political suppression. Born in 1961, the novel shocked the audience with its frightening ideas about a social order, controlled by the ultimate political power. Nearly 50 years later, Burgess is acknowledged as a prophet; his rebellion against a depersonalized system, which creates identical individuals driven by their animal instincts and forced to obey mechanical laws is more true now than ever.

The protagonist and story-teller, Alex, is a 15-years-old rebel, who wanders around the streets of London with his friends, Peter, Georgie, and Dim. The boy is positively conditioned to feelings of evil, which prevent his exercise of free will. Alex and his friends enjoy robbing, beating, and raping other people; their life is subjected to constant violence and crimes. The rebellion of Alex somewhat reminds the reader of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Yet, Burgess's character is much more brutal, cynical, and sinister. Despite Alex's agressive actions, the reader feels empathy towards the young boy. Born and raised in a political regime, which suppresses people's free will and conditions them to either good or evil, Alex is destined to go the wrong way. The boy expresses his rebellion through deliberately hurting other people. In one of their games of fun, Alex and his friends accidentally kill an old woman. Left behind by his so-called buddies, Alex is imprisoned for murder. After several years spent in prison, the boy is offered sudden freedom in exchange of participating in a so-called behavior-modification treatment, called the Ludovico Technique. Alex is forced to watch violent movies, the result being he feels nausea at the mere thought of violence. The results after this questionable method are difficult to analyze. It seems as if the government is doing society a favor by eliminating violent behavior in criminals; in reality, this brainwashing is a warning against the dangerous control of the human mind. The progress of medicine allows certain political parties and groups to use medicaments and techniques to eliminate free will and to substitute it with a frightening form of control, which distorts a person's ability to exercise his right to choose. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have expressed similar ideas respectively in Brave New World and 1984 by portraying a society of identical individuals, controlled through different mechanisms in order to obey to a political doctrine. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess depicts the socially unacceptable brainwashing of people through the story of a single individual. Despite the strange situations, in which Alex finds himself, the reader still feels close to his sufferings. After all, as Burgess implies, we must not let ourselves become clockwork oranges - people driven by their animal instincts or controlled by mechanical powers. We must protect and fight for our right to choose.

One of the most interesting aspects of A Clockwork Orange is the language in which Alex and his gang speak. A mixture of English, Russian, Gypsy, German, and a language invented by Burgess himself, this language style contributes to the immense philosophical power of the book. In 1961 the author predicted that in several decades people will be talking mainly in two languages - English and Russian. From my point-of-view this cannot be more true. Having studied in English for more than 7 years now, I constantly use English words in my everyday dictionary and so do my friends. Globalization is spreading at such a fast rate, that borders, languages, and nationalities have less and less meaning. This strange language is called by Burgess Nadsad. I benefit from speaking both Russian and English and I understand quite easily all the words. For the non-Russian speaking readers of Burgess, though, comprehending the novel was much more difficult. Still, Burgess refused to provide a dictionary for his invented language; the author claimed that the novel must be felt rather than understood completely.

The meaning of the title is of a surrealistic individual with a mechanism. Burgess has learned that in Malaysian orang means human. This is how the author came up with the rather unusual concept of an orange driven my mechanical laws. Burgess's life also contributed to his infatuation with the concepts of good and evil. His first wife was beaten up and lost their child. While he spent time in the USSR with his second wife, Burgess noticed that the young gangs run wild unpunished by the police, whose main aim is to protect the Communist power.

A Clockwork Orange is not a bite for every mouth. It is brutal, vulgar, cynical, and violent. The way Alex and his friends speak and think, their actions and lack of social conscience is frightening. Yet the author ingeniously points out that artificially conditioning them to do only good is not a better alternative either. This mechanical intervention into the complexities of the human mind creates clockwork oranges - people driven by mechanical laws rather than by their free will. The novel, as 1984 and A Brave New World, is revolutionary for its time. It criticizes a social order that has not yet appeared but with the advancements of technology and medicine is scarily very close to us.

It is unnecessarily to say that I loved the book a lot. I was amazed by Burgess's style, by his invention of a totally new language, by his ability to portray the rebellion of a single individual against a socially wrong system, something no author has done in such a dimension. Interestingly, the last, 21st chapter was not published in the US until 1986. In it, the protagonist Alex finally sees the errors of his lifestyle, decides against violence, and commits to changing his life. Publishers in the US told Burgess that readers would never go for the last chapter and Alex's transformation. Even the film adaption of Stanley Kubrick, which became a hit, did not feature this last chapter. Kubrick sees it as inconsistent and unconvincing. Still, Burgess's idea of originally using 21 chapters divided into three parts of 7 chapters had its meaning; the author believed that the age of 21 was a milestone, upon which a character enters into maturity and realizes his mistakes. I am glad this translation in Bulgarian includes the last chapter, because this was the original intention of the author. Anthony Burgess is brilliant and I have no doubt in his better judgement.

PS: Thanks to A Clockwork Orange I met Hristo from Knigolandia. He asked me while I was reading the book in a cafe whether I liked the translation. Having read the whole novel I must admit I love it. Being the second translation of the book after censorship in 1989 fell, I believe the translator has done an amazing job in capturing Burgess's ideas, yet sounding modern and close to contemporary youths.

The Noticer - Positive Thoughts for the Dummies

Inspired by the amazing reviews read in the newspapers, I finally bought Andy Andrews's novel of positive thoughts, The Noticer. A huge huge disappointment. The author is celebrated as one of the most influential American authors; he has read lectures as a personal favor to four American presidents. His novels are worldwide bestsellers. So what? The Noticer just doesn't do it for me.

My father was the first one to read it and he just said "Well this book is a joke". I know my father and his skepticism towards the so-called "self-help books". So I didn't really believe his review. Unfortunately, this time he was right.

The Noticer is the story of an old man called Jones (not Mr Jones, just Jones), who goes around Alabama talking to its citizens and pointing out what is wrong with their lives and how it can be fixed. As the old man says himself "I am a Noticer. I notice things that are invisible to other people. " So far so good. Jones insists that for one to change his lifestyle, one just needs a new better perspective. Indeed true. Andy Andrews's ideas are brilliant but their implementation is just mediocre. The Noticer consists of several tales, in which Jones meets a person or a family with a problem, talks to them for several hours and suddenly changes their life for good. Call me realist, pessimist, or cynic, but this is highly unlikely to happen in the real world. If we could fix our problems by just talking to a wise old man, then there will be no problems to solve. I mean, the self-destructive habits that rule our life are rooted so deeply that it takes more than one talk to change them. Not so in the novel though. Upon talking to Jones, people miraculously realize all their wrongdoings and start changing their lives for the better. I do not buy this even a bit. Having experience a lot of problems and a lot of people with problems, I can claim with certainty that this kind of talk will only provoke ridicule and laughter. It would never change the person.

Do not get me wrong. I know The Noticer is just a novel and I might be judging it far too severely. However, I have read many psychological and positive books and I know what I am talking about. Some novels, like Laurent Gounelle's touch your heart and show you the SLOW and DIFFICULT process of realizing your mistakes and fixing them. In Laurent Gounelle's literature, the protagonist again meets his old man but the process of transformation last a lot more than one conversation and is accompanied by disbelief, rejection, suspicion, and downfalls. And indeed, this makes it more realistic and close to the human heart. What Andrews does is create a positive novel for the dummies: "You will meet a strange old man, who will point out all of your misfortunes, you will realize your mistakes, and you will start changing them within 10 minutes". This really sounds like positive thoughts for the dummies. I have had my problems, people have shared their wisdom with me in their 15 minutes of fame, and trust me, this has changed nothing. The only feelings it has provoked in me are hostility and anger towards the unasked advisor.

The only thing I liked in the novel is Jones's metaphor about the four different ways people love. Some people love with words; they need to hear the actual words and express their affection similarly. These people are like dogs, who constantly need your approval to feel appreciated. Other people love with their actions. They will iron your shirt, cook you diner, fix the house, and they expect the same from you in return. These people are goldfish - the goldfish care whether you change their water or give them food. Third people love with their touch. They express positive affection by staying closely to their beloved. They are cats, who need attention and a gentle hand to feel loved. The last group of people love with time. They measure love by the time spent with the object of their affection. They are canary birds. The canary birds just wants someone to stay close by and to listen to its song.

I must admit the above metaphor is quite original and interesting. What Andrews ingeniously points out is the reason that many marriages fall apart, is that people express their love differently. What is more, the way they express their love is the way they expect their spouse expresses it as well. Thus, even though people may still love each other, they are confused and lost and fail to revive their relationship.

Given the above, if you are looking for a positive self-help book, look somewhere else. Andy Andrews's The Noticer is just too shallow a reading for intelligent people like us.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Shogun - A novel of Japan

The year is 1600. The English pilot John Blackthorn serving on the Dutch ship Erasmus is shipwrecked on the coast of Japan. He and his crew are taken captive by the local Japanese samurai. This is the beginning of Blackthorn's life changing adventure in the fields of Japan. The sailor, a Barbarian and an English Protestant is at first reluctant to understand the Japanese culture. In the 17th century the Japanese culture is highly different from the European one. It is based on the ideas of duty, courage, and respect. The Japanese samurai are extremely loyal to their master; for them this loyalty transforms into a life purpose and a form of self respect. They are even obligated to kill themselves (sepuku, or more famous as harakiri) or their families as an act of subordination to their governor. Polite and in the same time proud, the Japanese value their rituals and traditions, aiming to protect them from outside influence.

Years after Magellan made his famous voyage around the world, the Europeans are struggling to gain control and influence in the distant island country. When Blackthorn arrives on the coast of Japan, it is already highly populated with Spanish and Portuguese priests. They are spreading Catholicism by trying to convert as many Japanese from their Buddhist believes and are controlling the trade with China and the rest of the world. At the time of the novel, England is at holy war with both Spain and Portugal. While the latter are Catholics, the English have already separated from the Pope's Church in Protestantism. This peculiarity determines the complex relationship between Blackthorn and the Jesuits. Seen as an enemy of the right Faith by the Spanish and the Portuguese and as a dangerous barbarian by the locals, the English pilot finds himself in the middle of a severe conflict. Slowly but surely, Blackthorn gets acquainted with the Japanese customs and traditions; he learns to be polite and considered, to take showers regularly, and to eat only fish, fruit, and vegetables. He is given a Japanese name, Anjin, which means pilot. The more time he spends among the Japanese, the more Anjin starts to appreciate their culture as his own. He slowly forgets his old habits, his country, his wife. Even though he constantly searches for ways to travel back home, the reader feels that Blackthorn's affection with Japan grows. This is strengthened by his learning of the language and by his love for Mariko, one of the most powerful Japanese women.

Blackthorn's knowledge soon makes him one of the closest samurai and hatamoto to the daimyo (that is Japanese ruler) Toranaga. Shogun is actually based on true historical events, several months before the critical battle of Sekigahara. The country is on the verge of a civil war, since all of the powerful daimyo aim at the highest title possible - the shogunate. Shogun is a hereditary military dictator, the most powerful person in Japan.

It is difficult to write a review and to try and incorporate all the delicate aspects of this masterpiece. Shogun is nearly 1200 pages long, which feature a thorough comprehension of the Japanese culture and customs. Clavell's talent is visible throughout the novel; the author successfully mixes the historical drama with the political drama; he focuses on love, sex, pride, glory, and duty in order to give a comprehensive picture of Japan in the 17th century. I absolutely loved Shogun, the first novel of his Asian saga, which also includes King Rat, Tai Pan, and Noble House. All of these novels center on Europeans in Asia and examine the consequences of the clash between the Eastern and the Western civilizations. Clavell's knowledge on the subject is extensive; his long descriptions do not bore the reader but add to the full image of the Eastern cultures. I have read reviews that Shogun is far too long and that some of the parts must be omitted in favor of concision. I disagree completely. There is not a single chapter I would delete or shorten. Clavell does an amazing job in understanding and exploring the motives and values of the Japanese samurai.

I loved two words from the novel. One of them is "karma". The Japanese accept whatever happens to them by simply exclaiming "Karma". They regard life as temporary and as a gate to death, which is eternal.The second one is "ya". It refers to the physical and mental balance of the human being. As Mariko, Blackthorn's lover explains, when you learn to drink tea from an empty glass or to watch a stone grow, then you are in perfect balance with yourself. In addition to being a historical masterpiece about the great empire of Japan, Shogun is also full of philosophical suggestions. In fact, Westerners have a lot to learn about stability,balance, honor, and respect from the Eastern civilizations.

For 10 days I was immersed in Clavell's world. I learned a lot about Japan, I started thinking about the metaphysical questions and I didn't realize how these nearly 1200 pages flew by me. I would recommend this to anyone.