East of the West
A Country in Stories
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 226 pp., $24
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."
In Defense of Nature's Most Unloved Plants
Ecco: 324 pp., $25.99
Some of our favorite naturalists hail from England — fine gardeners, wild-eyed birders, itinerant collectors, gleaners and foragers — no hedgerow left unexplored! Richard Mabey is the latest generation of celebrity naturalists in England — with his TV and radio series, and newspaper and magazine columns he has inspired viewers and readers to get out, poke around, and find food in unexpected places. In "Weeds" Mabey takes on the true vagabonds of the plant world, the "botanical thugs," the world's least-loved plants (superweeds like kudzu, knotgrass, burdock and many others) that have re-vegetated battlefields, war zones and abandoned urban wastelands all around the ungrateful world. Mabey prowls through the archives to find weeds as familiars, lurking in our "folk memory," locked in a symbiotic relationship with humans. Like Michael Pollan in "The Botany of Desire," Mabey shows that it is not at all clear here who is in charge, who has the moral high ground and who will survive long after the last weed has been pulled from the last over-tended suburban acre.
A Book of Secrets
Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 258 pp., $26
Michael Holroyd has earned the right to move great literary figures across the landscape of his imagination. Set in and around the Villa Cimbrone in the medieval village of Ravello on the Italian coast, "A Book of Secrets" combines memoir and biography to reveal a glimmer of the lives of people who lived and visited Cimbrone:
, E.M. Forster, the Prince of Wales,
, Violet Trefusis, and Eve
(muse and model of Rodin). Holroyd chases these ghosts around the grounds of the palazzo like a character in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Every so often he veers into the present, his own illustrious life — a visit to
or a memory of his own visits to Cimbrone, "a castle reached, as in a fairy story, by two steep and wandering paths leading from the square at Ravello and finally opening on a dream garden that overlooked the Mediterranean far below."