Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cold Snap, a Review

Reading Cold Snap by Cynthia Morrison Phoel one is immediately transported to Bulgaria, where the author served as a Peace Corps volunteer. The linked stories deal with the residents of Old Mountain, a ragged fictitious town some 60 kilometers east of Sofia. Just six stories in total make up this collection. By the time one finishes the book, the characters and their daily struggles are well-known and almost demand a second reading to make sure nothing was missed.

I found Cold Snap to be an amazingly effective title for this short story collection. “Cold Snap” is the name of the concluding, novella-length story that ties all the characters together. It deals with a bitterly cold season, when the residents of the town are forced to endure freezing temperatures as they wait for the central heating to be turned on. Cold snap could also describe the painful fall of Pavletta, whose ankle is broken so loudly that the sound of the cracking bone is carried across the town square.

The term “cold snap” would also be appropriate to describe Phoel’s literary photographic snap of Bulgaria at its coldest, a fictitious picture of the country in its early post-communist days. Then, as now, Bulgarians struggled in their attempts to adapt to the changing times. Some of the characters in the book seek to leave the town where they were raised for a better life in the country’s bigger cities, while others contemplate lives abroad. Learning how the characters deal with the cold spell shows life in Bulgaria at its hardest, but when the central heat finally goes on, hope is renewed for the future.

Each of the stories stands well on its own, but reading them one after another brings up familiar names and themes, making one feel an intimate acquaintance with the residents of Old Mountain. We meet Dobrin, the “Good Boy” of the first story and learn of his unemployed father who has installed the largest satellite dish in town. In “Cold Snap,” Dobrin’s father vacates the sofa where he has been watching football and porn nonstop to make room for Dobin’s mother Pavletta as she nurses her broken ankle back to health.

Some of the other memorable characters include Cucumber, a stray dog barely alive; Ms. Kuneva, the school’s English teacher who teaches her students words used to describe her own shaky life experiences; and Galia, whose parents buy her a husband who doesn’t want a thing to do with her.

In an interview on the Migrant Bookclub blog, author Cynthia Morrison Phoel revealed that she served in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria during the years 1994 to 1996. On that blog, Phoel described that experience:

I lived in Bulgaria for two years, which is a lot of time to internalize a place. And life was probably a bit slower back then. I did not have an internet connection or a cell phone or a T.V. or a car. I was really by myself. I had time to notice things like the color of the sun in the early evening--a thing I'd never noticed until I got to Bulgaria. I'm so grateful for that chance I had to live slowly and to just be where I was.

Phoel now lives near Boston with her husband and three children. Her narratives of Old Mountain and the residents of Bulgaria will warm readers for a long time.

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