I’ve got just the thing for you this week. A good book to lose yourself in, but something deeply thoughtful – so you can distract yourself from the scary state of the world, but with something a bit … worthy, if you know what I mean.
Look at me, recommending an interesting and serious book for interesting and serious people! In fact, my reading pile is stacked with good books – about mushrooms, travel, the history of mountain climbing, daring adventures, you name it – but because my pre-menopausal brain tends to forget information as soon as I’ve read it, I never get to recommend those books to others. Ask me if I’ve read anything good lately and I’ll stare blankly at you, trying to recall something, anything, that I’ve read in the last 40 years. It’s the same with TV programmes. Few things stay with me after the credits have finished rolling.
This book lingers, though. To the Lake by Kapka Kassabova. Actually, all of Kassabova’s books have clung, heroically, to my memory – especially Border, where she travelled around the borderlands of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. To the Lake sees her travel to Lake Ohrid – where Kassabova’s grandmother was from – and Lake Prespa. It’s about the people and history of these two lakes, which straddle the borders of (North) Macedonia, Albania and Greece. But more than that, it’s about Balkan struggles, complicated national identities, and human suffering, particularly how trauma can be passed down from generation to generation.
Sounds like a barrel of laughs, right? I’ll admit, this book was wrenching at times. The things ordinary people go through at the whim of power-crazed nutjobs is chilling. (Like I said, it’s a book that feels appropriate for these times.) But it’s not all darkness. There’s a lot of tenderness in these pages. There are colourful, proud people doing kind, generous things. There are stories of bravery. And of course there’s the natural beauty of these ancient lakes (Europe’s oldest) and the surrounding mountains.
I feel I understand a little more of the Bulgarian psyche, having read this book: the general love of talking about illness (our neighbour used to constantly update us on the health of various people’s kidneys. Even people we’d never met); the typically Bulgarian shrug that says, ‘well, what can you do?’; the mistrust of (or apathy towards) anything official. It makes a little more sense now. Honestly, living here feels like more of a privilege than ever. Especially at this time.
What about you, read anything good lately? How are you keeping sane?