February is a hard month to love. Say all you want about the plucky groundhog, and rhapsodize on the romance of Cupid; remember the Chinese New Year, American Presidents and throw in a good word for Leap Year but the truth doesn’t change: February in the Northern Hemisphere is a difficult month to love. The Holiday Season disappeared ages ago and the pastel head of Spring is nowhere near to being seen on the horizon. We may be looking at wind or rain next month but right now the weatherman’s two favorite words are “freezing” and “snow” and the outside world almost seems drained of color. In February, it’s hard to avoid getting depressed. To keep the wraiths of February Depression at bay, may I suggest picking up a few books? In their own ways, each of the following stories helps me through these days of relentless cold. I hope they can help you too.
If the rest of the world had to describe Jamaica in three words or less, their list would be: Poverty, Music, and Hot. Politics, Drugs and Religion make the next list but they seem to have grown out of a civilization where life is harsher even if the edges look like Paradise. Marlon James mixes fiction and fact to remember the 1976 Smile concert in Kingston and plot to shorten Bob Marley’s all-too-brief life. The Jamaica of this novel is not the island paradise tourists dream about: it’s as corrupt and violent as Grahame Greene’s Haiti in The Comedians but it’s alive, steaming with a Pot-au-feu of voices that overlap and contradict each other in a patois that you’ll hear coming off the page as you wipe the sweat from your face. Critics have been falling over each other to praise this one since it came out eighteen months ago and now there’s talk of an adaptation but there’s no reason to wait for a movie. Get the book and pay attention. There are dozens of people, living and dead, who have stories to tell and they’re talking. Pick up the book and you’ll be mesmerized, transported and hearing the Wailers, while you sit in a cold, silent February room. This may seem like a harsh alternative but you won’t be cold reading ABH7K. This book is hot.
If you can’t escape the cold, you need to find the good things in it and one of the best is the National Hunt racing season in England. Dick Francis competed as a championship steeplechase jockey before he became an author of popular mysteries and Bolt benefits from his background in British winter Hunt races. You can feel the biting cold of the weather before the starting tapes go up and ignore it (like everyone else) when the excitement of the race begins. Like a lot of good Dick Francis stories, it hinges on an individual’s response when the world piles on pressure: an old man is being bullied into a business decision, a engaged couple’s relationship is under stress because one of them holds a dangerous job. While this is a second book in a series, (The first in the series is Break In) Bolt is easy enough to read as a stand-alone. As a pep-talk about withstanding the stress and cold of a difficult season, Bolt is hard to beat.
Two things I should admit up front: I love the prose style of William Styron and I’m susceptible to Depression. Not little depressions either. More than once my life came apart at the seams and I needed professional and pharmaceutical help to return to Everyday World. It hasn’t happened lately and I keep a weather eye out for the triggers now because I don’t want to go back there again. Depression is a long tumble down a funnel of despair until you pray not to recover (you don’t believe you can) but to hit bottom so at least you won’t fall any further.
Styron experienced this and, faults and all, still managed to come out the other side. Not without scars, but alive and that’s more than so many others. Here he talks of his journey through this disorder of an unending February, the triggers and the unrecognized clues that appeared in his fiction. Styron’s sentences beg to be read aloud and the content is as good as the style but this book has something extra; here is a novelist, without the disguise of fiction, writing so future sufferers will know they are not alone. This book is a boon for any who don’t see a way out of February,
Three books to help you through the month. Hang in there, kiddo and eventually we’ll read ourselves into Spring.