Christmas Spirit with Emily Dickinson

Well, we all had many reasons to complain this year. And I won’t say anything about it since complaining never did anyone any good. However, that is reason enough to get into the holiday spirit somewhat earlier. Festive reds, whites, and greens. The aroma of mulled wine, cinnamon, and nutmeg. A cozy armchair by the fire – or heater. Ella Fitzgerald in the background. And poetry, of course. Emily Dickinson sounds like the perfect choice for getting into the Christmas spirit early. And she was born on this day in 1830, so that’s another reason to read her compelling lyrics today. Enjoy!

And if my stocking hung too high,

Would it blur the Christmas glee,

That not a Santa Claus could reach

The altitude of me?

The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman

The Savior must have been

A docile Gentleman—

To come so far so cold a Day

For little Fellowmen—

The Road to Bethlehem

Since He and I were Boys

Was leveled, but for that ‘twould be

A rugged Billion Miles—

Before the ice is in the pools

Before the ice is in the pools,

Before the skaters go,

Or any cheek at nightfall

Is tarnished by the snow,

Before the fields have finished,

Before the Christmas tree,

Wonder upon wonder

Will arrive to me!

What we touch the hems of

On a summer’s day;

What is only walking

Just a bridge away;

That which sings so, speaks so,

When there’s no one here,—

Will the frock I wept in

Answer me to wear?

A Christmas Carol

Welcome, sweet Christmas, blest be the morn

That Christ our Saviour was born!

Earth’s Redeemer, to save us from all danger,

And, as the Holy Record tells, born in a manger.

Chorus –

Then ring, ring, Christmas bells,

Till your sweet music o’er the kingdom swells,

To warn the people to respect the morn

That Christ their Saviour was born.

The snow was on the ground when Christ was born,

And the Virgin Mary His mother felt very forlorn

As she lay in a horse’s stall at a roadside inn,

Till Christ our Saviour was born to free us from sin.

Oh! think of the Virgin Mary as she lay

In a lowly stable on a bed of hay,

And angels watching O’er her till Christ was born,

Therefore all the people should respect Christmas morn.

The way to respect Christmas time

Is not by drinking whisky or wine,

But to sing praises to God on Christmas morn,

The time that Jesus Christ His Son was born;

Whom He sent into the world to save sinners from hell

And by believing in Him in heaven we’ll dwell;

Then blest be the morn that Christ was born,

Who can save us from hell, death, and scorn.

Then he warned, and respect the Saviour dear,

And treat with less respect the New Year,

And respect always the blessed morn

That Christ our Saviour was born.

For each new morn to the Christian is dear,

As well as the morn of the New Year,

And he thanks God for the light of each new morn.

Especially the morn that Christ was born.

Therefore, good people, be warned in time,

And on Christmas morn don’t get drunk with wine

But praise God above on Christmas morn,

Who sent His Son to save us from hell and scorn.

There the heavenly babe He lay

In a stall among a lot of hay,

While the Angel Host by Bethlehem

Sang a beautiful and heavenly anthem.

Christmas time ought to be held most dear,

Much more so than the New Year,

Because that’s the time that Christ was born,

Therefore respect Christmas morn.

And let the rich be kind to the poor,

And think of the hardships they do endure,

Who are neither clothed nor fed,

And Many without a blanket to their bed.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island is the book that made Bill Bryson famous. It starts with his arrival in Dover, where a string of bad luck begins. And as if that weren’t enough, his landlady is pretty nightmarish:

“Over the next two days, Mrs. Smegma persecuted me mercilessly, while the others, I suspected, scouted evidence for her. She reproached me for not turning the light off in my room when I went out, for not putting the lid down in the toilet when I’d finished, for taking the colonel’s hot water – I’d no idea he had his own until he started rattling the doorknob and making aggrieved noises in the corridor – for ordering the full English breakfast two days running and then leaving the fried tomato both times. `I see you’ve left the fried tomato again,’ she said on the second occasion. I didn’t know quite what to say to this as it was incontestably true, so I simply furrowed my brow and joined her in staring at the offending item. I had actually been wondering for two days what it was. `May I request,’ she said in a voice heavy with pain and years of irritation, `that in future if you don’t require a fried tomato with your breakfast that you would be good enough to tell me.’

Abashed, I watched her go. `I thought it was a blood clot!’ I wanted to yell after her, but of course I said nothing and merely skulked from the room to the triumphant beams of my fellow residents.”

However, then he comes across a tea-room, and things start to change:

“The tea-room lady called me love. All the shop ladies called me love and most of the men called me mate. I hadn’t been here twelve hours and already they loved me… And they drove on the left! This was paradise. Before the day was half over, I knew that this was where I wanted to be.”

Bill can laugh at himself, which is very refreshing: “I sat there for some time, a young man with more on his mind than in it.”

When laughing at others, it is good-naturedly, sweet, and really funny: “This is something that has been puzzling me for years. Women will stand there watching their items being rung up, and then when the till lady says, ‘That’s £4.20, love,’ or whatever, they suddenly look as if they’ve never done this sort of thing before. They go ‘Oh!’ and start rooting in a flustered fashion in their handbag for their purse or chequebook, as if no-one had told them that this might happen.”

Or: “Is it raining out?’ the reception girl asked brightly as I filled in the registration card between sneezes and pauses to wipe water from my face with the back of my arm. ‘No, my ship sank and I had to swim the last seven miles.”

Anyway, he finds a job at a psychiatric hospital. “It is an interesting experience to become acquainted with a country through the eyes of the insane, and, if I may say so, a particularly useful grounding for life in Britain.”

There, he meets a nurse and falls in love head over heels. She will become his wife later.

While traveling across Great Britain, Bill has weird thoughts: “Here are instructions for being a pigeon: (1) Walk around aimlessly for a while, pecking at cigarette butts and other inappropriate items. (2) Take fright at someone walking along the platform and fly off to a girder. (3) Have a shit. (4) Repeat.”

Or: “And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven’t yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?”

Bryson also talks about the British mentality. On World Book Day in 2003, British voters chose Notes from a Small Island as the book that best sums up British identity and the state of the nation. He praises them for their fortitude in grave times, like the World Wars. And when he laughs at them, it is charming: “If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order,’ and then they’ll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it’s better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swivelling your head in quiet wonderment.

‘You know that layby outside Warminster, the one with the grit box with the broken handle?’ one of them will say. ‘You know, just past the turnoff for Little Puking but before the B6029 mini-roundabout. By the dead sycamore.’

At this point, you find you are the only person in the group not nodding vigorously.

‘Well, about a quarter of a mile past there, not the first left turning, but the second one, there’s a lane between two hedgerows – they’re mostly hawthorn but with a little hazel mixed in. Well, if you follow that road past the reservoir and under the railway bridge, and take a sharp right at the Buggered Ploughman –’

‘Nice little pub,’ somebody will interject – usually, for some reason, a guy in a bulky cardigan. ‘They do a decent pint of Old Toejam.’

‘– and follow the dirt track through the army firing range and round the back of the cement works, it drops down on to the B3689 Ram’s Dropping bypass. It saves a good three or four minutes and cuts out the rail crossing at Great Shagging.’

‘Unless, of course, you’re coming from Crewkerne,’ someone else will add eagerly. ‘Now, if you’re coming from Crewkerne …’

Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it’s just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the Hanger Lane gyratory system, central Oxford and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Mondays, except bank holidays when you shouldn’t go anywhere at all. ‘Me, I don’t even walk to the corner shop on bank holidays,’ some little guy on the margins will chirp up proudly, as if by staying at home in Staines he has for years cannily avoided a notorious bottleneck at Scotch Corner.”

In his humorous style, Bill also provides little-known historical information about the places he visits, and he visits almost every corner of the Small Island. He is fascinated by the fact that Great Britain has 445,000 listed historical buildings, 12,000 medieval churches, 600,000 known sites of archeological interest, and that the Yorkshire village he was living at has more buildings from the 17th century than the whole of North America.

In short, Notes from a Short Island should be a manual for travel writers. Bryson combines facts, his personal experiences and musings with a great sense of humor. Or humour in British-English. That is why this isn’t a typical book review since I thought that quotes would give you the best taste of Bryson’s writing.

Genre: Travel, Nonfiction, Humor, Memoir

Describe this book with one word: Hilarious

The perfect beverage to sip while reading this book: Light beer

This book’s best musical buddy: Ullo John, Got a New Motor? – Alexei Sayle

Bill Bryson’s writing advice

Happy Birthday, Mr. Bryson!

Bill Bryson is most famous for his books on travel, although he also wrote about science, the English language, and other non-fiction topics. He gained widespread recognition after publishing his exploration of Great Britain: Notes from a Small Island. On World Book Day in 2003, British voters chose Notes from the Small Island as the book that best sums up British identity and the state of the nation.

His A Short History of Nearly Everything is also widely acclaimed. It is a popular science book, five hundred pages long. Bryson explains science with passion and enthusiasm, and, most importantly, in an accessible way. He also reveals the often funny beginnings of sciences. One scientist allegedly jokingly described it as “annoyingly free of mistakes”. This book won many prestigious awards: the Aventis Prize for best general science book 2004, the Royal Society of Chemistry Award for advancing the cause of the chemical sciences in 2005, the EU Descartes Prize for science communication 2005, among others.

His other popular books are A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian TrailThe Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town AmericaThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: Travels through my Childhood…

But we are more interested in Bill’s writing advice:

“I think the main thing is to just write. There are an awful lot of people that just talk about a book they are going to write, but they never get round to writing it. I think that unless you just get on with the writing, there’s no way to tell whether you’re a good writer or not.

Also, I get an awful lot of people writing to me asking for advice on how to write a book. Instead of doing that they should just write the book. People just seem to put it off. Also, don’t be afraid of rejection. There are all kinds of reasons why articles and books don’t get accepted. You shouldn’t take it personally.”

Well, he didn’t exactly discover hot water, but sometimes the simplest advice is the best. So, just get on with it!

Bill also says: “One idea to a sentence is still the best advice that anyone has ever given on writing.”

Once again, it doesn’t sound like a higher knowledge, but the most valuable truths always sound simple.

Circe by Madeline Miller

I was surprised because Madeline Miller carefully retold the myths since I was expecting her to change some things, add this, ignore that… But no, she didn’t contradict mythology as we know it. Yet, she crafted a compelling fairytale. And that’s the magic of great writers ‒ to take an existing story and breathe fresh essence into it, giving it a beautiful new life.

In her alluring, lyrical style, the author portrays Circe from early childhood. Along the way, she reveals why the famous sorceress is different from the other gods, demigods, and titans. Young Circe sometimes reminds of a clever girl with a kind soul in a hellish high school full of spoiled bitches. The witch is rebellious too, although she isn’t aware of that in the beginning. Interestingly, in a world full of narcissistic creatures driven by vanity, lust, or hate, Circe’s motivation for fooling around with magic is love. Even when she does bad things, love drives her thoughts and moves her hand.

Unlike her kind, Circe finds humans fascinating. And she feels a kinship with them, something she never experienced with her family no matter how much she tried. Circe is more relaxed with humans and believes that they are kinder than gods. However, she will find out the hard way that some people are even viler monsters than her kind.

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I can’t reveal much more without spoilers, but be warned before you start this book: It will take you on a compelling journey in the manner of old, romantic, hopeful fairytales. Miller’s poetic style will bewitch you, pulling you straight into the witch’s kitchen. You will feel Circe’s loneliness and sorrow, yearning, tiny sparks of hope, the awakening of her powers. You will walk by her side, pick magical plants, and rejoice in the intoxicating scent of flowers. You will wish to hold her hand when she finds herself between Charybdis and Scylla. You will refresh your knowledge of Greek mythology from a fresh, insightful, female point of view. You will find out that the immortals were molded on the worst mortals. You will hold your breath in anticipation, grit your teeth in anger, smile contentedly, and cheer with approval while accompanying one of the most famous old-civilization witches on her adventures. What more can you ask of a book?

Describe this book with one word: Invigorating

The perfect beverage to sip while reading this book: Oinomelo (Krasomelo, Greek white wine mulled with honey and spices)

This book’s best musical buddy: Rhiannon ‒ Fleetwood Mac (Yes, Rhiannon is a Welsh witch, but the lyrics suit Circe)

Literary awards: ALA Alex Award (2019), Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee (2019), Goodreads Choice Award for Fantasy (2018)

Quotes:

“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.”

“That is one thing gods and mortals share. When we are young, we think ourselves the first to have each feeling in the world.”

“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”