Of shoes and ships and ceiling wax

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When I was a child, my mother read to me every day. It was one of her rules of parenting: reading is as important as brushing your teeth before bed. At some point, she must have read me Alice in Wonderland, although it’s not one of the books I remember. Perhaps I was very young at the time… we read full chapter books together when I was 5 and 6 years old, me reading over her shoulder and correcting her little verbal alterations of the text, which I think drove her a bit crazy. But made me feel very smart. At any rate, I am certain that she never read meĀ Through the Looking-Glass.

But somehow one phrase from dear Alice’s Looking-Glass adventure stuck, and became part of the wallpaper in our home. Often when she was getting us to ready to go to bed, my mom would say, “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said!” to signify that it was bedtime. Of course, the Walrus is the ultimate authority on bedtimes, and so we were less likely to argue than if she had just said, “Bedtime!”

She would sometimes complete the sentence, just for fun: “‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages, and kings. And why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings.'” Of course, Lewis Carol is intentionally frolicking in the absurd (as is the Walrus, to a clear and malicious purposeĀ – read the full poem here*), and so I suppose it never occurred to me to ask what ceiling wax was. I can only imagine that I must have been too young to be reading over her shoulder at the time, because I didn’t realize until I was much, much older that the actual term was “sealing wax,” the kind used in the olden days to seal letters and envelopes. I grew up with “lick and stick” envelopes. Not that letters were very common anyway… mail was mostly just bills, except for the occasional bit of post sent by my grandfather, which was always a delight. I think he is the reason I still like to use snail mail. At any rate I had absolutely no context for the concept of using wax as a seal.

And so it remained, for years of my life, ceiling wax. Not that I had any better idea what on earth wax would be doing on ceilings.

*the quoted lines are taken from a poem, The Walrus and the Carpenter, which appears in Lewis Carol’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I have fallen pretty far behind in my book reviews, so I’m going to go back to Christmastime and tell you about the books I have read since then.

Screen shot 2013-02-27 at 10.25.57 PMThe Elegance of the Hedgehog is the most delightful book I have read in years. When I say, “delightful,” I mean enjoyable, funny, light, and intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking all at once. It might be the book that has singly contributed the most words to my vocabulary. (I wish I could give you some examples of words that I learned, but I loved the book so much that I gave my copy away, so I’ll have to wait till I get another one… yes, I will buy another copy, this is a book I have to read again!)

The book is written in the form of diary entries. The unique bit about it is that the entries are written by two individuals, so the chapters alternate between the perspectives of these two characters who, at the beginning of the narrative, don’t know each other. The main thing they have in common is that they are both incredibly intelligent and intellectual people and they both try to hide this from everyone they know, for various reasons. They are also both fascinated by Japanese culture. Other than that, they are completely different. Renee, who is in her 50’s, is a concierge and from the lower class of French society while Paloma is a 12-year-old from the upper elite. When a Japanese gentleman moves into the building, the two eventually meet and discover their shared secret. Mr. Ozu, the Japanese man, becomes the link that connects them and helps each woman discover a whole world of possibilities previously unconsidered in their lives. It is a beautiful story about suffering and loneliness, finding meaning in the small but beautiful moments in life and discovering connectedness, friendship, and love where it is least expected. I fully intend to read it again in the near future, and would love to watch the movies and read the books discussed by these two erudite women, who I feel have become my literary friends. I highly recommend The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.