Shoes Hair Nails, Fragments of the Whole

In October 2012 a pair of Marie Antoinette silk slippers were put up for auction on the anniversary of her execution.

Marie Antoinette silk slippers

Marie Antoinette silk slippers

I knew about it because I use BBC News texts rewritten for learning purposes to teach English to mature French students; it keeps the lessons interesting and relevant, no more “Brian is in the kitchen” or “Michelle is at the swimming pool”, now we can introduce rich new vocabulary such as guillotine, opulent, goes under the hammer, scaffold, artefacts and tyranny and more importantly, improve competence and confidence in the art of conversation and communication.

Knowing that the author Deborah Batterman had written a collection of short stories with Shoes in the title, I tweeted her a link to the Marie Antoinette story. She offered me a copy of her book and though I warned her shoes, hair and nails weren’t my thing, if she was willing to risk sending me her book, I’d read it. While I was keen to read the stories, I admit that I hesitated at the Cinderella type image on the cover, which may explain why in my reading, I began to rename the stories as I went, partly to help remember them, but also to reclaim them and give them the credit I believe they deserve.

Shoes Hair NailsThe stories are like vignettes, fragments, captured moments in time and life that feel familiar, even if the experiences are not what we know. Because in reading we inhabit the character and Batterman has a cathartic way of writing that puts us in the shoes of her protagonist, we understand implicitly what it was like to be there and to live through that experience.

She articulates instinctive, feminine sensitivities, fears, and concerns we will all recognise and yet struggle to put into words ourselves, and why bother when one can sit back with this gentle, funny and considerate collection of stories which take us to those places without the struggle to explain ourselves and may even help us feel better about facing similar issues.

Here is a glimpse into a few of the stories:

Vegas or as I think of it Last Trip to Vegas – Not wishing to acknowledge, even less to accept that Norman is at the stage where he needs care other what he can provide himself, his son Kevin takes him and the family off for a weekend trip to Las Vegas, hoping that the familiar experience will reignite those no longer charging cells in his decrepid body and somehow turn back the clock.

“Kevin argues with the doctors, reminds them of studies showing how physical stimulation helps not only the body, but the mind too. He knows Norman cannot live with us, refuses to think of any alternative. Except this one. He will take his father to Las Vegas, the place he loved more than any place on earth. The place that bombards the senses every which way you turn, every hour of the day… If the body has memory, Kevin reasons, this is the place to bring it back.”

It’s an entertaining trip and not on account of the expected offering of the casino city. It’s like Norman’s last stand and he has a whale of a time, as his family come to the realisation that they have up until now been avoiding. That there is no going back, the body is not a machine we can put in reverse, or slow motion, or pause. I loved this story and think it would make a better movie than that one about those three blokes who go to Vegas – and anyone experiencing mixed emotions with their parents going through the ageing process will appreciate the laughs and the stark realities of this tale.

kittens learningCrazy Charlotte – I think of this story as The Innocents, about a girl who wants to befriend a family living outside accepted social circles, who are the subject of gossip. She is intrigued by them all, Charlotte the mother is unlike anyone she has ever met and wants to give her children a broader education even if that means occasionally keeping them at home so they can visit an exhibition or see the birth of kittens. Charlotte isn’t crazy, but she allows one little girl to see the world through different eyes.

Nails, I think of as The Unfortunate Inheritance and it is appropriate that it also features in the title, because it is a deeply memorable story that reads like a novel and one that I could easily have kept turning the pages for and delved even deeper into all those characters with their Shimmering Reds or Deathless Velvet or whatever it was they wore on their nails, the references to nails actually reminded me a little of that “Where’s Wally?” character, the way they turned up in the most unlikely places, with regular consistency.

The protagonist moves on from a relationship and into an apartment on the 8th floor, already populated by complex, interconnected characters, whose lives and jealousies and pasts we begin to learn something of. Everyone arrives or is already ensconced with their baggage, physical and emotional, created or inherited, a stray dog, a piano, memories of a previous relationship, a past job. And sometimes an inheritance doesn’t make life any easier at all, in fact it can be lethal.

Deer Crossing2In Defensive Driving or as I recall it, Lesson 1 : The Many Effects of Deer, a woman and her husband find themselves in a random group of people, some of whom are there for similar reasons to their own, others because they have no choice. Regardless of their reasons, they all bring their many perceptions, which will be altered significantly by what occurs in lesson 1.

An inspiring collection of stories I recommend.  And even though I said I’m not into shoes, this post inspired me to seek out another book I’m going to revisit and share with you soon, more about shoes as art and inspiration, coming soon…

22 thoughts on “Shoes Hair Nails, Fragments of the Whole

  1. Claire McAlpine! Do you have ANY idea how much it means to me–after wrassling my surly twelve-year old ballerina’s hair up into a reluctant bun at the crack of doom for early morning class, making a breakfast no-one wants (the strawberries are OLD!) and trying to convince a four year old to poop despite the fact that some inane children’s tv show is blaring in the other room–do you have any idea how the mere idea of Marie Antoinette’s silk slippers… well, it just makes my morning! Ahhh. Culture and refinement, education and stimulation. Not poop and old strawberries for philistines.

    This is why I blog.

    Thanks for commenting on my She Writes blog. I am quite excited to have discovered it this week, though as I mentioned, am at a loss for where I shall fine time to start excavating its wonderousness.

    You book review was a delight and I can’t wait to read the book itself. Nicely crafted.
    Lovely to find you in this big, wide world, and funny enough, (I’ll tell you this because you’re a writer and we like these types of things) when I wrote my She Writes blog I had for some reason attached your name to Caitlyn’s blog (so the first sentence had your name in it, rather than Cait’s) I guess because I had just read your comment or something. I caught the error just before I sent it, but I remember thinking what a cool name you have. And then, you were the only one to comment, and now here I am blathering on as your latest groupie.
    What a world.
    ~Just Jill


    • I know it all well Jill and how a blog can be an insanity saving device, even when it seems crazy to be even thinking about adding yet another thing to the list of activities we are involved in. But the blog is like a beacon of freedom and look at the wonderful community it attracts, how could you not indulge it, knowing what it can offer, not just a place to practice writing, but connecting with wonderful people from around the planet who motivate us to continue! It’s a kind of utopia, so welcome, it’s great to have you on board!


  2. Beautiful review, Claire! This looks like a wonderful book. All the stories you have written about are nice. My favourites out of them are ‘Crazy Charlotte’ and ‘Vegas’. I love the picture that you have posted – the kittens gazing at the book. It is interesting that you use BBC news texts to teach English to your students. ‘Opulent’ and ‘artefact’ sound like complex words for a beginner, and it is wonderful that you introduce such words to your students and encourage them to use them in conversation.


    • This story I wouldn’t use with a beginner, true, but the majority French mature students learnt English at school and know their grammar and can read well, the main weaknesses are in listening comprehension and speaking, so we listen to the text twice and then I get them to read it. They are always surprised at how much they can understand on paper compared to listening, so this method helps bridge the gap and then starts a conversation, but with more basic vocabulary.

      Most of the more advanced students are trying to increase their vocabulary, so this resource is perfect for that. I rally enjoy the advanced students, because we get to have many interesting conversations on topical subjects and I learn a lot about French perspectives and culture and a few new words in French as well.


      • Interesting to know that, Claire. I totally love the way you teach English to your students 🙂 It must be wonderful interacting with your French students in French and English and learning new things from each other everyday.


  3. Lovely review, Claire. I would never have considered this book, either. The stories seem rich and deep. I’m going to use your tip about changing the titles to better remember the stories.


    • I do appreciate a minimalist approach, and I read these stories on and off over a period of time, but I know that the renaming of the titles was inspired after I read the short stories of Ludmilla Petrushevkaya There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself, she also wrote a collection called There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby.

      So from one extreme to another, I thought there must be a middle ground that works as a title and gives a little information, but for a while every story I read I came up with the longer Ludmilla version and it’s quite fun to do. 🙂 In fact Deborah’s first story which is called Shoes, I gave a Ludmilla version title of: There Once Lived A Woman Who Didn’t Divorce Her Husband and Died. When I read that title, I SO remember the story. 🙂

      I just hope Deborah forgives me for making play dough out of her titles. Talk about a reader taking liberties. But for some reason, I instinctively felt that she wouldn’t mind and might even enjoy playing the game. 😉


      • I would think she would be flattered since the purpose behind your “making play dough out of her titles” was because you wanted to remember her wonderful stories. In any case, I’m going to give it a try myself. I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂


      • @bookpeeps: Flattery was indeed the word that came to mind when I read Claire’s reinvention of my titles, with their echoes of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Really — what more could a writer ask than for her stories to initiate a dialogue?


  4. Oh the quote you have at the top of your side bar makes me LOL so long! That’s the best shoe related quote I’ve ever come across! 😉


  5. It isn’t easy moving out of a comfort zone, especially into a realm for which we have a pre-conceived distaste. I have great trouble doing so. Bravo.


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