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