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December's Book
Sorrowful Mysteries and Other Stories
by Normandi Ellis
Announcer:
bookclub@ket
is on the road at the Kentucky Book Fair on the campus of Kentucky State University in Frankfort to discuss this month’s selection, Sorrowful Mysteries by Normandi Ellis. In a dozen thought-provoking short stories, writer Ellis takes us on an intriguing journey that could have started in your own backyard. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Isn’t it great to have our show on the road today?

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Lynda:
It’s great.

Bill:
What’s been fun about it for you?

Jonathan:
Well, I met somebody I knew over there that I haven’t seen for years.

Lynda:
Same with me. I saw an old friend and bought his book. That was great.

Wilma:
And we have met a couple of authors that we have been reading, including Normandi Ellis, [who wrote] the book we are doing today.

Bill:
Sorrowful Mysteries and Other Stories. So what did you think about Normandi’s book?

Jonathan:
I liked it. I think it was a very good book of stories, fascinatingly evocative of often the painful side of childhood. It’s a very, if I may use the word, dystopic view of childhood.

Lynda:
Wait a minute; you have to define that!

Jonathan:
It’s the opposite of a utopian view of childhood, you know.

Bill:
Very good.

Jonathan:
Idealizing—good word ...

Dava:
A ten-cent one.

Jonathan:
It’s not idealizing childhood. In fact, on the contrary, it reminds you that childhood can be a painful and bitter place. And I think that some of the stories are quite evocative of that. But on the other hand, overall I think the book has got a real wonderful sense of richness of experience. I think it was good.

Dava:
The experiences of people, people of a different sort in a lot of ways. It reminds me a lot of Kim Edwards’ Secrets of a Fire King.

Bill:
I’m glad you said that.

Dava:
... reminds me a whole lot of that, and the stories were really creative. I have a passage I want to read, actually, if you will let me. This is from the first short story. It’s called “How Things Work,” and in this story Cora Beth has a friend named Howie who is always up to no good, and she goes over to Howie’s place to see one of his experiments that he has been up to. And it says:

“Once I managed to catch my breath, I walked over to Howie’s house. There on the back steps lay the shrew”—he had caught a shrew in the yard—“spread-eagled on a piece of cardboard, its eyes closed against the eternal glare of the summer sun, and Howie’s mother’s sewing pins holding down its feet and arms. Howie had taken an Exacto knife and, with the precision of a surgeon, opened up the chest.”

Bill:
[Laughs]

Dava:
“I could see its heart beating.” Then it goes on to say, to talk about how she then takes the shrew and it bit her finger and she “looked down at my finger. Terrified, stupid, and half-dead, the shrew had sunk its long teeth into me and wouldn’t let go.” Now who would think of that?

[Everybody laughs]

Dava:
You know? And that’s something about this book. It’s just terribly creative, and that’s what makes it really interesting, I think.

Bill:
I will have to agree. And for the other bookies who may not have read with us during the first year, Kim Edwards was the author who wrote The Secrets of a Fire King, and I think for a lot of us we really enjoyed her stories, and we will talk a little bit about that later. Lynda, what did you think?

Lynda:
Well, the passage that Dava read reminded me of how quirky the stories were all the way through. There seems to me to be another theme that’s pervasive, and that is death—or near-death, in the case of that shrew that was on the way to dying. And there are similar instances all the way through the book where people are reacting to death or death is around them, all around them. But the thing is, there is humor all the way through it as well. So it shows you the quirky side of life—or the quirky side of death.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And the same thing ... I was thinking, too, what Lynda was thinking—about the overriding theme of death throughout, even in the stories that were not specifically about death but might be something about the death of a passage in life, something like that. Even something like “Dr. Livingston’s Grotto,” where he falls down the rabbit hole. He falls down into his cave, but I think of it as Alice falling down the rabbit hole. It is a kind of death where he actually leaves that world, goes to the underworld, and prefers it.

Lynda:
Exactly.

Wilma:
Which I think is very interesting. I think it’s interesting also that she gave him the name of Dr. Livingston—you know, “Dr. Livingston, I presume.” But I did see, of course (I think it’s difficult not to see) that overriding theme of death throughout, and a couple of suicides. One of my favorite stories was “The Descent,” about the suicide of a friend, and ...

Bill:
Let’s try to talk about it, although there is so much to talk about in each one of them, “Dr. Livingston” being sort of a lighter one. But in “The Descent” ... Jonathan, if we can separate our sex—if I can use that and say that—you know, for a male to sort of grapple with that and maybe to reach back to that person that he wanted to befriend or was friends with for a while several years ago and now to have been faced with the problem of sort of evading that friendship, if you will.

Jonathan:
Yes.

Bill:
That was written very well from that male perspective.

Jonathan:
So you think it’s about male friendship in particular? It’s a case where these two people drifted apart, and they didn’t keep in touch. But after one of them commits suicide, the other guy, the survivor, he’s left with survivor’s guilt, but also a sense that he had neglected a fellow. The fellow was always calling him and saying, hey, let’s go drink—you know, let’s go have some drinks; let’s get together. It was a sense in which they drifted apart after high school. One guy went to college and the other guy didn’t, and he ended up becoming a bit of a drunk actually. He was always calling the other fellow, and then eventually he kills himself. So that leaves the survivor left with all sorts of unresolved emotions, and I think it’s interesting the way the story deals with it, because he actually goes back to the fellow’s trailer and ...

Lynda:
He descends into madness.

Jonathan:
Yes, well, he descends into a kind of underworld.

Lynda:
His life, in a sense.

Jonathan:
He descends into grief, descends into madness, descends into an underworld of the other fellow’s life. He wants to lie on his bed, and he wants to be surrounded by his belongings. He wants to in a sense try to get intimate with him in a way that he hasn’t been in life. I think that’s a good one. I find these stories often end very well—and they begin very well, too. He’s sort of lying in the grass outside the guy’s trailer 

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
[Reads] “Don fell asleep and woke with a start when he heard someone walking through the grass. He sat up. There was no one around. The sun was setting, the grass blazed golden with light, and the wind moved through the emerald tree leaves like soft, waving fingers. ‘Tell them I’m not dead, Don. Tell them the pain just goes on.’ ‘OK, Charlie. I’ll tell them.’”

And there is a sense of ghostly encounter. That happened several times in the story. It’s ... and it ends with a sort of strange ghostly presence, and then he returns. There’s a sense in which he is going on a journey through his grief, and he is going back.

Lynda:
But the thing about it is it develops so quickly.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Lynda:
I mean, the story opens with him working at a news desk, taking obits over the phone, and jokingly the guy reading him the obit says, “Well, here is a guy who killed himself.” And that’s how he finds out that his friend ...

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Lynda:
... has died. But within a matter of hours he leaves his life, tells his wife he is leaving and she can have everything, brushes past the kids. Suddenly he has become stone-hearted and cold, and just in a matter of hours all of this happens to him.

Wilma:
He does find out, though, when he goes and tries to live Charlie’s life for a short amount of time—I think he finds an answer that he can live with because he fires the gun. He goes off down toward the stream, and he fires the gun into the air, and there is a trailer right next door to where Charlie had lived. There is a woman in the trailer, and, when she hears the gun shots, she does not come out. She doesn’t have any reaction to it at all. And the survivor, Don, thinks that surely she must have heard the suicide shot, too, when Charlie shot himself—and, of course, he shot himself in the stomach—so Don was trying to think, well, maybe he felt she could come out and save him. And she didn’t. So he kind of gives himself an out concerning Charlie’s suicide.

Lynda:
Many of these stories are very, very short.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
Yet in the few pages she gets us right into the story and right involved in the characters’ lives.

Bill:
Well, I think, and it’s almost a simple way to explain, that there is a great deal of imagination in the way she puts the words on the page.

Wilma:
There is some play on words, too, especially in the “Maytag” story, because the mother’s name is Maybelle. Of course, we are talking about a Maytag washing machine, but the mother is always clutching onto her daughter and the granddaughter to the point that her granddaughter even asks at one time, “Why is grandmother always trying to latch on to us?” But anyway, there is the Maytag there and even something about Kenmore, and the child was always talking through her Ken doll. So I think there is some play on words. There are some hidden things there, too, as well as some deep truths about life throughout this.

Jonathan:
Go back to that story.

Bill:
Oh, “Maytag,” yeah.

Jonathan:
You know, it begins by saying that the lady character liked to have a drink occasionally, especially when her mother was with her.

Wilma:
Exactly.

Jonathan:
And then it ends by her mother leaving, and there is a sort of sigh of relief after the mother leaves because she loves her mother, but she finds her smothering. All of these stories were about the difficulty of being in a family and the difficulty of family life. Even “Dr. Livingston’s Grotto” is, in a sense, about escaping the family—in this case his wife. He disappears down into that cave.

Lynda:
His wife is loving and caring.

Dava:
But a little over the top.

Jonathan:
Overzealous, perhaps.

Bill:
Overweight.

Jonathan:
That also.

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
She couldn’t get down the hole. He wasn’t worried that she would fall down the hole because the hole was too small.

Dava:
She would get too close and make the hole bigger.

Wilma:
Yeah.

Bill:
So you think in that story, in “Dr. Livingston’s Grotto,” although it’s written humorously, you do see underneath the humor and the frivolity a real deep meaning: maybe that Dr. Livingston went into the cave and wanted to stay there, sort of separating himself.

Jonathan:
One thing is he is a kind of artist, because he has a saxophone, and he likes to play the saxophone in the cave, so he wants to have solitary enjoyment of this artistic pursuit.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
It was ultimately a private and solitary place. I think you get that in a number of the stories—this desire for solitude, desire for something that gives your life meaning, independent of the family. I think in the end, in the title story, “Sorrowful Mysteries,” the young girl ... It’s really about how she grew up in a Catholic household, and it’s about her first understanding of what Catholicism is and her love affair with the Virgin Mary and the meaning of prayer. I mean, that’s a sense of something that is precious and sacred in her life, separate from her family.

Wilma:
Because her parents have abandoned her for that summer.

Dava:
She wanted the mother figure.

Wilma:
Yes. Oh, right—she doesn’t have one, and Mary is it.

Dava:
The Virgin Mary is it to her.

Jonathan:
The real mother ...

Dava:
And then also ...

Jonathan:
... was not sympathetic at all.

Dava:
No.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
And she was very good at it. She had to come pick up her daughter and end the vacation sooner than she wanted.

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
But another thing I noticed about “Dr. Livingston’s Grotto” is, there is a great distinction between the natural world and the world that man, in a generic sense, has created. He is feeling his solitude down in this cave and the beauty of the cave, and then it spends a bit of time talking about the bridge game that is going on while he is in the cave, and they are eating their Lorna Doones, and they are all overweight, playing their bridge and cheating in the air conditioning.

Lynda:
During the time that he wants to be saved and is calling out for help, his wife is oblivious because she is so involved in the bridge game—and actually quite thankful that her husband hasn’t come in to interfere with the game. But then as time goes on he’s quite content to stay down there.

Bill:
He could have been rescued very easily and quickly at the beginning of the story. Of course, there wouldn’t have been much of a story after that.

Dava:
No.

Bill:
But then he does sort of find himself in ...

Lynda:
It’s so Kentucky, too, which is kind of cool, because we have all these sinkholes.

Bill:
Sinkholes.

Wilma:
And when he wanted comforts down there, he asked for food and his saxophone and flashlight.

Bill:
Beer.

Wilma:
And beer. And a blanket, but they just sent a six-pack down.

Bill:
Also, I really thought this was the lightest of all the stories. He also carried that pie tin of tomatoes down there.

Wilma:
Yes.

Bill:
They fell over, and he was eating those like apples.

Lynda:
And he wished for salt.

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
He wanted salt.

Bill:
One of the other areas that I think she did so well is creating the adolescent in such a rich way. It seemed like she had a real grasp of puberty and growing up and all of those problems that teenagers have, and we see that in some of the stories.

Wilma:
One of my favorite stories was “The Rabbit.” And, of course, that had a young boy trying to grapple with the problems of growing up, as any boy, and coming to terms with his being a man, and he takes as his hero his cousin. It’s a cousin, isn’t it?

Jonathan:
Yes.

Wilma:
Older cousin. It was during the time of the Vietnam War, and his older cousin is going off to war and leaving him the gun that he is hunting with. And the boy has in his mind the idealized idea of his cousin doing his sense of duty and going to Vietnam and being a hero. And, of course, he comes back and he has been shot in the behind, which indicates to the young boy that he was running away when he was shot. It shatters his idea of what it means to grow up. And, of course, all the symbolism is tied in with the crow and the predator, and I thought that was a fine story and brought in the themes of death ...

Bill:
It did, sure.

Wilma:
... as well as adolescence, the growing up and the coming to terms with what life is all about. So I thought that was a good story.

Bill:
Of all the stories, novels, movies, written about the tragedy in Vietnam, I thought in just a few pages she did as good a job as anyone in really capturing sort of the whole meaning of that going off to war: the letters that came at first—and then come at the end, of course—being wounded so severely and having to deal with that.

Wilma:
I liked what she did, too. The young boy wanted to capture a fox, and so he went to the hunting store and asked for a fox call and wrote to his cousin in Vietnam and asked him how to use it. The cousin wrote back and said it’s actually the call of a dying or suffering wounded rabbit, and that’s what calls the fox. And I thought that was a wonderful symbol, too—that it wasn’t just a fox call. It was a wounded rabbit, and that’s what attracted the predator.

Lynda:
The portraits she drew of both boys’ mothers, I thought were very powerful. There wasn’t much there; they weren’t major characters in the story. But yet she drew compelling portraits of both of those mothers, and especially the mother of the son who came back from Vietnam.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
What it was like ...

Dava:
What makes these short stories all so good is that it’s really hard to write a very short story and have it be something people marvel at in a way. She doesn’t try to make a story. She is not writing it so we can be, like, that plot was great. It’s all about painting a picture of someone, what’s going on inside their head. And she does just a wonderful job at that.

Lynda:
“Black Shoes” disturbed me. It disturbed me greatly, and I ... that’s one that I read and read quickly and then moved on. I didn’t want to dwell on it; it was so disturbing.

Bill:
Why?

Lynda:
Oh, it was the pain of that young boy who felt that he was deformed enough that he should be in a freak show and that he was so drawn to the freak shows, and his mother just seemed oblivious to his pain. It was just very sad.

Bill:
Again the female. Go ahead, Jonathan.

Jonathan:
Well, he actually ran away from his mother.

Lynda:
He knew that she would find him.

Jonathan:
Yeah, she always finds him. He hid in the circus tent and was evading her, and she always came to get him, but he really wanted to get away from her. For some reason he enjoyed that. And a lot of the stories are about people who are semi-orphans or who make themselves into orphans or who want to get away from an unsympathetic parent. That one was pretty extreme, though. It was very surreal the way in which she goes about this conversation with this mute man who was a side act in the circus. And then the boy felt that he too could be one of these people. It was painful.

But the two best stories in the book were “The Rabbit,” which we have already mentioned, and also the title story, “Sorrowful Mysteries.” “The Rabbit” because the young boy spent a lot of time learning how to hunt, and then he finally gets some understanding of what it is to be hunted, through seeing his cousin wounded with his rear end shot off—and that was just sort of a play on losing his tail, which the fox was going to do—and finally when he eats this rabbit ...

Wilma:
Yes.

Lynda:
Explain to me why eating that rabbit was so important to him—even the taste.

Bill:
What’s the symbolism there?

Lynda:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
Well, remember it’s the rabbit that was killed in the road.

Lynda:
Right.

Jonathan:
And it was running, and it says that, “The taste was bitter and wild, the meat tainted with adrenaline. He swallowed, nearly gagged, and recovered.” And then he cut another piece: “He chewed slowly, his eyes closed, and swallowed it, memorizing the taste.” I think he was memorizing the taste of fear of that animal just as it died. And that was a kind of empathy or sympathy with the prey rather than with the hunter. And that is played out in the friendship level with his friend, who he finally comes to see was demoralized from going in with a big gun shooting things. Sometimes the situation can be reversed.

Bill:
The relationship, then, between the rabbit and the relationship that Edward and Joel and the sort of empathy that they had ...

Jonathan:
Subtly.

Wilma:
Exactly.

Bill:
It’s not a hunting story.

Jonathan:
No.

Bill:
Right.

Jonathan:
It just automatically lets your mind think of the association, you know.

Wilma:
One of the interesting points in that story was when Joel chases the fox. Joel is running and the fox is somehow along with him, and they are near the highway, and a car is coming, and you think maybe Joel is going to get hit by the car, but the fox runs across the road. You think the fox is going to get killed, but it flushes a rabbit. The rabbit jumps on the road and is killed by the car, and Joel takes it home. You know, he says, in a way he killed it. So right in that very, very brief passage—which is the hunter; which is the prey? It shifts back and forth until actually a car kills the rabbit, but I think that is an interesting point in the story, too.

Lynda:
Up until that moment when the car is coming around the corner ...

Wilma:
Yes.

Lynda:
The car could have killed the boy, the fox, or the rabbit.

Wilma:
Exactly.

Lynda:
And I was on the edge of my seat, wondering—literally wondering—oh my God, who’s ...

Wilma:
Yeah, we knew the car was going to kill something.

Lynda:
Right.

Bill:
Well, I think we would all recommend this. It is only 120 pages long, an excellent read, and we are all the better for reading these stories.

Lynda:
Can I just quickly mention “Spiritualism”? It’s one we haven’t spoken about. Hilarious, laugh-out-loud, but still pain mixed with humor.

Bill:
She does a good job with that.

Lynda:
Uh huh.

Bill:
This has been fun, to be at the Kentucky Book Fair, and they have been so accommodating and nice to have us here. We hope we are invited back. I know that we would all like to come back next year.

This finishes up our second year. We have read 24 books in two years on the bookclub@ket, and I want to just ask you what your favorites for the year 2000 have been. Wilma?

Wilma:
My personal favorite—and I have mentioned this to all of you; I’m sure it’s not going to be a surprise—is Paul Griner’s Collectors. I think it is just an excellent piece of literature. It has that quirky type of story that I like, with lots of strange characters and innuendoes. But I also want to say, as far as Kentucky literature, I was really glad to be able to read Nikky Finney’s Rice, a good book of poetry, and then also Gurney Norman’s Kinfolks. I just thought that was a wonderful Kentucky story. So I had three favorites, I think.

Bill:
Anybody else?

Lynda:
Oh, I have to agree, without question Nikky Finney’s book of poetry, Rice, was deeply meaningful to me, and I enjoyed reading it on so many different levels. It’s a huge favorite, and I have given it as gifts now.

Bill:
Anything else?

Lynda:
Well, I really enjoyed Short of the Glory, which we read last month, as well. That was terrific, a very rich story.

Dava:
Well, I think there is something to be said for jumping on the bandwagon. I’m not afraid to do it.

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
Ever since I read The Dollmaker in high school, it has been one of my favorite books and still is. I’m glad we read it again.

Jonathan:
I think that my favorite reading experience was reading Gurney Norman’s Kinfolks. Short, economically drawn, but very provocative stories about childhood and growing up. Also The Wall Between, the story about the Bradens’ very important episode in Kentucky history. It was occasionally slap-dash, in the fashion of somebody who was actually writing it at the time. And that was part of the enjoyment of the experience: to see how it was written at the time. But I think these two books were high points for me.

Bill:
I think that one of the treats for—hopefully for all of our bookies and members of the book club—is that we have such a variety. I know that the executive producer and producers that work on this, as well as the suggestions that we get from so many readers, really give us the opportunity to read so many different things. Next year will be our third year, and we have that same opportunity. But it was wonderful to read the classic, The Dollmaker. We certainly know what a great writer Gurney is and how much fun Kinfolks was. I have to agree with you, Lynda, about Rice. That’s not something I would have gone and chosen out of the bookstore, but being asked to read that ... I think it did speak to me on so many different levels, but it was something that I really appreciated having to read. I liked the Kentucky book Short of the Glory, as we said last month. It was well written as well as being just a piece of Kentucky history, so I thought that was good, too.

It really takes this whole experience from all of these writers to really be labeled a Kentucky writer, and I think that’s interesting. You just don’t sit down—I know that it’s an enjoyable task, but at times it must be painstaking to sit down and have to sort of ... Are writers forced at times to do that? Jonathan, you are writing a book now. Do you have to force yourself to the word processor?

Jonathan:
Oh, I do, yes. But I am sure that many of these fine writers are inspired by all sorts of muses, and I suppose all the writers talk about writing being 90 percent perspiration, 10 percent inspiration, don’t they?

Narrator:
Remember to check out ket.org and learn more about this book and other bookclub selections. Plus, enjoy author interviews and discussion boards. You can join the club any time. The address is ket.org.

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