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Mark Dunn – Ella Minnow Pea

February 26, 2008

24. Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn (2001)

Length: 208 pages

Genre: Fiction, Epistolary

Started: 25 February 2008
Finished: 26 February 2008

Summary: The small island nation of Nollop, just off the coast of South Carolina, holds itself as more educated and lexically-minded than their non-islander counterparts, thanks to the influence of Nevin Nollop, their founder and the (fictitious) creater of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” However, when letters of that sentence begin falling from the Nollop statue at town center, the High Council decrees that it is a sign from Nollop from the afterlife, and that these letters are no longer to be written or spoken by Nollopians – on pain of banishment. Ultimately, it’s left to Ella and her family and friends to create a shorter pangram and thus prove that Nollop is no God, and that the free use of language should reign supreme.

Review: Very, very clever; very, very sharp; and yet very funny and quite easy to read. It’s a short book – 200-odd pages in length, but in reality less, because even short letters between Ella and her correspondents get their own page. It’s a fairly simple story, but the language is used to brutal but dazzling effect – you have to parse between real but unfamiliar vocabulary and Nollopisms, you start to train your eye to watch out for slips of “forbidden” letters, start counting letters in pangrams, and start imagining your own life where you’re unable to speak without mentally spelling out each word first. In between all of the clever wordplay, though, there’s a sharp satire that deals with the freedom of language and how its related to the freedom of thought; with the dangers of oligarchy, especially when religion takes over for science and common sense; and with the reactions of ordinary people when their government no longer becomes trustworthy. The only minor things that kept this book from being perfect were that the characters seemed to struggle over-much with finding under-40-letter pangrams (Nollop’s has 35, and can easily be cut to 33 by replacing one of the “the”s with an “a”), and that there were a few romantic story threads that weren’t well-developed and so seemed slightly out of place. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Engaging, quick, and fun book that holds some very potent points about freedom and the power of language, and makes you feel smarter just by reading it. Highly recommended.

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First Line: Nollopton. Sunday, July 23. Dear Cousin Tassie, Thank you for the lovely postcards.

Vocab: NOTE: This book was full of unfamiliar words, most of which were “Nollopisms” – I only pulled the ones that I either knew were real English or the ones that I couldn’t figure out from context; I may as well have re-typed half the book if I’d done it otherwise.

  • p. 3: “On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces.” – a sepulchral monument erected in memory of a deceased person whose body is buried elsewhere.
    .
  • p. 5: “Rejected, as well, was an offer put forth by members of the Masons Guild to restore the entire monument to its former polished sheen and fettle, such restoration to include the careful removal and refastening of each of the thirty-four remaining century-old tiles.” – state; condition
    .
  • p. 6: “On Wednesday, July 19, the Council, having gleaned and discerned, released its official verdict: the fall of the tile bearing the letter “Z” constitutes the terrestrial manifestation of an empyrean Nollopian desire, that desire most surely being that the letter “Z” should be utterly excised – fully extirpated – absolutively heave-ho’ed from our communal vocabulary!” – The highest reaches of heaven, believed by the ancients to be a realm of pure fire or light.
    .
  • p. 9: “We shall be wearing burlap and flour sack tomorrow, and lucubrating by candlelight because even light bulbs seem doomed now to join the official list of technological non-essentials.” – to work, write, or study laboriously, esp. at night.
    .
  • p. 17: “Mother is having only a slightly better time of it than Mrs. Moseley who, having fallen victim to chronic aposiopesis in the morning, spent the bulk of the afternoon seated in silent defeat behind her desk, while her restless third graders improvised games of catch with a variety of show-and-tell items.” – a sudden breaking off in the midst of a sentence, as if from inability or unwillingness to proceed.
    .
  • p. 18: “Perhaps they will eventually disappear altogether, and the accompanying halts and stammers as well: those troublesome, maddening pauses that at present invade and punctuate through caesura all manner of discourse.” – a break, esp. a sense pause, usually near the middle of a verse.
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  • p. 59: “(Note that I have no interest in violating your Island Council’s three recent statutes regarding alphabetical elision and so we will continue to refer to the vessels as, simply, vessels.” – an act or instance of eliding or omitting anything.
  • .

  • p. 68: “Last evening’s meeting was a pyrrhic success. Pyrrhic in that we had to turn more away than we would have liked, lest we betray, by our sheer numbers, the purpose behind our assemblage.” – from Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, who defeated Roman armies at Asculum, 280 B.C.E., but at such cost to his own troops that he was unable to follow up and attack Rome itself.
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