Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (5/5). A word lover’s dream book.

2 Sep

I almost read this book in 2012. There’s always an ‘almost,’ isn’t there? I saw a poster at library advertising that a book club was read this and I decided to sign up, only to learn the meeting was the day before. Drats. So it went on the list and when I found a second-hand copy, I bought it, but it stalled. When my work book-club was looking for something, I suggested this and I’m so glad I did. What a wonderful read.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella lives on the fictional island of Nollop where the people are more than happy to forgo some modern advances to keep close to their first love; words. Nevin Nollop is the man attributed with crafting the famous phrase The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. To commemorate the man, there is a statue with the phrase erected in the town square. But what should they do when one morning the letter Z has fallen off and shattered? What about when more letters start to follow? Is this a sign from Nollop that these letters should be removed from the vocabulary, or merely a result of faulty glue?

This book is perfect for word lovers. As the letters fall off the statue, they disappear from the book. After the first Z falls off, other letters soon follow and the words Dunn chooses become more and more selective and his pool of options dwindles. The amazing part is that the prose doesn’t seem choppy until very late in the story (after some vowels have lost their way) and despite his self-imposed limitations, Dunn’s words sing. Ella is a great character and as outlandish as her predicament seems, it’s a very real analogy for oppression around the world. Bravo, Mark Dunn!

I loved the different ways the characters reacted tot he oppression of the island council. Some were defiant, using the band letters and quickly being banished from the island. Some, like Ella’s aunt Mittie, tried very hard to follow the rules even if they did not agree. There was Georgeanne who would snoop and report those close to her for slight violations. Nate, an American student interested in the island, helped lead a revolt along with Ella because he knew the culture was going to be destroyed if the council had its way. More than anything, these characters wanted a way to communicate their thoughts and share what they thought about the things happening around them, but there was censorship. And in the end, even the council realized they’d taken censorship too far.

Nate was my favorite character. He was interested in culture, which is something I can appreciate. (One of my majors was Spanish and I wrote my thesis on Basque national identity.) I related to his initial reaction to use technology to solve the problem, but loved how accepting he was of the limits of Nollop’s culture and his eventual determination to solve the problem by hand. I think his romantic interest was a bit forced (no spoilers!) and unneeded, but it was still nice to see how well he acclimated to the island.

I could relate to the freedom of speech issues that the characters endured. I’ve never directly suffered from speech oppression, but I’ve sometimes felt that I can’t write about things I want to because of how it will tinge my other writing. The beginning of the story, when it’s only one or two letters that have fallen, reminded me of this.

I loved the ending of this book! I’m trying not to give too much away, but Ella was so inventive in how she solved the problem and I thought that was an amazing way of ending the issues. I was sad to see the characters that were lost along the way and I liked that it ended on a note of redemption.

Mark Dunn Image via Goodreads.com

Mark Dunn
Image via Goodreads.com

I also enjoyed when the words started to be spelled phonetically based on the remaining letters. I thought that was fun to read.

The only part of the book I didn’t like was when Nate returned to the island. I felt that his ability to return to the island illegally almost undermined the credibility of the council to be so overbearing. But as my dislike was so minor, you can tell I really liked this book!

There are so many themes to discuss with this selection! Freedom of Speech is the first. Not only are the people’s written communication monitored for the forbidden letters, but they aren’t allowed to publicly speak out against the oppression. A person trying to re-attach a letter is a heretic (because of course it’s Nollop’s will that it fell). Ella and her friends have to rebel to fight back.

The other is freedom. Is it better to be free or to follow the rules and avoid punishment? Ella toys the line; following the rules so she can be able to fight for freedom. There are others who care more about their freedom of speech (Amos) and those who care about following the rules (Georgeanne). The book gives a spectrum of everyone.

Writer’s Takeaway: The biggest thing I took away was not to be afraid to play with language. Dunn crafted a beautiful novel with great themes. The letter’s disappearance made the book fun to read, which is a great way to engage readers. Also, the subtle references to language were fun to find. (Ella Minnow Pea = LMNOP, Rederick Lyttle = little rhetoric)

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time and a welcome breath of fresh air in literature! A full five out of five stars.

This book fulfills ‘South Carolina’ in my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

If you’re interested in doing the next Read Along event here at Taking on a World of Words, check out this blog post to see the details and send me an email!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Ella Minnow Pea | Tales from the Reading Room
Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn | Lulu’s Bookshelf
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn | Sarah Says Read

Challenge Update, August

1 Sep

I pushed really hard this month on making some challenge progress and I think it paid off! You can look at my progress at any time on my challenge page.

Books finished in August:

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (3/5)
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (5/5)
Looking for Alaska by John Green (4/5)
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (3/5)
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (4/5)
Beneath A Marble Sky by John Shors (3/5)
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (5/5)

(Yes, I’m behind on reviews. No, you can’t be mad at me.)

When Are You Reading? Challenge

10/13
This is my challenge to read a book from 13 different time periods. You can read about it here. My timeline tracks when my books take place and it’s pretty obvious I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary. However, I filled in two time periods this month! The Things They Carried filled out 1950-1969 and Beneath a Marble Sky was the 1600s. I’m in the middle of a book now that will fill 1800-1889 and I have a library hold for the 1400s. Look at me go!

Where Are You Reading? Challenge

14/50 (+16)
Hosted by Sheila. In the challenge to read a book from every state, I’m not focusing enough on American settings. My map shows some clusters, but I’m trying to spread it out.

I added three whole states! That’s a big jump for me in one month, which I’m pretty proud of. I added Alabama (Looking for Alaska), New Jersey (Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock), and South Carolina (Ella Minnow Pea). And on top of that, I added three foreign countries: Wales, UK (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Vietnam (The Things They Carried), and India (Beneath a Marble Sky).

In essence, each book I read had a different and new setting this month. Well, except Okay for Now, but that’s still really good! Excuse me while I pat myself on the back.

Goodreads Challenge

43/35

DONE! I’m so awesome.

How are your challenges going? I hope you’re not too far off pace just yet! If you want any more information about the challenges I’m doing or you’d like to join me, leave a comment and check out the links. There’s also information in my Challenges tab.

Also! Remember that the next Read Along will be beginning soon! To see what that’s about, check out this post and send me an email to sign up!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Club Reflection: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

28 Aug

This is almost a month late, but I’m really excited to share my book club’s discussion of The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. Doesn’t it seem like an appropriate title for a book club selection? What do book clubs love more than books about book clubs? Probably cupcakes, but that’s about it.

Christopher Beha’s NYT review of the book says that,

…the book club serves here as an excuse for a loving celebration of a mother by a son.

This is a good summary of what the book’s about. It’s not about books; it’s about how we communicate about books. It’s about how we can show people we love them and read at the same time. As a book freak, this is a great message.

Because I like quotes, let’s jump into another from that same review.

To paraphrase Joan Didion, a writer is always ratting somebody out. A great memoirist, even one moved primarily by love and devotion, must possess a certain amount of ruthlessness — toward himself if no one else.

Didion actually said ‘selling’ someone out, but you get the idea. The later part of this quote is all Beha. I’ve seen this sentiment in a lot of memoirs we’ve read in this book club. If you want to tell the truth, sometimes it’s not pretty. We want to only show the best of those we love; the great things they did and the nice person they were. But there were days that person didn’t wear makeup or was grumpy or just needed to cry. Will had to show the readers that side of his mother, even if he didn’t want to. And even more importantly, he had to show when he was not at his best. When he was struggling to cope with his mother’s illness or just needed to be left alone. We can’t all be beautiful 100% of the time.

It was hard for Will to tell his mother he loved her. He would say he was proud of her, but struggled with the word ‘love.’ He also never addressed that he would miss her when she passed. I think these are two very difficult sentiments to express and I wish he could have done it and told us about it because I think his mother would have liked to hear it. They had a very formal relationship, where love wasn’t something  people talked about very much and was supposed to ‘just exist’ between people without being talked about. I wish they could have overcome this toward the end.

One thing in the novel that struck me was when Will asked his mother to explain all of his childhood memories: Turtle, forgetting to read to him, and her anger on Christmas Eve. This struck me because I think all of us would like to question some things we remember or think we remember from our childhoods. We have to make sure we do it before there’s not a chance to do it. I asked the other members of my book club about it, and they offered up a few reasons why he would ask. If it was a nagging feeling that Will wanted to get rid of, he knew he had to do it then. Maybe he thought his memory of the event was different and wanted to see her view on the same moment. We have one member who learned in her adult years that her childhood cat who had ‘run away’ was actually driven into the country and left there because her brother was allergic. Sometimes we can only remember what we’re told.

Mary Anne encouraged Will to quit his job numerous times. We wondered if she would have still done this if she’d not been dying. Was it her projecting an end-of-life carpe diem, or was this Mary Anne all the time? By the end of the book, we think that this was how Mary Anne approached life and she would have done this in 100% health. But the question is if Will would have listened to her in health, or if he needed his mother to be at the end of her rope to listen to such extreme advice.

A few of our members saw Mary Anne as a control freak, which had not occurred to me before, but I understand. She liked to dictate schedules and coordinate things, such as the Afghan library or what her grandchildren would do on vacation. Not knowing how something as major as her own life would end probably made her very anxious and made her want to control things around her even more. Even though she was controlling, she was also very accepting of things and people as they came to her. She found a calling to mission work from letters she received out of the blue and she was very accepting of her gay children when they came out to her. We thought this was a wonderful balance for someone to strike in their life. This continues to feed into my impression that Mary Anne was a truly wonderful person.

One of the things Mary Anne was very controlling of was the blog she and Will wrote on. She wrote the pieces and controlled the content. In some ways, she treated Will like a small kid, incapable of writing the content on his own. After talking about it, we concluded that she really wanted to write the piece herself, but writing it in the third person made it less painful. Instead of saying “I don’t feel well,” she could say, “Mary Anne doesn’t feel well.” It seems less like complaining and less self-centered. In the end, it didn’t bother us and it made Mary Anne feel better, which is the important thing.

We felt that Mary Anne was a woman who always had an agenda: a purpose. We tried to figure out what her purpose was during her time with Will before she died. We don’t think she wanted to give too much away about herself to her son. She was still a bit reserved about some of her personal life. More than that, we think she was trying to set a good example for Will and her other children. She wanted them to learn from her example of generosity. She may have been trying to impress her religious beliefs on Will as well, but I don’t think that this was her main goal. She wanted him to see that you have to give to get in return

Mary Anne almost seemed larger than life. She seemed to know so many people and be very close to a large percentage of them. It seemed a little outlandish to me. A few of our members are in education or have a relative who is and reassured me that when you’re in that field, you do know a ton of people. But that many famous and accomplished people? Well, some people are larger than life. And with her background in theater, it’s likely.

This book reminded us a bit of another book we read last month, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan. Like Cahalan’s story, Mary Anne’s illness reminded us how fortunate those with health care are. Without that access to care and means to pay for it, Mary Anne would have been much more uncomfortable for longer.

We talked about how Will wasn’t present when his mother died. As much as he knew it was coming, he left and took a shower. Maybe he wasn’t sure when it would come, but maybe he didn’t want to be there when it happened. The more we talked about it, the more we thought that Mary Anne would have wanted him to go home and take care of himself, even if just for a bit. His mother would have wanted him to leave. She was looking out for him and wanted the best for him.

One of the books referenced in this work was The Etiquette of Illness by Susan P. Halper which we thought gave Will very sound advice for how to deal with his mother’s treatment. We felt that the nurse practitioner in the story, Nessa was a good example of this. It was helpful for her to be there, even if she wasn’t talking. That was a good lesson for Will to learn as well.

One of the questions we had was about Will’s family after his mother passed. We almost felt like his mother was training him to keep the family together after she was gone. It reminded us of Nan in Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian. Fortunately, Will is active on Twitter and I asked him about this.

One of the things Will and his mother debate is reading a physical book versus an eBook. A lot of us see the attraction of books; you can lend them, you can sell them to a store, and you can buy a book someone has already loved. Second hand books are like treasures. I’m a huge believer in second-hand books and I’ll frequently put my name in books as they leave me so that maybe someone might see it later and wonder about me. Another form of book I’m a huge fan of is the audiobook. One of our members listened to an audiobook read by Will and said it was great to be able to hear the love in his voice as he talked about his mother.

We liked that they talked about books that were important to them. This can say a lot about a person. Another thing we talked about was how they read. We all felt that they were really fast readers; finishing an entire book on an airplane ride! It bothered Will that his mother would read the end first. Only one person in our club reads that way. She said she can enjoy it more when she knows where a story is going and will read the end before she’s fifty pages into a book. It helps her enjoy it, much like Mary Anne.

There’s a quote on page 41 about choices that we discussed. Will had just finished reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner in this scene.

We found ourselves discussing the three kinds of fateful choices that exist in the two books: the ones characters make knowing that they can never be undone; the ones they make thinking they can but learn they can’t; and the ones they make thinking they can’t and only later come to understand, when it’s too late, when “nothing can be undone,” that they could have.

We wondered if there were any choices Mary Anne made in the book that could have been undone. We think she believed that there were things that couldn’t be ‘unsaid’ once they were out of your mouth, but there wasn’t much in her story that was a choice. The only thing we could think of was how quickly her illness was attributed to a virus she picked up abroad. If that had been undone, her disease would have been caught earlier.

We asked who this book should be recommended to. I have a friend whose mother is suffering from cancer, but has recovered well. I wonder what she’d make of it. My mother-in-law is also a cancer survivor who has a best friend and fellow book lover she leaned on in those hard times. She might enjoy this as well. We agreed that avid readers might like the message; that a good story can transport you, connect you with other people, and be a good friend when you need it. We had one member comment that it was hard for her to read this after a good friend had died of cancer. I think there’s a balance of those with no relation to a cancer death and those with too much to be able to enjoy this book.

The sad thing is that by the time you’ve read this, the group has already met again. I’m a terrible person. It also means that I’m in grad school! Ahhh! I hope to keep updating as frequently.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 27-August-2014

27 Aug

I was hoping for a bit more movement in MizB’s WWW meme because of Bout of Books, but I think I did it wrong. You’ll see what I mean.

www_wednesdays4The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading:  I’ve stalled reading Canada by Richard Ford so I can read a library book… and then I’ll have a book club book… and one a co-worker loaned me. In short, this might be on hold for a while. The audio of Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan is progressing, but getting under my skin. The narrator is really inconsistent with the accents she’s given the characters and it’s driving me mad. I started a new ebook, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. It’s a nice short book so I hope this will move faster than most of my other ebooks have.

Recently finished: Two this week;  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I finished it Tuesday afternoon last week in the airport but didn’t have a way to update my WWW from last week, so I’ll count it for this week. Last night I finished Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors and I’m sleepy because of it! I’m ready to start a new one at lunch.

Reading Next:  I’m still waiting on Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett to come in at the library. I’m almost giving up on getting this back any time soon. Maybe it’s worth reporting to the library? I’m not sure how that process works. I’ve got two books coming up soon. My next book club selection is The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. I’m excited because my mom read this a while ago and really loved. I hope it’s a good discussion book as well. The other is one my co-worker is lending me, Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. She and I have similar tastes in YA so I’m looking forward to a quick, solid read. I’ll crack it open during my lunch break in a few hours. Pretty soon I’ll be starting Read Along #2 and the book we’ve chosen is The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar. I met Umrigar about a year ago and she blew me away; what a wonderful woman. I’m excited to read this book! If you’re interested in joining the Read-Along, check out my post explaining what it’s all about and drop me an email.

My goal is to finish ‘Marble Sky’ this week and get started on one of my ‘Reading Next’ books. How is your WWW? Leave a comment and let me know and check out the original post on MizB’s blog!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

And the Next Read-Along Will Be…

26 Aug

Thank you so much to the one person who voted on line (sarcasm) and the two people who voted via email. In truth, I could have read any of the selections and been happy, but I’m really selfishly excited for this choice because it’s been on my TBR pile for ages. Anyway, Read-Along Volume II will be…

The Space Between us by Thrity Umrigar

Woo hoo! I heard Umrigar speak about a year ago and I’ve also read her memoir and I’m sure we’re heading for a crazy roller coaster with this title.

If you’re interested in joining up, please send me an email: SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. I’ll get  you on a mailing list and send out the schedule. Here’s the basic premise of a Read-Along:

  • The book is divided into six sections (about 50 pages)
  • You will read a section every two weeks
  • After you read a section, you will (via email) submit a question to the group
  • For each section, an assigned member will pose a topic (ex. forgiveness, maternal instinct) upon which everyone else will muse
  • Within a week of a section ending, you’ll write a blog post in any format you choose to discuss the section with other participants.

As I’m only a site on the internet to most of you, I can’t enforce any of this. It’s what you make of it; the more you do, the more you get out. If you can’t give as much,  you get what you can and that’s that. It’s very relaxed and I hope we can all enjoy.

Get excited! I know I am!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Bout of Books: Sunday and Wrap-Up (Plus a Reminder)

25 Aug
Bout of Books

Sunday
Pages read:

  • Beneath A Marble Sky: 18 pages
  • The Buddha in the Attic: 23 pages
  • Total: 41 pages

Read One Hour- fail

Read 50 pages- fail

Finish two books- fail

Summary of Bout of Books

Pages read: 611

Books finished: 1

Lessons Learned: My habit of reading multiple books at a time failed me here. 611 pages total, but I only finished the tail end of one ebook. Yikes. On average, I read 87 pages a day, which is well over average. I’m about to dive into grad school, so I’m glad I did this before then! I really enjoyed the photo challenges and if you follow me on Instagram (or look at the left side of this page) you can see the fun things I did with photos. If there’s another of these that’s during a school lull and preferably not while I’m on a business trip, I’d be in again in a heartbeat.

And for the reminder! About 7PM EST tonight I’ll be closing off the voting for my second Read Along event. I’ve only received three votes so far (two off-line) and I’d love to have a big group. I put up an intro post that you can review here if you have any questions on how it works. Please consider joining us!

Please consider joining me for my Second Read Along. Voting closes Monday for what our next book will be. Cast your vote below.

Until tomorrow!

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Bout of Books: Saturday

24 Aug
Bout of Books

Saturday
Pages read:

  • Beneath A Marble Sky: 43 pages
  • Total: 43 pages

Read One Hour- complete

Read 50 pages- fail

Finish two books- in progress

I’m tempted to add in the ten pages I read of my Marketing textbook, but that feels like cheating. It’s looking less and less like I can make the two books goal I’ve set. There’s still a lot left in all of my books and I’m at my parents house right now, looking at a list of chores to do when I get home. Fingers crossed, but I’m not too hopeful.

Please consider joining me for my Second Read Along. Voting closes Monday for what our next book will be. Cast your vote below.

Until tomorrow!

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Bout of Books: Friday

23 Aug
Bout of Books

Friday
Pages read:

  • Beneath A Marble Sky: 35 pages
  • Under the Wide and Starry Sky: 104 pages
  • The Buddha in the Attic: 10 pages
  • Total: 149 pages

Read One Hour- complete

Read 50 pages- complete

Finish two books- in progress

I started a new ebook on Friday. Now I’ll have something around at all times.

Until tomorrow!

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Bout of Books: Thursday

22 Aug
Bout of Books

Thursday
Pages read:

  • Beneath A Marble Sky: 36 pages
  • Under the Wide and Starry Sky: 68 pages
  • Total: 104 pages

Time spent reading: 1.5 hours (complete)

Pages read: 104 (complete)

Books finished: one (in process)

I’m finally back and able to type this on a computer. My apologies for a lack of engagement while I was away. I’m going to keep going strong.

Until tomorrow!

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writer’s Group: Quotes and Cliches

21 Aug

A writing related post! I’ve been very reading-centric so it’s a relief to write this. My library’s writers group got together about a month ago and I’m only now getting around to summing this up. I hope some of this is worth it for you!

One of the other members said he does his writing using the snowflake method. I’d never heard of this, but it sounds interesting. There’s software related to this, it seems. You can read about it here. The basic concept is that you start with one sentence, then a paragraph, then a page, etc. At some point, you have a full novel, just growing it slowly so the points of the story are always in sight. Cool idea.

Then we talked about writing as a process. Our organizer gave us all a quote she’d found from a famous author about writing my favorite was from Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo

Rereading parts of your novel while writing is like doubling back at rerunning parts of a marathon midrace.

As an amateur runner, this really struck me. Though, I know this is only one approach to writing. Some writers get halfway through, read their novels, and then decide if they’re heading in the wrong direction. Still, I like Baty’s idea. It matters more that you get there, not how you get there.

The last thing we did was talk about clichés. The exercise we did was really great; we were given a list of cliché phrases and story plots and had to re-write them as something similar that’s not a cliché. So, for example, we were given the phrase “his bark was worse than his bite.” I wrote, “the Sargent screamed so loud that he covered Joel’s face in his spit. he threatened to transfer him, court-martial him. But we all knew he’d never willing let go of any of us.” It’s more fun to do with cliché plots. Here are a few, give it a try!

  • Technology has turned us all into soulless robots
  • Scar-crossed lovers
  • An orphan turns out to be someone important
  • It was all just a dream

That’s all for this meeting. I’ll be on a business trip for the next one so unfortunately I’ll miss that. I hope to update you all again as soon as I can with another writers’ group summary.

Remember to vote for the next book in my Read-Along series. Voting ends Monday, 25-August. Read more about it here.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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