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Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters

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Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram,* "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island's Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl's fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

*pangram: a sentence or phrase that includes all the letters of the alphabet

208 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 2001

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About the author

Mark Dunn

59 books178 followers
Mark Dunn is the author of several books and more than thirty full-length plays, a dozen of which have been published in acting edition.

Mark has received over 200 productions of his work for the stage throughout the world, with translations of his plays into French, Italian, Dutch and Hungarian. His play North Fork (later retitled Cabin Fever: A Texas Tragicomedy when it was picked up for publication by Samuel French) premiered at the New Jersey Repertory Company (NJRC) in 1999 and has since gone on to receive numerous productions throughout the U.S.

Mark is co-author with NJRC composer-in-residence Merek Royce Press of Octet: A Concert Play, which received its world premiere at NJRC in 2000. Two of his plays, Helen’s Most Favorite Day and Dix Tableaux, have gone on to publication and national licensing by Samuel French. His novels include the award-winning Ella Minnow Pea, Welcome to Higby, Ibid, the children’s novel The Calamitous Adventures of Rodney and Wayne, Under the Harrow and Feral Park.

Mark teaches creative writing and leads playwriting seminars around the country, in addition to serving as Vice President of the non-profit PULA (People United for Libraries in Africa), which he founded with his wife, Mary, in 2002.

(modified bio courtesy of http://njrep.org/playwrights.htm)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,212 reviews
Profile Image for Melki.
5,589 reviews2,311 followers
October 4, 2018
*WARNING - This is MY FAVORITE book of all time, so there will be gooing, gushing and shameless pluggery!



Welcome to Nollop, a quaint, autonomous island that lies quite near Charlotte, SC. Though the islanders shun modern technology, they take pride in their educated citizenry. Language is practically worshipped here, to the extent that the island is named after native son, Nevin Nollop, the author of the sentence typing students everywhere have come to know and dread:

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For 100 years, a cenotaph honoring Nollop's remarkable vulpine-canine sentence has stood in the center of town. Then, one day, the Z tile falls to the ground and shatters.

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The town council, in their wisdom, decide that this is a sign from the Great Man himself, expressing a Nollopian desire that the letter Z be utterly excised - fully extirpated - absolutely heave ho'ed from all oral and written communication.

In a letter to her cousin, Tassie, island dweller Ella notes that it is just a funny little letter, after all. It will hardly be missed.

But Tassie disagrees.

I am so fearful, Ella, as to where this all may lead. A silly little letter, to be sure, but I believe its theft represents something quite large and oh so frighteningly ominous. For it stands to rob us of the freedom to communicate without any manner of fetter or harness.

So, what happens to someone who accidentally utters a dreaded Z word?

As laid out by the Council, first offenders receive a public reprimand. For a second offense, violators may choose flogging or head-stocks. A third offense is punished by banishment from the island. Refusal to leave upon order of the Council will result in death.

Death.

Soon, libraries are shuttered and textbooks confiscated, lest no one read the offending letter. But for the most part, the people survive. There are a few problems; some islanders have more trouble adapting than others.

And then another tile falls.

And another.

The personal letters exchanged between the residents are both hilarious and heartbreaking, as the writers attempt to cope with their dwindling alphabet:

You were right about the fallout from this most absurd law. Not only does it cripple communication between islanders, it builds rock walls between hearts

Slips of the tongue. Slips of the pen. All over town people hesitate, stammer, fumble for ways to express themselves, gripgrasping about for linguistic concoctions to serve the simplest of purposes.

G go tonite at midnite. No more G. So long G.


There is such a delicious contrast of horror and humor here. While I'm laughing my head off at the part where they lose the D and have to invent new days of the week . . .

For Wednesday, please use Wetty

I'm crying over Tassie's letter to Ella describing her mother's reaction to the ban:

"And yet, deep inside," she tells me, "I am angry and rebellious." "In my head," she tells me, "I am reciting what I recall of my niece's last letter, allowing the illegal words to baste and crisp. I cook the words, serve them up, devour them greedily. In the sanctuary of my thoughts, I am a fearless renegade."

She closes her letter with:

Never stop writing.

This is the third time I've read this book, and I'm always moved by the plight of the islanders, how much they love language and literature, and their utter sorrow at having all that they love stolen. If nothing else, the novel serves as a stunning reminder of how insidiously our rights can be stripped away from us.

And it starts with something as simple as one silly letter.

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Now, perhaps I should mention how much I enjoyed using ALL THE LETTERS on my keyboard as I typed this review. I reveled in their shapes and truly, truly appreciated them. I hope to never take them for granted again.

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You'll take my letters when you pry them from my cold dead hands!
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,855 reviews1,891 followers
May 20, 2019
Rating: 4.9* of five



This novel is about the unintended bad, and ridiculous, consequences of a very good idea. Nollop, an island off the American mainland, is a society rational and reasonable in its organization and actions. Its usage of the English language rests on the existence of the pangram, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." The founder of Nollop invested the pangram with great significance.

And now, in Ella's time, the letters of the pangram start falling off the founder's statue! And the leaders say, "It's a sign! A sign! Whatever letters have fallen may no longer be used, in writing or in speech! An omen, a sign!"

And the people nodded, smiled, and did nothing to stop the madness. After all, it's the leaders' job to lead, right? And why would the leaders want bad things for us? After all, we all want the best and the brightest to flourish, right?

Of course! Now, take your Soma. Dr. Orwell will be along soon.
Profile Image for Cecily.
1,096 reviews3,843 followers
April 28, 2015
Clever + Silly = waste of time and paper.

A ridiculous book, masquerading as something intelligent and thought provoking. There are plenty of far better books that raise issues of totalitarianism, censorship versus free speech, superstition versus science, loyalty to friends and family versus loyalty to the state, the power of language etc in more enlightening, entertaining and less gimmicky ways. I realise my opinion is very much a minority one, so perhaps I'm overanalysing and taking it too seriously.

*** SPOLIERS BELOW ***

The book is set in the present day on a fictitious island, where they venerate Nollop, who devised the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” as the shortest sentence using all the letters of the alphabet without resorting to proper nouns and abbreviations. That irritated me from the start, as you can obviously reduce it by two letters just by changing it to “A lazy dog”.

Anyway, this sentence is on Nollop’s statue and when a letter falls off, the island council decree that it is a sign from Nollop that that letter cannot be used in speech or writing. We are expected to believe that a culture that was built on reverence for the written word destroys all its libraries overnight because one letter fell off a statue (what sort of important statue has letters glued on, rather than carved?). The punishments are harsh for individuals too – exile for a third offence. Of course, gradually other letters fall off, and they are banned too, hampering communication and creating a culture of fear.

The story is told via correspondence between islanders: a contrivance to make it easier to tell and demonstrate the story and perhaps related to the fact this is the first novel of a playwright, although you sometimes have to glance ahead to see who a letter is from, as most of the characters write in a similar style. As Dunn conveniently bans rare letters first (Z, Q, then J), it’s not till half way through that you really notice much difference in style, other than the odd awkward neologism, e.g. birth-anniversary. Later on, they are allowed to use letters that sound roughly similar, but only in correspondence, e.g. phewgitiph for fugitive.

Presumably to add some much needed excitement to the story, an arbitrary deadline is set to devise an even shorter pangram and thus disprove the council’s theory. Pretty pointless when there is at least one perfectly grammatical and shorter pangram that is common knowledge, so it was just a case of waiting for it to crop up, as it duly did. Their perseverance was impressive but ultimately irrelevant: it was the serendipitous wish of an alcoholic falling off the wagon that saved them.

A weak love story is included, but that doesn’t really add much excitement either.

It's a totalitarian regime with a quasi theocratic motive rather than a socio-political-economic one. In fact we learn surprisingly little about the politics of Nollop. The other big subject that is raised but not addressed is race. In the introductory definitions, Dunn mentions “black and white citizens” (it’s 20 miles from S Carolina) and says it used to be called Utopiana, but I don’t think race is ever mentioned again. I’m not even sure which characters are which race, yet in a divided and disintegrating society, mightn’t any racial tensions, however minor, be exacerbated? And even if not, people’s colour might affect their feelings about whether or not to flee to the mainland. If he doesn’t use it in the story, I don’t know why he mentioned it at all.

In the first twenty pages or so, Dunn shows off by littering the text with obscure words (such as detachation, multype writudes, empyrean, extirpated, lucubrating, anserous and aposiopesis). Thereafter, he seems to tire of that game and stick to mundane words, until the second half when the vocab finally becomes somewhat constrained and contorted due to the letters that have been prohibited.

Given that the whole book is an exercise in literary exhibitionism, I found the misuse of apostrophes (e.g. Masons Guild, Parents and Teachers Association) and frequent omission of the definite article (e.g. “going to town centre”) inexcusable.

Writing with limitations, whether that be a min or max word count, limited vocabulary or limited letters, using rhyme or whatever can be a worthwhile intellectual exercise for a writer, but that doesn’t mean the result is worth publishing, otherwise we might as well read spelling tests for pleasure.

One could try to interpret profound truths from this book, but frankly I think it would be a waste of time. Read Nineteen Eighty Four, The Trial, Fahrenheit 451, Oryx and Crake, Cat’s Cradle, Riddley Walker, or The Handmaid’s Tale instead etc.
Profile Image for Regina.
1,136 reviews2,703 followers
April 25, 2021
Get this - Ella Minnow Pea is “a novel in letters,” and there is a clever double meaning there.

1. The story unfolds in the epistolary format, so the plot moves along through letters exchanged by the characters.

2. It is "progressively lipogrammatic.” As you read along, more and more letters of the alphabet are excluded from the characters' writings. With each disappearing letter, the words become increasingly phonetically or creatively spelled. “You” becomes “ewe.” “Family” becomes “phamilee.”

If that all sounds very meta, it is. Written in 2001, Ella Minnow Pea has become somewhat of a modern classic given the novelty of its structure along with its not-so-subtle themes of totalitarianism, censorship, and freedom of speech. You see, the fictional island’s government bans the use of various letters and inflicts punishment on citizens for each infraction.

Fun, huh? For lovers of linguistics it very well may be. Unfortunately, the storyline itself is boring as phuk.

I’m glad to have finally picked up Ella Minnow Pea since it is so unique, but overall it struck me as a novel that was more fun for the author to write than for people to read.

Blog: www.confettibookshelf.com
IG: @confettibookshelf
Profile Image for Beverly.
775 reviews266 followers
February 10, 2020
Cute and clever, Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel with an astounding wordsmith in the author, Mark Dunn. I usually love these sort of books written in letters and memos and such, but it got a little hard going towards the end when the missing letters combined with the phonetically spelled words made me want to tear off my hair shirt.

Let me explain. A tyrannical town council, think "Salem witch trials" town council starts banning letters in the alphabet after they start falling off of a sign. If you are caught using the outlawed letters, it is a lashing for you or banishment or worse.

Ella Minnow Pea is the heroine of the piece who conquers the council through her ingenuity, tenacity and intelligence. She was destined to overcome her alphabetical enemies with that punny name. I only wish she had done it sooner!
Profile Image for Susan's Reviews.
1,040 reviews464 followers
November 8, 2021
Very funny but also very topical: what happens when those in charge curtail civil rights such as freedom of speech and impose ridiculous penalties that do not fit the "crime". I was laughing out loud towards the end, when there were so few letters left in the alphabet that could still legally be used, that sending a letter was a chore indeed!



An excellent reminder that we must uphold our rights and freedoms in order to maintain a free and democratic society.

[image error]


P.S. How dense am I? I only just realized that the title is a play on the letters of the alphabet:

L M N O P = Ella Minnow Pea!!!
Profile Image for DeB.
954 reviews246 followers
December 16, 2016
Ella Minnow Pea (LMNOP) is a broad satire, which is conspicuous in loudly broadcasting its themes of the consequences of unfettered political power dictated to a country (fascism) with its resulting creeping loss of rights which become the new normal, as well as neighbourly reporting and ridiculously contrived punishable offences to incite fear and maintain absolute power. But once you have that nicely established, you can get down to the idiosyncratic local tale on the island of Nollop, named after the esteemed author of the pangram, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."

The citizens are noteworthy due to their relative isolation of a century from America, after settling with their leader Nollop. In fact, those who live "stateside" can find these citizens "difficult to understand". As a reader we are privy to correspondence between its people, in the form of letters, technology and telephones unavailable to them.

A crisis of great magnitude is conceived by the island council when a tile bearing the letter "Z" falls from the celebrated sentence beneath the effigy of Nevin Nollop. It will not repaired because this must be a "terrestrial manifestation". Rather, "Z" will be excised from the vocabulary.

The eloquent and verbose Nollopians, whose vocabulary is reminiscent of that of a well-educated, upper class and perhaps scholarly individual from the early 1900s, don't take this well. They are astounded when all the bees are removed from the island and the apiary owner charged with violations, for describing the sound they make! The fulsome language of Ella, writing to her cousin Tassie about this, includes "words" familiar only within their island culture.

"For the bees speak the offending letter as their wont. They sing it into the hills, our ears ringing with its scissoresonance."

Of course more and more tiles fall, making conversation and writing even more difficult. The library is shut down, denuded of books which don't comply. Town and village people are banished after three violations; the councillors now call themselves "The Pentapriests" in respect of the lost letters. With the absence of "C" and "K", one character writes to another in thanks- appreciation- for the pullet soup, use of synonyms being a matter of survival and saviour of property which is being absconded by the bureaucrats for themselves.

Help arrives and a solution is found but not before the struggle to communicate becomes terribly arduous -and hilariously phonetic- there being only scant letters to work with.

"...ewe are propaplee reating mie last letter to ewe. It is simplee too tiring to write. To sae watt I most sae in langwage one mae onterstant. I am so sorree. Alwaes, Ella".

Ella Minnow Pea, A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn was written in 2001 and has a timeless appeal. It is taught in schools; there are Sparks notes on the Internet . It is broad satire woven with the intricate detail of wordsmithery (that's a neologism, a made up word and a portmanteau word: hybrid of two). The simple tale is deceivingly complex, its wordplay an art in itself. And the result is quaint, goofy and unlike anything else I have ever read.

I did experience intimations of "Gulliver's Travels", lurking in the shadows. How could it not?!! Island, politics, strange language and Yahoos... But Ella Minnow Pea is much more fun.

**Autocorrect was a real PAIN in the keister with this review. You think? Hahaha!
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,509 reviews2,511 followers
June 24, 2020
(4.5) On my recent rereading I engaged more with the individual characters: Ella and her parents, aunt and cousin; other members of the community; and a few off-island visitors who lead the research into what’s happening with the letters. I was also struck much more by the political satire: freedom of speech is endangered in a repressive society slavishly devoted to a sacred text. Those who continue to use forbidden letters are turned in by their neighbors or enemies and get 1) a warning, 2) a flogging or time in the headstocks, and 3) banishment. The council members see themselves as interpreting the will of Nollop, and believe the pangram to be a miraculous sentence that can never be bettered – but the citizens prove them wrong by creating a superior example (using only 32 letters, versus the fox’s 35) purely by accident.

A remembered favorite line that my husband and I often quote to each other – “No mo Nollop poop!” doesn’t actually exist (it’s “No mo Nollop pomp! No mo Nollop poo poo!”). My favorite alternative phrase is “terminal-cot” for deathbed once D is disallowed. I also love the new days of the week: Sunshine, Monty, Toes, Wetty, Thurby, Fribs and Satto-Gatto.

Laugh-out-loud silliness plus a sly message about science and reason over superstition: a rare combination that makes this an enduring favorite. I also recommend Dunn’s Ibid: A Life (2004), which is told entirely through the footnotes of a biography, taking “reading between the lines” to a whole new level. I haven’t enjoyed his other novels as much as these two.

Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.


From my original Bookkaholic review (2013):

Dunn’s first novel is a book of letters – in more senses than one. It is a fairly traditional epistolary, yes, but it also toys with the letters of the alphabet: the wordy citizens of the island nation of Nollop are zealously engaged in creating pangrams (pithy sentences that contain each letter of the alphabet) in tribute to their founder Nevin Nollop, who authored “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” the original pangram displayed in ceramic tiles on his statue in the public square. But things go awry when particular letters start falling off the monument.

A superstitious lot, the Nollop Council decide that the fallen letters can no longer be used, and so the characters’ missives become increasingly constrained as they have to avoid certain vowels and consonants. Their writing grows exponentially avant-garde and hilarious as they resort to circumlocutions, phonetic spellings, and not-quite-right synonyms – as is the case with Christian Bök’s poetry collection of univocal lipograms, Eunoia, extreme creativity often arises out of a tough linguistic stricture.Before long only L, M, N, O, and P can be used – which, handily, still allows for an approximation of the title character’s name, but offers very few other coherent language options.

A madcap journey through the English language and its use in literature: enjoy the ride.
Profile Image for Kate.
175 reviews16 followers
January 1, 2008
I found this book at the Wilderness Library and very nearly didn't buy it. Just looking at the title, the words didn't exactly compute and I thought, "hmmm, this book seems kind of silly." Then I read "A Novel in Letters" and my shameless snoop side came out. I love, love, love reading books that are comprised of letters, I feel like I'm really snooping in someone's mail or diaries, and it makes it so interesting. So I picked up Ella and on my way to the car, said the title out loud and the light went on.

The story is one of letters, literally, written in letters between various people. The fictional town of Nollop is facing a crisis: Named after Nevin Nollop who famously coined the phrase "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog", a statue to its founder in town is falling to pieces. Specifically, letters on tiles comprising the famous sentence are falling off the statue, and the town council has taken that as a sign. The citizenry is officially banned from using any letter which falls off the sign. Failure to restrict use of those letters results first in lashing, and then in banishment from the island. They may neither speak nor write the offending letters. It starts out fairly simply, with the letter Z, but eventually more and more letters drop and it becomes harder and harder to write and speak.

I won't reveal how it is resolved, but it was an excellent story and one that I only wish I had had the cleverness to invent myself. It's a fairly short book as well, so you could read it pretty quickly if you wanted to! Fun and funny, definitely a book for people who love words. Take up the town's challenge yourself and see if you can come up with a sentence...?
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 4 books427 followers
April 3, 2016
Ella Minnow Pea is a girl who lives on a small island off the coast of South Carolina. This nation state, named Nollop after its founder, seems idyllic. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, tiles begin to tumble from Nollop's monument, and the Council interprets these as (pardon the pun) letters from heaven. But the island paradise soon degenerates into a totalitarian regime as hellish as anything conceived by George Orwell.

This, as other reviewers have noted, is a parable about the exercise of human rights and especially free speech. But it's also a celebration of language, full of neologisms, alternate spellings, unexpected twists, quirky characters and just plain whimsy.
Profile Image for Whitaker.
294 reviews494 followers
August 19, 2016
Original Review

Georges Perec wrote a novel without using the letter "e" even once. Dunn works a similar gimmick by writing this epistolary novel about an island that bans the use of certain letters as these drop off, one by one, from the statute of the creator of the phrase, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."

"Z" is the first to go, then "Q", then "J". Things get really difficult, however, when "D" falls off. Speech, indeed communication of any kind, gets increasingly difficult as the island's Council decrees that words that contain the offending letters must not, on pain of banishment or death, be written or even uttered. All the horrors of the police state are invoked as neighbours tell on neighbours, and a censor is appointed to read through all of the islanders' communication. Even religious fundamentalism gets a swipe since the Council treat Nollop, the phrase's creator, as--well--a Creator.

What a charming little fable about the importance of free speech. Charming, and ultimately, irrelevant.

This is not to say that I think that governments should be entitled to silence opponents by throwing them in jail or torturing them. But those are crude measures used nowadays only by political troglodytes. Welcome to the brave new world where opponents of free speech have learnt that the best way to undermine free speech is to render it worthless. When everything--including outright fabrication and lies--can be said, then nothing is said. Doublethink and duckspeak ain't nothing compared to that. In the name of the right to free speech, speech been rendered truly free, but only in the sense that it has no value anymore.

Step right up, folks! Get your free speech here! That's right, folks, we're giving it away!



Updates below sorted by date (newest first):

Update (14 February 2014)

Lest anyone think that I'm for censorship, here's an example of censorship I depore: The successful right-wing bullying by the conservative Hindu group, Shiksha Bachao Andolan, of Penguin India leading to it pulling and pulping a scholarly work, Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History .

Update (3 February 2014)

Oooh, lookie, free speech in France:
a recent obscene internet and text campaign ... persuaded hundreds of French parents that the government wanted primary school children to masturbate in class... many of yesterday’s marchers ... swallow wholesale the distortions pedalled by Mr Soral and by Catholic extremists in recent months on “la théorie du genre” – or gender theory. They demanded the withdrawal of a pilot programme in four areas of France which seeks to steer primary school boys and girls away from gender stereotypes. This apparently modest programme consists of trying to persuade girls that they can perfectly well drive tractors and boys that they can be ballet dancers if they want to. Harmless? Not as far as the marchers were concerned. It was this programme which was the subject of the obscene rumour spread by text and online a few days ago by Mr Soral’s lieutenant, Farida Belghoul. Texts, tweets and emails persuaded hundreds of mostly black and Muslim parents that there would be masturbation and cross-dressing in primary schools.
How long do you think these people who use free speech to incite hate and spread lies will allow speech to remain free if they win?

Update (20 Dec 2013)

Here's another random thought on unfettered free-speech. One foundational linch-pin in the pro-free speech platform is that truth will win out over lies. But, as with most ideas, this turns out to be more theory than fact. So, how does one deal with the fact that lies have a surprisingly tenacious ability to stay alive, especially in this age of the internet: "27 Percent of Surgeons Still Think Obamacare Has Death Panels".

Update (2 Oct 2013)

The US government shutdown today is being done in opposition to Obamacare. Given the idea that Obama care is "The Final Solution" (see the image below), it is not surprising that purist politicians have a "take no prisoners" attitude. After all, one cannot compromise with the Devil.

Proponents of free speech frequently ignore the impact of lies on passions and emotions, of the inability of people to process information rationally and logically. How many in the WEIRD countries are aware of the tragedy sweeping through Myanmar right now because radical Buddhists have been spreading lies about their fellow Muslims citizens? People are being killed and burnt alive because of these lies.

We celebrate the ability of the internet to topple Arab governments. Here's the flip side of that:
The most sinister change in the way war is perceived springs from what two years ago seemed to be a wholly positive development. Satellite television and the use of information supplied by YouTube, bloggers and social media were portrayed as liberating innovations. The monopoly on information imposed by police states from Syria to Egypt and Bahrain to Tunisia had been broken. But as the course of the uprising in Syria has shown, satellite television and the internet also spread propaganda and hate. Fraudulent atrocity stories have an effect on a war: a Libyan militiaman who believes that the government soldiers he is fighting are under orders to rape his wife and daughters isn’t going to take many prisoners.

The situation has grown worse since Libya. The ‘YouTube war’ showing atrocities on both sides has outpaced the actual war in Syria as an influence on both rebels and government supporters. Satellite channels such as al-Jazeera depend on these propaganda clips. Many of the atrocities are real. Rebels can see film of mass graves of people killed by poison gas or children writhing in pain from napalm burns. In government-held parts of Damascus people don’t go out much in the evening but sit at home watching footage of captured government soldiers being decapitated or Christian priests and Alawite soldiers having their throats cut. Much of this footage is real – but not all. A correspondent in south-east Turkey recently visited a Syrian refugee camp where he found ten-year-old children watching a YouTube clip of two men being executed with a chainsaw. The commentary claimed that the victims were Syrian Sunnis and the killers were Alawites: in fact the film was from Mexico and the murders had been carried out by a drug lord to intimidate his rivals.

The diet of snuff movies helps explain the ferocity of the conflict in Syria and the degree of hatred and terror on both sides. It also explains why the two sides find it so difficult to talk to each other. How would Union soldiers in the American Civil War have reacted if they had repeatedly watched film of a Confederate commander cutting open the body of a dead private in the Union army and eating his heart?
Too much of the debate about free speech is unnuanced and hysterical, with no considered discussion being given to its darker sides. The slippery slope argument is pulled out again and again in support of rampant, unfettered free speech. Supporters of unfettered free speech seem unwilling to grapple with or even admit its darker, less savoury consequences, seemingly preferring instead to pretend that these don't exist. The tragic consequences of a dictatorship which censures and censors have been well and fully ventilated. It might help to remember that as with all things in life, humans are more than capable of using ANY tool for both good AND ill.


Profile Image for Krista.
1,333 reviews495 followers
May 2, 2022


To Miss Ella Minnow Pea:

I regret to tell yew most greephos news: Mannheim is mort. I no that yew new him, were phrents with him. That yew ant he ant his assistant Tom were worging still on the Enterprise 32 shallenge…

Ella Minnow Pea was recently recommended to me as a “must read of literary playfulness”, and I have to admit that the premise sounded intriguing: On a small sovereign island off South Carolina whose inhabitants are united by a love of language — and in particular, the famous pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog", whose creator Nevin Nollop has a statue in the capital city’s main square with that sentence written upon it — the citizenry have their lives and expression circumscribed by their ruling Council as the letters in the pangram fall off the statue one by one and each letter is then consequently banned from the people’s vocabulary (written and spoken), and in concert, from the book itself. I understand that author Mark Dunn is a renowned playwright (and so, presumably, a master of dialogue), so it’s strange to me that he chose a monologuing epistolary form for this, his first novel: This is a series of letters, mostly written between two cousins and their mothers (and a few others), and they go from overwrought, florid writing (to demonstrate the people’s love of language, one supposes) as they explain to one another things they should already know about the increasing restrictions on their lives, to a slightly more basic writing style as they pepper their writing with awkward synonyms to get around banned words (“she-heir” for daughter). As letters progressively fall and become forbidden, the only real interest in the book becomes: Will the people be able to fight back against the Council’s increasing fascism? And how will Dunn’s writing accommodate his self-imposed restrictions? In the end, I didn’t think that there was any logic in the plot: Dunn was simply setting up a gimmick that he ultimately undermines and does not pull off. I wish I liked this more, but to me, it failed on all fronts.

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 — absolutely heave-ho’ed from our communal vocabulary!

When the first letter falls (note: what kind of statue has its inscription written out in glued-on tiles?), the Council determines that it’s a message from Nevin Nollop himself: the people have become complacent in their devotion to language and need to become more intentional in its use; everyone over the age of seven must cease to speak or write the letter “Z” or face punishment that ranges from a warning for a first offence, to flogging, banishment, to even death. Over the course of the next four months (the glue on the tiles is analysed in an offsite lab and, as predicted, fails quickly and completely), the Council grants itself ever more draconian powers as it elevates Nollop to the status of the one-true-God. And while citizens are increasingly banished or voluntarily leave the island (and have their abandoned property seized by the Council members) as the restrictions become ever harder to comply with, Miss Ella Minnow Pea (and some few other determined citizens) make a deal with the Council: If they can find a shorter pangram than the foxy-dog sentence by November 16th (Nollop’s birthday), they will prove that Nollop is not divine and the restrictions will all be lifted and the emigrants can safely return. Because fascism is that easy to defeat. Nothing about the plot made sense to me.

As for the writing: Not only do these correspondents write in an overly verbose style, but they do so with invented vocabulary — writing of the “scissoresonance” of the bees, a protesting youth’s “boldly insolent hurlatory”, the island of Nollop is described as “a beautiful, sandy-shored haven of enchantment and delishmerelle”. Ella’s cousin Tassie writes, well into the restrictions:

”Banishment”: the next banishment victim! To become one more invisiblinguista. The 4000th, 5000th such victim? Is anyone counting? Perhaps Nollop? Expunging each entry in his Heavenly Lexicon — one at a time — until the tome’s pages stop resembling pages at all. Until they become pure expurgatory-tangibull. Ravenstriate leaves. Ebony reticulate sheets. Tenebrous night in thin tissue. Contemnation by tissue! It is almost unbearable.

And so, I was interested to see how Dunn would deal with his self-imposed restrictions as letters became less available to him in this land of inflated rhetoric, but suddenly near the end, the Council declares that it is permissible for citizens to write in homonyms for forbidden “graphemes” (leading to some nonsense-looking passages as in the first quote), while of course, not being allowed to speak aloud in homonyms (yet in an epistolary novel, the writing is all we see; there’s simply no drama here).

This is a playful concept, and I do like books that play with language, but this simply didn’t pull it off for me.
Profile Image for Beth.
1,203 reviews31 followers
February 20, 2008
This book has been on my “to read” list for a long time. It sounded interesting: a book in which the characters revere language and the alphabet, and when letters fall from the statue that celebrates their culture, they are also dropped from the novel.

I’m pleased to report, first of all, that this book is wholesome, despite being on the national market and not just the LDS one (so many books I’ve picked up this year I’ve had to return to the library, unread).

And this book is good to boot. It’s like push-ups for your brain. At first, the work-out was to make sense of the vocabulary-enfused text; then, as the letters drop and ideas are conveyed more creatively (even through the use of phonetic near-matches — e.g. “worriet” instead of “worried”), I felt a bit like I was playing MadGab.

The novel is a quick read (many of the 208 pages were actually almost entirely blank) and an interesting story, as well. It’s amazing to me how Dunn was able to work so much drama in the story using such limited literary devices (even the novel form — which is told via letters to and from characters in the book — is somewhat stagnating, not to mention the aforementioned rules about the alphabet letters’ slow elimination).

Dunn’s opening pangram (which is actually used to define “pangram”) aptly describes the book: “a quirky novel with pages of zany, jumbled lexicon” — a treat to read.
Profile Image for Lucy.
469 reviews586 followers
November 10, 2008
It wasn't until I told someone, out loud, what I was reading that I realized the title, Ella Minnow Pea, really sounded like the "LMNOP" of the alphabet song. Now, of course, I have no idea how I missed it. Ella Minnow Pea. LMNOP. Obvious. So obvious I wonder what else I missed. Such a clever title. Such a clever book.

Ella Minnow Pea resides on the fictional island of Nallop, off the South Carolina shore, where all the residents are brought up in reverence of syntax and language. The founder and most celebrated resident, Nevin Nollop, was the author of the well known keyboard practice sentence, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." When the letter tiles creating this celebrated sentence beneath his statue begin to fall off, the self-righteous and clearly brainless members of the governing council take it as a sign that Nollop, himself, wants the usage of these letters to terminate. As a result, they ban all future use of the fallen letters. First "z" gets the ax, followed by "q" and "k". The residents of the island face severe and, frankly, far fetched punishment if the banned letters are used in writing, speech or music.

As the book is written through letters between friends and family members within the community, the reader witnesses first hand the difficulties in communicating without all of our precious 26 letters. Yes, we need our "z" and our "k"s, uncommon as they may seem. Life without the letter "d" is no life at all. End scene.

In spite of all of the author's cleverness, which is bountiful, I found this novel lacking. The author, Mark Dunn, brilliantly uses the English language in its most advanced form. While I'm sure I'm exaggerating, (but since this entire book is a satire, I feel it's appropriate here) I think at least 10% of the words throughout the book were words I had never seen nor heard before. Dunn either has an intimate knowledge of English vocabulary or an extremely thick thesaurus at his disposal. For language lovers, I've no doubt this book would be a delight.

For story, character, plot and reality lovers, however, the story isn't quite as accomplished. The author's not very subtle dig at organized religion as a vehicle for the blindly obedient to carry out the wishes of non-existent tyrannical beings got on my nerves. Likewise, the characters were so poorly developed that I was never quite sure who the letters were being written by or to whom they were being sent. As their relationships with each other was never the point of the book, however, I let it slide.

Ultimately, this is a show-off book about language but not one that really entertains or matters, because the story isn't funny, romantic, endearing, sad or slightly plausible. Just very, very clever.
Profile Image for Megan.
120 reviews22 followers
May 13, 2008
I loved this perky, word-exacting fable; it was a quick read--a touch zany at times but thoroughly enjoyable.

And yes, I did intentionally use all the letters of the alphabet in the first sentence. It is, admittedly, harder than it seems.

The book is in the form of letters written among the inhabitants of a small island nation who prize, above all, their literary and vocabulary skills. When letters begin to fall from the city's motto (The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog), the city council takes it as a divine message to remove those letters from the language.

The story continues as additional letters fall. The few residents fight to restore the lost letters to the alphabet while trying to maintain their frequent letters with increasingly fewer letters from with to draw.

I didn't expect to like it as much as I did but I found myself quite taken with the story. Despite being crunched for shelf space, this book is one I'll be adding to my personal library; the copy I read will sadly have to be returned to the public library.
Profile Image for Britany.
941 reviews416 followers
June 11, 2020
This quirky novel kept coming onto my radar years ago, I picked it up from a bookstore in Hawaii on Oahu. I finally got an opportunity to read it.

The whole premise is set on a made up island off the coast of SC called Nollop, the island has their own government and everything is based on the one sentence Nevin Nollop created using every single letter in the English alphabet. The Quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The letters start falling off and the crazy island deems that it's a sign from Nollop and they must remove them as the novel goes on. This is written as a series of letters (epistolary- which I'm obsessed with) and I enjoyed the satire, while at times rolling my eyes at the absurdity of the town's high council. Ella, our protagonist stays true til the end and I eventually had to read out loud to understand what she was saying.

This is one to pick up if you have any interest in language or you have a hankering for a novel told in letters.
Profile Image for Maria V. Snyder.
Author 64 books16.8k followers
January 10, 2021
This was a fun quick read. And I was super impressed by the linguistic skills of the author, avoiding words with certain letters as the story progressed. Although, by the end, I was having a difficult time reading as substitutions were used for forbidden letters. Thankfully that didn't last long.
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
1,998 reviews3,973 followers
April 16, 2014
An inventive epistolary and lipogrammatic novel mixing the prisoner’s constraint, pangrams, and neologisms to form an Oulipian feast. Perhaps a little Oulipo-lite? Perhaps. But the prose is impressive and despite the partial cheat towards the end (using phonetic sounds for words) the lipogram is successful and the plot something of a statement about censorship and the privilege we have in the West to use our language to express whatever we wish (and abuse this on a word-by-word basis). As someone who has attempted an alphabetical lipogram (running from A-Z and back again and published here), Dunn’s feat deserves our respect and enthusiastic handclaps.
Profile Image for Karl Jorgenson.
514 reviews25 followers
March 28, 2022
Haha. No.
Funny concept: an island society that reveres its founder, Nollop, who coined the phrase 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.' Said phrase displayed in the central square, a statement that this society worships Nollop and the concept of the alphabet. When letters begin to fall from the display, the government decrees the fallen letters must never be spoken or written again. And so with increasingly convoluted spellings and substitutions, the islanders attempt to go on.
The book is epistolary, meaning structured as letters written between characters. This is a horrible idea, has always been a horrible idea, and never leads to an actual book, except here. Although the characters in this book write clever, emotive letters, they're still letters, the pedantic telling of events by one person to one other person. The result is that the characters have no life or liveliness, the events are described rather than experienced, and the reader forever has the feeling of reading long-ago letters from people she doesn't know, which is exactly the case.
The author is a wildly successful playwright. Only that sort of credibility makes possible this unlikely indulgence. The thing about playwrights is they write dialogue--the crew supplies the set, props, and background, and the actors use their voices, their faces, and their bodies to convey emotions. I imagine this author writing Ella Minnow Pea and visualizing each of his characters emoting as they write their letters: angry, frightened, defiant, hopeful, cunning. Alas, this is not a play, and all I visualized were characters I didn't know scratching at paper with a pen.
Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,709 reviews325 followers
September 9, 2020
5***** and a ❤

On a fictitious island nation off the coast of South Carolina, the people pride themselves on their literacy and writing. Their founder, Nevin Nollop, is credited with writing "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." A sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet, and which is memorialized in the town square. But when a letter tile falls from the monument, the Council takes that as a "sign" from above, and decrees that they should no longer use THAT letter. The far-reaching ramifications of this, and subsequent, decrees (as more letters fall from the monument) test the imagination, strength and patience of the residents.

The novel is told in epistolary form, and their missives adhere to the ever more restrictive rules as the book progresses. From finding synonyms to creative substitute spellings and even use of numbers, Ella and her friends and family try valiantly to maintain communication. You wouldn’t think the loss of one letter of the alphabet would have much impact. But what if you lost “V” and could no longer express your love? Or “H” and could no longer worship? More importantly, as residents flee the restrictions (or are forced out due to violating the laws), the entire society begins to crumble. Still, Ella and a handful of family and friends fight against the edicts and with the hope of returning their beloved island nation to a place where literacy is once again appreciated.

I had read this before and had a lovely discussion about it with my college roommate’s daughter. A few years ago she gave me the special illustrated gift edition, which has been sitting patiently on my shelves along with other “special” books. I’m so glad I took it off the shelf and read it at this time. This is a wonderful little satire on the use/abuse of power, but it is also a love letter to all of us who love and cherish words.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

UPDATE: 02Dec14 - reread the book and updated my review.

************************

UPDATE: 08Sep20
I read this again and am horrified to recognize behavior in our current government's leaders that mimic the behavior of the leaders of this island nation. I didn't find it so funny this time around. Nor quite so enjoyable. Instead I felt anxious and afraid ... much like Ella and the other citizens of Nollop as their society crumbles. Still, I'm leaving my rating as it is.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,232 reviews997 followers
May 12, 2017
A post-apocalyptic book club selection (which is technically not post-apocalyptic, but we are flexible like that).

'Ella Minnow Pea' posits an independent island nation somewhere off the coast of North Carolina. The villagers there have opted for a simple life, embracing old-fashioned, small-town values. They're governed by a town council, and revere the (fictional) historical character of Nevin Nollop, supposedly the originator of the pangrammatic phrase, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." A monument to him stands in a prominent place on this island which is named after him, featuring the remarkable phrase that made his reputation immortal.

The problems start when - ker-smash! - one of the letters falls off the monument. The town council decides that this is a message from beyond: Nollop is communicating to his followers that the letter in question should no longer be used, either in speaking or writing. Violators will be punished... and the penalty will be more severe for subsequent offenses. The ordinance is difficult to follow, but the citizens manage. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning - the glue holding the letters to the monument is aging, and soon, more letters are on their way earthward - and out of the vocabulary of the characters and the book.

It's a fun conceit, cleverly executed - although I have to say, the order in which the letters plummet and are eliminated is awfully convenient for the writer. I very much enjoyed the deadpan humor of the story, and the allegory concerning the methods that can be used for the gradual erosion of people's rights is smooth - and spot-on.

I have to say, though - I expected things to get a lot worse. Society on Nollop slides into a dangerous place, where neighbors are accepting corporal punishment, turning informant, becoming banished, acceding to asset forfeiture, forming underground resistance groups and committing acts of civil disobedience... and I did expect a huge disaster at the end. But, maintaining the light-hearted tone of the book, the author kind of skids to a halt before hitting the edge of the precipice, and turns it around. I understand why, but the result felt a bit anti-climactic.
Profile Image for Milan/zzz.
278 reviews55 followers
May 10, 2009
Indeed this was fast, interesting read but from time to time extremely challenging. Namely my level of English is not on such a high level to be able to fully absorb what this lovely novel offers. There were so many words I never heard before so in spite the fact I could catch the context I wanted to know their exact meaning. Therefore I had to have dictionary beside me (also English-English one). But in spite "hard physical" work this read was really enjoyable!

The idea is incredibly original and truth, English is not my mother tongue but I do believe Mr. Dunn has done it fantastically well. It's a pure delicacy for all linguistic geeks (which I am but in my mother tongue).

What I especially like about this book was one augmented but great image of totalitarian regimes. The initial spot of bother was something so insane that it's quite impossible to comprehend but everything from that point was absolutely realistic and absolutely terrifying. There were no freedom of speech, your first neighbor is quite probably the stoolpigeon, government was controlling everything and government is full of power-thirsty schizophrenics (as usual)... Probably that's why I didn't find this book as funny as many did. It didn't make me laugh but then I don't think that was its intention after all.

Highly recommending.
1,541 reviews82 followers
July 25, 2017
Clever, totally fun read about an isolated utopian community dedicated to the celebration of the English language. As lettered tiles drop off an old monument in the town square, the governing body interprets it is a supernatural sign that each letter should be removed from all spoken and written language. The verbal acrobatics that ensue is entertaining. This is also a satire of the ludicrous attempts to censure language and ban ideas and the small-minded autocrats that enact such policies.
Profile Image for La Crosse County Library.
547 reviews120 followers
January 5, 2022
Review originally published March 5, 2021

"The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."

Mark Dunn's Ella Minnow Pea uses this familiar pangram -- a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet -- as the basis of an engaging parable on censorship, authoritarianism, and our need to communicate in even the most challenging situations.

The setting is an exclusive island community off the coast of South Carolina that was founded by the late creator of the "quick brown fox" pangram. The residents have erected a monument to their hero made up of tiles containing the sentence.

The islanders live a peaceful lifestyle rich with arts, culture and diversity, until one day, when the "Z" tile falls from the monument. Taking this as an omen, the town leaders forbid the use of the fallen letter in all communications, and residents must comply or risk being banished from the island.

This proves to be inconvenient but manageable. Then another tile falls. Then another. And another.
The tension builds with each fallen tile. And because the book is written as a series of letters among the residents, the reader is challenged to follow along as residents adapt to an ever-changing language.

I read this book when it came out almost 20 years ago and re-read it again this year. It somehow seems more culturally relevant today. I highly recommend to all my fellow word nerds.

-Keith O'D

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Profile Image for ·Karen·.
610 reviews752 followers
April 11, 2013
This delightful little epistolary novel passed away a few hours in the train very pleasantly indeed. But it should not be under-estimated merely because it is short, fun and easy to read. It consists of the correspondence between various members of a community that live on a fictional island off the south west coast of the USA. Their culture is one of letters, of written correspondence, in a somewhat anachronistic formal style that takes delight in the polysyllabic. Imagine therefore their dismay when individual letters begin to fall from the famous pangram that was (supposedly) coined by their founding father Nevin Nollop: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The powers that be decide that Nollop is speaking to them from beyond the grave, and stipulates that these graphemes are now forbidden. The novel's constituent correspondence is subject to the same rigorous deconstruction of language, and the inventiveness involved in avoiding words that contain the outlawed alphabet is wondrous to see.
Behind and beyond the fun there are some serious themes: totalitarianism, community, destruction of language, religious thinking and creation of orthodoxy, which are packed into a playful narrative with a gutsy and resourceful main character. Great fun!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Alaina.
5,945 reviews215 followers
November 11, 2020
Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters was such a fun book to dive into. Not sure why this was never on my radar but I hope to find more books like it. So much was happening that made me laugh and smile.

Now my family has ALWAYS joked that English is my second language (even though it isn't). All I know is that I was a kid who made up my own pronunciations of words. If I didn't know how to say it.. well, just wait - I would say it in my own way. Of course that led to my family crying from laughing so hard but it still happens today.

So, yeah, it was pretty easy for me like everything about this book.
Profile Image for Mike.
475 reviews367 followers
June 26, 2015
Ella Minnow Pea starts as a cute, light hearted book about a fictional country that idolizes Nevin Nollop, the man who discovered the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dogs." Written in the form of letters between townsfolk, the tale turns to fear as letters from Nollop's famous line begin falling off a statue erected to his honor. The Island Council decrees it is the will of Nollop (dead for nearly a century) for his people to no longer use those letters. Any one found using them would be punished up to exile.

This book is very much about tyranny and how people react to it. It starts small, with a few lesser utilized letters being banned. But as more letters are lost, neighbor turns upon neighbor using the new edicts as a way to settle old scores. What started as a simple inconvenience slowly creeps into a dystopian nightmare as days and months are renamed. The once literate population of the island is reduced to an ever shrinking group terrified to speak freely else they use a forbidden letter. Religious fanaticism destroys all it touches, undermining the very language Nollop was acclaimed to have loved.

Dunn does a wonderful job playing into this conceit, slowly subtracting the letters from the letters he has the characters write. We get to know the characters through their missives and connect with them. We see their hopes, joys, and despairs play out in the nightmarish atmosphere they find themselves in. All in all it is a quick, playful read that offers a satirical take on creeping religious totalitarianism.
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,079 reviews17.2k followers
April 12, 2017
Ella Minnow Pea follows a town where letters are slowly being banned as they stop from a statue.

It's fun and it's clever. The amount of puns and linguistical jokes in here is awesome. I appreciated visually seeing the prose become sparser. Honestly, I can't imagine writing a book like this, and I'm really impressed by the author's talent.

Don't mistake this for just a simple gimmick; the author also incorporates a message about religion and banning books in here. The town council's fanaticism is well-incorporated into the plot. Frankly, I felt these themes could've been explored even more, if anything.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure a clever gimmick can hold up an entire book. Despite my enjoyment of this story, it's too short to be promoted to an absolute favorite. That being said, it was definitely a fun read and gets a recommendation from me.
Profile Image for Wiebke (1book1review).
860 reviews503 followers
May 8, 2015
This book blew my mind. I had not expected what I got.
The writing first of all is amazing, especially as it gets more challenging as the story progresses.
The story itself touches so many aspects that it is unbelievable that this book is so short.
The format of only including letters is perfect, as it shows the effect of the changes and the struggles and hardship of the people a lot better than any other form of narration could.
This is a fast read that will impress you and leave you thinking long after you finished it.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 27 books5,587 followers
April 26, 2017
This book came up in my timeline and I realized that I had rated but never reviewed it. What is there to say? Every time I come across my copy, or see it mentioned anywhere, I smile. It just makes me happy. As someone who loves books, and words in general, this book is a jewel.
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