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Ella Minnow Pea (thoughts)

July 9, 2009

EllaMinnowPeaI read Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea in a single afternoon. However, I didn’t enjoy it. I consider this my own fault, because somehow although I’ve read a couple reviews of it, I didn’t catch that it was dystopian fiction.

I am not a fan of dystopian fiction. But I think that’s an understatement. If Neil Gaiman woke up tomorrow and took it into his head to write a dystopian novel, it doesn’t matter that he’s one of my very favourite authors, I wouldn’t read it. Whenever I accidentally read dystopian fiction, even if it’s a wonderful book that everyone else loves (like How I Live Now), I don’t enjoy it. The one exception to this is 1984, which I read for a Sociology of War class in college with a Russian professor who said it captured the feeling of living in a totalitarian state better than any nonfiction he could assign. So I think that has to do with circumstances.

Somehow, I latched on to the word ‘charming’ in the reviews, thought the title was too adorable, and believed this to be about a quirky little Southern island.

Not so much. This is about a crazy totalitarian government wrecking people’s lives, about the gradual descent into insanity of a society, and about the ones who try to resist. It’s not as dark or depressing as 1984, but it’s oppressive. And I didn’t find it particularly funny or charming or quirky.

Also, since it’s written entirely in letters by the island’s citizens, as they become restricted in their letter use, the text begins to devolve. At first it was fun to see the different word choices, but on page 162, there are so many banned letters that the Council allows its citizens to

espress themselphs when warrant, threw yoose oph proxy letters, yet only as hear-twins.

Um yeah. The next forty pages were hellish to me. It hurt my eyes to see English butchered that way, and I stopped caring about anything but when it would be over.

I do think the book is a relevant exploration of absolute governments, both religious and bureaucratic, and I liked how there was a focus on how even emigration can destroy your life. The main plot driver as the government moved forward, the Resistance’s attempt to come with a sentence that used all twenty-six letters of the alphabet with only thirty-two letters total was interesting. And Dunn is a skilled writer. But overall, this book simply wasn’t for me (perhaps if I’d had a different mindset going in). I’d only recommend it to people who don’t mind dystopian lit and reading in dialect. And let me repeat, it’s not a light, charming way to spend an afternoon. I was expecting something like a Southern version of The Uncommon Reader. I couldn’t have been further from what the book’s actually like. (Since Dunn is from Memphis, and the island is off the coast of SC, this is my fourth Southern Reading Challenge book.)

Have you ever read a book that wasn’t at all what you expected it to be? Did you enjoy it anyway?

40 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2009 8:22 am

    sorry it didn’t work out for you. it sounds like it wouldn’t be much fun for me either!

  2. July 9, 2009 8:45 am

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it. I really love Ella Minnow Pea. Funnily, I hadn’t actually ever thought of it as dystopian, but I can totally see that. What I love about it is the wordplay. And the resistance. As the language devolved, what I saw was the ingenuity to continue communicating. I suppose I’ve been so thrilled by the wordplay (the epistles, the lipogrammatic nature) — even on rereading — that I haven’t been dragged down by the dystopia. I do enjoy some dystopian literature, though.

  3. July 9, 2009 8:51 am

    I don’t normally enjoy books which don’t turn out to be as I expected them to be, but have had the odd pleasant surprise.

    I thought this was a charming little book, so wasn’t keen to read it – I love dystopian fiction though, so may well pick it up – thank you for pointing out how different from appearances it is!

  4. July 9, 2009 9:01 am

    I really loved Ella Minnow Pea. I didn’t focus on the governmental aspects of it so much as I did the wordplay. I thought it was very clever how, as the letters were banned from the island, they also left the novel. I love books that have such clever devices as that!

  5. July 9, 2009 9:02 am

    I really liked this book, but then again I really like dystopian books too! I can’t imagine how hard it was to write this book as the letters from the alphabet kept disappearing. Sorry, it didn’t work out for you. Can’t win them all.

  6. July 9, 2009 9:04 am

    Aw, guess it is not for everyone. I loved it. I thought it was very creative.

  7. July 9, 2009 9:08 am

    I love dystopian fiction, even though back when I read this, long ago, I wasn’t even aware of the term. It’s one of those I found by chance at a used book sale that now has a place of honor on my bookshelf. Adored it!

  8. July 9, 2009 9:28 am

    “As the language devolved, what I saw was the ingenuity to continue communicating.” That’s exactly it, we as humans are constantly striving to be understood. We might have trouble with finding the right word but we can speak and write and be understood.

    I haven’t read the book but what I see is people have an innate ability to communicate even when language changes. Language is a self-regulating systems, so even if it changes in a radical way the system will automatically right itself.

    I want to read this book so I can actually contribute a bit more to this discussion.

    On the point of dystopian lit. I can take it or leave it. Is it just dystopian or do you not like utopian lit. (of course an utopian society is a dystopian society).

  9. July 9, 2009 9:33 am

    I love dystopian books, and actually felt this one was very light as far as the dystopian part was concerned. It wasn’t dystopian enough for me, if that makes sense. However, I did love the book and it has so far made my top 10 list of the year. I thought it was quirky and incredibly well-done, with all the lyrical twistings that had to go on in those letters. Ah well. I suppose it’s not for everyone, no?

  10. July 9, 2009 9:54 am

    Last year I began Dunn’s Ibid, but had to stop reading after about 20 pages or so. It just wasn’t for me. Ibid ruined Ella for me before I even tried it.

  11. July 9, 2009 9:57 am

    I’ve always wondered about this book, and after reading that quote you included, I think I’ll pass. I barely got through that sentence, never mind countless pages! Thanks for the honest review.


  12. July 9, 2009 10:05 am

    Hello, I don’t think I’ve ever commented on your blog before (just recently started following). I just wanted to say thanks for the review. I have really wanted to read this (need to borrow it from my sister) but am glad I know what to expect. I may still like it. 1984 really freaked me out, but at the same time it was a great book and I have to hold onto my copy. I’ll re-read it one of these days. I thought the getting rid of letters meant the author just used words that didn’t have those letters in it… reading words spelled incorrectly like that will bother me too, I’m sure.

  13. July 9, 2009 10:05 am

    I like some dystopian stories, but I think this one would give me a grand headache.

  14. July 9, 2009 10:24 am

    You are TRULY a blessing to the blogosphere! I love this review! and, believe it or not, I had similar thoughts that is was to be charming and even now, I want to read it that much more! I don’t know if I’m a fan of dystopian lit having only read a bit, but I love your take on this and want to see if I agree with you. :)
    To answer your last questions, I’m sure I have read books that were not what I expected but nothing is popping into my head.

  15. tuulenhaiven permalink
    July 9, 2009 10:46 am

    I read this a few years ago, and pretty much the only thing I liked about it was the wordplay. The book itself – eh. Thanks for the review – I love when a book gives you such a strong reaction, whether good or bad (and negative reviews can be so much fun!) Thanks too for the reminder that I need to get around to reading ‘1984’ sometime soon. :)

  16. July 9, 2009 10:47 am

    Wow, I’m not surprised you struggled with the latter. That extract hurt *my* eyes just reading it, I don’t know how you coped! I don’t mind dystopian stories, I’ve got to be in the right mood for them, but I don’t know whether I could actually understand a book that has language in it like that. Though, on the other hand, I did manage to pick up Anthony Burgess’ “Newspeak” in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ pretty fast.

    Sorry to hear this was a disappointment though, Eva.


  17. July 9, 2009 11:46 am

    I liked Ella Minnow Pea and sometimes those crazy sentences with missing letters made me laugh out loud, but it was also brutal. I didn’t think of it as dystopian . . . hmm, interesting thought. When I finished my copy, I passed it on. I think I was also expecting “charming” and it definitely caught me off-guard, although I can say I still enjoyed the book. It’s just not one I’d reread.

  18. July 9, 2009 12:09 pm

    I love dystopian fiction but the lack of letters would get on my nearves after five or six pages. I’ll probably stay away.

  19. July 9, 2009 12:09 pm

    That’s too bad, because the cover is fantastic! I think the crazy sentences would drive me insane.

  20. July 9, 2009 12:20 pm

    I think I’ll read this one, hadn’t heard of it, but many of my favorite bloggers have expressed their love here in comments. And I do like dystopian lit!

  21. July 9, 2009 12:43 pm

    I’ve not read this one but I’ve always heard it’s such a charming book too! I didn’t realize it was dystopian fiction. It is hard to read a book and having so many expectations of it and when you finally read it it’s not what you hoped for.

  22. July 9, 2009 1:27 pm

    Well, Eva dear, you weren’t alone…I’ve always pictured this book just like you did! Honestly though, I think your review makes me more likely, rather than less likely, to read it (as I love dystopian fiction). But I am seriously very glad for the heads-up. Wonder how so many of us have ended up off the mark on this one? Anyway, I am sorry you didn’t enjoy it…and I’m glad it’s a short one so at least you didn’t waste too much time on it.

  23. stacybuckeye permalink
    July 9, 2009 1:38 pm

    The cover is so appealing, but that sentence from the book…well, I think I’d have much the same reaction you did.

  24. July 9, 2009 4:57 pm

    I haven’t read Ella Minnow Pea, but I’ve read a few books lately that I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed by so I understand your disappointment. I read A thousand splendid suns last week (Khalid Hosseini) and couldn’t wait to be done with it. I felt like such a renegade for not liking it, but not everything will appeal to everyone. I felt the same way about Everything is illuminated (Jonathon Saffran Foer), which was supposed to be a masterpiece.

  25. July 9, 2009 6:02 pm

    Congratulations on being one of the 100 Best Blogs for School Librarians (under Reading)!

  26. July 9, 2009 7:39 pm

    Note to self: Do NOT recommend dystopian books to Eva. Ever. :-)

    Olive Kitteridge wasn’t what I was expecting (the format of almost short stories threw me a bit) but I ended up loving it. And Fool wasn’t what I was expecting, in a bad way (although I seem to be in the extreme minority on that one).

  27. July 9, 2009 11:32 pm

    I have never read a dystopian fiction before so I don’t know whether I will like it. But from the sound of it doesn’t look like I’ll like it either. Sorry this book wasn’t for you.

  28. July 10, 2009 12:01 am

    well, the name is adorable!

  29. July 10, 2009 5:53 am

    I liked it but I thought it was pretty light in the dystopian department…More of a play with language. I don’t think it was a light read, simply because I agree it was pretty hard to read the “butchered” English!

  30. July 10, 2009 6:15 am

    I read it some years back, before there was much buzz about it.

    It was fun to see how the author skirted around the missing letters. I throw it into the genre of A Trick Book, a book where the best part of the book is a little cool idea the author tries out in book form.

    For the most part, Trick Books seem to work best when they are very, very short.

  31. July 10, 2009 10:58 am

    I haven’t read this one, but I’m a big fan of dystopian lit. From your review, even though you didn’t like it, I think I would.

    But yes, to answer your question, I have read books that were completely different than I thought they would be. I’m not sure it ruined the book for me, but it did change my attitude toward it.

    In fact, I’m reading Tender Morsals right now. I had it in my head that this was a sweet book. SO not so. I almost quit, after the first 2 chapters. I’m glad I didn’t. I have about 100 pages to go, and I’m liking it better. But SO not what I expected.

  32. July 10, 2009 1:45 pm

    I’ve heard so much about this one! I’m sad you didn’t like it because it SOUNDS so clever. But sometimes that doesn’t work as well as we hope. Glad you tried it, though, just to confirm your dislike of dystopia ;-)

  33. July 10, 2009 2:29 pm

    E.L. Doctorow’s City of God. I’d confused it with another story I’d heard about with the same name. Instead of a story in the slums of India, I got self-absorbed, self-indulgent, post-modern twaddle. Blech.

  34. Jenny permalink
    July 10, 2009 4:50 pm

    I taught this book once, in a course on epistolary novels. The problem most of my students had was that they didn’t have a big enough vocabulary to understand the discourse when EMP began to use “alternate” words and spellings! I know that’s not your problem :) I happen to like dystopian fiction when it’s done well (I like literally anything when it’s done well.) For an exploration of restrictions on language gone crazy, and what we really need from communication, I thought it was pretty good.

  35. July 12, 2009 12:17 pm

    I don’t read dystopian fiction because it doesn’t appeal to me. Although I probably will still read the classics just so I can say that I have, and see what the fuss is about. The other week I picked up a book that sounded interesting from the blurbs (Amazon women in the jungle), but then found out that it was dystopian. I immediately returned and replaced for something else. It probably would be a good read but I’m still not in the mood for it.

  36. feast4thought permalink
    July 25, 2009 12:05 pm

    Hmm. Your review seems to be mainly about genre. What I found lovely and charming were the characters themselves, their chutzpah, love, humor, and resistance.

    I’m also a bit puzzled about how you are classifying “dystopian” writings. Is there any Neil Gaiman book that is not dystopian? Yet what draws his readers is the marvelous way he writes complex humanity into his characters, revealing the creativity and imagination needed to discern exactly what is dystopian, whether internal or external, and resolve it or resist it.

    For a different take on the book, check here,

    and I’ll put your take on my blog.


  37. August 21, 2009 12:18 am

    Marie, there are a bunch of people who liked it. :)

    Wordlily, I enjoyed the wordplay at first…but it soon just felt like a gimmick.

    Jackie, it’s definitely not like The Uncommon Reader, which was what I was expecting!

    Kitten, I think you’re in the majority. ;)

    Natasha, I was impressed with his diction!

    Mari, I know-I felt bad writing a negative review!

    Lenore, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    Uenohama, I don’t think I’ve ever read utopian lit. With the exception, of course, of Utopia! Do such books exist?

    Amanda, that does make sense! See, I was disappointed in him when he starts letting the characters spell things out phonetically, lol.

    Mike, I doubt I’ll read Ibid!

    Anna, lol. :)

    Jenny, thanks for commenting! This isn’t nearly as dark as 1984. :) But yeah, the phonetic spellings annoyed me too.

    Jeane, glad I’m not the only one!

    Care, aww thanks. :D

    Tuulenhavien, 1984 is incredible! Read it! :p

    Lady Lazarus, I speak Russian, so I found A Clockwork Orange fun and easy. ;)

    Nancy, I think there is a disconnect between the book and its packagining!

    CB, I’ll be curious to see what you think if you ever end up reading it.

    Bermuda Onion, I love the title as well as the cover! *sigh*

    Amy, yep-I’m definitely in the minority.

    Iliana, I think expectations get in the way of reading sometimes. :)

    Debi, thanks for the cover. :)

    Stacy, thanks!

    Sharon, I read Hosseini’s first book and loathed it. I refuse to even read a summary of his second. And I doubt I’ll ever read Everything is Illuminated either!

    Terri, thanks for the link! I didn’t even realise that!

    Softdrink, lol. I remember your review of Fool!

    Violet, at least it was short. ;)

    Jessica, I know! Te title was awesome!

    Rebecca, I think I just get worked up really easily at little things. I cried more than once when reading it!

    Deb, that’s so strue about the trick books!

    Stephanie, yeah; I think the first few pages of Tender Morsels do the rest of the book a disservice.

    Aarti, I think it’s too clever too!

    Janet, how long did it take you to figure it out?!

    Jenny, that’s sad about the vocab! I liked the refined writing style. :)

    Claire, I’m so glad I’m not alone!!

    Michelle, I did focus on genre, but I found the characters to be one-dimensional and uninteresting. I wouldn’t call Gaiman’s novels dystopian, no.

  38. August 21, 2009 11:26 am

    Eva, it didn’t take me too long to realize it was a different book, but I was reading it for a challenge, so I chugged through to the end. I did post a review for it at the time.


  1. Ella Minnow Pea «
  2. Challenges! « A Striped Armchair

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