Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn

I actually wrote this review at the end of May – May 19th, if I recall correctly (as of course I unfailingly do) – but I couldn’t post it because I was planning to send a copy of the book to my good friend tim for her birthday (which was May 15th – yes, I’m a bad friend), and I couldn’t remember whether she read this blog or not, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  I wanted her to be joyously surprised by the arrival of her book.

Um, yeah, Ella Minnow Pea is awesome.  I will just detail for you the ways in which it is awesome.

One: It is epistolary.  I love epistolary novels.

Two: It is set in a fictional country that reveres the creator of the useful sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  This sentence stands written in tiles in the center of town, and when tiles start falling down, the country starts eliminating the fallen letters from their vocabulary.  On the assumption that the creator – Nevin Nollop – is sending a divine message to stop using those letters.

Three: The letter-writers stop using those letters.  Ya heard.  At first it is letters that aren’t awfully useful, like Z and Q, but then it is J (slightly more important) and then it is D (eek! Farewell to past tense!), and K and B and all kinds of things.  I bet that Mark Dunn used his thesaurus A LOT, and also the Search function in Microsoft Word.  Cause holy crap.

Four: Although it is satire about totalitarianism, it is not at all heavy-handed, largely because it is too busy being whimsical.

Five: The residents of the country make a deal with one of the councilmen whereby if they can find a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet, and is shorter than Nevin Nollop’s sentence (32 characters altogether), the elimination of fallen letters will cease, and all the banished people can come back home again.

LOVES IT.

This is a good book for me to send to my friend tim, because she and I are the sort of people who do this all the time.  I feel like at one time when we were chatting online, we stopped using the letter S and replaced it with D in all the wordd we uded.  Derioudly, if you have never replaced a letter with another letter you are midding out.  Hilarity endued.  (Hahahaha, that is still funny.  Midding means poop.)  In high school we learned Morse code and sent each other letters in Morse code, and we are both madly obsessed with finding words that are all standards, meaning that no letter goes above or below the line.  You are allowed to use “i” but it’s sort of cheating, so if you really take pride in it you will find words like savanna and occurrence, rather than words like renaissance and communion.  (Finding words with no standards is trickier.  Egypt works, but only because it’s a proper noun and the E has to be capitalized.

Anyway, you can see how this was an excellent present for me to send to tim.  I am convinced that she will love it.  Other views below:

Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness appreciates its wordy awesomeness
Rebecca Reads loved it in spite of limited characterization, something I hadn’t considered because I was too busy concentrating on keeping my brain from exploding with joy at how brilliant and fun this book was
Fyrefly’s Book Blog, creator of the lovely book blog search I now use, enjoyed how the book made you start watching for forbidden letters and thinking of synonyms
Book Nut fears it was too clever for its own good but enjoyed it
Ace and Hoser Blook thought it was silly.  Not in a good way
On My Bookshelf looooved it
Reading, Writing, and Retirement is reminded of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut which is AWESOME
Reading and Ruminations
Maggie Reads
Confessions of a Book Habitue

Tell me if I missed yours!

The New Moon with the Old, Dodie Smith

Ordinarily I only ever read this book when I have just finished I Capture the Castle and I need my Dodie Smith fix to continue.  It’s really not the most fantastic book you’ve ever seen, but it’s rather charming.  I am susceptible to its charms even when I know the entire book is totally far-fetched and these things would never ever happen.

The book is about the Carrington family, whose father goes on the run for vague and unspecified money-type crimes, just after he has engaged a secretary/housekeeper type, Jane Minton, who plans like Thoroughly Modern Millie to marry her boss.  There are four children and not much money, and one after another they all go off to seek their fortunes.  Precocious fourteen-year-old Merry, intending to go on the London stage, ends up hanging out at the home of some minor nobility and becoming involved in a totally absurd romantic situation; innocent twenty-something (22 maybe?) Drew becomes an old lady’s companion and finds he is after all capable of disliking people; Clare, who dreams of being a king’s mistress, gets a job reading to an old man (seriously, I want that job) who actually was an ex-king; and poor Richard has to stay home and take care of everything at home.

The author’s not attempting realism here, but the book is fun and amusing.  I like Clare’s story the best, probably because – as I say – I would really like to have a job reading to an old man, particularly if, as here, it came with room and board.  I am fantastically good at reading out loud.  The rich old people of the world should be so lucky as to have me to read to them.

Er, anyway.  If a perfect lack of plausibility doesn’t bother you, and you like those sort of previously-privileged-kids-go-off-to-have-adventures books, read this!  It will make you smile.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Aw, this book was so sweet.  I feel like I’ve been hearing about it everywhere I turn, but I think initially I read about it on Caribousmom – apparently ages and ages ago, as she reviewed it in July.  My mother owns a copy, and I borrowed it from her and lost it, so I was in a panic about where it could be, and then the other night I was at home and I saw it on her bookshelf.  Apparently I brought it over to my parents’ house to read and then left it there.  I’m such a spaz.

Well, this book was really very, very sweet.  It’s all about post-WWII England, specifically the Channel Islands, specifically the Channel Island of Guernsey.  Writer Juliet Ashton becomes interested Guernsey’s occupation by the Germans during the war, and decides to write a book about the people there.  The book is such a dear, nice book, with all these excellent anecdotes in it.  I love anecdotes from Back In The Day.  I love reading about the brave, brave, brave British during World War II.  I love epistolary novels.  There is no bad here.  I wish the author, Mary Ann Shaffer, had lived longer so I could have read interviews with her in which she could have said where she got all these anecdotes from.  Because I am interested.

So yeah, you should read this book.  It’s nice.  Not unflawed, but really such a nice book, it’s well worth reading.

I just had – I mean – well, okay.  You know how I said it was unflawed, and then I didn’t say what any of the flaws were?  That’s deliberate, because the flaws, you know, they were few and not distressing, and it was such a nice, nice, sweet, pleasant book that I didn’t want to mention them.  But I just have to say that the whole Oscar Wilde thing – well.  I mean, I’m thrilled, of course, for it to be more widely known that Oscar Wilde’s full name was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.  Insofar as that goes, I’m enchanted to have the subject brought up.  Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.

The only thing is that – minor spoilers here, I guess? – the only thing is that those letters that they have that are written by Oscar Wilde, they’re supposed to be from 1893.  Ninety-three.  The man would not have signed a letter O.F.O’F.W.W.  Not in 1893.  He didn’t do that anymore.  It was a whole thing – he said he was born with five names and he had shed all but two, and he wanted to someday be just known by one of them.  (Darling Oscar Wilde.  His 108th anniversary of death is approaching.)  I’m not saying it’s beyond the realm of possibility that in 1893 he would have signed a letter that way, but he had stopped doing that absolutely by the time he married Constance (before that actually, but this works as a benchmark), and that was, what, nine years? before these 1893 letters were supposed to have been written.  And I mean, yes, fine, that doesn’t by itself make it impossible that the letters would have been genuine, but you’d think somebody would have said, Hm, this is curious.  I certainly thought it was curious, a word I here use to mean TOTALLY IMPLAUSIBLE.

I have now officially said more about the implausibility of the date of some letters that aren’t even a major plot point, than about the book itself.  But I can’t help it!  It bothered me so much!  After I finished the book I went upstairs and fetched my Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde – yes, I own one – and looked at the signatures on every letter from 1893, just to make sure I wasn’t wrong.  (I wasn’t wrong.)

Tamsin, Peter Beagle

When she reached the first tree she swung around it to face me, and if the trees looked like men, she looked as young as Julian.”Still here – oh, still here!” she called – halfway singing, really. “Oh, still holding to Stourhead earth, they and I.” She hooked her arm around the tree and swung again, as though she was dancing with it. I knew she couldn’t have touched it, felt the bark or the dry leaves, any more than I could have felt her arm against mine – but nobody looks as beautiful, as joyous, as Tamsin looked right then when they’re feeling nothing.

“I saw my father plant these trees,” she said as I came up with her. “And see them now, grown so great and grim – stripped and battered by the years, yet still here, unyielding.” She wheeled toward the beech trees again, asking them, “Were you waiting for me then, little ones, all this time? Would you ask my sanction before you fall? Well, I do not grant it, do you hear me? Nay, if I’m to stay on, so shall you – and I am even older, so you’ll mind what I say. Whiles I remain at Stourhead, you’re to keep me company, as Roger my father bade you. Hear!”

So this is what happened with Tamsin: One year my mum espied this book, Tamsin, by the same dude who wrote The Last Unicorn, and because my family’s gift life is very hardcore about giving each other books that we think are going to be good, she bought it for my sister Anna, the biggest Last Unicorn fan of the four of us, for her Christmas stocking. With excellent intentions, she (my mum) started to read a bit of it to check it was good enough to be a stocking stuffer. Then she couldn’t stop reading it, and she read the whole thing. Then she bought Anna a fresh unread copy. Then she bought copies for everyone else in the family.

That’s how good a book it is.

The other day I was getting ready to go to the rec center, and I had picked out two books to read while I was working out, and they were two wondrous and captivating books: The Color Purple – which I might add I haven’t read for two years (holy shit, I cannot believe it has been that long) and was thus absolutely aching to read – and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, which I had forgotten about until recently. These two books were on the kitchen counter ready to go, but then I remembered I wanted to glance at the topics for my Victorian lit paper, and I had to download them and my computer was running slow and what with one thing and another I grabbed Tamsin to read while I was waiting for that to work. I wasn’t even reading for two minutes, literally, but when I went to put Tamsin down and go exercise, my hand wouldn’t let go of it. Even though, even though, I had these two completely brilliant books waiting for me on the kitchen counter.

That’s how good a book it is.

It’s about a girl called Jenny (hooray! I ❤ heroines called Jenny!) whose mum gets married to a British farmer and so they move to a British farm – where, may I say, they have big thunderstorms, a phenomenon I observed precisely never in my nine months in England so either Peter Beagle is using poetic license or I was in the completely wrong part of England. The farm is in Dorset and has many spooky things: a boggart and a pooka and a Black Dog and, hooray, the ghost of a Stuart-era girl called Tamsin with a messy past now leaking into the present and needing to be sorted.

Tamsin is a gorgeous book. Mr. Beagle really does make such a good group of interesting, vivid characters and a really interesting, vivid plot, and I certainly do wish we could get hold of his latest book. Tamsin is just so lovely and I always do get sad when it ends. Luckily I have The Color Purple and The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail to console me. If they’ll take me back.

The Semi-Detached House, Emily Eden

Which can be read here, as it is out of copyright, and also this website is brilliant and I am all in favor of celebrating women writers.

Recommended by: Box of Books (whom I owe an apology)

I am sorry for griping abut The Semi-Attached Couple and its unbitchy nature.  Emily Eden is very amusing, and in many ways she is quite like Jane Austen but bitchier.  So I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions even though Helen in The Semi-Attached Couple was very annoying.  Now I have just finished The Semi-Detached House, and it was completely charming.  Everyone in it was so endearing, and they had such pleasant conversations, and everything worked out so neatly, although frankly I was hoping that a certain person and another certain person wouldn’t get engaged, and I thought briefly that Emily Eden was going to dare to leave one of the women single.  But she didn’t.  Oh well.

Here is what the sweet old mother says that made me laugh while I was waiting in line at the post office to send an envelope that will Decide My Future:

Lord Chester and Doctor Ayscough said such clever things about poisons; I thought I would remember them for fear of accidents; but I am not quite certain whether I have not forgotten part.  However, I know it is not wholesome to take strychnine in any great quantity, so mind that, girls; arsenic, which is very apt to get into puddings and gruel, should be avoided, and you should take something after it, if you do swallow any – but I forget what.  It was really very interesting, and I like a good murder that can’t be found out; that is, of course, it is very shocking, but I like to hear about it.

Awww.  She’s cute.  Whenever anyone says “shocking” now, I think of that adorable BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey (which has already come on Masterpiece Theatre, so you’ve missed it if you didn’t see it) and adorable Felicity Whatsit who plays Catherine, with her big wide eyes and Isabella telling her “It is the most shocking and horrid thing in all the world!”  Oh, and also, the sweet old mother has two daughters, and one time they are talking to a girl who is in some difficulties, and

They were induced to adopt their usual resource, and to call to mamma to come and satisfy the disastrous state of Miss Monteneros’s existence.

Story of my LIFE.  And here is a description of a boat called an outrigger which I don’t know what that is, but the description sounds exactly like my views of kayaks:

It may be necessary to explain that [it is] an apology for a boat, and, apparently, a feeble imitation of a plank – that the individual who hazards his own life in it is happily prevented, by its absurd form, from making any other person a sharer in his danger – that he is liable to be overset by any passing steamer, or by the slightest change of his own posture – that it is difficult to conceive how he ever got into such a thing, or how he is ever to get out of it again, and that the effect he produces on an unprejudiced spectator is that of an aquatic mouse caught in a boat-trap, from which he will never emerge alive, notwithstanding the continual struggle he appears to keep up.