Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea tells the story of the island republic of Nollop, situated off the coast of South Carolina. Named after its native son Nevin Nollop, the creator of the typist’s pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  Ella Minnow Pea, an 18-year-old laundress is the book’s heroine and principal narrator. Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel, unfolding through the correspondence among Ella, her cousin Tassie Purcy, and various other characters, along with dictats from Nollop’s governing High Island Council.

Ella Minnow Pea is a political satire and observation of state control. One July evening a tile falls from the monument that commemorates Nollop’s iconic sentence. In panic, the Council’s members convene to determine the purpose. They decide that the fall of the tile clearly represents the great Nollop’s posthumous wishes, and since the tile in question bears the letter ‘Z’ it must follow that Nollop wants that letter removed from the island’s speech and writing. The Council issues a ban, threatening violators with flogging, the stocks, or permanent exile. At first Ella believes that the loss of ‘Z’ will be only a minor inconvenience, she soon realises that the ban has terrible consequences. These become increasingly evident as more tiles fall  with more letters taken out of circulation. Communication becomes all but impossible, island life has come to a standstill, and many citizens have been exiled. In the end only Ella is left to break the Council’s stranglehold, with a deadline fast looming.

Ella Minnow Pea is a clever book, and a real indulgence in the English language. Told entirely in letters, Dunn creates a literary feat, as language becomes more and more restricted. At one level, it’s a ridiculous tale, with paper-thin characters (who are awfully nice), and a single premise of a plot. There are some tensions, romance and reconciliation, but ultimately the engine of the novel is the ludicrous notion that governance is based on tiles falling from a statue. Its genius was enough for this lover of language.

This book isn’t for everyone, but I delighted in it. Towards the end of the book, only the letters LNMOP remain. A laughable delight in the phonetics of the central heroine, Ella Minnow Pea. Bloody genius.



2017: Where to begin?

I think I’ll have to begin at the end of this chapter. 2017 hasn’t lived up to its promise. The photo shows my father-in-law and mother-in-law taken at Pete and my wedding (2005). My lovely in-laws have both recently died, within 7 weeks of each other. We are immensely sad, but in many ways it is sweet because they couldn’t bear the thought of living without the other.  63 years married. That’s the end of this chapter.

Somewhere in the middle of the chapter, my dear friend’s dad died. He was my Daddy2 when we were running around the Cotswolds as teenagers looking for fossils.

Death then seems to have held the pen for this chapter. Has rather faltered with it, since it’s felt that we’ve lived with its shadow since the beginning of the year.

Shortly after my father’s death, Alice Thompson published a commentary  in The Times, “we all need to learn to talk about death”. It made me think of my therapy training, and the art of talking about dying. The Victorians were masters of it. There was so much of it during the World Wars. Then what happened? Thompson makes a glorious observation that our younger generation, with their public outpouring on social media may be able to teach us a thing or two about how to express ourselves. They are direct. I can’t bear the reference to “loss”. Keys you lose. People die – they are gone. But you can’t say “I am sorry for your gone”, so we say “loss”. Better just to put your hand on someone’s arm and say, “I am sorry”. Why is death so awkward?

My Daddy2’s funeral he had planned. It was clear for my friend. My in-laws left no guidance, so the family struggled to work out what might be right for them all. Read Alice Thompson (if you can find it, as The Times is not helpful when it comes to sharing articles). Talk about it. My instructions, to be clear, are in the folder marked “Births, Deaths, Marriages and Divorces” paperwork that includes  my will.

Somewhere near the beginning of the chapter, I applied for an MA Professional Writing at Falmouth University (hoping to find my writing mojo, which is still missing-in-action from 2016’s bumpy ride). I was offered a place. I have just accepted. Life is too short, my husband said.  His parents were 88 and 86 when they died – a good innings you might say. They would probably say not to put off to tomorrow what you really want to do today.

PS. I’ve played around a few times with this draft. It doesn’t say what I want to say, quite. But it just has to be said. Death rides alongside us. If we have the chance to live our dreams, we must take them. Stay in the glitter.

Cliche overload.

Book Review: Ties, by Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a story of a marriage. Like many marriages, this one has been subject to strain, to attrition, to the burden of routine. Yet it has survived intact. Or so things appear….

Ties is a clever, classy book. There is an introduction by the book’s translator, Lahiri, which is perfectly placed. I was in two minds whether to read it, before or after. Both would work, but I am glad that I read it before, as an introduction. Lahiri talks about the language and the choices in using words in translation. It introduces a couple of metaphors, containers, that I may not have held so readily.

Ties is almost a perfect book – because it is clever, and because it is an everyday occurrence; marriages falter. The structure lends to its cleverness. Ties is told in three books, by three narrators. The first book reads as a series of angry letters written by Vanda (the wife) to her straying husband (Aldo), revealing the abandonment felt by her and their children from the choices that he made. The second book is Aldo in old age, recounting a trip to the sea and the events that unfold when they return. The third book is narrated by the children, and both reflects and judges their parents and them as their children.

This is a character led story, of course, because it is about a marriage. Through the observations Vanda, Aldo, and then the children, the layers are both put on and stripped off Starnone’s people. It is so clever. There is also a plot, a mystery that emerges in Book Two, resolved in Book Three (no spoilers). It ties into the family. This also makes it clever.

Starnone’s themes are bold. Betrayal, infidelity, domestic abuse (control), loss, ageing.. and family ties. Those emotional ties that bind us. Starnone’s writing is uncluttered, with a directness in the character’s voices that appealed, and lent to a sense of intimacy in reading the book. It really was like eavesdropping in the anatomy of a marriage, witnessing how the dissection of words and actions leads to messy, unexpected consequences.

This is a short novel, at 150 pages, but it punches well above its weight. Outstanding.

Book Review: Release The Bats, by DBC Pierre

“Part biography, part reflection and part practical guide, Release the Bats explores the mysteries of why and how we tell stories, and the craft of writing fiction. DBC Pierre reveals everything he learned the hard way.”

I haven’t read Vernon God Little, or anything else by DBC Pierre. I’m not even sure how I stumbled across this work. It is quite unlike any other book about writing that I’ve read – and I’ve read quite a few (before I started reviewing them). It is somehow a maverick’s guide to writing. Pierre is right, most of the others I’ve read are by editors or publishers. They give you the net result; the things that work in terms of successful publishing. It is a tall ask of aspiring writers to produce a polished draft, let alone a first one.

What is liberating, rather like the permission that I heard on the Writing Retreat, was that the first draft is shit (thanks be to Hemingway), and this is Pierre’s message. You have to get the story out, in whatever it takes, but this isn’t the work. The work is the craft, and the craft is where you plan, shape, prune (and prune some more), and are tough with the words and yourself. In a sentence, strike out every other word. Odds are it will probably still work. (Odds it probably work(s).. look how I did that?).

So, there is this wonderful natural style. Like pulling up a chair with an old rogue (strike old), and taking their wisdom. It is entertaining, but it is also rich. Points made by rambling around subjects, with anecdotes and quotes. Pierre emphasises the craft of brevity; and this is the genius of his book. The last section is a summary of the work of the early chapters. He boils down his own book into a few headlines – that make perfect sense. A truly powerful gift in itself.

It makes you realise that the hard work isn’t in the 100,000 words of the novel (although God knows it feels like it), but in the craft of getting those words (and losing half of them) into something that is fit to print.

For anyone interested in writing (the verb, not the noun of being a writer) and the different skills needed in the craft, this is a gem of a book.

Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Told with exquisite grace and intelligence, this novel is most of all a celebration of love, and the many different guises it can take.

Another book where I’ve chosen to use the blurb to introduce it, as I couldn’t decide what it was really about, as much as I can’t decide where I am with it. The introduction would suggest that it is about these two people, but there is so much more – the much more being as engaging as the sparks that fly between the mutual attraction of Cora and Will.

What I loved about The Essex Serpent was the boldness and intelligence of the themes – Darwinism and the march of science (London, and its characters from here), compared to pious and/or pagan beliefs (village Essex, and its characters). The advance of socialism, through the radical Martha (Cora’s companion), and the insights into slumland London of the Victorian age. Within all of these tangled love stories – but not all in a conventional sense. They were as gritty as the streets of London, or the swirling mists over the Essex waters. These themes were cleverly layered in plot and sub-plot and sustained my reading and enjoyment of the novel.

What stops me from outright loving this book is that this earthy, gritty feel, gothic in nature at times was at odds with the characters. That’s not to say that the characters were well-defined. Perry is a brilliant observer of people, and this made for compelling, believable characters. However, early in the book I had to check the jacket cover to work out what the historical period was meant to be – there was something that stopped convincing me that it was entirely historic, and I think that was in the treatment of its female protagonist, Cora, and certainly Martha. Their views, dialogue just seemed too modern. What also flummoxed me was how nice the characters were to each other; really? There was little tension between the characters, particularly the sweet Stella, wife of the vicar. It just didn’t stack up enough. Perry chose a multiple viewpoint, so you know, you are inside the head of different characters. They just seemed very understanding. And you can’t tell me that a village in 1893 would be scandalised by the ‘carrying on’ of their vicar and a widow.

Perry used letters between Will and Cora, and also Luke Garret, a radical doctor, who is in love with Cora from the opening of the book. Will and Cora’s correspondence was rather ‘light’ and surprisingly open in affection (isn’t that the antithesis of a Victorian way of being?). Cora’s spitefulness is revealed in an exchange of letters between her and Luke, and she deserved everything as a result.

There are curiosities throughout the book. Was Martha Cora’s lover? I think so. How the abuse suffered by her husband (dead at the beginning of the book) shaped her, and their child. The strange relationship with her child, and whether that was nature or nurture that shaped him.

When I thought about this book, I was surprised at my own reflection that it is ‘gentle’, despite the gothic feel and the tensions around the serpent (as felt by the locals in Aldwinter). This is the rub: the tension doesn’t translate to the characters, and as they breathe the life through the book, this is what I was left with.
The Essex Serpent is a compelling read, delicious in prose (sense of place and setting is rich and glorious), and I would recommend it. The cover alone is makes the purchase worthwhile; a bit crass, but it will stay on my bookshelf because of it. Well done Profile Books Ltd.

Book Review: Giving Up the Ghost, by Hilary Mantel

Giving Up the Ghost is Hilary Mantel’s relatively short memoir, published in 2003 before she became a prize-winning writer. Her decision to write her memoir, she writes, was to escape the ghosts of the past. In writing you hope for her that it has worked.

Mantel writes, “writing about your past is like blundering through your house with the lights fused, a hand flailing for points of reference…” This may have been the experience of the process, but it is not of the finished work. Mantel presents her memoir with such order and clarity.

Mantel is an astonishing writer. Her writing is breathtaking. Her sharp observations, cleanly drawn, without sentimentality catapult the reader into her world. In many ways it felt a privilege to be a companion through the shadows of her life.

The memoir is mostly of childhood, of recounted narratives, with astonishing clarity. Mantel must have truly absorbed the events of her days, events that show her working class upbringing, under the clutches of a Catholic religion. Mantel is writing these as an adult reflecting back on experience, yet adeptly brings the young self to the page. It is an enviable skill.

Reviewing a memoir has given this reader a different challenge. It is not like reviewing a work of fiction – of plot, character and story. Her memoir is fascinating, and she is generous in it. By the end of it, I understood her ghosts, and why she wanted to exorcise them. Some are named (her ‘stepfather’ Jack, and her unborn daughter Catriona) some merely have form. As someone who has been childless in life, I don’t share her sense of being haunted, and I don’t think it is something that every woman who has tried to conceive has in common. Perhaps we can disagree about that observation.

Was I hoping for an insight into her genius? Perhaps, probably fuelled by my recent reading of Rituals, hoping for crumbs at the table of one of our greatest modern writers. Her gift, perhaps, is in the forensic way she has picked over her own life and experience in order to give up her ghost. There is also a crumb for me – that a story that comes may take its time to be written, in Mantel’s case with one story, 20 years or so. There is certain comfort in that.

Giving Up the Ghost is such an absorbing read, told with such clarity and honesty. It is one I am certain to revisit.

Review: 2016 Reading Challenge

Did I complete the 2016 Reading Challenge?

Strictly speaking, no. I failed in the one category of reading a book previously abandoned. I did think about this a lot, but I don’t really think that it counts. In my defence, there was good reason:

  • The Dante Club and Ernest Shackleton. Both incredibly dense reads; no desire to see if I’d changed my mind about them.
  • The Historian. Too scary, and I don’t like being scared.
  • The Dragon Tatoo. To creepy. Dark. Refer to above. I don’t like being scared.

That said, in many ways it was a huge success. I might never have read War and Peace. Unlikely to have read July’s People. Kes. I would certainly say that it has broadened what I would normally read. That has to be a good thing.

Perhaps the 2017 challenge should be genre specific. Or the Man Booker shortlist (or even long list!).  Keeeep reading!