20 Books of Summer, #3–4: Ella Minnow Pea & Eating for England

June hasn’t seen much progress on this project – though I’m currently on my fifth read, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, and enjoying it a lot – so July and August will need to include eight food- and drink-themed books each.

Today I have a reread of a funny (yet more serious than I remembered) favorite and a light collection of mini-essays on the English love affair with particular foodstuffs.


Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001)

From my original Bookkaholic review from 2013:

Dunn’s debut is a book of letters – in more senses than one. It is a fairly traditional epistolary novel, but 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 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 and phonetic spellings. 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. A madcap journey through the English language and its use in literature: enjoy the ride.

On this 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 exist (it’s actually “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.

Source: Salvation Army store, Cambridge (September 2016)

My original rating (Borrowed from a friend – in 2007?):

My rating now:


Eating for England by Nigel Slater (2007)

Nigel Slater is a foodie known in the UK for his television programs and newspaper columns.  Not as edgy as Gordon Ramsay, as matey as Jamie Oliver, or as ethically clued-in as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, he doesn’t have a particular shtick. A middle-of-the road, middle-class type, he’s all about simple comfort food. We have a few of his cookbooks.

As in his memoir, Toast (2004), food links in to nostalgia for childhood. In 200 or so essays that range from a paragraph to a few pages in length, Slater extols everything from marmalade to Brussels sprouts. He devotes by far the most time to the sweet stuff, though, considering the respective merits of every type of biscuit, candy, chocolate bar and pudding. There’s a clear love here for teatime treats (“Afternoon tea may be the only meal we take that is purely and utterly for pleasure”) and for stodge (“Is there something in our demeanour, our national psyche, which makes heavy, rather bland food sit so comfortably with us?”).

This was all pleasant, if inconsequential. I enjoy ‘observing the English’-type books because I’m familiar enough to recognize everything but still foreign enough to enjoy the quaintness and contradictions. What rubbed me the wrong way, though, were the arch portraits of kinds of cooks. I don’t often write in my books, but I found myself leaving corrective comments in the margins in a few places, especially on “The Slightly Grubby Wholemeal Cook,” an unhelpful stereotype of the “dirty hippie.” His ideas about hygiene and political correctness are a little off in this one. I also objected to his annoyance at people who won’t simply split the bill after a meal out (I’ll pay for what I ordered, thank you), and his defense of the gollywog used in Robertson’s advertising seems particularly ill judged at the current moment.

Source: Charity shop in Newton Stewart (Wigtown trip, April 2018)

My rating:


21 responses

  1. I remember the Dunn going all round our book group when it first came out and everybody absolutely loving it. I haven’t thought about it for, well I suppose more than a decade, but I definitely think it’s time to get it out for a re-read. Thank you for reminding me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m always pleased to find a fellow fan of this wonderful book!


  2. Nigel Slater has always struck me as an interesting human because the way he conceptualizes food in his writing – as comfort, as security, as reassurance – seems to represent a subtle but distinct kind of emotional damage. It’s one I think I partake of myself (a nutritionist once informed me that I talk about food using the same lexicon, metaphors and attitude as people who have experienced famine), although I’m trying to shift my feelings around food towards the joyful side of the spectrum. I’ve always wondered whether his memoir Toast sheds any light on this – I know his mother is supposed to have not been a very warm person and that food in the house he grew up in was apparently not considered a source of beauty or happiness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s been many years since I’ve read Toast and I’ve forgotten the details, but it was worth reading. My impression from the tiny bits of memoir dotted through this book was that he lost his mother fairly early in life, and his father was austere.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah! That must have accounted for my sense that there was some family sorrow in there somewhere.


    2. Bizarre little aside in his bio: “Slater has two elder brothers, Adrian and John. John was the child of a neighbour, and was adopted by Slater’s parents before the writer was born.”


  3. I enjoyed Toast but it sounds as if it would have been better if Nigel Slater had left it at that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of the snippets were so short as to seem pointless. Maybe you need to be more of a biscuit and sweets devotee than I am!


      1. He presented an entire hour-long TV documentary on sweeties a few years back!


    2. Ha ha! That does not surprise me at all. I have never been a candy (U.S. term) person; I go for chocolate instead.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read Ella Minnow Pea in November 2002 (having acquired it in the September: those were the days!). I loved it and still remember it and recommend it to anyone looking for a short interesting experimental read. I think it would stand up to a re-read. Not sure about the Slater: I thought I’d read Toast but it must have been in the years pre-blog that I haven’t indexed yet but I remember finding it a bit sneery somehow, or just depressing.

    I’m reading book 6 at the moment with book 5 to review, so quite happy with that, I should have started 7 by the weekend. Then I only need to do six in July but then seven in August which include some rather substantial Persephones! I hope to read a few more NetGalley books during July as well, again, I have one read but not yet reviewed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t have detailed reading records for pre-2010, so I’m just guessing at when I borrowed Ella Minnow Pea (though I know who I borrowed it from, in America, so it must have coincided with a trip back there). I saw that in my original review I called the book experimental, but now I’m not sure if true experimental fiction aficionados would describe it as such!

      Sneery is a good word for Slater. His tone bothered me at times here: it went beyond poking gentle fun.

      You’re doing well! It’s always a slight struggle balancing review books that come with deadlines and self-imposed project books, but I’m sure I’ll get there.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Love the new profile pic!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! My father-in-law caught me halfway through a scone, but somehow it works 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved Ella Minnow Pea. Need to check out Ibid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is also very clever, with some laugh-out-loud lines.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. buriedinprint | Reply

    Ahhhh, *takes a breath* thanks for the laughs. I’ve really enjoyed Mark Dunn’s book and loved the bits you’ve quoted. It’s such a deceptively clever way of considering the idea of how powerful language and expression can be, all the while keeping you snorting and guffawing and chuckling and wheezing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your more informal writing in e-mails and blog comments reminds me of Ella Minnow Pea sometimes!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        I’ll accept that as a most-lovely compliment (rather than an observation of my leaving-out letters and creating awkward and unintelligible mashups). 🙂


    2. No, no, just the delight in language!


  8. […] words in their titles (or, as above, in the author’s name). Of these, my favorite was a reread, Ella Minnow Pea. Ideally, I would not have had to include my two skims and one partial read in the total, but I ran […]


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