Ella Minnow Pea (Mark Dunn)

Carrying on with the theme of books that I am over a decade late in discovering (see HERE), this one knocked my socks off. Ella Minnow Pea (A Novel in Letters) by Mark Dunn is a cleverly written, light-hearted, yet strangely moving story of a girl’s fight for freedom of expression on a fictional island where letters are slowly being banned as they drop off a statue.

“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Like vocabulary crack for a linguistic junkie, I defy you to read this book and not learn a new word or several, not to mention the delicious challenge of trying to best Nollop’s own pangram along with the cast of characters. Dunn’s invented words are perhaps my favourite part of the book—such delights as:

  • Illicitabetical
  • Vocabu-lazy
  • Delishmerelle
  • Heavipendence
  • Pureplicity

“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.”

With humour that belies the depth of the underlying warning message of this novel, Dunn weaves a clever and thought-provoking commentary on censorship, freedom of expression, and tyranny. His ingenuity as letters are stricken from the alphabet is astounding. The resulting novel is a tribute to the English language.

“In the disquieting quiet, we wonder and worry, yet try to carry on some semblance of normal life. 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.”

Ella Minnow Pea is, at its core, a cautionary tale of the atrocities perpetrated when lines become blurred between government and dictatorship fueled by religious fervour, the absurd becomes law, and logic is drowned out by misguided zeal.

“Today we queried, questioned, and inquired. Promise me that come tomorrow, we will not stop asking why.”

I thoroughly and wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with a love of words.

The Molted Skin of Childhood

 “You’re going to regret it. Maybe not right now, maybe not tomorrow, but you will—and for the rest of your life.”

The words echoed in Miranda’s ears as she marched away from the house that day. Away from her birthplace, away from her mother, away from the screaming and the fighting and the guilt. She never looked back, her feet kicking up whorls of dust with every step taking her further and further away. Away—that was all Miranda thought about, not toward. She had no idea what she was marching toward; all that mattered was getting away.

The duffel hung heavy across her body, its strap digging in on the right side of her neck and the body of the bag thumping against her left thigh with each step. All her worldly goods in one ratty bag that still smelled faintly of her older brother’s gym clothes. He had gone away years before. Away, as in not there, not where Miranda was, not around when she needed him—or someone, anyone—to be in her corner.

The duffel wasn’t the only thing she carried. She thought it was at first. The bag weighed 20 pounds at most, and she kept switching it from one side to the other to even out the load. It seemed to get heavier with every step, but she wasn’t going to let the weight slow her down. Dumping cargo to lighten her escape, she pulled a thick sweater her mother had knitted from the bag and dropped it on the road. It slumped in the dust and she marched on.

Next to go were the shoes that were last year’s Christmas and birthday rolled into one. They felt too heavy now, filled with the tears and tension of that nasty night. Miranda marched on, dropping more and more along the roadside as she went, but as the bag got lighter the load on her shoulders only worsened. The last to land in the dirt was her only dress, a red one that had not grown as she did, the hem now only hitting midway down her gangly sprouting legs. She let herself feel no attachment as she let it go and carried on.

When she reached the bridge across the river that marked the edge of town, for the first time she stopped and turned around. She dropped the empty duffel but the heaviness remained even as she looked back at the molted skin of her childhood strewn along the roadway in the dust. In the middle of the bridge she stared down into the murky swirling eddies and thought of only one more thing she could leave behind. She had to make a choice—save herself and have a future, or stay behind and feed the past. With a long, cleansing sigh she dropped her guilt in the muddy river and crossed the bridge toward the bus that would finally take her Away.

Still I Stood

I knew the flashlight was going to go out. I knew it for a good twenty minutes, picking my way over the boulders and tree roots, trying desperately to get back to the trailhead before the dimming bulb flickered its last beam of sight. Why did I set out so late? Why did I stay so long? I knew better, and now there I was deep in the untamed woods of the escarpment, alone and suddenly cold—not afraid. No, I was not going to be afraid. I got myself into this mess, and I would get myself out. I just needed to think it through.

When the light dimmed for the last time the darkness swallowed me up. It was so complete, so solid, it took my breath away. A gulp. Two gulps. Three gulps to swallow the lump in my throat and start my breathing again. I did a test shuffle forward, scarcely taking my feet off the ground. I knew that one false move would snag my foot in a root and crumple me over to raw egg crack my head open on the rocks that jutted at intervals out of the ancient glacier-scraped ground. Arms extended straight out both sides, I felt for the foliage that should mark where the trail stopped and the forest began. One rough tree trunk felt just like the next and my feet couldn’t interpret the difference between forest floor and trail. Failing to read the Braille of the woods I realized I was well and truly stranded.

If I pushed forward I ran the risk of wandering off the edge of the escarpment, plummeting who knows how far to watermelon burst on the jagged rocks and pines below. Failing that, a crevasse hiding in the impenetrable dark would grab my feet, dry chicken bone snapping legs that wouldn’t walk again.

So there I stood. My stillness made the forest noises louder. Every rustle loomed threateningly out of the darkness, most certainly vicious sharp-toothed beasts closing in to tear me limb from limb. Squeaks and screeches and haunting calls of “who-hoo-oooo” spoke amongst themselves in the language of the night, exclusive food chain negotiations I had no desire to be party to.

Still I stood. My eyelids kept on blinking their moistening Morse code, not that I could any more distinguish their opening from closing. Waiting for my wretched pupils to widen enough to eke some sort of light from where none shone was getting me nowhere. A sudden crunch behind me sent my heart tap-dancing through my chest and I was forced to admit I might just be a little bit frightened.

I stood and tried to breathe. I stood and clutched at fleeing calmness. I stood and closed my eyes, entombed in obscurity, my one-time favourite place now the blackest darkest void. I stood and said goodbye. When my eyes again blinked open, gasping for light like a drowning man gasps for air, stripy lines of shadow faltered, sharpening and clearing. Far above my head a sliver of moon peeked out at me from behind the thick and heavy clouds. Before my ragged breaths were straightened, before my pounding heart was calmed, before my racing mind caught up, instinct moved my feet forward, forward, forward until I burst out of my inky almost tomb.

It Comes With a Pickle

He likes the club sandwich at the Good Eats Diner. They toast it just right, and put on so much mayo it oozes out and he licks it off his fingers. Just the right ratio of meat to veggies to bread, all stacked up and held with a toothpick. And it comes with a pickle. Too bad he won’t come back here; he never eats in the same diner twice.

Nothing left on the plate but crumbs. He tucks a ten under the water glass—not a glass, but that cheap plastic tumbler you find in every diner. The rest of the bills go folded back in his left jacket pocket. The right pocket is full.

He takes his time walking back to his truck, not in a hurry to be on the road again. It’s so boring, those miles on miles on miles of interstate. He gets so tired of the billboards and the traffic and the lines on the asphalt whizzing by. He gets so sick of those people with their happy lives and their normal jobs on solid ground. He gets so angry when he’s seen by no one, moving state to state leaving no trace, Mr. Inconsequential mattering to nobody nowhere.

When darkness falls, he pulls off at a truck stop, miles on miles on miles of road between him and the Good Eats Diner. He’s still thinking about the salty crunch of that pickle. Settling into his bunk, he pulls the .22 out of his pocket, and tucks it under his pillow, then switches on the portable TV.

“Good evening, I’m Kenneth Becker with KTV News. Breaking News this hour: Police are looking for information in the death of a 23-year-old store clerk who was shot in the back of the head this afternoon while stocking shelves in a small gift store just off the I-65. The victim’s name was Christie Bernard, the latest in a recent string of shootings in small towns throughout Indiana and Kentucky. Similar to previous crimes, a number of small bills were missing from the cash register. Police are now treating these killings as connected as the similarities stack up.”

Buried Alive

If she could open her chest up wide, her heart would fly away. Far, far across that forbidding ocean it would flee. She feels it beating at its cage like desperate fists pounding inside a coffin that’s been closed too soon, buried too soon.

She turns her back on it all—the sea, lost hope, broken love never to be exhumed—and faces instead the reality of this new country. She smothers what used to be her in the shroud of someone else’s culture. She buries herself in crowds of strangers, trying to forget the air she used to breathe.

Perfect Buttery Shortbread

Today we’re making shortbread—that melt-in-your-mouth buttery delight that few realize is dead easy to make. It’s all about ratios, people. Yep, it’s mathematics for the win.

1 part sugar + 2 parts butter + 3 to 4 parts flour = Perfect Shortbread

Some like to add cornstarch. Some make it with brown sugar instead of white. Some use powdered sugar, others granulated sugar. Some people add vanilla or lemon zest or any other flavouring that strikes their fancy. Many cut it into rectangles like their Scottish Granny did. Others roll it out, cut it into pretty shapes, and maybe even dip it into melted dark chocolate after baking. Well I’m here to tell you that it’s all good. I am not a purist. You enjoy your shortbread any way you like, ’cause life’s too short to make rules about cookies.

On this particular day, mine is in the shape of hearts and colourfully decorated with royal icing. Now there’s a cookie rule being broken if I ever saw one. The cookie snobs would tell you that royal icing is for sugar cookies, and I would thumb my nose at them and carry right on, because everyone knows that sugar cookies taste like sawdust compared to amazing buttery shortbread.

Enough blathering. Don’t you just hate when you have to scroll 3 miles down someone’s blog past 800 ads to finally get to what you’re looking for? Here’s the recipe.

Perfect Buttery Shortbread

Makes Approximately 2 Dozen Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. Butter, softened
  • 1 cup Sugar (I prefer superfine)
  • 4 cups Flour

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. Add butter and sugar to bowl of stand mixer and combine at low speed. Increase to medium speed and whip for 2 minutes. (At this point you can add a teaspoon of vanilla or lemon zest if you so desire.)
  3. Add flour, one cup at a time, and combine on low speed until it all comes together. (At this point you can also add tiny amount of gel food colouring if you want to make fancy coloured cookies for An Occasion.)
  4. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and form into a flattened disk. (At this point if the dough is too soft to handle, you can pop it in the refrigerator for an hour and have a cup of tea.)
  5. Roll the dough out to your desired thickness. ¼ inch works well for fun-shaped cookies you plan to decorate. ½ in thick rectangles make a nice chunky cookie that’s perfect for dipping in chocolate. The possibilities are endless. Cut and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
  6. Bake at 350°F for 6-8 minutes. The timing will depend on your oven and the thickness of your cookies. Bake just until the bottom and edges are just starting to colour golden brown.

Royal Icing

Ingredients:

  • 2 Egg Whites
  • 2 cups Icing Sugar
  • ½ tsp. Vanilla

Method:

  1. Add egg whites, sugar, and vanilla to bowl of stand mixer. Slowly combine, then increase speed to medium and whip for 5 minutes.
  2. Separate into bowls for as many colours as you intend to use, and add colouring.
  3. Check the consistency. The texture of soft toothpaste is ideal for piping borders around your cookies. To flood fill, you need to thin the icing with a few drops of water at a time until it flows smooth in about 10 seconds. Only add a tiny bit of water at a time, as it’s far easier to thin it more than it is to try to thicken it back up again. You don’t want it so thin that it will run off the cookie.
  4. Go to town with the piping bag. Have fun!

He’s a Catch

He’s clever. He’s handsome. He makes you feel at ease. That’s your Brandon, he’s a catch!

A little “thanks, love” here and a “you’re such a dear” there and in that warm afterglow of feeling appreciated of course you’ll loan him a couple of twenties to fill up his car, and maybe a fifty so he can get that jacket he needs for some meeting with the bigwigs. You wouldn’t want such a good guy to be short when his pay day is just around the corner and he says he’d do the same for you.

Meg says he’s been messing around with Jake’s wife on Thursdays when Jake goes back home to help out his mum. But Brandon told you last week that “Meg is jealous of our relationship” and “she’s trying to drive a wedge between us,” and besides that “hasn’t she been making eyes at Jake for years?” Not likely to believe anything that meddlesome witch says. “Can’t get a man of her own so she’s trying to cause trouble with yours,” he says. 

He’s so caring and such a good listener, your Brandon. Just the other day he patted your hair and made soothing tutting noises, getting all riled up in just the right places when you told him all about that hag Betty at work who embarrassed you so dreadfully, telling everyone that you’re the one who clogged the toilet. What a nightmare, standing in the loo watching the water level slowly rise and rise. It hadn’t even been you, but the stares and whispers circulated the office nonetheless.

Brandon’s such a comfort though. He’s so sympathetic. Not like that awful friend of his, Kevin, who’s suddenly started calling you Sally Stinkbottom and snickering like a schoolboy whenever you’re around. So immature. I guess you’ll never know how he heard the story, but at least you’ve got Brandon on your side.

(Tongue) In (Cheek) Memoriam

It is with pained hearts that we mourn the loss of our dear friend, roommate, sister, daughter, and cherished Auntie, Eleanor Crochebelle Monroe. She departed this life unexpectedly on Tuesday, December 15th 2020 at the tender age of 39.

Those of you who were near and dear to Eleanor are well aware that she aged far beyond her years, and although young-ish on paper, in practice she was senior to us all. Her favourite hobbies included crocheting, collecting crochet hooks, accumulating yarn for crocheting, sitting in a chair with an afghan over her knees, and shaking her fist out the window at passersby to “Keep it down out there!” It was her yarn addiction that led to her demise, tragically suffocating under a fallen tower of skeins of Mary Maxim Natural Alpaca Tweed Yarn in her own bedroom. At least, we think it was her bedroom; the bed wasn’t visible through all the yarn.

Our beloved Eleanor is survived by 14 shawls in varying patterns and sizes, 37 unfinished afghans, 22 crocheted animals who will need homes with kind-hearted individuals, and the entire cast of Star Wars: A New Hope in crochet miniature. She was predeceased by 9 orphaned socks who went through the dryer by mistake and were never the same, an attempted Jar Jar Binks crochet who mysteriously disappeared (that thing was creepy as heck), the blue crew mate who was stabbed in the back by an imposter (we haven’t figured out who yet, but orange is pretty sus), and an innumerable army of dish cloths who sacrificed their lives in a hot sudsy sink in the name of clean casserole dishes.

In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate donations toward hiring a bulldozer to clear out the mountains of yarn.

Mismatched

Sylvain was always early
Renee was always late
She did nothing but hurry
He did nothing but wait

He liked to start each morning
With the dawning of the sun
She liked to snooze till later
And grab coffee on the run

She’d get to work all breathless
Rushing in with hair a mess
He couldn’t help but watch her
As she flew right past his desk

He thought her wild locks lovely
And her flushed red cheeks divine
Too scared to ask her number
He thought, “Hey, I’ll give her mine.”

It took three weeks of waiting
But at last he got the call
She said, “Let’s meet for coffee.”
He didn’t hesitate at all

Time now for the rendezvous
Will our mismatched pair connect?
Can Tardy and Early Bird
Make their pathways intersect?

Renee thought to meet at 3
Sylvain thought she said at 4
He had just found a table
When she walked in through the door

Roommate For Sale

Everything changed the day I called that number.

It was just a plain printed page stuck on a telephone pole on the street I walked down every day to get to work. You know the kind, the type with little tabs cut along the bottom with the phone number. You can tear one off and tuck it in your pocket, forget about it, run it through the laundry, and then wonder the next time you wear those jeans what the little balled up wad of paper pulp used to be.

I didn’t forget it in my jeans though, not that one. I thought about it all day at work. “Roommate for Sale,” it said. “Rescue your relationship, preserve a peaceful home, salvage your sanity,” it promised. I couldn’t figure out how buying another roommate would restore the peace with my current one. Maybe the idea was to replace my hard to live with roomie with a new and improved one, or maybe some sort of roommate exchange with some other unfortunate soul who had had enough of theirs. Puzzled though I was, I was desperate enough for the promised peace to give the number a call when I got back home. Tensions were high and patience was running pretty thin between me and my roommate ever since the first lockdown. Just too much time cooped up together, I guess.

The conversation left me with more questions than answers, but for a lousy $5.97 I was sure going to give it a go. I did the etransfer and gave them my address and they assured me I would have delivery in 5-7 days. When the courier arrived after lunch on Friday, he handed me a small cardboard box. What was this? Inflate-a-roomie? I thought then that I’d been taken for a ride, but boy was I wrong.

The box contained a small instruction booklet and nothing else. I know for sure, because I turned it upside down and shook it, but nope, just the instructions. It read:
“Congratulations! Your new roommate’s name is Cheryl. She’s here to save your friendship, your sanity, and basically your life. Here’s how it works.
Dirty dishes left in the sink? Cheryl’s fault.
Somebody didn’t change the toilet roll again? It was Cheryl.
Garbage not taken out? Cheryl forgot.
The last piece of cake disappeared? Cheryl took it.
Your favourite mug has a big new crack in it? Dropped by Cheryl.
Works for every scenario. Your increased peace and happiness guaranteed.”

I know, I know, it sounds pretty flimsy. But seriously, since Cheryl moved in my roommate and I are getting along like we did before the quarantine. No more quarreling, no more stink-eye, no more fights over whose turn it is to [insert household chore]. We’re closer than ever, and we agree 100% on one thing. That Cheryl is THE WORST!