#applefail #cultstore #angryshopper #ipodyuck

We have five iPods for various purposes in our house, of differing ages and types — which means that we also have three different, non-compatible cords to connect the players to the master computer’s USB port. It’s an annoyance, but I’m used to it.

When we went to Florida, I forgot to bring the cord that I needed to charge the iPod Shuffles that Marcia and I use for gym workouts. We happened to stop at a mall for a brief shopping trip, and there was an Apple Store there, so I popped in to pick up one of those cords, just to have a spare.

The customer service experience that followed was singularly annoying and unproductive, as the plethora of sales associates milling around the store seemed more interested in playing with gadgets than helping or directing walk-ins — to the point of literally making it hard for me to get to the self-service wall rack for small Apple items.

When I could not find the cord I wanted on the wall rack and eventually got a service associate’s attention, I was told that they don’t sell those particular cords on their own, so I would just have to buy a new Shuffle to get one.

I expressed incredulity at the shakedown element of this scenario, at which point the associate tried to sell me a more expensive iPod instead, because the connector cords for that iPod are (for now) more readily available in Apple Stores. I told him I did not want or need another iPod, so instead he offered to provide me with an iPad tablet demo, thinking maybe I’d want one of those instead.

His affect was smug throughout, treating me like I was stupid and slow, apparently because I was not willing to wait in line to play with the latest hot technology being offered in the Apple Store. No, I just wanted to buy a cheap little gadget related to what he clearly considered to be an out of date Apple appliance, which apparently rendered me worthy of scorn and pedantry.

But I needed neither of those things, so I left, and I posted a few annoyed notes on my Twitter feed soon thereafter. Here they are:

In Apple Store, trying to buy an iPod Shuffle-to-USB cord, experiencing the most self-indulgent, inefficient sales model EVER. #appleyuck

I do not wish to join your cult, Apple, but only to buy a small accessory that will allow me to keep using your product. Y U NO sell me one?

I do not wish to chit chat, nor take a seat, nor am I in the market for a tablet. How about listen to your customers as a model, Apple?

In summary: Apple Store = dismal retail failure, filled with smug, unhelpful Mac disciples, spouting propaganda. No thank you. #applefail

Note well that I did not tag any of these tweets with any of the official or common Apple-related hashtags. Within minutes, however, I had three separate people, all in Italy (where it was the middle of the night, mind you), none of whom have ever before followed or commented on anything at Indie Moines, ever, jump down my throat about how wrong I was and how good Apple’s customer service model is.

Hmmmm. You can also note well that I have fewer than 150 followers on Twitter, so it’s not like I’m a big cheese with a wide reach on such matters, especially not in late night Italy.

This almost instantaneous barrage of pro-Apple tweets reeked obviously of poorly-managed paid social media damage control and/or of the cult-like behavior that zealous Apple devotees often demonstrate. I’ve been online and using social media longer than probably 95% of the people on the Internet, and I’ve never seen anything quite as clumsy as this.

Has anybody else ever had similar experiences when criticizing Apple in a public forum? Could they really be that protective of their brand and consumer perceptions of it, but also that clumsy at managing it?

(Note: Please don’t answer if it’s the middle of the night in Italy, and you’re on the Apple payroll. Thank you).

Lauding Lauderdale

Marcia and I spent a wonderful long Memorial Day weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, piggybacking a little getaway adjacent to a work conference in which she was participating down there.

The weather was delightfully warm and dry, so we golfed a couple of rounds and walked a lot, both around downtown Lauderdale and out on the beach. We spent part of Saturday afternoon watching the Great American Beach Party with friends from a high balcony table at a conveniently-located Hooters, where we ate peel and eat shrimp, and kept our eyes above shoulder level at all times. Ahem.

As fun as all of our various outings were, the very best parts of the trip was generally when we retired to our rented digs for the weekend, at the utterly wonderful Villa Amarosa. We have rented a lot of vacation properties in a lot of locations over the years, and I would be hard pressed to name one that was more appealing — especially for a romantic weekend away for two — than this one.

The Villa’s private yard and pool were magical and gorgeously gardened, and the interior features, decor, amenities and furnishings were exquisite. Every detail was just right, and of exceptionally high quality, including some unusual aspects that pleased me to no end, e.g. as a political science and government geek, I was delighted to find complimentary copies of Foreign Policy and The Economist on the Villa’s reading table, rather than the usual summer vacation celebrity tripe fare. It’s nice to get stupider when you go on vacation, right?

Our hosts, Campbell and Dan, were gracious, hospitable and generous, and they went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that we felt welcome and comfortable. The booking process and all communications thereafter were smooth, complete and timely, as we like it. Campbell and Dan also offered great dining recommendations, and we were thankful for their insights after having a delicious birthday dinner at Cafe Vico on their advice.

We also had very nice meals at Grille 66 (excellent seafood and wine list, lovely waterfront view) and Cafe Seville (bustling Spanish restaurant with a lot of character and great, authentic menu), along with a tasty breakfast (grits and fried fish for me, yum) at the old school diner/counter-styled Floridian, an easy amble from the Villa.

I cannot recommend Villa Amarosa highly enough for your own travels to Fort Lauderdale or environs. If you know me personally or read my work online, then you know I’m kind of cranky and hard to please most of the time, so take this as the extremely strong endorsement that I mean it to be!

Click on the image of Marcia relaxing to book your own vacation at Villa Amarosa.

Click on the image of Marcia relaxing to book your own vacation at Villa Amarosa.

Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers

I’ve had the opportunity to raise, manage, invest and spend a lot of money over the course of my nearly 30-year career, and without patting myself too hard on the back, I’d say that I’m pretty darn good at doing so — despite having little formal training in the financial and accounting disciplines.

I am certainly not alone among nonprofit executives in my lack of textbook-based financial training, in large part because those individuals who choose to pursue such skilled financial degrees are not innately going to be drawn to a professional sector known for its low compensation, high personnel turnover, risks of financial insolvency, governance by unpaid amateurs, and fuzzy wuzzy management practices.

No, it takes a weird, warped and special personality type to purposefully choose such a work environment — and those possessing said personality type are generally more apt to prefer ballet to balance sheets, Renoir to revenues, and punk rock to sunk costs, while also understanding “liquidity” to be a measurement of after-work intoxication resources, and “utility” to be a closet. Note well, though, that I say these things with nary a shred of condescension or disdain, since I am the owner of one of those special personality types myself.

So given this two-strike functional handicap, how did I get to the point where I can confidently create complicated budgets, deftly parse the details of a balance sheet, swap accounting jargon with alpha bean counters, and manage other people’s money in a way that doesn’t embarrass me or them?

It wasn’t easy, and I had to figure most of it out for myself . . . so it recently occurred to me that it might be helpful to others if I created a little primer for up-and-coming nonprofit managers and executives, to help the next wave learn from my own experiences. I’m selfless like that, you know, because that’s the nonprofit way. Huttah!

First and foremost, I followed the best professional advice I’ve ever been given, and I consciously, actively became an expert in the financial workings of my various organizations. I may not have known as much as a marginal first year accounting student much of the time in my early professional days, but if I knew just a little more than most of my colleagues, that was generally enough for them to defer to me when confronted with financial quandaries. If people believe you are an expert, and if you confidently and consistently talk and walk like an expert, then amazingly enough, eventually, you actually really become an expert.

It’s true! Try it!

Another key to my success was making sure that I had a real financial expert available to me for consultation at all times. This was pretty easy, since financial types tend to be somewhat socially awkward, meaning they generally don’t mind if you take credit for their work and expertise, so long as you express gratitude by visiting their cubicles every so often with snacks and/or properly filled-out travel reimbursement forms in hand. Then, once I reached the point of being able to hire my own staff, I always prioritized having an exceptionally talented, scrupulous, and well-trained financial professional on my team, which required me to learn even more of their arcane practices and language, further bolstering my own expertise in the process.

Having those financial language skills is crucial to an up-and-coming nonprofit executive. If you don’t parlez le money vous, then your staff financial professionals and your board treasurer are just going to talk through, around, or over you. You’re going to look lost at staff or board meetings as a result, which does not inspire confidence, even among the kitten-handling types. Conversely, few things are as dazzlingly empowering at a staff meeting as successfully translating and taking decisive action on a jargon-filled statement emerging like squid ink from your accountant’s maw, especially if you can use some cool acronyms and juicy terms of trade in the process, just to keep the non-financial experts in the dark.

To help you in this regard, I’ve compiled a list of ten very important concepts — and the language used to frame them — that you’ll likely need to master in order to convince your staff, colleagues and board that you’re a seasoned nonprofit financial expert, in large part because most of them will have no idea what you’re talking about. Ready? Let’s do this . . .

  • Chart of Accounts and the General Ledger: Your Chart of Accounts is just the listing of all of the buckets (called “accounts” in accounting speak) into which your business transactions can be dumped. While there are some common buckets/accounts that most nonprofits will share, your Chart of Accounts should also be tailored to the unique nature of your own enterprise. Don’t make it too complicated, though, and make sure your buckets’ labels make it clear what gets dumped where, e.g. if your Chart of Accounts has a “Marketing” sub-sub-account under the “Cookie Sale” sub-account under your “Fundraising  Event” account, and it also has a “Cookie Sale” sub-sub-account under the “Marketing” sub-account of your “Office and Administration” account, then which one do you pick when the printing bill for your Cookie Sale Posters arrives? The General Ledger is the official and formal record of your business transactions, classified via the Chart of Accounts for easy access and analysis, if you’re doing it right. Most of us use pre-packaged or off-the-shelf software (e.g. Intuit’s QuickBooks or Blackbaud’s Financial Edge) at this point for our general ledgers, and there are both server and web-based systems available. I prefer the safety of the latter, having once watched one of my employees blow up the former.
  • Profit and Loss Statements and Balance Sheets: Profit and Loss Statements (call them the “P&L” for maximum meeting dazzle) are reports that list your organization’s revenues, then subtract from those revenues the costs of running the business. The bottom line difference between revenues and expenses is called net income (or, sometimes, profit. . . gasp!), and you generally want this to be a positive number. (But wait?!? We are nonprofits?! How can we show a profit on our P&L?!? Hang on, Scooby, we’ll get to that in a minute . . . it’ll be okay, I promise). The Balance Sheet is a statement of the financial worth of your nonprofit that lists all assets (things of value owned by your organization, including both current and fixed assets, more on that below), then balances them with your organization’s liabilities (amounts owed to others) and capital (fixed assets and money invested in the nonprofit, again more on that below). Assets = Liabilities + Capital on the Balance Sheet, always. The P&L Statement covers a period of time (e.g. First Quarter, Fiscal Year 2014), while the Balance Sheet covers a point in time (e.g. March 31, 2014), so don’t trip up while trying to be cute by asking for “the first quarter balance sheet” or the “June 15 P&L.” Your General Ledger software should be able to easily and quickly produce these reports, assuming your financial professional is relatively up-to-date on his or her General Ledger entries, and also considers your needless, last-minute requests for information to be a priority. 
  • Profit for Nonprofits: Why, oh why, do I keep referring to profit?!? We are all nonprofits, so we must lose money every year to have negative net income, by definition, right?!? No! Wrong! Bad wrong! (Insert sound of me rubbing your nose in your P&L here) Bad! Bad nonprofit manager! Here’s the deal: any nonprofit corporation that spent every single penny it earned (or more), as it earned it, would quickly become an ex-nonprofit corporation. The real difference between nonprofit and for-profit corporations is what happens to the positive net income when revenues exceed expenses: in a for-profit corporation, the surpluses are distributed to shareholders as income or dividends; in a nonprofit corporation, the surpluses must (eventually) be applied toward to the nonprofit’s mission. Some amount of running surplus is generally required on a year-to-year basis just to meet basic payroll and operating requirements. Some larger surpluses may support organizational mission by being placed in endowments (say “permanently restricted”), with earnings providing long-term revenue streams. Some surpluses may be ear-marked by your board for specific mission-based needs, and held until such time as the funds may be paid to meet those needs (“board designated” or “temporarily restricted” in the jargon). At bottom line, and over the long term, all nonprofits must make more than they spend, or they will cease to exist as effective entities. You do not want to be the manager who drives a nonprofit organization into insolvency, as that’s one of the very, very, very few things serious enough to keep you from getting another job in our sector. If you’re forced out of our cozy little world, then you will have to jump to the corporate side, where you only get a multi-billion dollar golden parachute for destroying your company’s finances. And who wants that?
  • Current Assets vs Fixed Assets: As noted above, assets are things of value owned by your organization. Current Assets are things that could readily turn into cash within a year or less, e.g. money in a bank account, inventory that can be sold, marketable investments, and accounts receivable (more on receivables below). The ability to turn things into cash quickly is called “liquidity,” even outside of Happy Hour. Fixed Assets are things of value like buildings, land, equipment and long-term investments that can’t readily be turned into cash within a year without having an impact on your nonprofit’s operations, e.g. if you are a museum, you can’t sell your entire collection without seriously degrading your ability to satisfy your nonprofit mission, hence your collections should be considered fixed assets. Most nonprofit managers will spend the lion’s share of their time dealing with current assets, which we need to pay bills and buy lollipops, though most nonprofit organizations will have more of their worth defined by their fixed assets, which seems damnable because we can’t pay the printing bill for the Cookie Sale Posters with them.
  • Cash Basis vs Accrual Basis: Getting your hands around this vast, slobbering bantha of an accounting concept  is the key to advancing from Nonprofit Padewan Noob to Nonprofit Jedi Warrior, for sure. Personally, if I could go back in time to the moment when the first primordial accountant crawled out of the ooze and convinced Executive Director Dimetrodon that accrual based accounting was the wave of the future, I’d redirect a comet to obliterate that exchange, and we’d all happily manage our businesses the same way we manage our personal finances: either we have money in the bank to pay our bills (yay!), or we don’t (uh oh!). That’s cash basis accounting at its most basic, where transactions in the general ledger reflect the point when cash (or equivalent instruments) changes hands: we put five dollars in the bank on Monday, we take three dollars out on Tuesday to pay a bill, we’re still two dollars up, right now, so we could plan on buying a cookie or a cup of coffee on Wednesday if we wanted, so long as we don’t go to Starbucks to get it. But accrual basis? Oh, accrual basis! Bane of board meetings! Destroyer of balance sheets! Sapper of Executive Director souls! I can’t do justice to the horrors here in a single paragraph, but suffice to say that an accrual basis accounting system (under which most of us operate, alas) is one that records revenues and expenses at the time a transaction is said to occur, regardless of whether cash or other current assets change hands or not, while also looking at the life expectancies of fixed assets and only applying pro-rated portions of expenditures for those long-term acquisitions as expenses in any given accounting period. And, yes, I know that all sounds like gobbledegook and is completely alien to anything you encounter in managing your own real world financial affairs, so to spread the confusion out, I cover key accrual basis concepts in their own bullets below. You might want to charge your light saber before reading on.
  • Receivables and Payables: While an annual fund pledge for $10,000 does not change anything for you on a cash basis until the check clears (no matter how much your development director crows about it), it is recorded as a “receivable” on an accrual basis, and increases your organization’s assets on the balance sheet. Conversely, when you receive a bill from Hair Club for Men with a 90-day grace period, nothing changes on a cash basis, though it is recorded as a “payable” on an accrual basis, and decreases your organization’s assets on the balance sheet. If you tally up everything that’s owed to your nonprofit, those are your “accounts receivable” (which the cool accounting kids call “AR”), while the sum of everything your nonprofit owes to others is called your “accounts payable” (repeat after me: “AP”). Unfortunately, you can’t take presumed credit for your organization’s deliverable outcomes and outputs in advance this way, much to your grant writer’s chagrin. 
  • Capital vs Expense: More accrual basis linguistic madness here, where “expense” can be used as a verb, and “capital” has nothing to do with upper and lower case letters. When you expense an item, you post an expenditure against your revenues that reduces your assets — but not all expenditures are expenses. (What?!?) The most common expenditures-that-are-not-expenses for most of us will involve capital investments, which are the fixed assets we acquire that have long-term value and use. For example: let’s say you spend $100,000 to buy a party bus for your clients, and that party bus has a life expectancy of ten years. At the time of the purchase, you convert one asset (cash) into another (party bus), but you have not changed the total value of your assets on your balance sheet, so no expense occurs. How, then, do you actually expense the party bus? Read on!
  • Depreciation: So after one year of riding the party bus with your clients, its value has gone down by ten percent, because it has a ten year life expectancy. How do you mark this anniversary? By expensing ten percent of the purchase price of the party bus in your general ledger, reducing the value of the assets on your balance sheet by $10,000. Then you repeat that annually for the next nine years, until your party bus is fully depreciated, at which point it has no value on your balance sheet, though it may still be fun to ride around in while drinking with your clients. This concept can be tricky to deal with: some assets do not depreciate (e.g. art collections), some assets’ real world value declines far faster than depreciation schedules indicate (probably the case with the party bus), so if you sell them at market price, you still may have to post a loss on your books, etc. If you own a lot of land, building, equipment and other property, your accumulated depreciation numbers may be among the largest figures on your balance sheet, even though 95% of your board members will be rendered immediately glassy-eyed if you try to explain this to them. Better to just jump past it as “one of those accounting things” and get to the kittens and lollipops as quickly as you can accordingly.
  • Materials and Subcontracts vs Labor and Overhead: Gah, enough with this accrual nonsense! Let’s jump back, for a moment, to talk about things that make sense in a lucid world without accountants, and to provide a cautionary note in how to look at — and present — your financial successes and failures. Let’s imagine you run a week-long Clown Academy each summer as a fundraiser toward your charitable mission of terrifying children into avoiding circuses. This year, you raised $20,000 in sponsorships, and 100 aspiring clowns paid $200 each (total of $20,000) to participate in the program, for gross revenues of $40,000. Against these revenues, you spent $10,000 in greasepaint, $10,000 in cream pies, and $10,000 in seltzer water, for total expenses of $30,000. Huttah! You netted $10,000 from the Clown Academy, which you proudly report at your next board meeting . . . neglecting to mention that you and five of your deputy assistant subminions worked for three months to plan and execute this (so called) “fundraising event.” What happens if you factor in the cost of your salaries, your healthcare benefits, your payroll taxes, your paperclips and your bad office coffee? Odds are, the Clown Academy is a big, big loser. Financially, I mean. Nonprofit organizations are utterly notorious for writing budgets and presenting results of fundraising events that focus solely on materials and subcontracts: things we buy, stuff we pay for, checks we write that we wouldn’t buy, pay for, or fund if we didn’t do the event. But it is equally important to plan for and report the costs of your human livestock, too, which you can call “labor and overhead” when talking to your board, since that makes you sound less ruthless and inhuman, which is always good in our business. If you inherit a bunch of fundraising events when you take on a new management position with a nonprofit, the first thing you should do is find out how much staff time is consumed in running each of them, and then quickly kill a few of the ones that are upside down when Materials and Subcontracts and Labor and Overhead costs are factored in, just to show you mean business. You’ll be amazed at what a game changer this can be.
  • Audits and Internal Controls: Once your nonprofit gets big enough to have any real meaningful impact, you’re likely to have to undergo an annual independent financial review, where you will pay an outside agency a lot of money to come in and tell you that you don’t really know what you’re doing. These grouchy outsiders, called “auditors,” will spend a lot of time hunkered down with your financial professional(s), throwing bones around, spilling Diet Coke everywhere, muttering incantations, and frequently popping into your office to wave their hands and moan “GAAP! GAAP! GAAAAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaaaaaP!” What does it all mean? Well, GAAP means “generally accepted accounting principles,” which are a set of standards for financial accounting that we’re all supposed to comply with, because it amuses the auditors and other accountant types to watch us struggle with accruals and depreciation and receivables and whatnots. The auditors will also generally want to look at your internal controls, which are the policies and procedures that you must have to preclude fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement, or the appearance thereof. Auditors love it when you say “or the appearance thereof,” by the way, so be sure to work that in whenever you can. If all goes well, or the appearance thereof, then the auditors will provide your board with an audited financial statement that essentially says you are in compliance with GAAP, you have sound internal controls, and the papers you gave the auditors when they arrived were accurate and complete to the best of their knowledge. Note well, however, that the auditors will also generally provide 473 carefully-crafted disclaimers, so that if they made a mistake, or the appearance thereof, in their audit, then it is still your fault, not theirs. Also, while getting a “management letter” from your auditor may sound like a good thing — since you’re an important manager, after all — it actually is a bad thing: it’s the way the auditors tell the Board that you’re a knucklehead, or the appearance thereof. Do not want!

And that’s it! If you can master these ten very important concepts and glibly and fluently discuss them, then I guarantee you that your staff and board will consider you to be a financial wizard in no time straight. If you want to go a few levels deeper, then I highly recommend The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, which is an excellent resource for staying that crucial one step ahead of your board, colleagues, and staff.

Or the appearance thereof.

Five by Five Books #4: “Titus Groan” (1946) and “Gormenghast” (1950) by Mervyn Peake

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? This two-tome story cycle tells the coming-of-age tale of Titus Groan, Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast, an anachronistic realm ruled from days immemorial by Titus’ forebears, whose seat of power is a vast, ancient, crumbing castle, rife with long-forgotten halls, chambers and secrets. The opening book, Titus Groan, is set entirely between Titus Groan’s birth and his first birthday, with the infant Earl serving less as a character than as a catalyst — seemingly small occurrences surrounding his birth set in motion an ever-growing series of circles and circumstances that come to full blossom in the second book (Gormenghast), eventually threatening the ritual-bound cultures of the ruling Groans and their earldom itself. The books’ characters are introduced as extraordinary Dickensian grotesques for the most part, though the key players gain both depth and breadth as the story advances; Titus’ older sister, the Lady Fuchsia, stands as a particularly complex and heart-breaking literary creation of unparalleled pathos. The story’s main antagonist — the ever upwardly mobile ex-kitchen boy Steerpike — is one of the great villains of 20th Century literature (his accumulated misdeeds also make him one of the most openly sociopathic characters you’re likely to encounter in a book read for pleasure), while the conflict between the Groan family’s loyal retainer, Mr. Flay, and the corpulent chef Abiatha Swelter is delicious in its repugnance and resolution. Beneath and beyond everything else is Castle Gormenghast itself, a literary setting so rich and so perfectly imagined that it almost becomes a character in its own right, its dusty stone hallways serving as the veins and arteries through which the story flows to its unexpected and powerful climax. 

Who wrote it? Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was an exceptionally gifted English novelist, illustrator, poet and artist whose creative career was unfortunately truncated by premature dementia associated with Parkinson’s Disease. Peake was born in China to Congregationalist missionary parents, and exhibited precocious skills as both a visual and textual story-teller which were nurtured through formal education at the Croydon School of Art and Royal Academy Schools. In the 1930s — while dividing his time between London and the Channel Island of Sark — Peake gained a strong following in both literary and artistic circles through highly acclaimed theatrical commissions, solo exhibitions and the publication of his first book, the self-illustrated Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. He applied to serve as a combat and campaign artist after the outbreak of World War II, but was instead conscripted into service with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers; he was eventually invalided out of the Army following a nervous breakdown, though he was eventually commissioned to create a series of works for the War Artists Advisory Committee. Peake wrote and published Titus Groan and Gormenghast in the latter half of the 1940s, intending them to be the first two volumes of a much longer series; only the novella Boy in Darkness (1956) and the slim, fragmentary, controversially edited Titus Alone (1960) were completed of the Titus tales before Peake’s failing health finally silenced him.

When and where did I read it? I first read these two books (as well as Titus Alone, which is generally marketed as the third book of “The Gormenghast Trilogy,” though it bears little stylistic resemblance to the earlier two books beyond shared characters) in my tiny bedroom in old military quarters at Mitchel Field, a decrepit World War I airbase that seemed to reek of the same rot and rust that pervaded Gormenghast. I know I was reading these books in September 1979, because that’s when Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch album came out, which I listened to over and over again at the time, so that the songs on that album are all indelibly linked to Peake’s stories in my mind to this day. I checked the books out from the Nassau Community College library when it was in one of the old military buildings on the base, which I visited frequently because there was a beautiful blonde college clerk who worked there and who I crushed on hugely. If admitted to that building today, I could quickly and easily walk straight to the spot on the shelves where the books resided, so strongly was that spot imprinted by repeated visits to extend the due dates on these long books, and also to flirt with the clerk. The editions of Titus Groan and Gormenghast that I initially read at Mitchel Field (I’ve read and owned multiple versions since then) was a beautiful, heavy old version, hardbound in black fabric, with plates of Peake’s illustrations within; I’ve not seen these editions again since 1979, but would snap them up in a heartbeat if I did.

Why do I like it? Oh, I could wax poetic at length in answering this question, but in keeping with the “Five by Five” premise, I’ll just cite five key favorite points, beginning with plot pacing: it’s slow, for sure, but the central story creeps inexorably forward through numerous asides and detours, so that its occasional concussions and climaxes are truly, deeply shocking and memorable. Second: Peake supplements his core story arc with beautiful illustrations and magnificent poetry, creating a rich and fully-realized world that deploys all of his formidable artistic skills in the process; to some extent, Titus Alone is a failure simply because it is primarily set outside the amazing world that Peake constructs in the first two Titus books. Which brings me to my third favorite point: as mentioned above, Castle Gormenghast is a character in its own right, and I do not think I had (or have) ever read a book that spent so much of its narrative on setting scenes, which sounds dull, I know, but is actually riveting in its obsessiveness. Fourth favorite: I love the incredible development of the central characters throughout the story arc, with the heroes of the latter chapters being largely inconceivable based on how you first encounter those same characters 1,000+ pages earlier. And finally (for here, at least, since I could certainly say more), it all comes down to Peake’s prose: I just love the way this guy writes, and I would cite him as one of the most important influences on my own own knotty and florid narrative style.

A five sentence sample text: “Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)