Book Review: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Some time ago, I was watching PBS (come to think of it, I used to watch PBS a lot. What happened? It’s not like it went away after our cable got cut) when I saw a trailer for Masterpiece Theater that showed a gothic castle, a creepy looking young man who takes over said castle, even creepier twin spinsters, and a youth trying to take back his birthright. The fact that it was obviously fantasy, on a PBS station no less, intrigued me enough to do a little research at my library. And thus how I learned about Gormenghast and its creator, Mervyn Peake.

Peake was an interesting man. Although he’s best known for the Gormenghast trilogy, he’s also known for his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While his books are ranked up there with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Peake credits Charles Dickens and Robert Lewis Stevenson for his inspiration.

Titus Groan isn’t so much book one of the trilogy as one long prologue. It isn’t about the title character himself (who is a baby throughout all the book) as it is about Steerpike, Titus’s nemesis in the next book. But here, Steerpike is just a lowly kitchen runt, looking for a way out.

This is a dense book. Not that it’s thick—only 396 pages, lightweight fare by fantasy standards. But the writing is so dense, it takes a while to get through one page. Peake’s writing style is so wonderfully florid, from the first page on: [The Tower of Flints], patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. With his heavy prose, you can feel the the claustrophobic weight of Gormenghast press down upon its inhabitants, who are just as eccentric and foreboding. Just listen to the names: Flay, Swelter, Sourdust, Nannie Slagg, Lord Sepulchrave, The Countess Gertrude, Fuschia. You can’t get much more gothic than that.

The thing is, though, it’s almost too florid. I can see this is where purple prose can come from. It’s lovely writing, but it’s really so much of it, a simple scene where a character walks down a hall becomes a musing soliloquy of angst and scheming. Hardly anything can be done straightforward, and after a while, reading the book grows tiring. It’s like eating a gallon of very rich chocolate mousse. After a while, you just can’t get it down, no matter how much you try.

Still, for all dense writing, there is a story here. We see Steerpike as he escape the hot kitchens and charms his way into becoming Dr. Prunesquallor’s assistant (the latter being a weird fellow with an annoying laugh, yet who might be the sanest of the entire bunch). We watch the rivalry between Chef Swelter and the lord’s assistant Flay culminate violently in the Hall of Spiders. We get to see Lord Sepulchrave’s descent into madness after his library, the only bright spot in his life, goes up in flames. And yes, we meet the twins Cora and Clarice, mirror images of each other who may have inspired the trope of creepy twins overall.

The end of the book sets the stage for Gormenghast, and while I do have it on my shelf, I think I need some time to recover from Titus Groan first. Maybe I’ll pick it up again on the first cold rainy day of autumn—I think that’s the best way to appreciate it. This gets three crumbling towers out of five; I don’t believe no one even knows what’s in those other towers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a whole city of owls living in them…

Further Wiscon 34 Thoughts

So I had a chance to decompress after Wiscon34…

Actually, no I didn’t. A couple of days after Wiscon ended, I had a talent show at work that I was in charge of happening that Thursday, and then the next day I left for a University of Chicago Intervarsity alum reunion. The talent show went very well, and the reunion was awesome. However, all that running around and talking to people has proven to me a simple fact: I am not the extrovert I thought I was. You see, last year, we took the Meyer Briggs at work and I was slightly surprised to see that my score had changed enough so that I was no longer an introvert like I’ve been for the past ten years, but a borderline extrovert…

And I’m rambling. No good. Focus, LaShawn…

Long story short, I suffered a bit of an emotional crash and had to withdraw from the social networking world, which absolutely NEVER happens. And then I had a story deadline that was due and I realized if I wanted to get it in, I better work on it, and then before I knew it, it was Father’s day…

Focus, dammit!

Needless to say, I kept pushing off blogging my thoughts on Wiscon. I wanted to write about hanging with Nisi Shawl (who, by the way will be a Guest of Honor at Wiscon35) and meeting Mary Mohanraj and Nnedi Okaforu and finally having my beer with Ellen Klages and having breakfast with K. Tempest Bradford. I met other writers like Sarah Monette, Alex Bledsoe, Maurice Broaddus (who’s a fellow Christian writer in the horror field. A Christian Horror writer! Had a great time talking with him), and I met the editors behind Io9.com. I got my arm signed by N.K. Jemisen, briefly talked to Benjamin Rosenbaum about his story I didn’t get (but I did promise to read it online), and saw Tim Pratt, one of my favorite short story writers, but felt too t0ngue-tied and shy to go up and introduce myself .

And that was just the writing part. I wanted to blog about hanging out with a bunch of geeks who not only had the same interests as me, they even looked like me. This may have been my third conference, but this was the first time where I wasn’t the only African American woman roaming around the conference.  there were so many good panels, I wished I could invent time travel so I could turn back time and go to each panel. I mean, come on, what other science fiction conference would do a panel analyzing Janelle Monae’s Many Moons video? And the parties. THE PARTIES…

I wanted to blog all of that. But it’s too much. Just so much stuff to write that won’t fit in one blog post. And it’s not just that either. I’m not happy with my blogging schedule overall…but that’s for another post (which I probably won’t get to…)

Wiscon was great. Wiscon was awesome. I made a lot of new friends, got some great writing advice, and even almost a month after the event, I’m still feeling good. I wish I had time to write out in detail what happened, but sadly, I don’t have the time.

Oh well. There’s always Wiscon 35.

Book Review: "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD (or how I moderated for the very first time a race panel with the longest name ever at Wiscon)

(Scene: a meeting room filled with people. At the front stands an empty podium. LaShawn soon enters from the back and makes her way to the podium, setting a briefcase on the floor beside it. She squats to open the briefcase, rifles through it for a moment, then nods in satisfaction and stands. She adjusts the microphone to her level and coughs. The room goes silent.)

LS: Hello and welcome to the book review with the longest title ever presented at The Cafe.

(Polite laughter and applause)

LS: Thank you all for coming. I wanted to do this book review in an interview format because, as you know, the reason I read the book was because I had been "chosen" (she makes quotation marks with her fingers) to moderate a panel based on this book at Wiscon. Despite the fact, you know, I’d never actually BEEN to a Wiscon panel. (glares at a table towards the back–then switches back to her enthusiastic expression). Luckily, I was able to rise up to the challenge.

(Woman in audience): I understand that you had a wacko who emailed you a 10-page document comparing atheists with people of color?

LS: (wincing) Wacko is such a strong word. Let’s just say he didn’t get why people of color needed to have a safe place to meet at Wiscon. But yeah, that email was sent to our panel two weeks ago. I didn’t exactly read it through. But the other panel members knew who he was and had a plan just in case he showed up and tried to disrupt the panel.

(woman): And did he come?

LS: Actually, he did.

(The audience gasps.)

LS: yes, but he didn’t disrupt the panel  like I thought he would. In fact, he said that he really appreciated hearing what we had to say and he thinks having safe spots for people of color is a good idea.

(The audience ahhs. Another woman raises her hand.)

Woman: How did you change his mind? Did you discuss some of Tatum’s arguments in your panel?

LS: (scratching head) Ummm…to be honest…we didn’t exactly talk about her book much. What we did was talk about our backgrounds, how we felt like we didn’t fit in to our respective race groups, how when we got to Wiscon, we met others of our race who could also be considered "weirdos", "nerds", "geeks" and "oreos", and just how, for the first time, we felt like we’ve belonged, that ‘we’ had a black table of our own now, and we wanted to explore that to the fullest.

A man: So you didn’t mention the book at all?

LS: Oh, on the contrary. We referred to the book a lot when describing our experiences. Take me, for instance. Up until last year, I would have looked at Tatum’s book and said, "Well that book doesn’t describe me. I never sat at the black table when I was a kid." But Tatum describes goes on to explain how black kids deal with their identity, how some kids live in both worlds where they see themselves as emissaries, and when I read that, I thought, holy cow, that’s me. So we did a lot of referral’s to the book. But the panel was more personal in that we were sharing our stories. I didn’t intend it to happen that way. I had planned for us to share a bit about ourselves, then I had some questions for the panel that I made when I read the book, then have the rest of the time opened to the audience for Q&A.  I did get to a couple of questions on my list, but we on the panel shared so much, I just sat back and let the stories flow. It hardly felt like I was moderating at all.

Another man: So the audience actually just sat there and listened?

LS: I was surprised they actually seemed interested in what we had to say. I didn’t think they would care all that much, but you could see it—they really wanted to listen to us and our stories. That was pretty nice. Of course, it helped that it was a small audience—about ten people, so it made for a nice intimate setting. And we did open it to comments towards the end.

Man: Sounds like you had a good time.

LS: Yeah, no drama either. (laughs) I lucked out in that regard.

Woman: But you still haven’t told us what you thought of the book.

LS: Oh yeah, the book. Awesome book. I think it should be required reading  for all colleges, heck, even high school. The beginning had a lot of psychological jargon that swam before my eyes, but once you get past the foreword and first chapter, it starts getting interesting. I especially appreciated Tatum’s advice in introducing children to the concepts of race, and starting them early in learning about advocacy. I have a six-year-old who received a picture book for a present that made me feel uncomfortable in that it showed several Mexican stereotypes. My response would be either downplay the stereotypes (for instance, read straightforward as opposed to reading the "dialect") or avoid the book altogether ("why don’t we get another book instead?") Tatum’s suggestions challenged me enough so that the next time my son brought the book, I told him okay, I’ll read it, but then I told him how it made me uncomfortable. We had a small talk about race, very simple, very short, but still effective in the long run. I like the fact that I’m no longer ignoring it, but opening a dialogue with my son that I hope will continue well after he becomes an adult.

Man: So you enjoyed the book.

LS: For the most part. (she crouches and rummages through the briefcase until she finds the book and pulls it out). I made a few notes in it. (turns the book so the audience sees all the post-it notes sticking from it) The only quibble I had with it was that since the book was written in 1999, I wondered how the internet influenced identity. Now, the version I read was the 1999 version. I understand there’s been a 2003 version, but I don’t know if it talks about the internet at all. I’d be curious to hear a panel on that, (frowns) but don’t ask me to moderate it. Please…

(The audience laughs. The woman who spoke first raises her hand.)

Woman: So how would you rate the book?

LS: Definitely five tables out of five. As for the panel, four tables out of five. But that’s only because halfway through the panel, all the coffee and tea I drunk out of nervousness and caffeine caught up with me, and I really, really had to pee, but because I was moderating, it would’ve looked stupid if I got up from my own panel and went to the bathroom, so I had to sit there in agony, while…hey…where’s everyone going? What? What I say? Oh come on…when Ellen Klages left, y’all were in hysterics…

Back from Wiscon…processing…processing…

Well, I did it. I finally went to Wiscon.

Right now, my head is so crowded. Memories keep rising like bubbles in soda. The parties. The conversations. The panels. The sock puppets.

At some point, I will start spilling my thoughts here at the Cafe. But be warned, I got a feeling this will be a multi-post. I learned so much about things, and met so many people that I feel like I finally belong to a tribe that’s just like me. And that’s just the POC portion of it. There was also the writer parts (I finally got to have that beer with Ellen Klages), and the Christian parts…and the geek parts…and the…

Ah, see…already it’s beginning to overcrowd my head and making me poor brain go TILT TILT TILT. Let me take myself to bed and try again. But this is just a note…the Wiscon notes are coming. Bear with me.