10 Things Americans Say Differently

During my student exchange to the US of A, there were many instances where I found myself explaining what I meant by a certain word. As I’ve said in other posts, the people of the Upper Midwest are a famously affable bunch, and everyone I met made me feel really exotic. Both friends and strangers alike always seemed super-interested in what I had to say, and any detail, no matter how mundane, about my life back home in the U.K was a source of never-ending amusement. One thing my new friends and I loved to discuss were the divergent branches of English we both spoke. Sometimes the Americans liked to tease me and get competitive, saying British English didn’t make sense. But I think when Americans tease they expect the target the give some back, and they were surprised with how passive I was. And in truth, there is no such thing as “Proper English”. A lot of words present in the American lexicon are remnants of Old English that the British changed during the Victorian period, but which survived in the US. The use of “z” instead of “s” in words like “globalization” for example.

Probably the most hotly-debated and offensive word the Americans use (as far as Brits are concerned) is the word “soccer” to mean association football. I remember writing it down in school when I was about 13 and my friend said to me in a cold voice “Never say that again. Change it to football now” as though what I’d put in my essay constituted sacrilege of the highest order. However I started using the word soccer again during my semester abroad, because I wanted to distinguish it from what most people there call football, and I didn’t have the patience to explain which football I meant. It’s funny watching British football fans get so red-faced about it, because the truth is that soccer is a British term, a kind of shortening of “association football” that’s been around for a good hundred years.

But let’s move on with today’s post shall we? Today I’m writing about 10 words that are used differently in the USA, and I’ve chosen these 10 because they came up repeatedly during my semester in Eau Claire, WI. I’m not interested in pronunciation or spelling, but in the way the same words might have different meanings in the US than they do in the U.K.

 

  1. Jumper.
    When it started to get cold in Wisco, I heard a bunch of girls exclaiming “Ermahgerd! I love sweater-weather!”. In the U.K, we call them jumpers. British people know the word sweater, but will always use jumper instead. In the USA however, the word jumper has a different meaning. Whenever I said “I better bring my jumper,” people started giggling and smirking among themselves. They then informed me that in the US, a jumper referred to a specific female garment known as a pinafore dress in the U.K.
  2. Lush.
    This word came up frequently because I personally used it a lot at that time. In the U.K it’s slang to mean anything good in quality. It’ll be used a lot to describe foods (“Those parsnips are lush mate”) or perhaps something beautiful (“I think you’re lush, Karen”). I use it often when watching sports, for example “That rabona by Eden Hazard was lush”. My friend Aaron really took to this word and incorporated it into his own vocabulary, checking with me a few times to see if he was using it correctly. Pretty soon he and his sister Elizabeth were saying “Ah yes, so lush,” all the time. In the USA it isn’t used as an adjective, which is probably why they were so fascinated with it. Instead, it’s a word used to describe an alcoholic (“Ever since her daughter ran off to the circus, Sally’s turned into a real lush”).
  3. Pissed.
    This is another example of where the American meaning is widely known in the U.K but not vice versa. I think it’s because American culture is so prevalent in media overseas, so most Brits will be familiar with words like dude, butt, or barf. However every time I used a British slang word, the Americans I spoke to were unfamiliar with it. Pissed is a great example, because Americans use it to describe a state of rage (“Oh man, Coach Shillcox was pissed!”) and Brits are quite familiar with that. In the U.K, to be pissed is to be drunk and it’s often said as follows: “Mate, Steve’s been on the piss ever since City got knocked out of the Johnson’s Paint Trophy” or “Fancy a piss-up?”. This amuses Americans greatly, and if a British person says “I’m gonna get pissed tonight” they often remark “Why would you make yourself angry?”.
  4. Bomb.
    I like this one. When my brother was driving us to Sunday dinner at my nan’s house, he was so hungry for roast beef and potatoes that we said “Frank’s absolutely bombing it down the Long Ashton Bypass”. Bombing it means going very fast, and Frank obviously couldn’t wait for my nan’s cooking because he was hitting about 90 miles per hour. In the USA, the word bomb is used by young people a lot to describe something very good or impressive. Examples include “You da bomb…dot com” or “These chili-cheese fries are the bomb”.
  5. Ass.
    When my roommate Anne-Marie surprised me one day with a baguette while I was blogging, I Instagrammed it with the caption “When your bestie makes you a bomb-ass sandwich” and in that instance I was being very American because I was combining two slang words. In the US, the word ass is often used as a postpositive intensive, which is how I used it. Other examples include “Dude, that is a big-ass walleye” or “Damn, that’s a cold-ass honkey”. My American friends and I use it a lot as a prefix (“We just made an ass-ton of food for the Superbowl party”). This one interested me so much that I just had to include it, even though there isn’t really an interesting British counterpart. Brits don’t use ass as an intensifier like the above examples. It means only one thing here, and even then it exists as a more American way of saying bum, arse, or bottom.
  6. Lug.
    In the U.K it’s slang for your ears (“Cwoarr, those vuvuzelas don’t half hurt your lughole do they?”). This one came to my attention when, a year after my student exchange, Aaron sent me a Facebook message on my birthday saying “HAPPY BIRTHDAY YOU BIG OL’ LUG O’ MATE!”. I assumed that lug denoted an amount of something, and I showed up in poetry class the next week with a poem that included the line “And so I was a lug of mate”. But upon further research, I have discovered that lug is actually an American term of endearment and affection for someone big, shy and clumsy.
  7. Liberal.
    This one I’m bringing up because I’m interested in how it’s received when it’s said. In the U.K if you describe something as liberal then it’s usually referring to personal freedom. You might say an office has a “liberal approach” to what its workers are allowed to wear. All the political parties will try to sell themselves as liberal. In the U.K, it’s only got a positive connotation, because freedom is good and tyranny is bad, right? In the USA I was shocked to see conservatives say things like “I hate liberals” or “Eww, such a liberal”. They say the word “liberal” the same way you might say “parasite” and that struck me as odd. So you’re against freedom then? It’s even more strange when you consider that in the purest, strictest political definition of the word, liberalism refers to a philosophy in which government is small, the free market reigns supreme, and the state acts as a neutral arbiter to solve disputes. Isn’t that what the Republicans claim to be in favor of? The same holds true for the term “progressive” when used by American conservatives. It’s just hilarious to me that anyone could attach negative connotations to words like liberal and progressive, unless they are unabashedly fascist.
  8. Spunk.
    This one’s a good laugh. The word is used quite a lot in the USA to refer to someone as sassy, hyperactive or feisty. I went for supper at this girl’s house just outside of campus, and when we got done eating we looked at her pet rabbit. It was then when she said “Oh, he’s just so spunky”. In the U.K, the word spunk is a less-scientific term for semen.
  9. Biscuit.
    I remember this coming up during Thanksgiving Dinner. In the USA, a biscuit is a specific type of food that looks like a scone but has the texture of a croissant. What the Brits call sweet biscuits are referred to as cookies, and what the Brits call savory biscuits are known as crackers. In the USA people enjoy cheese and crackers, and in the U.K people eat cheese and biscuits. British people use the word cookie, but only to mean a specialized, disc-shaped biscuit filled with chocolate chips.
  10. Like.
    This was the example that inspired this blog post. Both Americans and Brits say the word like when they shouldn’t, and when pointed out, both will be embarrassed and self-conscious of the fact they can’t resist putting the word in where it doesn’t belong. The difference, however, is where and how the word is used. In the USA, it’s often used at the beginning of a sentence. Examples include “Like, what is his problem? Ugh” and “It’s like…does he want me to text him back or not?”. In the U.K however, the word invariably ends up at the end of a sentence. For instance, “What you chatting about, like?” or “I’m a chimney sweeper, like”.
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What My Degree Taught Me About Writing Fiction

When I was a student of Creative Writing at the University of Winchester, there was one seminar in particular that stood out to me. It was the final semester before graduation, and we were all packed into this airy room on the top floor of an old stone building that reminded me of Hogwarts. I realized when I was there that it was the first room I remembered being in when I arrived at Winchester as a freshman in 2011. I hadn’t been in it since, and I guess the cyclical feeling it gave me got me thinking about my degree as a whole. I had mixed feelings about the whole experience. I knew I wasn’t one of those people that celebrated it as the best time of their lives, probably going out for drinks with the professors, and forever remembering “Winchy-Winch” as their home away from home. No. I was a quiet face that no one would remember. But I was sure about one thing: the degree had made me a better writer. Even though I don’t think you need a degree in Creative Writing in order to write fiction, doing one certainly improves your technique and introduces you to a lot of ideas.

I thought about this during the seminar- what I had learned and what the whole thing was worth. My conclusion was that the true value of the program was in the way it brought together a lot of interesting- but imperfect- ideas. There are no secrets to Creative Writing. There’s no formula that, once cracked, explains everything. Professors, guest speakers, and peers contribute their experiences and what works for them. But every writer is different, and no one nugget holds universally true. The best usage of the degree, in my opinion, was in taking what everyone had to say and forming your own conclusion. I think one thing that new writers underestimate is the worth of their own opinion. A Creative Writing degree is not a passive process, and I don’t think the budding writer will become successful if he or she only ever tries to follow the mantra of others. If you want to write, you need to be confident, and you need to back your own ideas.

The two most famous tips handed down by professors and novelists are “Show, don’t tell” and “Get rid of those adverbs and adjectives”. They are useful guidelines, but if you look in any book, you will find passages that don’t adhere to them at all. A lot of good writing comes from pure instinct, when you stop thinking and just let your fingers type freely. If your noun has a flowery adjective or adverb attached to it that you feel is critical to the rhythm of the sentence, feel free to keep it. One such instance of it won’t kill your manuscript. If you look at some of the top authors today- I’m talking the Liane Moriartys, the Cormac McCarthys, the Rupi Kaurs- then you’ll find plenty of sentences that tell instead of show, and include nouns laced with adverbs. And these folks are the best in the business.

During my time at university I got conflicting advice from different professors. I also came to realize that editors don’t necessarily think the way writers do. One time we had a class where a professional editor from a publishing house came in to speak to us, and her perspective on what makes a good story was completely different to that of our professor. My professor disliked my story about a high school basketball player from rural Wisconsin, saying I was trying to be something I’m not, writing about an experience not my own. However the editor liked my story, and even said that it was perfectly fine that I was writing it in American English. The story later got published as a winning entry of a competition. And that’s what brings me to the heart of this post, and my realization during that seminar in my third year.

One of our professors was discussing the value of “write what you know” and told us about a novel she wrote. I think it was a love story or something like that. Anyway, she said she originally set the novel in Paris, but was advised to change it to London, and the story became better for it because she was more familiar with the latter. I’m not doubting the wisdom for that decision as it relates to that story. But I do think the mantra of “write what you know” can be misleading and limiting for new writers. Every story is different and every story approaches the concept of place in a different way. To me, a novel set in Paris has a completely different tone to one set in London. One of my favorite short stories is the American fairy tale “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving. It’s a classic tale of a guy taking a massive nap in the Catskill Mountains. However, at the time of writing, Irving had never actually visited the Catskills. As a writer, you are entitled to go beyond your personal experience, if that’s where the narrative is taking you. You just have to get it right. If you look at George R. R. Martin’s background, he ought to be writing stories about dockworkers getting into fistfights with corrupt union bosses, saying “I coulda been somebody”. Instead he takes what he needs from the history of a country halfway across the Earth and creates a world based on that history that feels vivid and believable. People often take issue with someone trying to write about cultures not their own, or men writing stories about women. But if you can write well, then nothing is denied you. Philip Pullman wrote a badass novel from the perspective of a young girl, and Lois Lowry wrote an equally badass novel from the perspective of a young boy. If you want to write about Bhutan, but you live in Escanaba, MI, then go book a flight! Learn from the place- get a hold of its pulse, listen to the people, and add your own unique perspective. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or cannot write about. So many powerful, mesmerizing books and films have been made about the Holocaust from people that didn’t live through it; what those creators did is be respectful of its history and listen to those that were there.

The mantra that always resonated the most with me is as follows: write what you want to learn about. The key to finishing a novel is being passionate about your subject. So write the kind of book you would want to read.

The Dark Side of Eau Claire

As I continue my study abroad series of personal essays, I’d like to pen a short post about the city of Eau Claire itself. So far I’ve covered culture shock, my social anxiety, the friends I’ve made, and the classes I took during my 2012 student exchange, but there doesn’t exist yet a post about the city I called home for a semester. It’s something I get asked about a lot- the kind of place it is, what it has on offer, how well it stacks up against the image of an American city as given to us in Hollywood movies. And of course, nothing you see on the big screen can really prepare you for your first time living in the United States. But just for fun, I’d place Eau Claire somewhere between Hawkins from Stranger Things and Twin Peaks, but with a downtown area looking as if it were lifted from the set of Tombstone and repopulated with the combined cast of literally every Baz Luhrmann movie. It’s not small enough to give you the creeps that everyone’s watching you, waiting for you to fall asleep, and you know that if you nod off for one moment they’ll feed you to the big monster made of Jell-O that lives in the sewage system. No, the locals are for the most part very friendly, but there are a few sinister figures and neighborhood oddballs. But the town is also not so big that it doesn’t have that community sense of identity, and you don’t have to worry that you’re in a concrete jungle so vast that no one will notice when you’re inevitably snatched on the way home from the bowling alley by a bloke impersonating a police officer just so he can make you the leading star in his homemade snuff film. In case you haven’t realized yet, I’m putting a twist on this post about my favorite college town.

When I tell people that I’m interested in horror, they’re often surprised. I don’t watch slasher movies or read horror novels. I’ve never gone trick-or-treating or dressed up for Halloween. But what I mean when I say “horror” is really better described as “spookiness”. I’m interested in the horror that exists in the everyday world, that beats quietly in the human heart. And it’s this morbid curiosity that can actually be traced back to the city of Eau Claire itself. During the summer of 2014, when I returned to the place that had changed my life less than two years prior, I was chilling with Anne-Marie at her place on First Avenue. As we waited for Aaron to get back from work, we flicked through the channels on TV.

Southern Fried Homicide!” she said in her best Savannah-drawl. Anne-Marie is superb at accents. It was her decision to put the documentary on that changed everything. We spent all day watching Investigation Discovery, and when Aaron got home he became hooked too. They were highly-stylized documentaries with dramatic reconstructions, and every time the woman in the program went for a walk in the woods or got up in the middle of the night for a glass of milk, we’d recoil into the couch and squeal “No, no! Don’t do it!” as if it were in fact a fictional movie. It even got to the point where, after going to bed, Anne-Marie came back down the stairs to find Aaron and I with our hands over our mouths, sitting in the dark with the light of the TV flashing on our faces.

“When are you coming to bed?”

“Be right there, babe,” I remember him saying, and two hours later we were still sitting in the dark, watching the story of a girl from New Zealand getting murdered by some spoiled rich kid in Portsmouth.

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I probably took this fascination with horror a little too far however, culminating in a phone conversation in the winter of 2015 when Aaron asked what I was doing with myself in the UK. I replied in the thickest Australian accent I could that I was watching a show about a murder in the Outback mate.

“Good lord. You need to stop with these documentaries about Australian backpacker killers and leave the house,” Aaron said and we both started laughing.

But let’s get back to the real topic of this post- which is ultimately my attempt to convey my impressions of the city in which I found myself, and the way it always seemed like a spooky place to me. To give you a brief rundown, Eau Claire is a pretty desirable city as far as American cities go- it’s small, green, the streets are wide, there are no skyscrapers, there’s no pollution, and the whole place is surrounded on all sides by dense pine forests like that town in the Edge Chronicles. When I got there, it made me think that this was perhaps once a haven in the piney wilderness for travelers and merchants to stop off at on the way to Minneapolis. But really, I was seeing Eau Claire through the lens of Tolkien. The settlement in fact began as a lumber town, and there are plenty of remnants of that history. As my host family drove me around the spacious, quiet streets, they would throw facts and local trivia my way. There used to be a cornfield there, that kind of thing. It became clear to me that half of the city had remained almost exactly as it was, completely immutable, and that the other half had undergone some drastic changes. For the longtime resident, it seemed as though they would look in one direction and see the city exactly as they remembered it from their childhood, but then turn around and find themselves faced with a landscape as alien to them as it was to me.

My host mom liked to tell me how, when she was a kid, you had to cross the Chippewa by ferry. There’s a bridge there now. As we drove across it to the western edge of the city, we came into a place called Shawtown. The name instantly set my imagination into all kinds of spooky directions. I wanted to say, “Forget it Jake, it’s Shawtown,” and get to work on writing a gritty noir thriller. Shawtown was set up as a place for the families of the lumberjacks to live; the decadent Victorian mansions of the lumber barons themselves can be found on the east side of the river, nearer to downtown.

There’s the horror of one’s imagination and the horror of real life, and I experienced both throughout the three years I spent in Eau Claire. The horror of the imagination is taking a walk on a long path through the woods and finding a pink toddler’s shoe by the edge of the trees. There was no doubt in our minds that she had been snatched by the Hag of Half-Moon Lake; a pale, bloated witch with gills and webbed feet, her hair sickly green with algae.

“She’s a meat pie now,” I lamented, pointing at the shoe.

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There are mundane landmarks in Eau Claire with a quirky edge, places that for all intents and purposes are perfectly normal but nevertheless created this spooky atmosphere in my mind. Places like Pizza Del Re and the Pickle, unremarkable brick buildings that looked like fronts for mob activity, gave me the shivers. To say nothing of the many strip mall laundromats, the cheap fast food joints, the impossibly small bars, and beauty salons with bordered-up windows. Right on the edge of town there’s a place called The Antler’s Motel, where we assumed many a janitor had to fish a face-down body out of the pool. But by far the creepiest location of all is Banbury Place- an old tire factory on the edge of town that now rents its considerable floor space as warehouses and offices. Anne-Marie even had a roommate that used to cycle there, and I always said I wouldn’t have been surprised if one day her bike was found on the banks of a ditch, the front wheel silently spinning. Everyone liked to joke about how scary it looked, but that’s not to say it was in fact a place of unrelenting horror.

All those places aren’t necessarily the cause of anything sinister; they just contribute to the spooky backdrop. While I was in Eau Claire, there were plenty of real events to get scared about. There were reports of a strange man jumping out the bushes and flashing girls with his flaccid cock, there was the car chase and subsequent shooting in 2012- part of which I actually witnessed, there was the teenage runaway who crashed a stolen car full of cocaine right outside the Menominee Street Dairy Queen and ran off into the swamps of Carson Park, never to be heard from again- Aaron witnessed that one. There were the meth-heads that lived next door to Anne-Marie, whose half-naked children found no end of amusement in Superman-punching the passing cars. And there was the awful time that some deranged man tried to break into Anne-Marie’s house at night. It all adds up in the paranoid part of your psyche. One time my friend Zeke was showing me his student house, and insisted that I see the basement.

“You go first, I’ll be right behind you,” he said.

I made my way down into the pitch-blackness on a staircase that wobbled like a Jenga Tower after you start taking out the bottom few blocks. I reached the bottom of the stairs. It was cold and damp. Even though Zeke and I are good friends, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that he had lost his mind since I last saw him, and I braced myself for the ball-point hammer that was surely about to cave in my skull. But all of a sudden, the light flashed on and I found myself looking at a table with several upturned red solo cups.

“Dude! Check out our beer pong table!” Zeke said, and I breathed a sigh of relief. He was still the same old Zeke.

I know this post is a little bit different to my usual personal essays, but before I finish my study abroad series, I’d like to give you an impression of the city I lived in as it existed for me. That, I believe, is the best way to go about travel writing; not to document the actual, literal Eau Claire- since I am not a local historian or a longtime resident- but to write about how it appeared to me, as an outsider. I’d love to get a dialogue going with some of you as well- let me know in the comments what seemingly normal places in your hometown give you the chills. Why do we see the haunted in the mundane?

F-Stops & Flood Plains: My Weekend Part Two

I’ve been nothing if not introspective in the wake of the New Year. I think that’s just how I’m wired. I spend a lot of time in my own head. I can’t really experience something without thinking it to death afterwards. I’m given to considering its place in the larger continuum of my life and attaching a greater significance to it. In my last post I wrote about my Saturday afternoon, in which two friends visited me in my hometown of Nailsea. I wrote about how the visit got me thinking about 2018 as a whole, and the strange feeling I had that I was leaving one chapter behind for a new one.

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Well, the second half of my weekend only extended the dialogue in my head. 2018 does feel very in-betweeney. When I returned last summer from Texas, I was picked up by my kid brother Frank in his Ford Fiesta. Like me, he had just passed his driving test that year. I was so happy to see him, because for the first time in six years, we would be living together again. I left for the University of Winchester in 2011, and he the University of Plymouth in 2013. And due to the fact that I was now living in the USA every summer, I’d gotten used to the idea that seeing him was a special treat. We still spoke every day on the phone, but he was out attending lectures on phytoplankton, conducting research into soil, and giving guided tours of a local aquarium on Devon’s south coast, while I traveled the USA from the Mennonite country stores of northern Wisconsin to the pawn shops of Pasadena, Texas. We were out making new lives, but now- for the first time since 2011- we are living together again.

But I’ve realized that this stage of our lives will likely be over in a flash. Frank’s done well since his graduation to snag himself a pretty sweet job as a flood risk engineer. We’ve been making more of an effort to spend some quality brother time together now that we’re in the same place again, and his presence has really helped me to cope with the routine blues that come with leaving my American roommates. Last Sunday we decided to go for a little hike to the site of an Iron Age fort that overlooks the town I live in.

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Frank’s one of those people with many strings to his bow; he’s got a seemingly endless supply of energy to learn and discover. Everything interests him. He’s unable to spend his free time simply resting. What I admire about him is that he seeks to fill it with as many vivid experiences as possible, and he doesn’t let something completely new intimidate him, or stop him from following his curiosity like a pig digging for truffles. It’s like he recognizes that life is short. No sooner had he acquired his new job than he was seeking out something else to consume his focus; within a week of becoming a flood risk engineer he was searching for new hobbies and experiences- refusing to let this latest career achievement define him.

Frank has been curious about nature photography for a while, and armed with a camera lent to him from his girlfriend and a free Sunday afternoon, decided we ought to go on a hike and take some pictures. I hadn’t used my dSLR in a while; it hangs around in the background silently judging me alongside my banjo and microphone. Three years ago I took a class in photography that taught me the basics of how to get the best out of a single lens reflex, and it’s something I’ve put to use when exploring Northern Wisconsin or indeed serving as the photographer for high school graduations and weddings. So I discussed focal ratios and shutter speeds with him and we stopped to try out different shots of nearby sheep and barbed wire fences.

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As we ascended the hillside we had the sensation of déjà vu one gets when walking a path that was once so familiar. It’s the same feeling I get when I find myself on the old route I used to walk to high school. I can’t walk past the dry cleaners without that strange, damp smell bringing me back to the cold mornings talking about girls or Premier League football. It’s the same with the trail to this ancient fort. My parents used to take us here all the time, and Frank and I would always charge ahead fighting imaginary goblins or battle droids, depending on if we were into Lord of the Rings or Star Wars that day. I think little hikes and trails are great for kids. We used to do it a lot and every time we let our imaginations run wild. Even after all these years, the trail was as familiar to us as the sound of our mother’s voice. The mud clogging up the center of the path, forcing us onto the grassy banks. The other sentient bipeds that would always say “Hello” in that breathless way they do, sometimes accompanied by Labradors and children in mittens. “Don’t worry, she wouldn’t hurt a fly. Come on, Tulip, come on…”

The trail has several gates and stiles. As kids we would jump on the gate as our parents would open it, enjoying the brief ride. I decided to do this as my brother unlocked it. He cast a smile my way in recognition of my journey to the past. The trees were leafless and what patches of grass remained untouched by the January sun were hardened by frost. The winter has its own aesthetic, I said. Frank replied that he would be back in spring to capture the place in an entirely different way. Even though it was cold out, we weren’t cold ourselves. Walking uphill negates that. It was bright too. I hate the January sun. It’s white and shapeless and its low position in the sky means that it blasts light like an aggressive search helicopter.

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As we reached the top of the hill we entered the wide bowl of the old Roman hangout. In the distance a couple of boys ran along the ramparts, lost in a play reminiscent of the kind of adventures Frank and I used to have. Not everything was the same, however. There were areas of trees cut down; it was more open, less mazelike, which disappointed me. I passed by the entrance where a big tree ripe for climbing used to stand, and I recalled a particular memory from when I was eleven years old. I decided to take my friends on a “UFO hunt” after reading that the best place to catch a flying saucer or a Roswell Grey with designs on your prostate was in the countryside. It started out super serious and one of my friends even claimed to have seen a big spaceship in the distance but it only turned out to be a cell tower. When we reached the top we forgot about UFOs and started playing with our imagination while my mom read a magazine on a blanket.

Frank and I walked through the fort to the edge of the hill, where the trees part to give an unobstructed view of the valley below. Nailsea is surrounded on all sides by marshes and farmland. Frank pointed to all the flooded areas of the pastures below and how he’d studied it for his dissertation. We continued taking pictures of the barren trees, the winter flowers, a few lonesome mushrooms, and on our way back I thought I saw a dog running free across the hilltop. Something brown and athletic like a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I didn’t have my glasses on. Blinking, I realized I was looking at a deer. It came around towards us, up the earthen mound of the rampart and bounded across the flat center of the fort. It was quite a sight; that this place once served as a hub of activity, bustling with Dobunni hunters and later, Roman soldiers, and now existed as a barren expanse of cold, pale grass where wild deer roamed free. It’s hard to imagine that empty silence filled with the clank of boots, the warmth of fires, the laughter of men and women. Pots and books and candles and tables and plates and chests and weapons. Frank and I broke into a run, chasing it as far as we could, but by the time we got to the other side, the deer was long gone.

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To bring this post full circle, hiking with my brother gave me an impression of the immensity of the past behind me. It might be the last walk up that hill I ever take, but if that’s the case then I’m okay with that. While the sights, smells and sounds of Cadbury Camp evoked the past, our conversation was fixed entirely on the future. One way or another, 2018 is going to be an interesting year for us both. And I wonder what memories I have yet to create that will one day give my older self a sense of déjà vu.

Lamb Boobs & Spanish Typewriters: My Weekend Part One

The first weekend of 2018 turned out to be pretty rad. My dear friends Elizabeth & George came to visit me on Saturday- and it was the first time I had seen them in person since I served as the photographer for their wedding in March of last year. I’ve written in the past about my experience of and obsession with the Greek concept of Philia– the love of friendship, and having two of my closest companions drive all the way to Nailsea of all places, getting lost in Bristol on the way, just to visit me, definitely gave me an emotional rush. The friends my 2012 student exchange in the USA brought me have now become old friends. We’re basically family, and the small network of Wisconsinites I’ve been adopted by treat me with the same openness and give me the same feeling of importance as if we were blood-relatives.

The town I grew up in- while boasting a population of about 20,000 or so- is nonetheless small in regards to its infrastructure and facilities. It’s kind of like one big residential area, an endless labyrinth of semi-detached brick houses and prickly hedges. The streets are quiet and empty, save for a few grey hunchbacks who cross the road at the speed of a banana slug dying of boredom. But then just when it seemed as if the town itself might be taken off life-support, George and Elizabeth’s beat-up “pimp-mobile” in dire need of an exhaust pipe replacement comes roaring through the sleepy afternoon and oh hot dog I feel like Harry Potter when the Weasleys show up in that flying car.

“Your town is so cute!” Elizabeth likes to say with her palms against her cheeks, looking to the cobblestone walls, the church spires, the old fish & chip shop, and the suspicious stares of the townsfolk in flat caps walking dogs.

I decided to take my friends to the best place in town to get some hearty food- the pub I’ve been working at these last few months. It was strange to walk in as a customer instead of an employee, and I wondered as I approached the door if my entrance would be like that scene in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta is snapping his fingers at all the wiseguys he walks past, strolling with effortless confidence and a cocksure swagger to the best seat in the house, stopping only for all the people coming up to him to shake his hand and pay respects. No such thing happened. In fact, the place seemed pretty deserted. There were a few other patrons, talking in hushed voices because the place was so quiet. The only folks on duty were the bartender, a waitress I hadn’t met yet, and my friend Daniel who cooked our food, and came out afterwards for a chin-wag.

My friends seemed very impressed by the pub and we enjoyed a good meal and many drinks. I opted for the stuffed lamb breast, one of the fancier dishes on the menu.

“I’m just imagining a massive boob on a plate,” Elizabeth said and started laughing hysterically.

“I can just see the little lamb teat pointing upwards,” her husband chuckled.

“Sheep have udders, right?” I said, not very sure myself what lay beneath all that wool. When Elizabeth first visited me in England 3 years ago, she was entranced by all the fluffy sheep in the fields. It’s something my parents and I remember so distinctly from her stay. I guess sheep aren’t exactly a common sight in the northwoods of Wisconsin, and they’re everywhere here. That’s one of the things that happens when you host a foreigner in your country- they point out things you never thought twice about. You begin to look at your surroundings in a different way.

During our meal, we talked about everything from Ed Gein to the chocolate shops of Gent. Elizabeth started hiccupping loudly and I thought she might startle the nearby pensioners into the prone position. George fetched her a glass of water as his wife swore like a sailor after each new quake. I really got the sense that we were now old friends, and after pouring through our shared memories we began to talk excitedly about the future and the creation of new ones. 2018 so far feels like a transitionary period, in which the past and the present seem almost equally large. I feel like I’ll look back on this part of my life as an in-between stage, an intermission between two big acts. My choice of clothing represented the past- I deliberately picked the fringed suede rancher jacket that Elizabeth had helped me afford one day in the summer of 2015 at an antique store on Eau Claire’s Water Street. We talked about three of the weddings we’ve been to together over the years (including their own), before moving irresistibly to the weddings to come- such as Elizabeth’s brother Aaron and his high school sweetheart Anne-Marie.

It always seems surreal having my American family in the town I grew up in. It shouldn’t, because this is the fourth visit I’ve hosted in Nailsea, but it does. My life in the US and my life in the UK have always felt so separate. I swear my sense of reality gets warped and I feel like George Constanza ranting about “worlds colliding”. As always, the visit was a resounding success and it lifted my mood immensely. One thing I have definitely discovered about myself is that I like having something to look forward to, to work towards. If I haven’t got anything on the horizon I get super-restless and create something to look forward to. Itchy feet have resulted in many a purchase of plane tickets, assuming I was able to swing it. But what made Saturday’s visit so significant- and worth blogging about- is that it’s given me my first indication of the shape 2018 might take- the potential it has for personal growth and what it might come to mean in years’ time. Weddings, thanksgivings, new year’s eve celebrations. We talked about the lot, and the trip ended in the most amazing way possible. George is a collector and frequent user of typewriters, and decided to gift one to me, given my love of writing and desire to write in different places. I was over the moon at this wonderful gift- a Spanish typewriter no less- and Elizabeth suggested I feature some scanned typewritten blog posts on TumbleweedWrites, so stay tuned. In conclusion, the visit left me feeling very loved and more than a bit excited for the future.

50 Reasons Why I Love Elvis

No blog about my life would be complete without a post devoted to my favorite singer of all time. I celebrate January 8th every year because it’s Elvis Presley’s birthday, so it stands to reason that today’s the day I write this post. If he were still alive, he’d be 83 today. Anyway, here are 50 reasons why I love Elvis!

 

  1. I discovered Elvis when I was 10 years old after a free CD with a small selection of his songs came attached to a newspaper. My mom played it in the kitchen and after listening to it, I quickly fell in love with his music.
  2. The song on that CD that I liked best was “Burning Love” and in the beginning that was my favorite.
  3. I was given more Elvis CDs by my family, opening up a myriad of new songs for my happy ears. I put them in a big CD-player I had and listened to them every morning before school as I took my shower, covering the stereo with a towel because I was paranoid about the adding of water to electricity.
  4. As a kid I preferred the concert songs of the 1970s, Vegas-era white-jumpsuit Elvis, but as I got older I was drawn more to the rock and roll tracks of his early career- the raw, rebellious, 1950s Elvis.
  5. I envied that the older members of my family had gotten to live at the time when Elvis was alive, and I hounded them for information on any memories they might have of him. I distinctly remember my Aunt telling me that her favorite number was “All Shook Up” and my grandma, when pressed, thought that “Blue Suede Shoes” was his most famous or iconic song.
  6. When I was 11 years old I was doing a school project on Richard Nixon, and on the front page I put a picture of Elvis and Nixon shaking hands. However, our printer was godawful so the whole thing had this sickly green hue to it.
  7. Over the years I’ve collected a lot of memorabilia. I’ve got Elvis scrapbooks, atlases, encyclopedias, cookbooks, biographies, limited edition issues of the official Elvis magazine, and even some rare Elvis trading cards I got on eBay. In addition to countless Elvis-themed clothing items, a dozen documentaries and several of his concerts on DVD, and other such merchandise, an American flag with his face on it hangs above my bed.
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  8. I’ve never dressed up as Elvis, and the thought of becoming an impersonator used to make me very uncomfortable. I had my doubts that it was the respectful way to remember him, and I thought that doing so might be too emotional for me. However I’ve grown to respect the artistry of some particularly skilled impersonators, and now I’m at the point where I won’t rule out becoming one in the future.
  9. I don’t particularly like Elvis’ movies, barring a couple of exceptions. I consider his movie career to be a low moment in his history, because it not only stunted his growth as a music artist, but it wasted his raw potential for acting.
  10. The biggest exception is King Creole, which is my favorite Elvis film. It’s essentially a gangster movie set in New Orleans, that doubles as a musical with some of the best songs of his career as a musician, let alone an actor. The best ones are “King Creole”, “Trouble”, “As Long As I Have You” and “Hard-Headed Woman”, all of which are amazing.
  11. I’m not a fan of Colonel Tom Parker, despite him being a pretty good manager in the early part of Elvis’ career (before he went to West Germany). Parker was essentially this old fashioned carnie guy, motivated solely by profit, and was either oblivious to or dismissive of Elvis being an artist that wanted to express himself. Instead he kind of treated Elvis as a circus act to be paraded around, a brand, something passive and without substance, to be cynically marketed in the most blandly inoffensive way possible.
  12. Elvis wanted to be a serious actor, and deeply admired Marlon Brando and James Dean. However Tom Parker wouldn’t let him contribute as one actor equal to the others in a given film; he demanded that Elvis have top billing, that he essentially play himself instead of trying to stretch his wings as a character actor, and that the movie would basically be a family-friendly “Elvis movie” instead of a film with artistic vision. It makes me sad to see Elvis’ potential wasted as he is forced to act in these dumb films he absolutely hated, which sent him into a depression.
  13. One of the biggest reasons I was drawn to Elvis as a person and not just as a singer was his status in the 1950s as a symbol of teenage rebellion. I remember my English professor at school telling us how, before he came along with rock and roll, there didn’t exist a concept of teenagers as being a distinct group in-between children and adults.
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  14. Elvis was part of a trend in the 1950s that was more controversial and edgy than even the most savage gangsta rappers we see today. People literally thought he was the devil incarnate, and there were efforts to get him off the screen and even to ban his live performances. The most famous example is of course the way they would only shoot him from the waist up, because they considered his gyrating hips and legs to be scandalous.
  15. As I said above, Elvis greatly admired the actors Marlon Brando and James Dean. Movie stars were practically godlike in those days, and had a profound effect on popular culture. Both Brando and Dean planted the early seeds of that rebellious 1950s image of teenage youth that Elvis and other rockabilly artists would then go on to popularize in their music. Brando did so as early as 1953 in the outlaw biker flick The Wild One, and Dean followed it up two years later in the groundbreaking masterpiece Rebel Without a Cause. If it weren’t for these two movies, Elvis’ iconic greaser-come-rockabilly look might have been a lot different.
  16. Elvis styled his pompadour haircut off of Dean’s character in that movie, and both of them were inspired by Brando’s sideburns in The Wild One. Between Dean and Brando’s movies about teenage delinquency and Elvis’ sexually-charged music, anyone wearing a leather jacket and sporting sideburns was considered a complete thug.
  17. Half a century later, the whole style affected me too; in the past I’ve grown sideburns, and on special occasions I’ll use a special Elvis-branded pomade to slick back my hair. I also collect leather jackets which I don’t think can be a coincidence.
  18. I went to get my degree in creative writing at the University of Winchester and during a class in my first year, we were asked to bring in a song that spoke to us emotionally and then do some writing on it. Back then I was pretty embarrassed about sharing the songs I liked with people, because it felt like showing them my emotional landscape and I guarded my feelings back then with about as much mercy as a cornered honey badger. Extremely nervous, I brought in my iPod and played the song “Don’t Be Cruel”, which was my favorite at the time. When asked what I thought about the piece, I described it as “electrifying”.
  19. At the end of my first year, we had to produce a creative art project that we would then display in a gallery. It was the last assignment of the semester and I wasn’t sure what to do. A girl from the class I had played “Don’t Be Cruel” in suggested something to do with Elvis, since his music was something I was passionate about. I liked the idea, and although nervous at sharing my passion with my colleagues- with whom I felt like the class wallflower, always fearful and reclusive- I did feel a kind of joy at the idea of opening up. I settled on creating a massive map of Elvis’ America, and after drawing the outline of the USA, I added in pictures and pieces of information from various points in his life, creating something that was both a timeline and an atlas.
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  20. During some of my lonelier moments in that rough first year of university I would turn to Elvis’ music to cheer myself up, often listening to the likes of “An American Trilogy” or other slower numbers on my iPod in bed to drown out the sound of the partygoers. I later wrote a poem about the importance of his music and the comfort it provided me for a class project.
  21. A few months after making that big map, I got to finally make my pilgrimage to Graceland in August of 2012. We were there during Elvis Week and the 35th Anniversary of Elvis’ passing, so the place was absolutely packed with tourists from around the globe.
  22. One thing I loved about being in Memphis was how the legacy of Elvis was everywhere you looked. It was like the whole city was gearing up for Elvis Week; his face was everywhere- on billboards, in store windows, on restaurant menus. Near the city’s famous Beale Street there’s an awesome statue of The King.
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  23. If you are curious about some of Elvis’ favorite dishes, a lot of restaurants in the area serve Elvis-themed cuisine. I got something called the “Love Me Tender Platter” which was a fricking mountain of fried chicken, at a place opposite our hotel.
  24. The “Elvis Sandwich” is the most well-known and iconic meal inspired by The King. You can get it at a lot of places in Memphis and obviously at the eateries around Graceland. It’s known that he especially enjoyed grilled sandwiches of peanut butter, mashed bananas and bacon.
  25. Other essential eating for the diehard Elvis fan includes fried chicken, meatballs wrapped in bacon, T-bone steaks, biscuits fried in butter and filled with sausage, tomato fritters, fried pickles, Monkey Bread, and coconut cake. These were his favorite dishes and I love how decadent they are. Elvis loved the hearty, home-cooking of his native South, and never really took to foreign cuisines.
  26. What I loved about my time at Graceland was that I was, for the first time ever, surrounded by people like myself. There was an army of people young and old sporting sideburns and dyed black pompadours, people from every corner of the world, all of them wearing Elvis merchandize like myself. I felt a sense of belonging, especially at seeing so many younger Elvis fans. The army around me had the same sense of religious fanaticism you might get from a crowd of sports fans.
  27. We had to be taken to Graceland via these mini buses, each group regulated by guides because there were so many of us. Once we were through the gates and I was standing in Elvis’ front yard, we had to wait until we were allowed in. Each group had a certain amount of time and you had to keep walking. You couldn’t double back and check out a certain room again, or move freely.
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  28. As we waited, one of the guides told us facts about Elvis’ legacy and my brother told me that given my encyclopedic knowledge and fervent zeal, I could easily get a job here.
  29. What struck us most about the house was that it wasn’t quite as grandiose and extravagant as you might expect given Elvis’ absurd wealth and fame. It’s definitely fancy, but it’s also quite homely and snug. It feels very much like a place that was lived in, rather than some cold, soulless mansion. It’s the kind of place that looks bigger and grander than it actually is if you’ve only seen it in pictures.
  30. I felt a pang of emotion when looking at the swing sets and tricycles used by a young Lisa Marie. Elvis and his wife Priscilla divorced when Lisa Marie was at a very early age, and a few years later Elvis passed away. It’s sad to think of the childhood memories she missed out on.
  31. Sadder still was the moment of looking upon Elvis’ gravestone. All around were beautiful wreaths and works of art made by fans from as far away as Taiwan and Denmark. My brother confessed to feeling a surge of emotion as he looked down upon the memorial.
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  32. The highlight of my trip came when news broke out that Lisa Marie Presley was conducting a radio interview here at Graceland, and I was able to get quite close to the front of the crowd gathering at the barricades. I was probably an arm’s length away from her, and proceeded to take the best pictures I could, all the while feeling completely paralyzed with awe.
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  33. Before leaving Graceland I checked out the gift shop and bought myself a TCB necklace, something I’ve always wanted. The TCB stands for “Taking Care of Business” which was Elvis’ motto. He outfitted his entire entourage with pins bearing these letters arranged around a lightning bolt, and the logo can also be seen on Elvis’ private jet, the Lisa Marie. If I were ever to get a tattoo, that’s what I’d get.
  34. One time someone in the USA came up to me and informed me they hated Elvis. I told my brother and he went into a rage.
  35. I went to see an Elvis concert in Bristol, where a live orchestra provided the instrumental accompaniment to his voice, and a 3D holographic image of Elvis from his Vegas concerts gave the closest thing you can get to experiencing Elvis in concert. It’s an amazing production, and it’s been so successful that they have taken to touring the world. The one I went to sold out fast and we were lucky to get tickets.
  36. King Creole is my favorite fictional Elvis film, but my favorite motion picture overall is the documentary Elvis On Tour. The montage sequences were supervised by a young Martin Scorsese and if you’ve ever studied Mean Streets or Taxi Driver you can tell how his distinctive cinematic genius has touched the production.
  37. In 2014 I visited the Green Bay area of the US state Wisconsin, and on the last day of my time there, my friends took me to an amusement park called Bay Beach. There’s a ride there called the Zippin’ Pippin’ which is said to be Elvis’ favorite ride. I made sure to get my picture with the plaque boasting to that effect, before braving my fear of roller coasters with my friend Elizabeth to give it a go.
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  38. My all-time favorite Elvis song is “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, and I put a dollar in the jukebox at a bar in De Pere, WI called The Old Number Seven to play this song. I was playing darts and drinking beer with my American family, and when the song started playing I took a special joy in seeing my best mate Anne-Marie singing along.
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  39. “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is my favorite song overall, but there’s an Elvis song for every occasion. If you want something inspiring and uplifting that touches on social issues, then go for “In the Ghetto” or “If I Can Dream”, the latter of which is based off of Martin Luther King’s speech. If you want a more edgy rock and roll sound, then I’d recommend “Hound Dog”. And you can’t leave out “Suspicious Minds”, which is generally considered his greatest song pound for pound. I tend to pick which of his songs to listen to on the basis of my mood at the time.
  40. Following up that last point, Elvis is in 23 Halls of Fame for his musical achievements. That’s why I encourage people to give him a go, because there’s a lot of variety to his songs. He’s considered a legend in the genres of rock and roll, country, pop, blues, and gospel!
  41. Elvis served as a huge inspiration for so many successful music artists. It’s well documented how the likes of John Lennon and Bob Dylan worshipped him, but even modern singers discuss how influential he has been on their careers. Notable examples of Elvis fans that come to mind in today’s industry include Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, and Harry Styles.
  42. I was so pleased when playing Fallout: New Vegas that there was a street gang of Elvis impersonators. It’s one of my favorite games and when I play I always join that faction.
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  43. Essential movie-watching for Elvis fans includes Lilo & Stitch, Blade Runner 2049, and Forrest Gump.
  44. Fun fact: Charles Manson had a plot to assassinate Elvis Presley and even showed up at one of his Hollywood residences, looking deranged and suspicious. Fortunately, Elvis employed all his high school buddies as his personal bodyguards, the Memphis Mafia, and they told Manson to get lost.
  45. One of my favorite things about Elvis was his generosity. There are so many stories of Elvis giving expensive gifts to complete strangers, such as cars and houses, a job if he could hire them, a wheelchair if they needed it, and every year he gave huge donations to charities, hospitals and schools. But Elvis wasn’t perfect- he was as flawed and human as the rest of us. He made mistakes and lost his temper, and he really would have disliked the Christlike image in which some people regard him.
  46. My brother loves Frank Sinatra, and in 1960 the great singer hosted Elvis on his television show in a special episode welcoming him home from the army. Previously, Sinatra had regarded Elvis and the rock and roll movement with disdain, thinking that they were just a bunch of crude reprobates. However, after meeting Elvis he came to admire him very much, after seeing that the rebel image Elvis had was just that- an image, a marketing tool. Privately, Elvis was a very humble, polite person who deeply loved his mother- traits that won Sinatra over.
  47. Elvis was a huge football fan, a fact that makes my heart happy. He loved to both play and watch the game, and was a complete nerd when it came to the sport. He loved being tested on football trivia and knowing the names and numbers of all the players. If he were alive today I’m sure he’d be a fan of the Tennessee Titans, and celebrating their weekend win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card round of the playoffs. However, his favorite team was actually The Cleveland Browns, who just this season finished 0-16. It’s not that surprising though, because believe it or not, the Browns were utterly unstoppable when Elvis was young. Otto Graham was an ice-cold badass, the most winningest quarterback in NFL history, who won Cleveland the 1954 championship game by throwing for 3 touchdowns and rushing for 3 more, not long after Elvis got back from the Louisiana Hayride.
  48. Elvis’ favorite player, however, was the immortal Jim Brown- perhaps the greatest player of his era pound-for-pound. Of course, Elvis became friends with Brown and there’s an awesome photo of the two giants in their respective fields chewing the fat.
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  49. This talk of football and music brings to mind the inherent zealotry of fandom. I’m not the kind of Elvis fan that’s going to come up to you and fill your earhole with preachy rhetoric about how great he is- which admittedly sounds ironic given this post- but all the same, I am nothing if not shy, so I don’t try to convert people. My approach to music- and life in general- can best be described as live and let live. That said, I can get quite defensive if someone comes up to me and slanders his name- much in the way I can get heated when people insult Aaron Rodgers.
  50. It’s reported that on the last full day of his life, Elvis had tried to get Lisa Marie a print of Star Wars: A New Hope, which to me is the perfect fact to end this list on!

Homeland by R.A Salvatore

I’ve always been bad at multi-tasking. It’s a skill I want to improve, but I feel like I’m wired in some way to be consumed by a singular focus. I should have finished reading R.A Salvatore’s high fantasy hack n’ slash about a month ago, but once I started writing my novel, my rate of pages-read-per-day dropped significantly. But that experience has given me some good perspective; I realized that seeing reading as something to squeeze in at some vague point in the future was not good enough. I’m glad the writing has been going well, but I need to improve my relationship with books. And the way to do that is to set aside a dedicated reading time that is free of distractions. I’d get more reading done, and in less time; an hour isn’t much in the context of a whole day, but it’s more than enough to get quite a lot of reading done- if that hour is focused and free of distractions.

In early 2017 my reading stamina really started to grow strong again. I had rediscovered my love of fiction to the point that the musty vanilla scent of an old book would make me want to grind the pages up into lines of fine powder and snort them up my nose. Hell yeah. To cope with all the books I had to read and wanted to buy, I made a list on my phone and alternated between the dusty novels of my backlog and newer purchases. The author R.A Salvatore came to my attention during one of my many long conversations with my American roommate and best friend Aaron. Salvatore is his favorite novelist, one that he read extensively during his teenage years, and given that I’ve so enjoyed listening to his favorite band (Blink 182), I figured I’d give his favorite writer a try. As I’ve stated in other posts, I’ve been trying to build a little book club among my friends. Not only do I feel like reading a person’s most cherished novels is a way to become closer to them, but I also just love talking about books. Before 2017 I had an idea of what a “Michael-esque” book would be, but now I’ve broadened the definition of what I like infinitely.

I used to love high fantasy as a teenager, be it in the form of books like A Wizard of Earthsea or video games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. But I fell out with the genre and figured I was done with it. Then came along the Game of Thrones TV series and I was sucked right back in. Aaron recommended Salvatore as a good choice to get me back into high fantasy, because his stories were dark and weren’t just another regurgitation of the Tolkien formula. I distinctly remember him selling the idea of Salvatore’s stories to me on the basis that they were about “immoral troglodytic dark elves that worshipped a giant spider”.

I got the first volume of Salvatore’s The Dark Elf Trilogy, Homeland, not realizing that the trilogy was a prequel to a much wider saga of novels about The Forgotten Realms. When I laid eyes upon the book for the first time I saw that it said “Dungeons & Dragons” on the top, which is strange because there are no dungeons or dragons in the novel. I started reading it, and while I thought it was well-written and interesting, I wasn’t immediately hooked. The reason for that was because in the first few chapters I had no one to root for. Every character seemed like a bloodthirsty serial killer with the innate likability of a wood tick with real estate designs on your urethra. It wasn’t until a few chapters in that the protagonist emerged in the form of Drizzt Do’Urden- and as soon as that happened I became thoroughly invested in the story. Drizzt acts as a stand-in for the reader’s sense of morality, compassion and conscience. The first few chapters before his arrival so perfectly establish the novel’s world as a dystopia. Dystopian fiction is more often associated with Science Fiction than its more whimsical cousin, but really there’s no reason it can’t work just as well in a setting of high fantasy.

The book takes place in a subterranean city called Menzoberranzan, and trust me when I tell you that there is almost nowhere else in fiction I’d rather live less. The dark elves worship a massive spider, Lolth, the Goddess of Chaos, and so their society is based largely on stabbing your relatives and neighbors up the babkas. It’s a city of ordered anarchy, in which pretty much anything goes so long as you don’t get caught. I know that sounds kind of like a contradiction- and it does take a while to grasp the psychotic hypocrisy of this bizarre, underground theocratic state, but what I mean is that the dark elves are encouraged to do whatever they can get away with. They admire the skills of deceit, treachery, and stealth; the murdering someone without leaving a trace. I know what I’d do if I did have to live in this city- I’d become a funeral director or something like that, because they must be absolutely raking it in. If you’re not discovered face-down in the shadow of a glowing mushroom with a dagger in your back, you’re bones are burped up by the enormous crustaceans that lurk in the caverns surrounding the city. The battle between the protagonist’s conscience and his need for belonging as he discovers the depths of his people’s depravity reminded me of the classic dystopian novel The Giver in a lot of ways; only with a higher density of spilt entrails and broken bone fragments.

It’s a fascinating setting, and completely unlike any other fantasy story I’ve heard of. I like how it reinvents the idea of elves as being this peaceful race of tree-huggers living in Edens of idyllic wholesomeness. I’ve also always been intrigued by the idea of subterranean adventures ever since I watched the 1959 movie Journey to the Center of the Earth as a little kid. The creatures and cultures of Salvatore’s Underdark are so viscerally brought to life in descriptive passages that have just the right amount of information to let your imagination run wild. The descriptive paragraphs never outstay their welcome and always work in conjunction with the action of a given scene, which for me is the best way to go about world building. It gives us the pieces, but lets us put them together with our own imagination.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about why it’s so important for writers to make the situations and settings of their narrative realistic, and this book is the best example I can think of to illustrate that practice. Salvatore’s world is so interesting to the reader, because he explores the mechanics and basic workings of the fantastical society he has created. For instance, the dark elves live underground, and so their vision is based off of infrared heat signals. Salvatore has put himself in the shoes of someone living in such an environment and thought about how they interact with and perceive the world around them. That’s what we mean by realism and believability. It’s got nothing to do with gnomes and mind flayers; you bring those creatures to life by exploring their behavior in little mundane or mechanical details. And that’s how you turn raw creativity into something immersive. For me, realism in fiction is the key to immersion. I could spend hours reading about the lore of The Forgotten Realms. The hook-horrors and cave fishers feel like animals, the cold and lightless caverns of the Underdark an ecosystem that is lived in. The characters are quirky and well-written. We can easily imagine the jealous wizard Masoj, or the evil Matron Malice whose reputation as the biggest slut in the Underdark is offset by her megalomaniacal ambition.

As good as the setting is, the aspect of the novel that really stood out to me- and the reason why I became hooked- was the moral dialogue that opens with the arrival of the protagonist Drizzt. There’s a reason Drizzt Do’Urden is such a beloved character, and it’s not just his artful use of scimitars. The clash between Drizzt’s sensitivity and the ghastly dystopia around him makes for some really addictive reading. It’s the kind of book I’d bring on vacation, because you just have to know what’s going to happen next. There are schemes at work and peril around every corner. The fight scenes are badass, but truly my favorite scenes- the ones that had me sweating and shaking- were the ones where Drizzt’s personality comes into conflict with the expectations of his cruel society. I won’t spoil anything, but the book is much more nuanced than what you might expect from a hack n’ slash. The characters of Drizzt and Zaknafein in particular have such engrossing moral dilemmas. There’s a genuine philosophical depth to this story that elevates it to the top-end of its genre. I can’t wait to read Exile and Sojourn!

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