September 23, 2011

Book 35: Down and Derby

Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby
Jennifer Barbee and Alex Cohen

With leagues forming rapidly not only in large cities but also in smaller markets such as my two hometowns of Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is no question that roller derby is a cultural phenomenon. Down and Derby, written by two members of the Los Angeles Derby Dolls (whose alter egos are, respectively, "Kasey Bomber" and the delightful "Axles of Evil"), displays a do-it-yourself ethos and aesthetic that mirrors the twin driving forces of modern roller derby, and is an endlessly enthusiastic introduction to and, to a lesser extent, shill for, modern roller derby leagues. The authors take readers on a comprehensive and appreciated history of roller skating races and the various 20th century incarnations of roller derby before launching into a more thorough description of the current movement, which began in Austin in the early 2000s. This historical context is much appreciated and sets up a rich societal context in which to examine the current popularity of roller derby and its cultural importance, and while the authors do not seem to ignore these important aspects of the rising sport, often alluding to its more overtly feminist aspects, their focus shifts instead to a depiction of the modern rules and proceeds to become an evangelical narrative of sorts.

Though there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and indeed the book is set up as an introduction for interested parties rather than an at all scholarly narrative, the authors almost seem to gloss over the importance of the success of such a ferocious, paradigm-challenging, all-female enterprise. Instead, the authors merely express their gratitude to be part of it and encourage others to consider the sport. Despite the blatant ulterior motives however, which admittedly may alienate those who just want to know about the sport rather than to join up right away, the enthusiasm seems borne of true passion and dedication rather than more selfish motivations; indeed, the all-consuming power of this hobby is a frequent topic of discussion. Constant humor makes the book more tolerable for less injury-inclined readers is the constant humor, with the authors willing to take a few good-natured swings at themselves and at the movement, and the entire package seems like a bit of good-natured fun. Sprinkled throughout with interviews from various derby personas (including "Jackie Daniels," a founding member of the Grand Raggidy Roller Girls whom I have witnessed in a live bout!), the book is reasonably comprehensive as a how-to text, if not as a philosophical exploration, and ultimately that's okay as it comes from the most reliable of first-hand sources and thus will prove a valuable document as derby diverges from its formative years. An appendix provides a welcome list of movies and television episodes to feature roller derby, and altogether the book holds up rather nicely with no-nonsense, yet easily readable prose. Down and Derby is, as advertised, "an insider's guide to roller derby" meant primarily for those who might strap on some skates, and serves its target audience superbly despite failing to find much resonance for a more detached, wider readership.

Grade: A-

September 21, 2011

Book 34: Animal Farm

Animal Farm
George Orwell

his book's status as an accepted classic of anti-totalitarian literature makes it difficult for me to presume I have anything novel or interesting to say about it, but I will add my voice to the chorus that believes Animal Farm to be an important, readable, and enjoyable fable. That the book directly takes on the post-revolutionary chaos of the "communist" USSR does not make it less powerful, and indeed may add to its efficacy; after all, it appears that Orwell's goal was not only to draw a portrait of early 20th century European socialism, but also to illuminate the ways in which any totalitarian government becomes laden with hypocrisy. By drawing upon a cast composed of animals rather than humans, Orwell is able to comment more generally upon trends rather than specific circumstances, and his mixture of historical example and Aesopian extrapolation serves his critique well. Also brilliant is Orwell's dry sarcasm, and though his tale is rather dogmatic and his political sensibilities rather obvious, the matter-of-fact narration adds a bit of cynical humor to what could have otherwise easily become distastefully polemic. It is clear throughout the book that Orwell put a good deal of thought into constructing his take on the shift from Leninism to Stalinism, complete with its own Trotsky, and the almost sarcastic telling prevents the story from going too far off the rails. Animal Farm, a surprisingly humorous and fittingly succinct, if not particularly subtle, critique of ideological revolutions fully deserves its fame, and remains relevant in the post-USSR era.

Grade: A

September 18, 2011

Book 33: The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation
Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell

The United States Constitution certainly cannot be considered underrepresented in nonfiction literature. Upon reflection, then, it is perhaps not so surprising to discover that it has been adapted- or, more accurately, interpreted, in a graphic format. Regardless, I was stoked to discover the book, and did not hesitate before picking it up; shame, then, that for all its good intentions The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation doesn't quite succeed in elucidating, or even illustrating, its source material. Writer Jonathan Hennessey certainly displays good instincts in attempting to provide historical context for the revolutionary document, but seems unable to understand the benefits of a consistent, coherent narrative throughout the book. The number of non-sequitur jumps both in the historical background (which not quite explicitly purports to deal with the Preamble) and between different clauses, articles, or amendments within the body of the Constitution is bafflingly high and makes comprehension at times impossible. Though I am by no means a serious constitutional scholar, I do have a background in the subject; at times even I had to read or re-read entire pages just to catch up or to attempt to understand a leap in logic despite my own familiarity with the source material. And while it's true that the Constitution is not at its heart a narrative document, that fact does not excuse its would-be adapters, who raise very large, complex topics in a single panel and, one panel later, move onto explaining the next article. This makes no sense, is disorienting, and actively discourages any actual understanding of, or interest in, the Constitution, making it more inaccessible than it may at first appear.

Though the script is admittedly thin and the subject matter naturally difficult to illustrate, the art in the book is not disastrous; neither, however, does Aaron McConnell create a particularly riveting graphic aspect to this graphic work. While I personally enjoy his rougher, almost harsh drawing and inking styles and his tendency toward monochrome images, there is a certain schizophrenia to the artwork within the book. McConnell's use of recurring motifs is hit and miss: the incomplete portrayal of African Americans is a clever and effective illustration of the implications of the Three-fifths Clause, but the portrayal of each branch of government as a (male) suited figure with a representative building for a head is a bit bizarre. Other illustrations bear an uncertain relationship to their accompanying text, or attempt to introduce artistic tropes in odd and ultimately disorienting ways. Moreover, page and panel design seems only half thought-out, and while the authors show some intent towards innovation, text boxes seem misplaced and reading direction is often unclear. One page, for example, shows two three-panel stories side by side, though there is no indication that they should be read as two columns rather than more traditionally left-right and up-down. The clutter of too many text boxes only adds to the discord, and illustrations with speech bubbles are more often redundant than illustrative.

The visual cacophony of the book, combined with over-zealous text that alternately provides too much and too little detail, makes it a far less effective teaching tool than it otherwise could be, and ultimately this adaptation of the Constitution tends to make matters unnecessarily complicated. The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation is an encouraging attempt at making American governmental structure accessible to a new audience, but unfortunately cannot create that harmony between pictures and text that is necessary in creating an effective, enjoyable graphic narrative.

Grade: C

September 13, 2011

Book 32: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed: A Novel
Ursula K. Le Guin

While I am admittedly a sucker for utopian and dystopian literature for the unique, detached views it provides of modern society, it is often difficult to separate the author from what often becomes a polemic. Given the relative absence of plot in The Dispossessed, the nuances and balance inherent in Ursula K. Le Guin's novel are remarkable, and the book is a powerful force of literature that successfully taps into deep, fluid characterization both of individuals and of two disparate, disconnected societies to create a satisfying, if slightly aimless, story. Le Guin turns her anthropologically-oriented attentions to lush Urras, a blatant stand-in for the dual-superpower Earth of the 1970s, and its barren moon Anarres, home to a self-exiled colony of anarchists. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Shevek, an Anarresti physicist traveling to Urras, though the chronological interweaving of his unprecedented journey and the life that led him there clearly illustrates the importance and interconnectedness of past and future. In this book, as in Shevek's pseudo-physics (which seems to this Terran mind to be much more mythologically and philosophically oriented), time is like, well, a book, and the thematic unity between its seldom-disorienting structure, its content, and its primary themes is remarkable for any work of fiction, let alone one so firmly and unapologetically written in the oft-maligned genre of science fiction.

This novel is remarkable not for its simplistic plot and somewhat maudlin ending, but for the ideas it so seamlessly explores within. Le Guin extrapolates the future of an idealistically anarchic society, describing not only what it might look like but also examining those elements of power that might necessarily manifest themselves in such a community despite, and perhaps because of, the lofty ambitions of its people. The setting is clearly well thought out, as are the practical implications of anarchist philosophy as applied in an unforgiving and nearly uninhabitable environment. Yet more realistic than the setting of the novel is its people, who range from the dogmatic to the schemers to the outcasts, those who dare to think differently but who run into walls even in the most ostensibly free systems. Walls, both visible and invisible, are a recurring theme within the book, which deals with barriers to communication and, more importantly, to truth. Though the book's plot denouement is clunky, the ideas it explores are potent and relevant both to the worlds of Urras an Anarres and to our own. The allusion to U.S./Soviet conflict in Southeast Asia is a bit thin and can make the book appear dated, but Le Guin's concern with feminism, though clearly predicated on the concerns of her era, remains (sadly) relevant to contemporary readers, as does much of the social criticism. This novel is brilliantly composed, told in beautiful prose that, even at its most flowery, only serves to illuminate its beauty and the simplicity of its meaning; though Le Guin spins artful sentences, they are never indulgent, instead representing simply the best ways to convey their implicit ideas. The Dispossessed fulfills the greatest promise of science fiction, getting away from our Earth and our present to explore the philosophies that drive us, presenting a grand thought experiment that is always enlightening yet rarely heavy-handed, driven by an adequate plot, keen observations, and realistic characterization.

Grade: A

September 2, 2011

Book 31: The Forever War

The Forever War
Joe Haldeman

Science fiction is notorious, perhaps, for tackling difficult subjects under the guise of fantastic narrative worlds, creatures, and situations. This makes the genre uniquely suited for rich, absorbing, and effective satire, and Joe Haldeman utilizes the power of science fiction to its full force in his exploration of the effects of bureaucracy on war and, to a larger extent, on the nature of humanity. On first glance, The Forever War may seem too expansive, tackling not only the intricacies of an interstellar conflict but also dealing with the implications of relativity and, therefore, with centuries of projected human history. Haldeman, however, manages to craft a pivotal, lasting novel that rightfully deserves its various accolades for its vision, satirical impact, and, though to a lesser extent, for its engrossing story. Though his anti-military stance is anything but subtle and warrants comparisons with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Haldeman is able to throw readers immediately into his narrative world, offering details of the near future’s normality in short, effective asides from William Mandella, his narrator. Though the science is soft and details relatively scant, readers are quickly engaged and comfortable enough with their temporal surroundings that the quick-moving story begins and continues with few unnecessary interruptions.

While Haldeman certainly isn’t a master of the literary arts, his prose is serviceable and sits, for the most part, out of the way, allowing the story and the world he constructs to take prominence and to envelop the reader. This, in turn, lends power to the satirical aspects of the story and builds the credibility so necessary to successful science fiction. The Forever War doesn't, however, drown its readers in overly political messages- while they're there and ripe for the taking, they are woven into Mandella's firsthand narration and ring true as the opinions of a drafted, enlisted man. While I'm not sure quite what to make of the homosexual aspects of the book, which include a future humanity composed almost entirely of gays and lesbians, I found them significantly more intriguing than offensive, particularly for the era in which the book was written. Most importantly, while these extracurricular elements are all in place, they exist within the framework of an engrossing, fast-paced story that feels like far more than its relatively small number of pages. Mandella travels throughout time and space with lightning speed, yet the story hardly ever feels rushed; nor does it suffer lulls. And while the love story feels forced and a bit odd in the overly sexed army ranks, it does anchor the story in human emotion (if not entirely convincingly) beyond Mandella's cynicism. A thoughtful and thought-provoking story rooted in the horrors of Vietnam, The Forever War is a brilliant work of military science fiction with an emotional core, and while it is never particularly spectacular it well deserves its status as a science fiction classic.

Grade: A