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"It's girls in fishnets on rollerskates trying to knock each other over... what's not to love?" - me, to a slightly concerned friend
+ A (PROBABLY NOT-SO) BRIEF EXPLANATION... +
A couple of years ago, my friend's bandmate invited us along to a flat-track roller derby in Glasgow as his girlfriend was competing and a good time was promised to be had by all. Apart from recalling vaguely a CSI: New York episode that featured banked-track roller derby as part of a storyline (with a tragic and suspicious death, of course), I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
The day came, the bouts were played and I was blown away. There was a lot more to it than just girls in short skirts racing around a track and trying to knock each other down - there were strategies and points at stake... and a penalty box (aka 'The Sin Bin')!
I went along to a few more derby bouts after that, but it was only in October 2009 that I finally hauled my ass along to a newbie-intake (aka Fresh Meat) day for the Glasgow league. I had never rollerskated before and I admit that it still hasn't come naturally to me but I'm enjoying it nonetheless, and still loving the girls I've met through it. Unfortunately, during a practice in January I fell badly (i.e. didn't have the chance to 'fall small' as we'd all first been taught) and managed to severely sprain my ankle AND break the tip of a bone. My first broken bone, ever! Even though it's pretty insignificant it's still technically a break, and so I haven't been able to skate since then (getting better though!). Although I'm not even closed to becoming a fully-fledged Rollergirl - I was (will be!) improving, albeit slowly... and even off-wheels, I am growing steadily more obsessed by the sport.
+ AND SO, OUR (LENGTHY) TALE BEGINS... +
While ordering my skate helmet and safety gear online in December (thank you Santa), I decided to buy this book as well. After all, it's always nice to read other people's experiences of things and if I could gain a bit more knowledge about roller derby along with any helpful hints then all the better!
Written by Melissa Joulwan aka Melicious, #11 of the Hotrod Honeys (one of the four Texas Rollergirls league teams), this is a memoir of her experiences and involvement at the start of the resurgence and reinvention of the roller derby phenomenon that first hit its peak in the
U.S.A. in the 1950s. Melicious bore witness to and played a part in how this hobby has slowly become more recognised as a sport, and how hundreds of leagues have been set up across the U.S.A. as well as Europe with thousands of participating skaters.
The story begins with Melicious explaining how she quit her well-paid corporate job to relocate to Austin, Texas with her boyfriend, and we quickly learn that she first saw a flier in a cafe advertising a derby bout and so decided to go along to see what it was all about. Like me, she quickly fell in love with the game. Unlike me, she actually went along to try-outs when she was first invited - and not 18 months after seeing her first bout.
From here on she confides in the reader the nerves she experienced, her unfounded (and in one case, slightly ridiculous!) worries but this should help assuage the fears of most uncertain and self-conscious rookies who've yet to strap on skates and wobble (or crawl, as I did more than once) out onto the track. And as Melicious seems to be sharing all of this so candidly, it's easy to warm to her throughout the rest of the book as she recounts some of the triumphs and obstacles she - and the other skaters - experienced while trying to make a success of this hobby that quickly became something more.
[note: Yes, I guess you could say they 'had to fight for their right to derby' *hangs head* - don't judge me, I know at least one of you were thinking it!!]
Even though she admits that she used to rollerskate when she was growing up, a lot of the rollergirls had to learn from scratch (like I am) - so that provides some nice encouragement there along with a not-so-gentle but firm 'don't be a pussy and give up before you've even started' attitude from one of the more swear-y, shall we say, rollergirls she first encounters.
+ THOUGHTS? +
One thing I was really looking forward to in the book was some photos of the derby action, along with the amusing rollergirl biographies that they create for themselves. And sure enough we do have a few of them, and there are pictures and quotes from the girls themselves (some even shedding light on how they chose their derby names). To save on the cost of printing (or so it seems), all these little extras aren't in colour or even separate glossy pages but printed in plain old black and white throughout the chapters. But mild criticism of images aside, I did love the little 'hints and tips'-type inclusions as it did offer practical advice and encouragement to readers who are planning to put their new-found knowledge into practice.
And no story can be complete without a villain, right? Well the bad guys in this book are the SHE-eo's (a clever take on CEO) - the women who decided to take control of the league and who... well, that would be telling, wouldn't it? I will say this though: after only 60 pages in to the book and feeling Melicious' growing disillusionment, I wanted to smack those SHE-eo bints!
Naturally, as this is a memoir, the SHE-eo's will have their own version of events and tales to tell about what happened within the roller derby league. There is a 2007 documentary called 'Hell On Wheels' which does cover some of the events related in the book, but unfortunately I've yet to have the opportunity to watch it and see how it tallies with this book. And handily enough, the oft-ignored page in the book with publishing information has the wee disclaimer about it being a memoir and certain conversations printed are perhaps not verbatim, etc. So perhaps some liberties have been taken, but the gist of it remains.
+ SUITABLE FOR OTHERS, THEN? +
In all honesty, even as someone with a strong interest in roller derby I did find this a little hard going at times. Perhaps because the writing switched from childhood anecdotes and personal observations, to a quick lesson in the history of the sport, and then to explaining rules and fouls before launching into lengthy descriptions of the derby tracks and environments... it was a little overwhelming and a lot to take in. Don't get me wrong, I read this cover to cover within a day and a half but I imagine that it'd be difficult for someone with just a fleeting interest to read it all in one go like I tried to.
As great as I think the book is, it just doesn't flow as well as it could have - particularly on one or two occasions when introducing other rollergirls to the readers in a less than subtle attempt to make them a bit more 'real' so the readers will hopefully remember who they were the next time their name is mentioned.
It pains me to say it but this book isn't for everyone and it may require a bit of dedication to get through it if you're not completely familiar with roller derby already - you WILL need to think
Just in case you wanted to see what it looked like :) Nearly 100% better though, hurrah!
about what you're reading to understand it (this is why I have yet venture into the world of actual literature - it requires a higher level of brainpower than is required when I happily re-read the Harry Potter series. Hehehehe).
That being said, even if you have a mild interest it wouldn't hurt to give it a shot. Roller Derby is something that will grab you and not let you go (there isn't a demand in 'Derby Widow' tshirts for nothing, y'know). If you start, it can easily take over your life - a lot of teams practice up to 4 times a week. And if you've only just started to learn or are already a fully-fledged rollergirl and you have to stop skating (even just temporarily) for whatever reason (usually injury!), it's really quite crushing. It was just recently that I realised I've only been feeling quite low since I've had to stop skating while waiting for my ankle to heal up.
So give it a go. Or if not, just find out where your nearest team is and consider going to see their next bout. I don't think you'll regret it :)
+ SENSIBLE INFO +
ISBN: 978-0-7432-9715-8 (did you know they have mathematical formulae for ISBNs? I made the mistake of checking out the Wikipedia entry for it... my head hurts!)
Book site: http://www.rollergirlthebook.com
Official Texas Rollergirls site: http://www.txrollergirls.com/ (Melicious and some of the other girls in the book have since retired from derby, but their profiles remain on site for your perusal)
Texas Rollergirls Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Rollergirls
Amazon.co.uk - used & new from £2.32
Amazon.com - used & new from $3.18
...failing that I'm sure you can all sweet talk the nice staff at your local bookshop to order it in for you. Normally it'd retail at around $15 in the States so it'd be similar here once you take into consideration the exchange rate and importing costs, I reckon :)
You can carry out an internet search if you're interested in finding a roller derby team near you. Alternatively, Wikipedia does have a list of teams in various cities / districts: