Book Review: Derby Life: A Crash Course in the Incredible Sport of Roller Derby
By Margot “Em Dash” Atwell
Gutpunch press, 2015
Part how-to, part history lesson, part encyclopedia, part compilation of essays, this book truly lives up to its subtitle: it’s a crash course in roller derby.
Full disclosure: I played roller derby (not very well) for a couple of years, so my personal crash course in the very complicated sport and culture took place on the track and amongst teammates. In the beginning, learning how to skate wasn’t an issue for me. It was learning how to stop on my quad skates that was the real issue. I’d awkwardly crouch, attempt to angle feet correctly, but ultimately careen out of control–resulting in folding my body over the skating rink side rail under the judgmental gaze eight-year-olds in rollerblades.
Stopping was a challenge with this book, too. Author Margot Atwell’s accessible explanations of notoriously complicated rules and traditions made it difficult to put down. I was suddenly immersed in the all-encompassing world of derby all over again.
Atwell (living legend Em Dash of New York’s famed Gotham Girls squad) starts from the very beginning. She provides a look at the history of the sport complete with fun facts about when the roller skate was invented (in the 1700s by a Belgian named John Joseph Merlin, by the way). She outlines the “questionable moral underpinnings of roller skating” in the nineteenth century, and she traces skating through dance marathons, to transcontinental roller derby in the early 20th century, to derby’s television debut (and first blush with popular culture) in the 1940s, through derby’s modern advent in the early 21st century.
Atwood covers it all–from derby culture, to rules and strategy, to league dynamics, to injury rehabilitation, to diet and exercise advice, to life after derby–in about 230 pages.
She somehow manages to condense what took me two years to learn through fresh meat skater training, thrice-weekly practices, forgotten afterparties, a physical scuff off-skates, and an ill-fated relationship with a teammate (which is a bad idea, I learned on page 121). Bravo.
She closes with a collection of derby stories, and this part feels like the best part of an afterparty. Skaters take their helmets off and stop hitting each other long enough to drink and dance and maybe talk to each other. It’s intimate access to personal motivations and experiences, and it serves as a sort of oral history of the sport. It’s just what I was craving as a new skater.
I found out I was craving it as an ex-skater, too.
By Katie Chudy
This colorful cookbook combines recipes for my favorite things: condiments, bread, veggies, and grains. Chudy is not only a jill-of-all-trades chef, but she’s an incredible photographer. How do I know? Because every photo in this book makes me hungry in a Pavlovian way. This would be a great gift for a sandwich lover (even a gluten-free one), a camper looking to glamp it up, a foodie, or a cookbook aesthete. The narrative voice is smart, funny, and makes every recipe, no matter how complex, seem totally un-intimidating. High, high recommendation.