Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Gene Luen Yang's newest graphic novel, Dragon Hoops , is magic - pure and simple. As someone with little interest in sports and limited patience for graphic novels, I debated picking up this behemoth of a book. After all, the 400+ pages collected herein make for an opponent more intimidating than LeBron James. In the end, though, I'm grateful that I took the time to read Yang's clever comic masterpiece.
Dragon Hoops is an autobiographical journey into high school athletics, as told through the lens of a high school math/computer science teacher - who also happens to be an award-winning writer/artist. Over the course of the graphic novel (which takes place during the 2014-2015 school year), Yang plunges into the world of sports and embraces the multitudinous madness of varsity basketball. There are plenty of comical "fish out of water" elements, as the decidedly unathletic Yang delves deeper and deeper into the history, hysteria, and histrionics of sports teams; however, Yang's nascent interest in b-ball slowly evolves into a mild obsession, forcing him out of his comic-book comfort zone into more ambiguous, athletic territory.
Part of what I found so captivating about Dragon Hoops is its deviation from traditional sports-hero tropes. After all, as Yang himself admits in the opening pages, he's about as athletic as Superman wearing a Kryptonite necklace. Fortunately, Yang went against his better judgment and threw himself headfirst into the world of high school athletics. His individual profiles of the student-athletes on the team, coupled with intermittent examinations of sports history, provide a fascinating perspective that will engage even non-obsessives (like yours truly). What I personally found most engaging wasn't the victories that Bishop O'Dowd's Dragons accrue on their path to the state championship: it's the honest glimpses into Yang's personal life, including his creative process and his relationship with his family. I know I'm in the minority here, but I would much rather spend an afternoon interviewing Gene Luen Yang than Shaquille O'Neal.
As a fellow high school teacher, I appreciate Yang's nods to the subtleties of working on a secondary school campus. Dragon Hoops addresses big issues, including work-life balance, overt racism, and campus-wide scandals; Yang also artfully addresses the surreal inanities of his job, like student-created nicknames for teachers, the inability to properly fist-bump a colleague, and a limited understanding of high school sports culture. Dragon Hoops earnestly elucidates the stories of Yang's community, as well as his own internal struggles as he decides whether or not he should quit teaching and pursue a full-time career in the comic book industry. It might not be as flashy as a game-winning three-point shot, but it's just as powerful from my perspective.
That being said, Dragon Hoops has its finest moments when Yang breaks free from the traditional tropes and limitations of graphic novels. In a series of fourth-wall-breaking panels, Yang agonizes over his obligation to truthful, perfectly accurate history - versus the imperfect, inaccurate aspects of storytelling that he must embrace for a cohesive narrator. It's a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a master artist, and the audience is in for quite a treat as Yang recounts his personal - and professional - experiences.
Fans of basketball, comic books, and non-fiction can all find something to celebrate in this masterpiece of a graphic novel. To put it simply, Dragon Hoops is a slam dunk.
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The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Despite its title, The Disenchantments is a thoroughly enchanting coming-of-age novel that tackles imperfect romances, adolescent rites of passage, and raucous rock & roll. In some ways, Nina LaCour's book is a sprawling, untidy, chaotic mess - not unlike the Riot Grrrl music that the characters in the novel adore. And yet, despite those imperfections, the novel is a a gorgeous escape into the trials and tribulations of youth. Is the book perfect? No, but it's still a heartfelt, lovingly crafted novel worth the read.
Much of The Disenchantments revolves around the will-they-or-won't-they romance of Colby, the novel's heartsick narrator, and his best friend, Bev, the lead singer of the novel's eponymous band. BFFs from childhood, Bev and Colby have a rich, sophisticated relationship - despite the fact that they've never taken the plunge into a formal romance. Over the course of seven days (the first week of summer following high school graduation), Colby and Bev drive up the Pacific Northwest coast from their hometown of San Francisco to Bev's band's final gig in Portland. Their companions on the trip, adopted sisters Alexa and Meg (drums and bass, respectively), help Colby and Bev navigate the journey - of their relationship and the final tour for The Disenchantments. When long-buried secrets start to spill out and Colby's meticulously plotted post-graduation plans fall apart, the band members (and Colby, their sole male companion) face a reckoning that will determine what happens at the conclusion of the tour.
Over the course of this picaresque adventure (which includes bizarre gigs, late-night diners, crummy hotel rooms, and other road trip trappings), The Disenchantments examines the tenuous webs that unite and connect each of its characters. LaCour tackles a wide swath of subjects in the novel - too many, perhaps, than can be effectively addressed in a meager three-hundred-page book. I can see why some readers might be bored or underwhelmed by The Disenchantments: the story sometimes rambles like a road trip without a roadmap, meandering like an extended guitar solo in an overpacked pop song. However, those overly callused critics are missing the point: this is a book about escaping the tedious ordinariness of everyday life and embracing the extraordinary events that occur in frustratingly short bursts. The Disenchantments reminds us there is more magic in the human existence than just a multitude of mundane days. I, for one, am grateful for the reminder - and I appreciate the message (reprinted on the cover) that "maybe we always were the people we imagined ourselves to be."
All good "rock" novels require a firm foundation in the classics and a deep appreciation of modern music. Does Nina LaCour have good taste in tunes? Absolutely. Rock goddesses Sleater-Kinney play a pivotal role in the novel, with Carrie Brownstein and company even making an appearance during a live concert that Colby and Bev attend in San Francisco. Other musical references (including the Runaways, Heart, and Elliott Smith) imbue the novel with authentic hipster cred. Music aficionados (like yours truly) will undoubtedly geek out over these awesome musical artifacts.
This is a novel I wish I had read in high school... if the book had been written by then, of course. I have a soft spot for YA novels and I'm a sucker for road trip stories - and an even bigger sucker for books about rock bands. Besides the fact that I'm no longer a young adult (heck, I've been teaching young adults for almost two decades), I'm probably the target demographic for LaCour's novel.
Perhaps I'm a bit biased because I just published my own novel about... *ahem*... imperfect romances, adolescent rites of passage, and rock & roll. Even without those biases, however, I can safely say that The Disenchantments is a minor masterpiece. As I finish revising the sequel to Incomplete , I can only hope that my two rock-band-themed novels hold up as well as Nina LaCour's delightful Disenchantments.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.