Thursday, February 21, 2008

Body Type, by Ina Saltz

Body Type, by Ina Saltz, raises the question of whether or not we are living in an age of tattoos (see this CBS video report for an investigation into this question). But at the heart of Body Type is a clear interest in and advocacy of not only tattoos but also words and word design, raising the additional, perhaps more subtle question of whether or not this is "the age of type."

Yesterday's story in the Chicago Tribune about the speculations of a web-based amateur researcher named Paul Payack,who has suggested (not for the first time) that English is on the verge of breaking through the million word barrier, reinforces the notion that Ina Saltz puts forth that words and type have a greater value and presence in American and international culture than at any other time in recent history. For evidence in support of this notion, Payack turns to the Internet, and various online sources of information. For her evidence, Saltz turns to the phenomenon of tattoos and especially people who have created "intimate messages etched in flesh."

Saltz's focus on tattoos that consist almost exclusively of words is what distinguishes her book and makes it so interesting to read, especially for those of us who love language and literature. Body Type is divided into different categories of word tattoos, organized according to the different motivations behind the etchings (for example, love, politics, religion, etc...). Saltz's analysis of the tattoos depicted is limited, but often provocative and always deeply appreciative; for the most part, she lets the pictures and her subjects do the talking. Saltz's commitment to exploring the artistry and emotions behind the body type she captures on camera is truly exemplary, and allows readers the freedom to explore or not explore the ethics, morality, and meaning of this phenomenon.

Body Type is recommended by librarians for reluctant young adult readers, and I definitely concur. The text is limited in actual words, but rich in commitment to language and personal expression. Body Type would be terrific for use in an art and design class, or in any class that seeks to invite teens and other readers to go out into the world to explore its richness and diversity.

So, is it fair to say that we are living in an "age of type"? It does seem clear--as the above video represents--that people are more and more open to the idea of expressing their commitment to words and language visibly through tattoos, through etchings on their bodies. This commitment to using the body to express a commitment to words parallels the increased use of other mediums or forms of communication such as the Internet, mobile phones, video, and even literature to do the same. Books that I have read as a part of this study, such as The Book Thief and The Thirteenth Tale (and others that I haven't yet commented on, such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret) celebrate the power of words and word design in the same way as the photographs in Body Type. Just as scientists are poised to explore new frontiers using new technologies, so too readers and writers seem motivated to explore new means of celebrating and communicating words and type, of putting words out in front of people for use in making sense of the world.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Blue Bloods, by Melissa De La Cruz

Few young adult novels bring together as many of the themes percolating through the current age as Blue Bloods, by Melissa De La Cruz. Fragmentation, isolation, affluence, sexuality, exceptionality, fear--this book has it all.

This is appropriate given that the main characters in Blue Bloods also seem to have it all. A 2007 Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, Blue Bloods explores the emergence into adulthood of a unique clique of well-heeled descendants of the original Mayflower pilgrims. If you ever wondered what it is like (or what you hope it would be like) to be wealthy, young, and living on the upper east side of New York City, this is the book for you.

Although the book celebrates money and the advantages--even excesses--that wealth and social status bring, it also explores the downside of such things, as the above cover suggests.  The social criticism comes in the form of a very creative integration of the vampire legend into the fabric of the story.  Through this integration, affluence and exceptionality are highlighted, but also critiqued.  There is something clearly repulsive about sucking blood and acting without regard for others, and it is this repulsion that adds complexity and depth to the novel and the depiction of a highly stratified social world.
Blue Bloods is the first book in a new series, and it does a very nice job of setting up the context for the story (one of the more amusing parts is the description of the changes that adolescents undergo as their vampire-ness begins to express itself).  The writing is sharp and witty, although I personally found some of the background information about the history of vampires in America just a tad plodding.  But the suspense that De La Cruz creates through the introduction of a rogue vampire is very well-done, and made we want to read the sequel.

In short, Blue Bloods is fun reading that touches on many themes and anxieties current in our world today: isolation, unfettered affluence, increased sexuality, fears about the future, and concerns that changes in the world that need to happen are not going to occur.  It also captures the sense of terror that many people feel, the nagging fear that our worse nightmares lie just around the corner.

For more on vampires, check out the video below from National Geographic, or visit Elizabeth Miller's very helpful website.  

Friday, February 1, 2008

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Watching Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debate last night reminds me of the surprising number of books I have read for this project that represent not only a divided, or fragmented, world but also divided or fragmented personalities. The Thirteenth Tale was one of the first books to catch my attention in this regard, with its depiction of disparate twins and parallel writers, but curiously all of my more recent reading, focused on the 2007 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, seems to follow along this same path. The Sleeper Conspiracy, with its representation of a part-time assassin, part-time teenager, is the most obvious example, but other books such as Played, Street Pharm, and What Happened to Cass McBride? represent identity fragmentation as well.

For those of you who enjoy reading about fragmentation, I recommend Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Cohn and Levithan--both successful young adult authors in their own right--set in motion an unlikely relationship between two disparate teenagers, Nick, a budding musician and song writer of very modest means, and Norah, a music critic extraordinaire and the daughter of a wealthy music industry executive. Nick and Norah meet in a somewhat stressful situation: when Nick sees his former girlfriend walking toward him in a club, he turns to Norah--whom he doesn't know--and asks: "Will you be my girlfriend for the next five minutes?" This question sparks a relationship that takes all sorts of unexpected twists and turns over a period of about 12 hectic, fun-filled, and eventually exhausting hours.

In addition to exploring topics such as music, relationships, homosexuality, oral sex, and the advantages of sobriety, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist delves into tikkun olam, a concept integral to Judaism that more or less translates to the importance of making an effort to prevent social chaos and fragmentation. Cohn and Levithan's take on this idea is anything but corny, and they make a strong statement about the potential within every individual to affect change and create order out of clashing elements.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist is definitely too edgy in language and sexual content for use in most classrooms. However, the writing is excellent, and the story develops at a nice pace. This is terrific outside of school reading for older adolescents, and especially perhaps ones living in urban areas. As an adult, I enjoyed the talk about bands that I recall hearing as a college student in the early '80s.

In a recent article, Nicholas Kristof terms the current era the "age of ambition." In support of this claim, Kristoff cites various examples of young people engaging in "social entrepreneurship," or concrete and sustainable efforts to address serious social problems. Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist does not model any such efforts, but it does provide a philosophical framework for exerting agency in a world full of disharmony. In other words, Cohn and Levithan suggest that it is possible to unify disparate points of view and ways of being in the world--something I find myself increasingly yearning for, especially as I watched the presidential debate last night.

Maybe unification isn't such a bad thing to root for?