VITAL SIGNS

WRITINGS ON MUSIC, FILM AND CULTURE

A collection of essays—his first—by one of England’s hot cultural critics. Since Penman is a veteran of the UK’s cutting-edge music publication New Musical Express, much of his work consists of music criticism. However, he’s also able to take a shrewd look at such movements as punk and hip-hop from a more broad-minded cultural aerie. His perspective is often poststructuralist. Penman makes myriad references to Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and their fellow philosophers, yet, unlike many postmodern critics, he sacrifices little by way of clarity. His treatment, moreover, ventures beyond music into television and film, as when he chats up comedian Steve Martin about Wittgenstein (!). —It’s a matter of record: Wittgenstein changed his life. Most comics start with a pratfall and end up feeling pulled towards Pinter. With a logic proper to our times, Steve Martin is a man who rejected empiricism and found respect and reward behind a fine selection of false noses and novelty accessories.— Penman is particularly persuasive when administering bad reviews—for instance, of Norman Mailer (“he just couldn’t face facts that he was a damned fine journalist, and not William Blake on Seventh Avenue”). As any postmodernist should, he plays with his own words. On Jackson Pollock: “Derision and hagiography are often two sides of the same coin (rearrange those letters to form ‘icon’).” The author’s forays outside the artistic realm (to Indian food as cultural phenomenon; to condom use in the age of AIDS) are compelling, and he’s no British chauvinist. In fact, he discusses his countrymen’s insatiable appetite for telly sensationalism with a delightful campiness. Except for a distasteful postmortem attack here on Frank Zappa, Penman lives up to his surname—and to the achievements of like-minded critics such as Greil Marcus and Robert Palmer.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1998

ISBN: 1-85242-523-7

Page Count: 374

Publisher: Serpent’s Tail

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1998

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Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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