"I am always at a loss how much to
believe my own stories."
-Washington Irving, Tales of a Traveler, 1824


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Welcome to PenHead.org, an oasis of uninformed analysis in a desert of educated guesswork. What is a penhead? Do you fancy yourself a writer? Enjoy a good read? Then you may already be a penhead yourself!

We are your source for original stories, the occasional interview with our favorite authors, book and play reviews, recommendations (of current and forgotten finds), and more.

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In 1939, Winston Churchill said, "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma . . ." He was describing the Soviet Union, but he might as well have been speaking of modern China. A nation steeped in history and tradition, China's modernization in just the last twenty years has left most Westerners scratching their heads. Seemingly overnight, the Middle Kingdom morphed into an economic powerhouse dotted with metropolitan centers to rival the West's. In an unholy alliance between Maoist communism and free-world capitalism, China has transformed itself from a nation of 1.3 billion peasants to one of 1.3 billion consumers, while maintaining deep roots in its past: a past of dynastic glory, dystopian regimes, rampant starvation and state-imposed slavery. A hybrid like none other the world has seen, Modern China is foremost to the Western observer, a nation of contradiction.

Colin Thubron was born with the chops to be a travel writer. John Dryden, England's first poet laureate, occupies space on his mother's family tree, while his father descends from Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse code. With that kind of lineage, it was only a matter of time before he'd be mixing adventure with writing, tramping . . . more >

Bertolt Brecht wrote The Good Woman of Setzuan in the late thirties while living in exile with his wife, a Berliner, in Scandinavia. Hitler, through his massive propaganda machine, was turning Germany into an echo chamber for his message of conquest, and Brecht, like most artists of the day, wanted no part of it.

The play centers around the village of Setzuan (it's presumed the author was referring to Szechwan - a Chinese province famed for its spicy cuisine - but thought the province was a city) and the characters who live there: drunks, dreamers, shopkeepers and out-of-work relatives. The play is comical, farcical and all the while teetering on tragedy. Given the times in which it was written, Brecht appears to be . . . more >

As summer advances toward autumn and the start of a new school year, so can the boredom for children and parents both. Activities that were fun and engaging in June, often feel like tedious "done-thats" by August. Here, in an effort to preserve the sanity of all, are a smattering of activity books for young and old alike. September's just around the corner; let's get there mentally intact.

First published in Spain (1969), Working With Paper made its American publishing debut in 1971. It's a colorful guide with ideas for paper projects that range from simple to advanced. Each project is provided with clear instructions - both in text and pictures - and a list of materials to practically guarantee success.

Included are instructions for doing origami; paper mobiles; sculptures; puppets; dolls . . . ninety projects in all. In no time, you'll be folding, tearing, rolling and cutting your way to paper art pieces you'll be proud to display as your own, or give as gifts. Working With Paper is the first volume in Franklin Watts' Color Crafts series, and . . . more >

Here's a coloring book worth mentioning. In its pages you'll not find the caricatures of Native Americans that were common in cartoons and coloring books a generation ago. Despite its name, the illustrations of Native Americans in A Coloring Book of American Indians are dignified. Taken from historical illustrations done by America's First Peoples themselves, and sketches by early explorers, there's nary a wide-eyed, buck-toothed, tomahawk-at-the-ready native in the whole lot.

Included in Indians, are depictions of ceremonial tools, masks, and charms in a respectful nod to Native American culture. Reproduced from carvings, textiles and even tattoos, they're displayed here in the familiar broad outline style coloring books are known the world over for. Of special note are the representations of works by George Catlin (1796-1872) who documented Native American life in the nineteenth century. Taken from After Catlin, an exhibit of the artist's paintings in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institute, they portray a people rich in custom . . . more >

NEW IN TOWN. Good-lkng. GM, hzl eyes & boyish, seeks comp. to wine & dine. 25-35. Loves good food, fun, close friends. Box 18.

So reads the personal ad on the cover of Paper Boys: A Paper Doll Book. Conceptualized by Lynn Gordon way back in the dark ages (the 1980s; and they were dark days for the gay community what with AIDS, Anita Bryant, and the advent of spandex), it was a publication that braved full immersion into uncharted waters when most "trailblazers" barely dared to dip a toe. And that it turned up at a B. Dalton Bookseller (think ultra-conservative national bookstore chain with homophobic tendencies) in a church-going, middle-class suburb of Seattle is truly mind-boggling. Or miraculous. (Well, maybe not miraculous. After all, Boy George was all the rage mid-eighties, and ultra-conservative mega-chains do - regardless of their claim to a moral high ground - put making money ahead of everything else, so it probably didn't require a crystal ball in 1984 to predict they'd be peddling paper doll books featuring gay characters beside popular teen and music magazines selling fashion tips from the members of Culture Club. However, that was also the . . . more >

In Nine Nasty Words, English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever, John McWhorter, author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (Random House, $17.00), attempts to deconstruct the most satisfying - and reviled - words of modern language. Based on George Carlin's famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," McWhorter's list is updated for the twenty-first century. Some words from Carlin's list remain taboo, while others have risen to such a level of acceptance in our daily lexicon that it's not uncommon to hear them spoken in such hallowed spaces as Congress, with nary a blush. Why, you may wonder, is that? McWhorter explains with a masterful grip on etymology to reveal a history of evolving social norms and societal pressures, mindfully imbuing his subject with the same wit and humor as Carlin's routine.

Losing My Religion
While the title of McWhorter's book suggests his investigation is limited to just nine words, it's evident early on it isn't. When tracing the origin of a word, it's simply not possible to avoid overlapping into others. As the . . . more >

In 1932, Whitman Publishing Company rolled out their first of many BIG LITTLE BOOKS with The Adventures of Dick Tracy Detective. If the franchise were around today, it'd be celebrating ninety years of providing young readers with quality entertainment. Salute!

An amalgamation of stories and comics, each BIG LITTLE BOOK was designed with young readers in mind. Borrowing from popular radio and comic serials - and later television - BIG LITTLE BOOKS typically averaged around 250 pages, with odd-numbered pages dedicated to colorful comic-style illustrations; even-numbered to text. It was a design - if not merely for their hearty thickness - that made a kid feel like they were reading a "real" book.

As a child, I recall the anticipation around my grandmother's visits; she almost always showed up with a new BIG LITTLE BOOK title in hand. That anticipation was followed immediately with the thrill of diving into make-believe worlds and impossible situations that leaped from the pages, their plots driven home by the . . . more >

'Me Tarzan; You Jane'
Who isn't familiar with Tarzan, King of the Jungle? His exploits, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, produced one of the most succesful film and literary franchises of the twentieth century. In Tarzan: The Mark of the Red Hyena, the jungle king and his son Jack are tasked with ridding the dark continent of a diabolical poacher in defense of all of Africa's wildlife. To succeed, Tarzan gets creative and secures the aid of the Uzizi apes, a particularly war-postured band of gorillas. His bond, and ease of communication with the hairy band, would have Jane Goodall envious.

Noticeably absent from most of the adventure, is Jane, whom we're to assume was left at home to indulge in the rituals of housekeeping. Also noticeable, are Jack and Tarzan's lack of clothes. While they're portrayed as next to buck naked, Jane - when she does make an appearance - is clad in western . . . more >

Cat and Mouse Game
Who can forget the perilous adventures of Tom and Jerry? In Tom and Jerry: Meet Mr. Fingers the unlikely duo (Jerry's a mouse, and Tom is - predictably - a cat) are in a race against time to save their city from an evil genius called Mr. Fingers. Evil, in the classic sense, Mr. Fingers is, by all appearances, an upstanding, respectable member of the community, so who's going to listen when a cat and mouse claim otherwise? Complete with the spooky trappings of a drafty mansion and a man-servant who bungles more than he serves, Mr. Fingers is the ultimate villain. Think Goldfinger, or any pick of villains from Ian Fleming's James Bond series - the more extreme the better - and you have Mr. Fingers. With a ball-bearing-busting grip his claim to fame, terrorism his game, this page-turner will have the reader rooting for the little guys through . . . more >

'I Yam What I Yam'
While its title may give you the impression Popeye is taking the family to Vegas, that couldn't be further from the truth; it's not that Treasure Island. In Popeye: Ghost Ship to Treasure Island, a mysterious abandoned ship washes ashore and Wimpy in short order comes up with plans to turn it into - what else? - a hamburger joint. His plans are overruled, however, when a treasure map is discovered in the ship's safe. Handily, the ship is one Pappy once crewed, but had to abandon in a storm. Not only is he familiar with the treasure map, he's also the only man alive who can make sense of it. That, my friend, is what is called in Vegas, A gift horse. Shortly, a plan is hatched to round up a crew from the Old Sailor's Home - crew members who'd once served on the very ship Pappy meant to resurrect - and set out to find the island and its treasure. Olive Oyle is enlisted to cook; Pappy and Popeye have a co-skippering arrangement (to complement their co- . . . more >

Space Invaders
David Vincent has a history with aliens. When an explosion over the Arizona desert seems eerily reminiscent of an encounter he had several months prior, his interest in the explosion is piqued. He launches his own, independent investigation into the matter, and what he finds is unsettling on both a personal and national level. These are not your Roswell variety aliens; when they're killed they burst into flames, leaving no trace of evidence, aside from scorched earth. Hard to prove the existence of little green men - let alone an encounter - without hard physical evidence. To make matters worse, save for one slight physical feature, they look and act just like us.

After a time, his investigation leads him to an outlying storage facility of the Atomic Energy Commission. Although it's not the alien base Vincent hoped to find, it is a crucial lead and confirmation that aliens have infiltrated one of America's most sensitive government agencies. How far up their infiltration goes, and how wide- . . . more >

'. . . And One For All!'
The Fantastic Four, as with most comics, pushes archetypes. The Fantastic quartet contains the archetype of the genius with Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic), who's always relied on for his brains, not to mention his incredible contortionist capabilities. In Ben Grimm (the rock dude), we have brute strength, a trait crudely associated with what it is to be a man. In Johnny Storm (aka The Human Torch), I'd like to think his creators are giving a nod to the LGBTQ community ("Flame on!"), but they're not. Rather, Johnny's talent, like Reed's, is problem-solving, but without the genius. In military terms, Reed is a logistical commander; Johnny a staff sergeant; and Ben, a lowly foot soldier.

Then there's Sue. The wife of Reed, Sue's talent is in erecting force fields and making herself invisible. Sue Richards is the archetype of the good wife. She's a mama bear when it comes to protecting her own; an expert at the art of deflection. And, like every good wife of the era in which she was created, she can make . . . more >


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