Tag: books

Damon Runyon: More than Somewhat a Fascinating Author

It is a fascinating thing to watch as a piece of fiction grows in popularity and ingrains itself into the public consciousness. It is more interesting, in a way, when it grows such that the source behind the story might be lost to the public eye. Take, for instance, the classic musical Guys and Dolls. First premiering on Broadway back in 1950, the show has remained a classic thanks to its infectious score and delightful tale of love and gambling. Its popularity has endured and cemented the show among the musical classics, from a film adaptation back in 1955 to numerous stage revivals on Broadway and the West End that have cropped up to this day.  What most people these days might not remember, however, are the stories which inspired the musical. Specifically, the show is based on two short stories known as “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. Both stories are the creation of Damon Runyon, a journalist who would gain fame with his short story writing. So, just who is this man and how did his writing light the spark for such a hit musical? Let us begin with a peek into the life of Mr. Runyon.

Born on October 4, 1880 with the name “Alfred Damon Runyan”, Runyon’s family was one involved in the newspaper business. After moving from Kansas to Colorado as a result of his father selling their paper, he spent his days in school until the fourth grade. After that, he began working under his father and learning the ways of the business. There was a break in this work when he joined the military in his late teens, but he became a full journalist of his own after the military service. He worked across a variety of papers, before eventually moving out to New York City in 1910. His byline at the time presented his name as “Damon Runyon”, which would stick for the rest of his life.  From there, he found himself a life covering baseball and boxing for the papers. His writing quickly earned him notice, thanks to his keen eye for the weird and eccentric. In fact, he is the man who nicknamed the famous heavyweight boxer James Braddock as the “Cinderella Man”. Of course, his memorable writing is not only limited to the world of the newspaper column. He would also go on to write numerous short stories.

Within the world of Runyon’s stories, he paints a picture of a wicked yet playful underside to New York City. His tales found themselves centered around criminals, gamblers, and actors, all hustling and bustling amid crazy adventures. Oftentimes, they possess colorful names like Nathan Detroit, Good Time Charley, and Dave the Dude. Their escapades are frequently presented through the lens of an unnamed narrator, a character who seems to not be a criminal yet knows the company of shady characters well. He orchestrates his yarns with a carefully constructed sense of heart and humor, but one of the most unique parts of Runyon’s stories is how he writes them. Firstly, he almost totally avoids using the past or future tense, preferring to unfold his writing in the present tense. Secondly, he writes with an interesting mixture of street slang and a mocking sense of pomposity. In his stories, a lady is just as likely to be called a “doll” as she would a “character of a feminine nature”. That odd mixture is further enhanced by a lack of contractions, giving a precise rhythm to his pacing. The overall result is a writing style that brings pompous airs to street-level energy. This style, in conjunction with the colorful characters and criminal atmosphere he wrote about, is what helped make him such a big name.

Though his name might not be as well-known these days, Runyon had earned himself quite a popular following in his time and the years after. In addition to the stage musical adaptation of his stories in Guys and Dolls and its film adaptation, there have been nineteen other movies based on his work. A few of these other films include Lady for a Day (released in 1933 and directed by Frank Capra), Little Miss Marker (released in 1934 and launching the career of Shirley Temple), and The Lemon Drop Kid (first adapted in 1934, then remade in 1951 with Bob Hope). His short stories even had a home in anthology programming with Damon Runyon Theater, first as a radio program and then a television series. Clearly, his colorful tales about criminals and their schemes have earned him a solid spot in American literary history, yet his name has unfortunately fallen into obscurity these days. Personally, I feel his work is worth revisiting, his sharp writing style bringing an energy and feel that is still as effective as when his work was first printed. If one is interested in getting a taste of his stories, I would recommend Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Published by Penguin Classics in 2008, the collection serves as a good starting point with Runyon’s writing. In addition to the two stories that would serve as the basis for Guys and Dolls, the book features plenty of his other short stories, along with poems, newspaper articles, and other pieces of his writing. It is just the right collection to introduce someone to Damon Runyon and the colorful underworld he brought to life with his words.

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Murder on the Orient Express: A Rocky Railway for the Familiar Mystery

During the 1920s and 1930s, the literary world was going through a phrase now regarded as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. During that era, plenty of authors gained attention with their takes on the mystery genre, along with creating interesting detectives to sort through these clues. Among the bigger names of this period was writer Agatha Christie, who brought one of fiction’s greatest detectives to the page: Hercule Poirot. A Belgian detective fastidious in his appearance, he is also decidedly arrogant about his own genius. In fact, Poirot’s main method in solving a mystery is to talk to witnesses and suspects, using his “little grey cells” (as he refers to his brain) to figure out the truth from their testimonies instead of relying on just physical clues. Poirot has been the subject of numerous books, with one of his most famous tales being Murder on the Orient Express. Plenty of adaptations have been done of the Poirot stories, but this time filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has taken a crack at adapting that famous novel for the big screen. While the core of the story still works, the path in displaying this memorable yarn is unfortunately a rocky one.

After solving a case in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot finds himself in need of a vacation. Unfortunately, his chance at a break from detective work is broken when a telegram urges him to London in regards to a new case. With some help from an associate named Bouc, Poirot manages to get himself a last-minute cabin on the famous Orient Express train. Among the packed train and its many riders, Poirot finds himself approached by one such passenger named Samuel Ratchett. A rather shady character, Ratchett tries to convince Poirot that someone is out to get him and that he wants to hire Poirot to protect him. Disgusted by the man, Poirot simply declines. The next day, however, Poirot and the other passengers discover a nasty shock: someone has murdered Ratchett. Even worse, an avalanche has left the train trapped, and them trapped with the murderer. With nowhere to go as they wait for officials to clear the path, Bouc implores Poirot to take the case and figure out who killed Ratchett. Using not much more than the clues on this train and the testimonies of the other passengers, Poirot must work through the twisted tangle of lies and red herrings, in search of the shocking truth behind it all.

As the latest attempt to adapt this classic story, Kenneth Branagh’s film is slightly uneven in the execution. Before getting into those points, it is worth noting that there are parts that do work in this retelling. For instance, Branagh has assembled a top-notch cast for this film, who all offer some fine work. In particular, some of the fresher faces like Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, and Leslie Odom Jr. shine through with captivating performances. Likewise, Kenneth Branagh does a fine job as Hercule Poirot, delivering a mixture of keen determination along with a warm gentility. As for how the film is shot, Branagh’s approach for lavish shots works to a degree. In addition to scenes located outside of the train, he offers a variety of shooting styles to bring variety to the singular location of a train. For instance, an early tracking shot through the hallway of the train serves to showcase some of the other passengers in one steady path, while an overhead shot of the murder scene is presented in a way that evokes design schematics. These are fine points, but unfortunately the film does suffer in certain aspects that keep it from getting its full potential.

Throughout the film, there are touches and changes that either do not add much to the story or simply are flawed in their execution. For instance, there are a few moments when Poirot pines over a picture of a lost love, despite these moments not really being followed up in the narrative. There are also a few points in the film when it decides to bring out a more action-oriented approach, which occasionally feels out of place within this sort of old-fashioned murder mystery. Most of all, there is a flawed execution in this version’s take on Poirot. His fastidiousness and desire for order are extrapolated and expanded, turned into a black and white view on morality. This movie’s version of the iconic detective sees crime as simply disorder, a fracture of the soul. Thus, the film attempts to conflict it against the bizarre nature of the crime. It is an interesting angle and one which possesses shades in the original story, but it feels like it sacrifices some of the charm of Poirot by hammering the point so hard for a grander narrative. Perhaps it could have been more interesting to explore Poirot’s own egotism and his belief in his skill of understanding order and method, bringing it to conflict against the nature of this very case. That could have perhaps allowed this film to offer something more of its own in adapting the classic story, while retaining the classic mystery feel in its core. In truth, the film’s best moments are when it commits to the sort of murder mystery that is seldom seen in media these days, capturing a glimmer of what helps this story remain such a classic.

In the world of detective fiction, Hercule Poirot is one of the most iconic detectives, with the most famous tale of his intellectual prowess being Murder on the Orient Express. This particular adaptation shows glimmers of that great tale, if only it had been more focused on capturing the strength of the original murder mystery style instead of overdoing grander ideas.

Universal Horror in the Modern Era: How to Unearth Past Nightmares

When looking at the history of the horror movie, it is clear that certain companies can dominate at different times. For instance, throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, Hammer Studios was bringing nightmares thanks to its reinventions of classic horror stories mixed with evocative violence. These days, Blumhouse Productions is the big name in horror, with its low-budget approach allowing for room to gamble on plenty of movies like InsidiousThe Purge, and Get Out. However, the original name when it came to horror was Universal Studios. Its classic horror movies and roster of monsters came to lay down an iconic view on popular horror characters. That said, the studio seems lost these days as to what to do with its iconic pool of monsters. Recently, the studio attempted to relaunch them with a shared universe of action movies labeled as “Dark Universe”, the first entry of this plan being an action movie remake of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. However, the hamfisted attempt to create this universe in a single film and propping it up with generic action movie antics has already put the plan on a shaky foundation. What can be done to bring back the thrill of these classic horror movies for a modern audience? First, let us look a little into their history.

Universal Studios was first formed back in 1912, brought together from a group of nickelodeon (an early version of the movie theater) owners led by Carl Laemmle. In the silent era, the studio had a few horror movies, but not many. Most prominent of their silent era horror films was The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. It was not until the “talkies” that Universal would cement its name in horror, thanks to the year 1931. That was the year that Universal released two movies that would carve their niche: Dracula and Frankenstein. These two movies, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively, feature a Gothic atmosphere and memorable performances that put Universal on the map. From there, the studio committed to bringing terror to the big screen throughout the ’30s and ’40s, making such films as The MummyThe Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man. They even made sequels to their hits, the most notable of them being Bride of Frankenstein. As the 1950s rolled in, the tide of horror shifted away from the Gothic towards science fiction nightmares, pulling away Universal’s stronghold with it. However, the studio still managed to make one more hit from that time which would come to be associated with the idea of “Universal Horror”: Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Now, these particular horror films might not quite have the same punch for today’s audiences as they did when they first came out. The scares might not land the same chill for a modern audience, considering the advancement in cinematic techniques and technical effects. Still, there is something that is memorable with these movies: the monsters. Not only are most of them based around classic literary characters or familiar monster archetypes, but the performances help to captivate audiences. For instance, Bela Lugosi’s performance as Dracula shines with a charming charisma mixed with a stilted nature that lends him a disconnect from humanity. Likewise, Boris Karloff’s turn as Frankenstein’s Monster offers a creature whose lumbering movements are tempered by a soulfulness in the eyes, communicating sadness and rage at his state. These movies work because their central monsters are so fascinating to watch. Whether sympathetic like Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man or more overtly villainous like the Invisible Man, there is still power to these classic movie monsters. What can be done with such classic figures? Well, the idea of a shared universe is not a bad idea. However, the execution of this idea should remain in these horror roots.

Believe it or not, those original films actually shared the same universe together. The sequels presented a loose continuity that existed involving these various monsters, along with crossover films both serious or comedic. This shared universe of monster movies can still happen, but not as some generic action movie collage. Instead, they should remain as horror movies. They may take place in different places and times, best fitting the subject and characters. They may unfold in the darkness of light, or bring terror to the light of day. In any case, what is most fruitful is the core idea of it: that our world is filled with nightmares. Most horror movies tend to have a single tale to tell, bringing one monstrosity into regular existence. They are isolated incidents. This shared “Universal Horror” universe could instead paint a world where the nightmares lurk all over. They may be steeped in legend, like Dracula or the Wolf Man. They might be the product of science gone wrong, like Frankenstein’s Monster or the Invisible Man. They may even be things we never knew existed, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Together, they offer a world in which terror can come from any corner of the globe, and there can be something chilling about the idea if executed right.

Though their original films might not be so terrifying to modern audiences, the monsters that make up “Universal Horror” are still iconic horror figures for a reason. Their power can still be tapped for modern audiences in a shared cinematic universe, if used to bring together horror films into a united tapestry of terrors.

Flex Mentallo – Man of Muscle Mystery: Dynamic Tension in the Comics Medium

During the British Invasion of Comics back in the 1980s, one such writer who would gain prominence in the movement was Grant Morrison. His skilled writing has helped to keep him in the spotlight, but there are many parts of him that help him shine. For instance, there is his knack for writing bizarre, fascinating concepts. For example, his revamp of Doom Patrol as part of DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint reinvigorated the obscure title with a fascinating and bizarre range of characters, such as foes including the Brotherhood of Dada (a collection of super-villains waging war against rationality) and the Scissormen (beings with scissor hands capable of cutting people out of reality). In addition to his out-there ideas, however, is his knowledge of the comic book medium’s history. It is something not just demonstrated by the variety of lesser-known figures he has plucked out from obscurity. He has also demonstrated this knowledge in works like Supergods, a non-fiction book that serves as both memoir of his life and an analysis about the history of superheroes and their impact. Both aspects of Morrison came together when he teamed with artist Frank Quitely for a comic book miniseries known as Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery. Centered around a character he had introduced in Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison takes this mind-bending miniseries and uses it to explore the development and change in superhero stories.

In the world of fiction, a strongman superhero named Flex Mentallo witnesses a potential bombing at the airport. He manages to intervene, but the bomb turns out to be the latest fake in a series of attacks designed to shatter people’s sense of safety. Orchestrated by a shadowy group known as Faculty X, the police seem to have no leads into why they are launching this bizarre crusade. The only clue that grabs Flex Mentallo’s attention is a single card, one that had belonged to a fellow superhero known as the Fact. Perhaps if he can find the Fact, then Flex can find the answer to this weird crime wave. In the world of reality, rock musician Wallace Sage has taken a bunch of pills in a bid to kill himself. Feeling his life slipping into the abyss, he gets a phone and calls up a good Samaritan. He spends what may be his final moments talking to this good Samaritan, discussing his life and his own interest in comic books. Though both threads seem separate, they will eventually wind together in a mesmerizing finale that brings a hopeful hero against a grim reality.

Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a good example of the sort of bizarre craftsmanship that Grant Morrison can deliver. In this case, he uses the multi-layered story to explore the history and then-current state of superhero comics. For instance, Flex Mentallo is a character very much rooted in the Golden Age of Comics (generally regarded as being the late ’30s through early ’50s). His Charles Atlas-inspired aesthetic and idealistic attitude work well to mark him as a figure of that time, especially in the fictional world he lives. It is a darker world than the one he knew, both figuratively and literally. Among the shadowy corridors and the cynical or corrupted figures he encounters along the way, he can’t help but think about how much simpler his life used to be. Likewise, Wallace Sage’s chat with the good Samaritan winds through his experience with comics and moments in his own life. He rambles and winds through the call, from writing and drawing childhood comics to letting his life fall apart as he wrapped himself in his work. Really, both threads are used as part of one united point: a strike against the Dark Age of Comics.

At the time of this comic miniseries’s original release, American comic books were going through the Dark Age of Comics. This was an age brought on by the success of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which is a well-crafted deconstruction of superheroes with mature themes. Unfortunately, that success led to a flood of poorly conceived comics that sold themselves on anti-heroes, brutal violence, and greater sexuality. It was an attempt to swing away from the silliness of older superhero tales, but it pushed the contents to absurd extremes of cynicism and grit. Essentially, those trying to make superheroes into more than so-called “kid’s stuff” merely wound up making immature brutes. It is that attitude which Grant Morrison challenges with this series, coming to the defense of the sillier side of superheroes. Sure, the adventures could get silly and there is something inherently absurd in a character like Flex Mentallo. However, what is important is what a character like Flex Mentallo represents: the light against the darkness, the idea that goodness and justice can prevail. They offer figures that can help to inspire us, to show a way towards a better world. In fact, it is even brought up that perhaps that is the reason why people write superhero comics: that the world does not have to be like it is, and that we can be like them.

Among the many works of Grant Morrison, his writing can demonstrate oddball ideas and a skilled knowledge of the comic book medium. Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is a fine merger of these aspects, using big ideas and comics history to tell a tale that defends the somewhat goofy nature of superheroes and their optimistic core.

It: Terror at the End of Innocence

Stephen King is an author that is often regarded as a modern master of horror. Among the works that have helped him earn such a title is his 1986 novel, It. Telling the story of seven friends reuniting in their home town to battle a cosmic evil they had previously fought as children, the book is dense but gripping with every page. It captures well a lot of recurring themes in King’s writing, such as childhood trauma and its impact on adulthood or conquering evil through mutual trust. In addition, the novel gave the horror genre a great new boogeyman to fear with Pennywise, a creature capable of forming itself to look like the things people fear but whose most prominent form is a clown. It is no wonder how the book became so popular, even getting a television miniseries adaptation in 1990 that starred Tim Curry as Pennywise. Now, at long last, It has been brought to the big screen. However, it would seem difficult to adapt such a dense novel into a single movie. As such, this film instead focuses on those seven friends when they were kids, with a sequel planned to cover the portion of them as adults. The result is a really good coming of age story with some good scares as well.

In the town of Derry, kids prepare for fun as the summer of 1989 rolls in. However, one child does not have fun on his mind, and that is Bill Denbrough. Ever since the disappearance of his younger brother Georgie on a stormy day back in October, Bill is convinced that Georgie must still be alive somewhere. With the help of his friends, like the motor mouth Richie Tozier, hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak, and shy Stan Uris, Bill intends to find some evidence that Georgie is still alive somewhere. Along the way, they end up adding more friends to their numbers, befriending new kid Ben Hanscom, local girl Beverly Marsh, and home-schooled outsider Mike Hanlon. However, there ends up being something that unites them more than just friendship: they all find themselves terrorized by personifications of the things that they fear. Realizing that they are the targets of something that can shape itself into what people fear (with its most recurrent form being Pennywise the dancing clown), they learn that whatever this thing is might just be responsible for the decades of missing and dead children that plague Derry’s history, including Georgie. With no adults doing anything about this deadly history, these seven friends decide to step up and try to stop this creature, and just maybe find the truth about Georgie.

Plenty of adaptations have been done of Stephen King’s work, but It ranks among the better attempts to bring his writing to the big screen. Certainly, it does deliver on some strong jolts of horror, in particular thanks to Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise. His turn as Pennywise is one that captures the sense of a starving predator, one that relishes his meal as his prey feels fear. From his teasing and at-times puppet-like movement to the soft-lilting voice that can effortlessly shift to a growl, Skarsgard brings this classic monster to life with a seeming ease. However, there are moments with scares that don’t land quite as well. Occasionally, the film leans a touch too often on striking with a jump scare or having Pennywise rush his target with a yell. The stronger scares come through more in the surreal torment that Pennywise performs on the children or in scenes when Skarsgard gets to carry through with the creepiness, such as when he lures Georgie from the shadows of a sewer drain. Even the normal lives of these children capture some of that horror better, such as the psychotic bullying from Henry Bowers or the creepily possessive nature of Beverly’s father. In fact, that leads me into what helps this movie shine like it does: the coming-of-age story.

In attempting to adapt such a dense novel, one whose story unfolds during childhood and adult years, the choice was made for this movie to put the focus on the main characters as children. By making this choice, the story for this film is one about these misfits facing the darker edges of life that can emerge as one grows up. True, they do face certain terror from the hands of a shapeshifting creature responsible for a history of horrors. However, their fears stem from more than that. They emerge from the horrors that haunt their everyday life. Sometimes, it comes from bullies like Henry Bowers and Patrick Hockstetter, who torment them and see them as misfits. Other times, it stems from adults like their own parents, such as Eddie’s mother constantly needling him with health concerns or Beverly’s father displaying an unsettling attachment to his “little girl”. Life offers plenty of things for these kids to fear. However, it is with their mutual friendship and trust that they can grow, facing the things that they fear and not giving in to the terror. Thanks to strong writing, a good dose of humor to lighten up between the scares, and a cast of child actors who deliver some excellent performances, the coming-of-age story captures the feel of similar tales from the 1980s. For some, the result might seem slightly jarring when it shifts hard between these portions and the more overtly horror sections, but the whole film is still a good piece of work. To borrow a reference to another King adaptation, it is as if Stand By Me periodically swerved hard into a horror story.

Among the many works of Stephen King, It is often regarded as one of his best novels. Now, It has arrived on the big screen as a terrific coming-of-age story that shines even if a few of the scares might not land.

Roald Dahl: Macabre Sensibilities, for Young and Old

Plenty of children’s stories tend to be thought of as light and fun. In truth, they are not all fun and games. There is normally some darkness that lurks within these stories, darkness that helps to make the light and its messages shine brighter. Even the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, regarded as some of the original tellers of children’s stories, contain plenty of mentions of cruelty and violence. Now, some might feel that this could be too intense for children, that these should be scrubbed clean according to a certain set of standards. In truth, there is a certain value in not talking down to children about this. One such author who understood this was Roald Dahl. His stories for children, remembered for whimsical touches and adapted in plenty of media, also possess plenty of darker elements. Perhaps it might be worth looking at what inspires an author to not shy away from these darker elements.

Born on September 13th, 1916 in the town of Cardiff, Roald Dahl was the son of Norwegian parents. When his sister and father had both died when he was three, his mother had the choice to remain in Wales after their passing, even when she had the option to return to Norway. Dahl first began the life of a schoolboy at the Cathedral School in the district of Llandarff. It was that time that he and his friends had gotten into trouble for putting a dead mouse into a jar of gobstoppers (also known as jawbreakers) owned by Mrs. Pratchett, a local sweetshop owner who was mean to the boys. He would go on to be transferred to St. Peter’s boarding school, where he and other students endured a fierce faculty. However, the school which would be a pivotal place to Dahl was Repton School in Derbyshire. Beginning his time there at age 13, he endured cruel treatment at the hands of both students and teachers. From the brutal corporal punishment he suffered and witnessed dealt out by the teachers to the demeaning work of having to serve senior students, Dahl’s experiences there would develop a definite cynicism in him about humanity. His main joy in that time were the candies and chocolates that the chocolate company Cadbury would send to the school for students to test.

As Roald Dahl got older and World War II began to roll in, he would come to join in the Royal Air Force as a pilot. Among the many missions that he flew in, one flight would bring him to Libya. Having trouble finding the airstrip as night approached, He was forced to make a landing in the desert. The result was a crash, one that landed him in the hospital with a fractured skull and blindness. Eventually, he would regain his sight and continued to serve as a pilot, until he was grounded for suffering from a series of headaches serious enough to cause blackouts. After that, he was made an attache to serve in the British Embassy in Washington D.C. From there, he would come to serve in the intelligence division alongside such noted officers as David Ogilvy and Ian Fleming (best known as the creator of James Bond). During this time, Dahl would come to meet the famed novelist C. S. Forester. Forester had been approached by The Saturday Evening Post with writing a story, and he in turn wanted to write a story about Dahl’s experiences as a pilot. Dahl wrote and compiled a number of anecdotes from that time, then provided them to Forester to work from. Instead, Forester provided the story exactly as Dahl wrote it. Thus was born Roald Dahl’s first story, “A Piece of Cake”, which The Saturday Evening Post had published as “Shot Down Over Libya” in order to have a more exciting title. It was also the story that would go on to launch Roald Dahl’s writing career.

Before he became renowned as a writer of children’s stories, Roald Dahl first began as an author for adults. Most of his early work came in the form of short stories. Plenty of these stories concerned deadly gambles, acts of revenge, and bitter spouses. Most of all, they frequently came with endings that served as a macabre punch line to the proceedings. There is no doubt that Dahl’s more cynical view of humanity comes through in stories like “Lamb to the Slaughter”, about a wife who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and tries to cover up the deed, or “Parson’s Pleasure”, about a deceitful antiques dealer who poses as a clergyman for his cheats. However, it is actually his children’s novels where Dahl really cranks up this cynical attitude. While a few stories concern monsters like witches or giants, nearly all of the villains in his children’s novels are rotten, vile adults.

Sometimes they may lord their wealth over others, sometimes they may be verbally abusive to those they see as weaker or lesser, and sometimes they may simply be sadistic with physical cruelty. In any case, these parents are the sort of commonplace evils of which even children are familiar. As dark and imposing as such cruelty may seem, Dahl balances things out with how he presents goodness. The children that serve as the heroes in his stories are not generally portrayed as extraordinary. In fact, they frequently are presented as rather average. Instead, they possess an innate goodness, recognizing the wickedness around them and rising above it. In that way, Dahl offers a way to challenge and overcome the commonplace evil in their own lives. He also delivers it in a more playful, slightly morbid manner than the squeaky-cleaned stories that some believe children should be given. The result is a more naturalistic approach to teaching children about the cruelty of the world and preparing them for it, treating them with respect and understanding they can grasp it without being directly moralized.

For those who have never read any of Roald Dahl’s stories, there are two avenue I might offer, depending on if you wish to try his adult work or his children’s stories. For those who wish to explore his more adult-oriented work, Tales of the Unexpected is an anthology that collects some of his yarns of the macabre. With such stories as “Lamb to the Slaughter”, “The Man Down South”, and “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat”, this collection will help to show how Dahl’s writing career was launched thanks to his clever writing. As for his work for children, the best example I would guide new readers to would be Matilda. Centered around an intelligent and kind-hearted girl named Matilda and her challenges overcoming her obnoxious parents and a cruel headmistress named Agatha Trunchbull, this novel stands to me as a great example of the kind of whimsical yet morbid stories that he crafted for children.

Things I Can’t Explain: Growing Up Darling

Back in the early ’90s, Nickelodeon first began to explore having their own original live-action shows in their line-up, alongside their cartoons. Among these shows was a series known as Clarissa Explains It All. Starring Melissa Joan Hart, the series follows Clarissa Darling as she navigated the murky waters of adolescence. Along for the ride were her eccentric parents Janet and Marshall, her scheming little brother Ferguson, and her easy-going confidant Sam Anders. The series struck a chord with audiences, offering a fun take on a teen sitcom with a style that incorporated fourth-wall breaking and info graphics, while also dabbling in a subtle touch on more risque subjects like sex and teen partying. In fact, the show’s popularity even proved that a series with a female lead could garner a male audience, paving the way for numerous Nickelodeon shows which would be centered around female protagonists. In the many years since, the show’s creator Mitchell Kriegman has decided to revisit his old creation. In this case, it is not with a television series. Rather, it is with a novel. With his new novel Things I Can’t Explain, Kriegman gives a look at Clarissa’s life that feels like a natural progression from his show.

Though she has left her hometown in Ohio for the energy and excitement of New York City, Clarissa Darling is finding that life is not quite as understandable as she expected. Her parents are exploring the realm of a separation, an aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Her brother Ferguson is in prison, the result of insider trading and messing with Russian mob money. Even her dream of being a journalist has hit some snags, as newspapers have begun to fall out of prestige. Still, she has managed to find some positives. For instance, she finds herself with a golden opportunity at an internet news source known as Nuzegeek as a potential financial reporter. She has also met a local guy named Nick who shares a spark of desire with her. Unfortunately, even these perks have their hurdles. The financial editor is a snobbish jerk who looks down upon Clarissa, while Nick is plagued by a punk rocker ex-girlfriend who knows just how to sink her claws into him. That is not even mentioning Clarissa’s ex-boyfriend, a slacker named Norm who insists that they are still together. Even with all of life’s hard curve balls, Clarissa sets out to persevere and achieve her dreams.

Mitchell Kriegman’s new novel makes for a fun read. Even for those who might not have seen Clarissa Explains It All, the book works well in hooking readers with its world and characters. There is a sense of history to Clarissa, whether she is talking about her old newspaper internship or when she is hanging out with her group of friends. The lived-in sense is also complimented by the novel’s breezy prose, which does not drag on and allow the pages to flow by for the reader. The result is a novel that is easy to pick up and get into, something to enjoy. Now, there is the occasional reference or character that is made to be topical that comes off a little rough, such as a friend of Clarissa’s who speaks largely in abbreviated words. These moments come off as more stereotypical and cartoonish of current-day elements, but such lapses are generally outweighed by the positives over the course of the story. As for people who have seen Clarissa Explains It All, then the novel will make for a fun return for that familiar audience.

Even as the novel works for those who have not seen the original show, the novel works well as a continuation of Clarissa Explains It All. Stylistically, it carries over a lot of elements from the show. For instance, the info graphics return with their familiar appearance. The writing and presentation of Clarissa’s challenges are also akin to the approach to the show, which had a more irreverent take on teenage issues than most teen sitcoms of the time. That slight irreverence is now used to examine the hurdles of adulthood, from romantic relationships to workplace struggles. Along with that, other characters from the original series turn up. In addition to her family members, the book also explores the unsteady relationship history between Clarissa and her confidant Sam Anders, which traveled an unsteady path between friends and something more. In fact, that is part of what works well with this novel. It feels like a natural progression from the original series. The strengths of the show are allowed to bolster and develop, thanks to the room of a novel. It allows itself to explore more mature problems for this older audience, while still maintaining the spirit and voice that had made Clarissa Explains It All such a hit. In essence, the audience for the show has grown up, and Clarissa Darling has gotten the chance to keep up pace.

Back in the early ’90s, Nickelodeon had a hit on their hands when they began airing Clarissa Explains It All. Now, the show’s success is continued with Things I Can’t Explain, which ages up and tackles more adult issues while preserving the winning voice and spirit of the original show.