Wednesday, February 01, 2017

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and Fire, Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson


It's forthright February! So today I'm not going to take up space talking about book news or authors or any other tidbits from Shelf Awareness, I'm going to get right to the reviews.

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott is a novel that mixes fact and fiction, with a fictional protagonist named Julie (who stands in for everyman/woman), a budding screenwriter in Hollywood during 1938-39, when the studios were filming the epic Gone With the Wind. Julie becomes friends with the glamorous Carole Lombard and her paramour, Clark Gable, who is waiting on a divorce so that he can marry Lombard, who is, he claims, the love of his life. Oddly enough, last year I read a book by Adriana Trigiani called "All the Stars in the Heavens" that also mixes fact and fiction in the life of movie star Lana Turner, who had an illegitimate child with Gable, and who also claimed to be the love of his life. So I had a bit of a cynical viewpoint of the main relationship in this book right from the start. Gable, rather than being this great dreamboat that these authors seem to think he was, sounds like a real cad to me, a womanizing creep who wasn't faithful to any of the women in his life. Anyway, here's the blurb: When Julie Crawford leaves Fort Wayne, Indiana, for Hollywood, she never imagines she’ll cross paths with Carole Lombard, the dazzling actress fromJulie’s provincial Midwestern hometown. The young woman has dreams of becoming a screenwriter, but the only job Julie’s able to find is one in the studio publicity office of the notoriously demanding producer David O. Selznick, who is busy burning through directors, writers, and money as he films Gone with the Wind.
     Although tensions run high on the set, Julie finds she can step onto the back lot, take in the smell of smoky gunpowder and the soft rustle of hoop skirts, and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. Julie’s access to real-life magic comes when Carole Lombard hires her as an assistant and invites her into the glamorous world Carole shares with Clark Gable, who is about to move into movie history as the dashing Rhett Butler.
     Carole Lombard, happily profane and uninhibited, makes no secret of her relationship with Gable, which poses something of a problem for the studio because Gable is technically still married—and the last thing the film needs is more negative publicity. Julie is there to fend off the overly curious reporters, hoping to prevent details about the affair from slipping out. But she can barely keep up with her blond employer, let alone control what comes out of Carole’s mouth, and—as their friendship grows—Julie soon finds she doesn’t want to. Carole, both wise and funny, becomes Julie’s model for breaking free of the past.
     In the ever-widening scope of this story, Julie is given a front-row seat to not one but two of the greatest love affairs of all time: the undeniable on-screen chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett, and offscreen, the deepening love between Carole and Clark. Yet beneath the shiny fa├žade, things in Hollywood are never quite what they seem, and Julie must learn to balance her career aspirations and her own budding romance with the outsized personalities and overheated drama on set. Vivid, romantic, and filled with Old Hollywood details, A Touch of Stardust will entrance, surprise, and delight.  
I have to give credit to Alcott for her elegant and bright prose, which moves the plot along at a nice, steady pace. Julie's romance with a young Jewish producer came off as just a bit too stereotypical, however, and though I realize this book takes place before America got involved in World War 2, I find it hard to believe that her parents were so stiff and uncompromising about her boyfriend's religion. Julie also seemed to be rather skittish and immature, but it was wonderful to watch her grow a spine under the auspices of the profane Lombard, who sounds like she was a feminist and a delightfully brassy broad before that was a "thing" in Hollywood. Alcott leaves us without an HEA, but she does intimate that her fictional characters survive the war and are able to build a life together in California. I'd give this novel an A, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in the filming of Gone With the Wind, in women in the movie business prior to the war, and in Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert is really just one long TED Talk on paper. It is by turns amusing and frustrating and quotable, of course, but it also provides a strong dose of pragmatism and/or common sense for creative people who often aren't too conversant with either. Unlike the title suggests, Gilbert posits that there isn't a whole lot of "magic" to making a career as a creative, there's really only being awake and ready for inspiration and ideas to come to you so you can manifest them into being with your particular art form, whether it's painting, woodworking or wordsmithing/writing. The main thing to remember, she writes, is that ideas are like dandelion seeds floating on the wind, waiting to land on someone and become a song, a book, or a play. They can land on you, but they can also land on someone else at the same time, allowing two people to have the same idea, but of course different ways of expressing it. And while that's fine and dandy, we must NEVER try to force creative ideas to do the hard work of making a living for us as creative people. They're too fragile for that, and really, Gilbert notes, how many people actually make a living with their creative art form? The odds are not in your favor as a creative artist, and therefore you must do whatever mundane jobs that you can to support yourself and do your art, express your creativity, whenever you can, either in the wee hours or the late nights, when you're not working at a "real" job. Here's the blurb: Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work,  embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.
I loved that Gilbert busted the myth of the suffering artist wide open, noting that you don't need to be an alcoholic or a drug addict or dying of some dread disease in order to create real art. This is something I've been saying since I was a teenager, long before Gilbert was born, that it's possible to take joy in creating paintings or poems or any other kind of art, and that if you don't enjoy doing something, don't do it! Life is too short to shred your soul in an effort to be "authentic," when it is just as possible to construct beautiful art from joy as it is from sorrow or pain. I can't imagine spending my waking hours doing something I despise. First of all, I don't create well when I'm filled with negative emotions, in pain or unhappy, and second, I've never been so "inhibited" as a person that I needed illegal drugs to "open the gates" to creative imagination and ideas. In fact, I discovered when I was in college that I'm pretty much worthless when I'm drunk, and I don't think I am alone in thinking that people who claim to only be able to write while under the influence of drugs or alcohol are actually being creative despite being an addict. Gilbert's prose, as it was in Eat, Pray, Love, is whimsical and fun, and each short chapter is filled with witty and wise anecdotes and quotes, so you feel like you're in a classroom of a beloved professor who is teaching you vital information, but doing it in a way that is enjoyable and easily assimilated. I really think that the title of this book is a misnomer, it should be "How to Be a Smart Creative With a Dose of Common Sense," but that probably wouldn't sell as well as a book with "magic" in the title. I'd give this non fiction book an A, and recommend it to anyone who wants to live the life of a creative artist.

Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson is a book of 5 novellas about fire spirits who take various forms and transform the lives of the people around them. I picked up this book mainly because I've read everything Robin McKinley has written, and I adore her prose and her storytelling ability. I have no idea who Peter Dickinson is, but his stories are just as interesting as McKinley's, though his prose is not as refined or elegant as hers. Here's the blurb:  After Water comes Fire - five stories from Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson about the necessary yet dangerous element. In these tales, a boy and his dog are unexpected guests on a dragonrider's first flight. A slave saves his village with a fiery magic spell. A girl's new friend, the guardian of a mystical bird, is much older than he appears. A young man walks the spirit world to defeat a fireworm. A mysterious dog is a key player in an eerie graveyard showdown. These five short stories are full of magic, mystery, and wonder. Kirkus Reviews: Five tales of fiery beasts shimmer in an uneven fantasy collection by the noted husband-and-wife team. The three Dickinson stories-especially "Phoenix," in which a girl who loves forests discovers an ancient gamekeeper's secret, and "Salamander Man," in which a slave is chosen from birth to fulfill a magical duty-seem less self-sustained narratives than world-building sketches or conceptual explorations. Only "Fireworm," a dreamlike, elegiac legend about an Ice Age tribe threatened by an igneous monster, contains any character development or plot arc. In contrast, the two McKinley tales charm with intriguing, likable characters and hopeful themes. In "Hellhound," a young woman who dreams of unicorns adopts a fiery-eyed dog, with mysterious, terrifying and oddly touching results. The irresistible novella "First Flight," by far the standout contribution, introduces a shy, clumsy youth with a knack for healing who finds himself saddled with the impossible challenge of helping a crippled dragon to fly. McKinley's fans can only hope that she will return to this world in a future novel.
I was not aware that Dickinson and McKinley were a husband and wife team, but I agree with the Kirkus reviewer that McKinley's talents as a storyteller are much stronger than Dickinson's.So it's not surprising that I enjoyed Robin McKinley's stories more than I liked her husbands. Still, the book was worth the used bookstore price just for her tales of fire-creatures come to life. I'd give the book as whole a B+, and recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Mages series, or anyone who is a fire sign, like myself, and finds stories of fire spirits fascinating.

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