Happy reading for holiday giving

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Tuesday December 11, 2018
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Walking around a bookstore often yields wonderful surprises for shoppers, especially for those looking for solutions to the challenges of holiday giving.

Will the 2018 "A Star Is Born," the fifth incarnation of the movie, make Lady Gaga a cinema diva? Her reviews have been impressive, and the box-office has been good. How does it compare with its predecessors? "A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away" (TCM, $28), by Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance, focuses on the third, 1954 version, the first built around a singer. Time wrote that Garland "gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history," but the film failed to restore her picture career.

Luft (Garland's daughter by third husband Sid Luft who produced the film) and Vance analyze what happened: what caused the cost overruns, the decision to cut the movie so that theatres could add an extra performance, Garland's ludicrous failure to win the Best Actress Oscar, and director George Cukor's ability to get the best from his insecure star. But the authors also discuss the 1937 William Wellman version starring Janet Gaynor and the 1976 movie. Despite dreadful notices ("A Bore is Starred"), it was a box-office smash and made Barbra Streisand a superstar. This year's release is also assessed. Each film was different, despite the same basic plot, a fading male star married to an ascending female performer who loves him unconditionally. Fascinating and informative.

Peter Rader's "Playing to the Gods, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse and the Rivalry That Changed Acting Forever" (Simon & Shuster, $26) is a revealing dual biography of the turn-of-the-20th-century's two most celebrated stage actresses. The French Bernhardt (1844-1923) was a star who molded roles to suit her flamboyant personality. Her many "farewell" tours attracted SRO audiences. Even in old age and forced to use a wooden leg, she played youthful heroines. The Italian Duse (1858-1924), on the other hand, disappeared into her roles. She kept her personal life private. Her popularity matched Bernhard's, and the admiring adjective "doozy" derives from her name. Bernhardt detested Duse, who challenged and often surpassed her. This superb study shows how each generation defines "great acting" and stardom.

Fiction-lovers will enjoy Adib Khorram's touching coming-of-age story "Darius the Great Is Not Okay" (Dial Books, $17.99). Darius Kellner is half-Iranian, but is more comfortable in the world of Hobbits and Klingons. He cannot relate to his Persian ancestry. He also suffers from clinical depression, for which he takes medication. A trip to Iran to visit his maternal grandparents, who don't understand him, only reinforces his loneliness. Then he meets Sahrab, the boy next door, and Darius' world changes. This impressive debut is rich in atmospheric details — modern-day Iran is wonderfully evoked — and Darius is a memorable outsider who finds someone who understands him.

Fans of "All About Eve," the 1950 film classic about an aspiring actress who befriends then betrays her famous employer, will enjoy Liv Constantine's "The Last Mrs. Parrish" (Harper, $16.99). Amber Patterson is determined to replace the socially prominent Daphne Parrish by marrying her husband, Jackson, the handsome, rich businessman. He and Daphne are New York's golden couple: young, gorgeous, and admired. Amber, however, has a plan. It works. But she forgot St. Teresa of Avila's warning about answered prayers. This page-turner is hard to put down. The dazzling plot unfolds with precision. The details about the right clothes, jewelry, restaurants, wine, address, class envy, and snobbery are compelling. It's suspenseful and surprising. This is a startling debut by sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine.

Murder mysteries are good gift choices, and Rhys Bowen's latest is no exception. "Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding" (Berkeley Crime, $26) finds Lady Georgiana Rannoch and her handsome fianc´┐Ż Lord Darcy O'Meara on the verge of marrying. On her father's side, Georgie is descended from Queen Victoria and is currently 35th in line for the throne. Darcy is a Roman Catholic, so Georgie needs permission from her royal cousins to marry him. She solves the problem by renouncing her rights of succession. Or has she? As usual when Georgie is around, dead bodies turn up. Bowen expertly recreates the 1930s in England and Ireland, and Georgie is an engaging, funny, and resourceful character. This is escapist fiction at its best.