Sunday, April 12, 2020

Boswell book focus - Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls, inspired by watching Kim's Convenience

For a change of pace, I'm going to obsess about a television show. I was in need of some comfort food, something that would be of excellent quality and yet still satisfy me in a primal way. I found myself rewatching some shows that hit that note - the popular Parks and Recreation and the completely undervalued Great News - but I hadn't really discovered something I loved on either Netflix or Hulu.*

And so I turned to one of my sources for discovery, my fellow bookseller Jen. She's led me to some of our favorite books, and like me, she also liked Great News (what are you waiting for? There are only two short seasons), so when she said I should try Kim's Convenience, I listened. And I fell in love. Like many of these character-driven shows - Bob's Burgers - it takes a while for the show's to find their stride. Why is it so common for a good show to get better in the second and third seasons? A character that's fully formed is easier to write. I think. And the best part of it is, Kim's Convenience is a book; the original play is available from House of Anansi Press. I just ordered it and if it's as good as the show, I'll let you know.

It's the story of a Korean Canadian family who run Kim's in Toronto - Appa and Umma and their kids, Janet, a student, and Jung, who works at a car rental agency.

I was just watching this episode where Jung has revealed himself to not be, well, bookish. Bit player Terrence is sitting at his desk reading Eat Pray Love at Handy Car Rental. Terrence and his boss Shannon bond over the book and Elizabeth Gilbert's Ted Talk. Jung tries to act like he knows what they are talking about. It's hard to not believe that Jung really thinks the story is based on the life of Julia Roberts, who played Gilbert in the film. To me, it's a pivotal moment in the series - the first time Terrence has been anything but the butt of a joke, and the first time Jung has shown any flaw besides being a reformed bad boy who still sleeps around and can't get along with his dad. Those are kind of glamorous flaws. Not knowing who Elizabeth Gilbert is is not glamorous, or at least it isn't the way Simu Liu plays it.

So that's my television watching. This quality comfort food appears to also be what I want in my reading.  I love funny, and I love a little heartfelt. I am okay with sad too. But I don't really want mean, not at the moment. Chris (another reliable recommender) has me reading The Party Upstairs, a first novel that comes out in July. I'll let you know how that goes. And three of us have already read Abbi Waxman's I Was Told It Would Get Easier. Four of us have already read that one - it comes out in June. No, it's not set in a bookstore like The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, but it's really good!

Sometimes the right book is staring me in the face, waiting for the right moment. And that brings me back to Elizabeth Gilbert. I didn't read City of Girls in hardcover. Eat Pray Love was one of those phenomena that passed me by. It's not like I've never read Gilbert, but weirdly enough, my only experience was with her first novel Stern Men, which I read as an advance copy. Nobody knew who Elizabeth Gilbert was then, but it spoke to me - my family made lobster-themed pilgrimages to Maine for years. 

It was something that Friend-of-Boswell Margaret said to me that changed my mind. I'd read some reviews of City of Girls and they were good. We were selling it very well. But the way Margaret described the story and her reaction to it sparked something in me, and since Margaret is a fellow Abbi Waxman obsessive, to say nothing of her love for Elinor Lipman and Stephen McCauley, I moved it to the top of my pile. 

City of Girls is steeped in New York history. It's the story of Vivian Morris, a Vassar dropout who is sent to live with her Aunt Peg in Manhattan. Peg runs a ramshackle theater company in Times Square. It reminds me of what Yiddish theater was like, only nobody's Jewish. In the days before television, the theater was one step ahead of vaudeville, catering to the working -lass neighborhood. The Lily Theatre chugs along until a series of events lead it to a big breakout hit, starring one of Peg's old friends. But what goes up, must come down and a terrible scandal threatens not just Vivian's reputation, but the theater's survival. And the theater will not survive. But Vivian will have a second act. It's just delightful, so smart and funny and wise. It's definitely on brand for Gilbert - Vivian is a proudly sexual being who is able to overcome a major setback and bounce back to have a satisfying life with no regrets. And she does it her own way. I know Gilbert did a lot of research for this book, but it's all in the milieu and never gets in the way of the story. A critic called it 'delicious' and I can't really think of a better adjective. 

It's a great book for the moment - a celebration of New York, escapist in its way, and a lovely story about overcoming setbacks.

Here's a little behind-the curtain story about how the event came together. When Riverheard responded to our request with an offer of an event. I almost fell out of my chair. But it was a complicated date, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, and I normally wouldn't book an event for then. But Gilbert, how could I not try? I knew I'd have trouble getting into a theater on a Saturday, and really, my first choice was collaborating with Oconomowoc's Books and Company at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. We'd done well with Saturday afternoon events in the past - so we made the pitch.

Unfortunately we hit a snag. While the venue was free, an area church contracts with the facility for Sunday service. And while that usually doesn't preclude us from Saturdays, Easter is a big deal and they needed Saturday for load in. I wound up talking to a number of folks about this, to see if there was any way we could quietly take the space for a few hours without upsetting their flow - we could work around displays and decorations - but it was just too complicated. So we pitched the store for bundled event in the evening - a ticketed event wouldn't work in the store on a weekend afternoon - and hoped for the best. 

I was excited about one partnership. By reading City of Girls (see, it helps!) I knew that the book was a celebration of the theater world. And since we have two friends at the United Performing Arts Fund (including a former Boswellian), it seemed like the perfect fit. So I did some outreach and it turned out our contact had just read City of Girls for her book club. Perfect fit - just about 48 hours to put that together. Every ticket would include a $5 donation to UPAF.

But would this Easter weekend hurt our chances for a large audience? No, it did not. We sold out quickly, even with the news that there was no signing or meet-the-author session following the talk (and that was before COVID-19). And then the Pabst Theater Group mentioned that they did have an opening at Turner Hall Ballroom. On a Saturday evening? I hadn't figured that touring artists are also cautious about the Saturday before Easter. Then started the complicated process of figuring out how to add tickets to a venue whose costs are much higher than they are for a store event. We went back and forth on this until the coronavirus started appearing on the horizon. And I realized that there was a good chance this wasn't going to happen, so we let this opportunity slip away.

Soon enough, we realized that we would not be having any events at all. It was with a heavy heart that we eventually cancelled our event with Elizabeth Gilbert. Note to attendees - Brown Paper Tickets is dealing with unprecedented backups. So while you haven't gotten your refund yet, you are still scheduled to get one. As the event is cancelled and refunds are in progress, you are not getting a copy of City of Girls from Boswell. If you want one, we're selling it, at on Boswell's Best (yes, we're discounting a few paperbacks during our physical closing) through at least April 27.

Will Elizabeth Gilbert reschedule this event? Honestly, I don't think it's likely, though we're hoping that Riverhead keeps us in mind for a future tour. But for now, I would suggest reading City of Girls if you haven't already. 

*I keep a subscription to one streaming service at a time. So I'm not watching Little Fires Everywhere at the moment.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I just finished City of Girls, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. I thought Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, was fantastic, but I think I liked City of Girls even more.