Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Word of Mouth--books, television (or should I say video), records (or should I say music)? A post about Jennifer Keishin's Armstrong's "Seinfeldia" with a lot of asides.

As a bookseller, I have this thing about not being blindsided by books. When Emma Cline's The Girls took off, it was nice that we knew that there was a big push, and that we'd had a great early read from Sharon. Of course books still come out of left field. I'm still not sure why Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey is entrenched on the bestseller lists. I have done a number of searches and still haven't seen the article that explained what exactly broke the book out. I guess I could ask my Simon and Schuster rep, as they distribute Andrews McMeel, but it hasn't happened because every week when I look at the bestseller lists, I wonder who is pushing that book and then a minute later I get distracted by someone else. One thing I did notice - it was originally self-published, as the Createspace data is still in our system.

I guess it's human nature to not want to be the last one on the bus. If you are the kind of person who sees yourself as a trendspotter (and I guess a bookseller has to have a bit of that, even if it's a niche of a niche of trends), there's someone disappointing about being the last person to discover a book. And that's why when books explode, a lot of us rarely go back and read them if we didn't read them early.

And that's where I'm going to say that someday all of America is going to be reading Antoine Laurain. He just needs the right break. I'm excited that I just got my advance copy of French Rhapsody, coming out this fall, and hope I love it as much as I love The President's Hat and The Red Notebook.

I think this carries over into all my pop culture consumption, but it's gotten so much more difficult as options have exploded and pop culture has splintered. It took me six seasons to watch Portlandia (and decide that I like it) and being that I don't have Netflix, HBO, or Showtime (let alone Amazon Prime), there are many new touchstones that wind up being off limits.

So it's interesting to go back go back to the day when network television was still a huge chunk of the viewing pie, and a show like Seinfeld, despite the odds, could capture national consciousness. Some folks think that in a lot of ways, it was a game changer of a show, that led to the rise of small screen auteurs and the new golden age of television. And for some reason, I pride myself that I started watching early, mostly because my friend Heidi was an early obsessive and convinced me to watch not the abbreviated first season of four episodes (perhaps the smallest order for a non limited run series ever) but the second season that has the now-common non-network rhythm of 12 episodes.

I just finished reading Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, and boy was it a great read. The book comes out July 5, but Armstrong will be detouring to Milwaukee when she comes to Chicago in September. Our event, in fact, is set for Monday, September 12, 7 pm, to be exact, and it's at Boswell. We hosted Armstrong for Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and I remembered her family connection so we made a date for a return engagement. Alas, I tried this also with Jami Attenberg, but her family moved to Florida! Despite, this, we still love Saint Mazie, and it is currently on our book club flier and table, thanks to Jen's rec.

Seinfeldia offers a history of the show, most notably how it got from an idea over coffee to conception, bucking the odds more than once, as one network executive after another looked at it askance. One way the show was able to detour around failure, was that the show was originally shepherded by late nights and specials instead of prime time. They really found the money to create the four-episode first series by pulling it out of a Bob Hope special.

While it appears that Armstrong was not able to talk to the principal players (there's an interview list), where she shines, as in her last book, is in talking to the writers. So many of us want to know where the stories come from - it's the first questions I want to ask a writer in the question portion of their appearance. And the stories in Seinfeld were so different than what we'd seen before. And while Larry David took a lot from his own life, at one point, he was going to be squeezed dry. Every year a new group of writers came in and drew from the minutiae of their own lives (with Peter Mehlman being the only non-David writer who was close to a long-term writer) and then Mr. David Seinfelded it. I love how he'd tell a writer their idea was good, but for another show. And of course it was David's idea to have various plot strands come together at the end. It wasn't so much of a tying up as it was a collision.

The other thing Seinfeldia uncovers are all the side stories of people whose lives were changed by Seinfeld. Not just the inspiration for Kramer (Kenny Kramer, who doesn't know that?) but also the inspiration for Elaine, the real Soup Nazi, the actor who played the Soup Nazi, the real J. Peterman (who went on a speaking tour with John O'Hurley), and more.

So good! Seinfeldia is one of my summer picks. You'll definitely want to read it and if you're like me, you'll want to watch a bunch of episodes. If nothing else, you'll want to verify which character was in the most episodes (and no, it's not a family member, unlike Friends, where Ross and Rachel's mom is #1).


Music is another area where many folks pride themselves on being early to the dance. When I was young, I obsessively listened to radio, bought music, read what news I could get ahold of. I had a subscription to Billboard for years. I've talked at length about how that switch that used to get me to love music turned off. I could appreciate it, but I just couldn't obsess over it anymore.

Years ago I had a discussion with my fellow bookseller Arsen about this. I was having trouble making the leap to downloading (yes, this was before streaming); it was one too many format changes for me. But lately, the avalanche of music memoirs that we've been promoting, from Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, to Old Records Never Die to Dave Hill Doesn't Live Here Any More, had me thinking a lot about aural entertainment. I didn't read the Dave Hill book before it came out, but I found him so charming that I wound up buying the book that night and plowed through it. A lot of what I love about Hill is his delivery and demeanor - there's a spirit about him that is both self-deprecating and defeated, and can-do and conquering. Our event wasn't quite as big as I hoped for, but hey, that meant a bunch of folks at the event went out for drinks afterwards (not everyone went - it wasn't that small). And though Hill is now a long-time New Yorker, I kind of love that he still has Cleveland in his soul.

So I was thinking about that, and I was also thinking about something Eric Spitznagel talked about at his event. In the old days, you'd buy a record and you didn't always know what it sounded like. Maybe you heard the single or maybe you read a review. And sometimes you loved it and sometimes you hated it. But you'd spent your money and you only had two options - you could not listen to again and waste your money or you could listen to it twenty times, and the odds were, you'd wind up liking it.

So the craziest thing happened. In our back office, Jason plays music, sometimes on his headphones, but if nobody complains, it just comes out of his speakers. I've gotten to know Arcade Fire and the Lumineers and various other groups from his rotations. All well and good. But one day I called out to him across the room, "Hey that sounds just like Daryl Hall and John Oates!" And later on, "That sounds even more like Hall and Oates." And later on, "I think those lyrics are referring to 'Rich Girl.'" And I heard the new single and I said, "Oh, they are moving from retro to contemporary, sort of like the progression of Maroon 5. And of course I later learned that both Daryl Hall and Adam Levine gave the band early breaks. And yes, Daryl Hall's mother also heard the similarities in Mr. Hall and Mr. Fitzpatrick's vocals.

And they played and they played, and what do you know, it's like I'm 20 and I know all the lyrics to the first two Fitz and Tantrums albums. I decided to buy More Than Just a Dream, but would I download it, buy it on CD, or restart my vinyl collection. I decided I probably would have had the best experience with vinyl, but I went with the CD. I also wanted to buy a physical object (back to Eric Spitznagel's talk again) and I wanted to get it at a store. So it was nice to go into Rush Mor in Bay View and special order it from Matt, who is a regular magazine customer at Boswell (and just got back from touring Europe with his band). I promise to buy my next album at Exclusive Company, probably Songs for a Breakup, Volume 1. Probably today.

So what do you know, I actually still can obsess over pop music. It just takes six months of incessant playing instead of two listens. That impulse wasn't gone, it was just worn out. And so I'm late to the party. And I probably won't go to the party - Fitz and the Tantrums are playing at 10 pm at the Harley Davidson Roadhouse on June 29 (tomorrow, if you're reading this the day of posting). I'm not sure I can handle the crowds, and we have our own event, the Steve Raichlen sold-out dinner in Greendale that evening. But whoever is writing the lyrics seems kind of literary to me and would probably enjoy a nice independent bookstore just five-or-so minutes up Lincoln Memorial. Or if the weather isn't too humid, it's actually a pretty nice walk, if you're into that sort of thing.

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