In books that couldn’t be published at a more timely moment, the US release of British author Max Egremont’s The Glass Wall: Lives on the Baltic Frontier was last week (originally published last year in the UK). This relatively obscure region of the world has been in the news more often recently, as Russian troops surround nearby Ukraine and breaths are held across the continent while waiting for Putin’s next move and what it means for the region.
This book underscores that the Baltic countries are used to some pretty grim historical episodes, sandwiched as they are geographically on a route between Germany and Russia. Egremont weaves together past and present to create a layered portrait of Estonia and Latvia, as they are now and the major factors that have contributed to shaping these lands.
Riga, Latvia’s capital, has in recent years become something of a hipster tourism destination, as the author also points out, but he lays down so much valuable backstory that I think gets lost in the snappy Instagrammable version of the city that’s been popularized today. It’s a dark and bloody history, but one that speaks to the greater drama of the surrounding region as well, a drama that continues to play out uncertainly even now.
Egremont has that special ability to pull out interesting and illuminating historical episodes that really show the character of a place. My favorite was a trash-talk threat from one Estonian general when he heard that the Soviets under Stalin’s command were planning to invade, responding that Estonia’s cemeteries weren’t big enough to bury them all. The Russians won that particular battle, but the attitude is admirable, and I suppose one that you have to have when Russia is your neighbor. (For more on this topic, see Erika Fatland’s The Border, a book that this one felt quite similar to, actually, although the writing style and tone are quite different).
Speaking of writing style, this can be somewhat dense, or at least it isn’t one that can be read quickly and casually. It’s definitely worth the closer read, but I didn’t find it uniformly enthralling. Still, it’s an important work, providing deep insights into an underreported area, and I found it gave me a much better impression of the two countries as a whole than I’ve gotten from other reading. published February 8 by Farrar Straus and Giroux. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
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Now for something completely different: I couldn’t have been more excited to win a copy of Mike Roe’s The 30 Rock Book: Inside the Iconic Show, from Blerg to EGOT on Goodreads.
Very unfortunately, this is not a great book. It pains me to say that because there’s truly little else I love like 30 Rock. This seemed to have started with the intention of being an oral history, but it appears the author couldn’t land interviews or something, so it devolved into a sort of episode guide padded out with DVD commentary.
I’m honestly curious how it got published. The writing’s not great, it really is just basically an episode guide – there’s little structure beyond merely telling you what happens in every episode. Even within that the organization is terrible, with people introduced and then way later some quote will come that fundamentally anchors who they are and their importance, but 20 pages too late.
Speaking of pages, this is LONG. It’s 304 pages but the type is super-small. I would read a thousand-page book about 30 Rock, but not like this. There are some new interviews but they’re with minor players or writers who worked on a single season (or completely unrelated people, like actor Bradley Whitford, who starred on 30 Rock‘s eventually cancelled rival show, Studio 60), and some are bizarrely detailed. Like if you really care about the actor who played Kathy Geiss’s acting process and creative input, here you go.
Some of the writers’ and crew members’ stories are more meaningful, but there’s so much that could’ve been trimmed. It feels completely unedited in addition to being disorganized. It also insultingly just explains jokes at times; MADDENING!
It takes great pains to address any and all instances of the show’s insensitivity, political incorrectness, and outright offensive moments, but not in any meaningful way. It just lists them, hand-wrings about them for pages and pages, then drops it and moves on. It would’ve been much more helpful to hear from the people who made the decisions around these (for example Margaret Cho giving her opinion about one, her portrayal of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was much more significant and useful and exactly the kind of input necessary in these discussions of reckoning past humor with modern cultural sensitivity and correctness) but I guess all major people involved just refused interviews.
Still, I learned some things I didn’t know about the inspirations for certain stories and what was going on with some of the actors (poor Dean Winters!) Also, there was a quote from one writer that I just loved, about how he knew he wasn’t changing the world or saving lives with his work on the show, but if it could make life a little brighter for people, or could help someone through a crap day, then he felt he was doing something good.
That’s exactly why I loved this show so much, back when it was still airing and why I turn to re-watches so often since: it really does exactly that. Thursday nights were a bright spot in dreary weeks, and it still always works for laughter-as-medicine now.
The author clearly adores the show too, and I feel bad being so critical of it, but I think all the potential there made me want a better history or an actual oral history treatment of this show, which really did capture such a uniquely particular place and moment in culture. published November 30, 2021 by Harry N. Abrams
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