Book Quote:

“For most people, Siberia is not the place itself but a figure of speech. In fashionable restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, Siberia is the section of less-desirable tables given to customers whom the maitre d’ does not especially like.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (NOV 10, 2010)

Hints of travel writer Ian Frazier’s latest project showed up in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, when an excerpt from Travels in Siberia was published. Having evocatively captured the spirit of a Native American reservation and the American Great Plains in earlier work, Frazier set his sights on a much grander level—he decided to travel across Siberia. A self-confessed lover of all things Russian, Frazier travels across Siberia despite warnings to the contrary.

The writing that makes up Frazier’s new book, Travels in Siberia, is based not just on one trip but many. He details paying preliminary visits to figure out a plan and later after an exhausting road trip that interestingly enough, ends on Sept. 11, 2001, he returns to revisit more historically significant places.

The reader can tell that Frazier has done exhaustive research and knows a lot about the place. The book is packed with historical facts including those about the Decembrists and later, about Stalin’s gulag. Frazier’s descriptions of the gulag along the Topolinskaya highway are extremely unsettling because they are pitch perfect.

Despite the pith that many historical facts add to the volume as a whole, sometimes these additions feel like overkill—it’s almost as if Frazier is trying to cram a little too much information into the pages. There are also entire sections devoted to the beauty of Siberian women, the writings of Russian authors, the fierce mosquitoes in the Siberian swamp, and more. After a while it feels like the book could have used some more editing.

At the same time, Travels in Siberia is full of funny and unusual situations. His companions on the first road trip across, Sergei and Volodya, set up an unreliable van for the journey, which breaks down at the most inconvenient times. Frazier’s details about waiting hours on end for a train connection at the Chernyshevsk station, is priceless. So too are the descriptions of the city of Veliki Ustyug and the steppe of Novosibirsk. Frazier’s beautiful ink drawings complement his narrative well. The sparse drawings effectively emphasize the starkness of the Siberian landscape.

The most hilarious episode in the book is a steam bath (banya) that Frazier is subjected to. His companions first “loosen” Frazier up by striking him with cut birch branches. Then big handfuls of raw honey (complete with bee legs and pieces in it) are applied. “I sat, honeyed and steaming for some time,” Frazier recalls about the banya. Sergei and Volodya then make him dive into a pool of ice-cold water. Frazier remembers seeing a slick of honey on the surface.

Not all is fun and lightness though. For instance, there’s plenty of environmental degradation around, a case made especially strongly in the city of Achinsk—where a lot of cement is made. “The thick, dusty air of Achinsk coats grass blades to death and desertifies everything in a wide radius around the city,” Frazier writes.

At one point in the trip, Frazier meets a university professor of mathematics who promises that Frazier’s journey is only going to get worse as it progresses. “Conditions will get even more stochastic than you have encountered so far,” the professor forecasts. And they do. There is plenty of excitement everywhere including in the diet—Frazier and his companions consume plenty of tvorog (cottage cheese) drenched with smetana (sour cream).

However the excitement is tempered by more-of-the-same in this travelogue. During his first pass across Siberia, especially since Sergei is not particularly interested in revisiting history or checking out the cities, every day and night seem to pass like the one previous. The trio comes across yet another town, settles down on the outskirts to camp and moves on.

So sprinkled among the humorous accounts and storytelling is plenty of monotony as well. This could be attributed to the landscape too. In a recent interview, Frazier pointed out what an old writer once said: “Monotony is the divinity of Russia.” In other words, all that endless solitude in wide-open land leads to its own kind of spirituality. Point taken.

As Frazier’s new work points out, Siberia is a land of endless surprises. There can be monotonous more-of-the-same for mile after mile and yet suddenly you can have a herd of cows attack your tent and supplies (this actually happens). Siberia has plenty of “stochastic” variables to be worked around. That might explain why it has an organization called the Ministry of Extraordinary Situations.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 18 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (October 12, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Ian Frazier
EXTRAS: Excerpt

The New Yorker page on Ian Frazier’s writing

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Some fiction set in Siberia:

Sashenka by Simon Montefiore

Petropolis by Anya Ulinich

Far North by Marcel Theroux


November 10, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Non-fiction, Russia

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