four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
By: 
Ian Frazier
user_rating: 
0

A-Travels in SiberiaA frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Ian Frazier is renowned for his humorous essays and his nonfiction (Great Plains, 1989; On the Rez, 2000). Persuaded to travel to Moscow with some Russian émigré friends shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Frazier fell in love with the country and since then has studied the language and visited several times.

The Topic: Synonymous with political repression and subzero temperatures, the vast region of Siberia traverses eight time zones and comprises one-twelfth of Earth's total landmass. In summer 2001, Ian Frazier embarked on the road trip of a lifetime with two Russian guides, Sergei and Volodya, in a dilapidated, diesel-powered delivery van. The goal: to cross this massive expanse from St. Petersburg to the Pacific Ocean near Vladivostok. During the next five weeks, the trio confronted breakdowns, illness, hunger, and swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes while exploring the breathtaking forests, rivers, lakes, mountains, and swamplands stretched between garbage heaps, environmental devastation, and hulking Soviet-era structures. Along the way, Frazier explores the painful history and thorny legacy of this beautiful and brutal land.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 544 pages. $30. ISBN: 9780374278724

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"There are many reasons to love it, including the fantastic ending, possibly the best of any book in recent memory. Travels in Siberia is a masterpiece of nonfiction writing--tragic, bizarre and funny." Carmela Ciuraru

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Siberia provides Frazier the perfect canvas to paint what may be his masterpiece. ... Travels in Siberia is a typically sprawling Frazier book." James Zug

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Frazier recounts much of [Siberia's dramatic and painful] history in sometimes lengthy digressions. But he is never dull, and in cases like his visit to an abandoned prison camp near Topolinoe, quite moving. ... Frazier is, on the whole, informative, open-minded and amusing; in other words, a perfect travel companion." Jean Dubail

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Frazier's prose is gripping throughout. ... After reading Frazier's passionate travelogue and history of Siberia, you'll never again view the region as a big, empty space on a map. Frazier brings Siberia into vivid, monochromatic focus." Chuck Leddy

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Travels in Siberia [is] an uproarious, sometimes dark yarn filled with dubious meals, broken-down vehicles, abandoned slave-labor camps and ubiquitous statues of Lenin--On the Road meets The Gulag Archipelago. ... Frazier has the gumption and sense of wonder shared by every great travel writer, from Bruce Chatwin to Redmond O'Hanlon, as well as the ability to make us see how the most trivial or ephemeral detail is part of the essential texture of a place: the variety of TV antennas on Siberian rooftops, the giant bison skull in the paleontology museum of Irkutsk." Joshua Hammer

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Frazier's Travels in Siberia is the biggest and best of his serious books. ... Besides his own observations (the unique and characteristic smell of the country, the unbelievably disgusting bathrooms, the huge piles of trash on roadsides and beaches, swarms of fierce biting insects, the casual lies and exaggerations people tell him as well as their extreme warmth and helpfulness, clouds of coal smoke and other industrial haze over cities, stunningly beautiful women, the fact that Russians drive crazily and too fast but no one uses seat belts), Frazier provides a decent overview of Russian history." David Loftus

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] ponderous but often evocative adventurelogue. ... If you have the stomach for reading a far-flung, nose-numbing, outlandish travel adventure, it doesn't get any better than this." Richard Horan

Critical Summary

Accustomed to pointing out the absurdities of everyday life, humorists, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, are uniquely qualified to recognize these absurdities in other places. Frazier is no exception. Hailed by the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle as a masterpiece, Travels in Siberia is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and thoughtfully serious (as evidenced by 40 pages of endnotes and a bibliography). Despite the hazards Frazier faces, his unyielding curiosity and infectious sense of wonder never wane. His "endlessly fascinating tale" (NY Times Book Review) draws on history, politics, cultural studies, geography, memoir, and evocative, first-person descriptions to produce a vibrant and gripping portrait of this remote region, whose images will "linger long after you stop shivering" (Boston Globe).

Supplemental Reading

In Siberia | Colin Thubron (2000): In this solemn, somewhat melancholy travelogue, veteran British travel writer Colin Thubron explores the vast expanse of Siberia--its untamed wilderness, ecological despoilment, and, most of all, its troubled but hopeful inhabitants, whose warmth and generosity belie their hardscrabble lives.

Gulag A History | Anne Applebaum: F Pulitzer Prize, 2004, 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003. Drawing on previously unavailable Soviet archives and prisoners' diaries, this extraordinary book chronicles the history of the Soviet Gulag system from the opening of the first prison camp in 1926 to its formal dissolution in 1960. It describes the inner workings and horrendous conditions of the camps and their toll on the unfortunate souls condemned to dwell there.