Monday, December 3, 2012

REVIEW: Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier

Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier. Published 2010 by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Hit with Russia-fever, essayist and travel writer Ian Frazier spent parts of several years coming and going between his home in New York and various parts of the Russian Far East, much of it taken up with that vast and legendary area called Siberia, a region whose name has entered our language with connotations of cold, isolation and remoteness. To be in a "Siberia" means to be alone, to be set apart, to be frozen out, at least metaphorically.

But as he shows in his engaging and immensely enjoyable memoir, to be in Siberia is to be none of those things. Although at times he was isolated, and at times he was frozen, he was also in the middle of an area rich in history, colorful characters, tall tales and fascinating people.

Writing like a more laconic and moody Bill Bryson, Frazier talks about the nuts and bolts of travel- sometimes literally, as in the ramshackle airplanes, clanky trains and cavernous, echoing airports. He recounts his attempts to learn Russian and the days when he did- and did not- get along so well with his guides. I love that he's not always cheerful, that he has his bad days and isn't afraid to share those along with the sunny times, as in one time when he was trying to catch a ferry to his next destination, only to be frustrated by any kind of timetable or schedule:
At the ferry landing the next morning there were only a few cars, but still no ferry. Soon more cars and several trucks showed up. Always sociable, Sergei and Volodya [his guides] circulated among the other drivers and made conversation, but they could learn nothing definite about when the ferry might come. I preferred to sit by the van and let the waiting bother me. Volodya noticed my mood and said, "Call your wife." That was always his solution when he saw me in the dumps. I took out my [satellite] phone and called, a bit self conscious because of the three or four waiting people nearby who came closer and stared at me. When my wife answered she was making dinner. I complained to her about having to wait for the ferry.
But he also fills the book with fascinating history, particularly about the Decembrists, upper-class revolutionaries who wanted to reform Russian society in the 19th century, many of whom were exiled to Siberia. He also touches on subjects like the immense oil and mineral wealth of Siberia, the sable trade and its influence on Russian and Soviet history, the many settlements, cities and towns dotting the region, some of the indigenous peoples making up its population and more. Frazier has lots of great anecdotes and stories to share about the people and things he meets. One of my favorites is the story of the Siberian flamingos:
[Marina Tabakova, a gardener in the town of Severobaikalsk] took a few snapshots from an album on a garden bench. The pictures of the flamingo...had the radiant, revelatory quality of icon paintings. They showed the flamingo standing in the winter garden's tiled floor and regarding the photographer with an expression that was, indeed, haughty. He (or she) looked as if he had just planted the flamingo flag an claimed this place for Flamingo. Though kind of gray, he was definitely a flamingo. He seemed to have become comfortable with his singularity, and to accept as a matter of course the attention focused on him. Naturally he would find a tropical forest in the middle of Siberia, and naturally it would need a flamingo.
I found this story on NPR about the Siberian flamingos, too, if you're interested.

And there's so much more. I really enjoyed Frazier's laid-back, slightly self-deprecating style, and his patience and empathy with his environment and the people he meets along the way. His love of the region, his curiosity and his depth of knowledge shine through on every page. I read this book in part because I so enjoyed John Vaillant's The Tiger and was interested to read more about Siberia; this book covers broader ground geographically and thematically, but it's definitely of a piece with Vaillant's book. (And if you haven't read that yet, and you're interested in the Russian Far East, it's time!) If you are interested in the subject, Travels in Siberia is definitely required reading!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.