The subject of one of my earlier posts, Misha Glenny’s McMafia, was considered by The Christian Science Monitor as one of the best nonfiction books of 2008. The subject of today’s post, Ian Frazier’s Travels In Siberia, along with a few other well-received books such as Packing for Mars, Nothing to Envy and Warmth of Other Suns, made The Monitor‘s list of the best nonfiction books of 2010. After reading a brief description of the book in July’s QPB catalog I made a mental note to keep a look out for Frazier’s book should find a copy of it during one of my frequent library trips. A few weeks ago during one of those visits I would indeed get that chance as I spotted a copy while strolling past the shelves of newly arrived and in-demand materials. Knowing the copy on hand was part of my library’s “Lucky Day” program and therefore unavailable for me to renew, as soon as I returned home I quickly put aside everything else I happened to be reading and knuckled down on Frazier’s book. After finishing last week or so I’m happy to say that Frazier’s rather meaty account of his Siberian travels, much like the expansive landmass he describes, quickly sucks you in while keeping you charmed and entertained until the journey’s end.
Frazier, a veteran travel writer and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, is no stranger to Siberia. After befriending a pair of Russian emigres while Frazier was living and working in New York City during the 80s, his new-found fascination with Russia and environs would inspire him to spend the next 20 years shuttling back and forth between America and Siberia. After several initial trips in which he mainly stuck to its extreme eastern portion near the Bering Sea, eventually he would make several journeys into the interior, including one extensive trek by van from St. Petersburg on the Baltic to Vladivostok on the Pacific.
Just as Mick Jagger once said, most books about the Rolling Stones are either boring or not true; I’m tempted to say the same thing about most travel writing. Fortunately, Frazier’s Travels In Siberia is much more than a travel book. From Genghis Khan to the Gulag and Dostoyevsky to the Decembrists, (the 18th century revolutionary nobles, not the cool band from my town of Portland), the book is leavened with generous helpings of historical back story, giving the reader a deeper understanding of Siberia and its impact on the rest of the world.
Frazier spends considerable time contemplating the richness of the vast region. Covering a huge chunk of North Asia, Siberia is home to numerous wide and meandering rivers, almost all of which flow north and eventually empty into the remote Arctic Ocean. Adding to this sweeping panorama are imposing mountain ranges, the world’s deepest freshwater lake and unfathomable reserves of oil, natural gas, diamonds, nickel and timber. With road networks limited and air travel rather expensive, the region’s best system of transportation falls to not one but two cross-continental railways, commonly used in conjunction with the Pacific port of Vladivostok as the default point of entry for international trade.
With Travels In Siberia weighing in close to 500 pages, I must credit Frazier for writing a sizeable book that easily holds my interest without feeling turgid or overwhelming. Despite telling a tale with frequent digressions, none of the supplemental material seems superfluous or in need of an editor’s redaction. If anything, like any good writing it’s inspired me to read other books related in one way or another to author’s topic of discussion. Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold and Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World while spending years on my “to read” list will probably in all likelihood get bumped up to the top of the list thanks to Frazier’s book. It might also inspire me to finally read Hendrick Smith’s The Russians and The New Russians, two books which have been languishing away in my library for far too long.
Even more than Christian Wolmar’s Blood, Iron and Gold, Frazier’s Travels in Siberia is another one of those books you can curl up with night and pleasantly lose oneself within its grand panorama. Much like the very Siberia Frazier writes about.