Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier and read by the author could very simply be described as “Siberia: history of, people of, remoteness of, mythology about, and travels in”. This description would not, however, do justice to the mixture of joy, comedy, and incredulity with which Frazier reads his book.
The author goes to great lengths to explain why he became fascinated by what he calls “the greatest horrible country” in the world. It certainly was not the smell of Russia the olfactory amalgam of sour milk, cucumber peels, wet cement, and mud that slapped Frazier in the face whenever he first stepped from an airplane into any Russian airport terminal. Nor was it the extraordinary amount of trash that befouled every town, village, and roadside rest stop he visited. Those were merely minor distractions as Frazier continued to try and learn the language, read more books, and visit by car, train, and plane Siberian destinations even more remote and more physically taxing than those on his previous trip. Frazier’s infectious wonder at the breadth of the land and the scope of its history, his wry observations about the incongruities of normal life lived at degrees far below zero, and his hapless and frequently acrimonious adventures with his occasional Russian guide, Sergei Lunev, leave the listener equally enthralled with Siberia.
Frazier has a talent for comically pointing out aspects of Siberian life that are most different from what Americans consider “normal”. For example, curiosity turns to puzzlement then to all-out disbelief as Frazier realizes that couples are holding their weddings literally alongside parts of the trans-Siberian highway. The reality of what is taking place only sinks in as one boisterous celebration spills onto the highway and stops traffic in either direction. Then there is the airport in the town of Providineya, where the rusted wreckage of helicopters and airplanes at the end of the runway greet visitors who, presumably, consider themselves lucky for their safe landing. And there’s the only hotel in the isolated village of Khanyga with its 20 guests but only one bathroom.
Ian Frazier infuses the historical parts of Travels in Siberia with passion for characters from Siberia’s past, such as the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, the American adventurer George Kennan, or the anarchic Decembrists, each providing delightful counterpoints to Frazier’s musings about the eccentricities of modern-day Siberians. Throughout his travels Frazier ponders the concept of “Siberian exile” and how that notion became imbued into the psyche of Russian people. Through his own insights and the words of others, Frazier pulls no punches as he describes the soul-shattering despair of those who endured Russia’s ultimate punishment for charges ranging from the criminal and political to the completely capricious. Having experienced the almost incomprehensibly stark and unforgiving landscape spanning thousands of frozen miles in every direction, Frazier soberly recounts the cataclysmic mental and physical agony consuming those exiled to Siberia.
The author’s enchantment for his subject matter is so consistently enjoyable that all who indulge in the listening experience will be profoundly grateful for Ian Frazier’s love of Siberia while remaining relieved that they did not make the journeys themselves. Carole Chouinard
A Dazzling Russian travelogue from the best-selling author of Great Plains.
In Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier trains his eye for unforgettable detail on Siberia, that vast expanse of Asiatic Russia. He explores many aspects of this storied, often grim region, which takes up one-seventh of the land on earth. He writes about the geography, the resources, the native peoples, the history, the 40-below midwinter afternoons, the bugs.
The book brims with Mongols, half-crazed Orthodox archpriests, fur seekers, ambassadors of the czar bound for Peking, tea caravans, German scientists, American prospectors, intrepid English nurses, and prisoners and exiles of every kind - from Natalie Lopukhin, banished by the czarina for copying her dresses; to the noble Decembrist revolutionaries of the 1820s; to the young men and women of the People’s Will movement whose fondest hope was to blow up the czar; to those who met still-ungraspable suffering and death in the Siberian camps during Soviet times.
More than just a historical travelogue, Travels in Siberia is also an account of Russia since the end of the Soviet Union and a personal reflection on the all-around amazingness of Russia, a country that still somehow manages to be funny.
Siberian travel books have been popular since the 13th century, when monks sent by the pope went east to find the Great Khan and wrote about their journeys. Travels in Siberia will take its place as the 21st century’s indispensable contribution to the genre.
©2010 Ian Frazier (P)2010 Macmillan Audio
"Ian Frazier caps his travels through Siberia's vastness by narrating his own account of them, another enormous undertaking. The author doesn't have the polish or range of a professional voice actor, but soon we appreciate how this somewhat pedestrian tone suits both the crude reality of Siberia and the deadpan humor that pervades his book. How could anyone doubt that this is the voice of the actual man who, as he admits, had a 'chronic fear of being run over while asleep in my tent' or who was annoyed that his tea tasted like the shaving cream someone had mixed in his cup?" (Washington Post Book World)
Rarely should an author narrate his or her own book, and unfortunately, this is another example of why. Frazier's reading is like a elementary student carefully reading and slowly enunciating the larger words. His narration is almost always slow and halting, and then occasionally sped up so one sentence runs into another. The author or publisher should have invested in a proper narrator. As for content, the subject is fascinating and certainly the journey across Siberia must have been amazing, but unfortunately, this does not come across in this telling. The books gets lost in one aside to another, and one never gets a real feel for the amazing,people, cities, and countryside the author must certainly have encountered. A hollow, lackluster account. Indeed, except for the fact that Siberian cities have very many beautiful women, a fact the author likes to relate with every passing city, Siberia remains as vast and distant as it was before reading this book.
While I enjoyed the book overall, there were a few areas I think could have been better. The book is way too long. The actual trip across Siberia didn't happen until about one-third of the way through the book. The first third being taken up by a not-always-too relevant or interesting recitation of the author's activities leading up to the trip. One thing that really annoyed me after a while was the author's tendency to drop in a large, obscure (often cumbersome) word when a simpler, more direct word would better fit the narrative -- again, my opinion. (I like to think my vocabulary is pretty good, but he used a few words -- yes, in English -- that I've never heard of! Humbling!) And last, the author has never met a prepositional phrase he didn't love. They abound. But all in all, the book is packed with interesting information, and the author's fascination with his subject shines through.
Frazier speaks v-e-r-y slowly; enunciation on steroids, which is unfortunate as the book doesn't exactly open with a bang. Still, once the travels actually get going, I found I enjoyed his dry humor better spoken than I likely would've in print (see also: Eric Weiner reading his "Geography of Bliss", though Weiner's hardly a "dry" writer). Some reviewers have said he whines a lot, but I didn't think so. I found his humor the best when things went wrong.Not saying I wouldn't have liked to see the author's sketches and photos, and I would've liked to skim the history sections at times; I did actually engage in some slight fast-forwarding in a couple of places, but by the end I felt this book was a great use of a credit.
Avid reader and traveler. I love mysteries and series that weave history and real world experiences with the story.
Ian Frazier's travels through Siberia are discussed, but you get the feeling it is more about the idea of travel than really being involved in the trip. He is thorough in his discussion of the history and description of what people look like and wear, but it doesn't seem that he really gets involved in the trips themselves. I'm all for a challenge in travel, but be better if he was in the moment or if he wrote about the history, but the author doesn't quite meld the two together as well as other travelogs.
It was interesting to hear about the locations and their history, so three stars is the most I could muster.
The author read the book and that was a downer. He was flat and basically boring. I didn't need to hear him practicing his Russian. He does translate the Russian but not the French - some of us took German or Spanish NOT French. A professional reader was needed.
Just reaching the end of this book. I have to say it is a really mixed bag. The author's love of Russia/Siberia shines through and he deals with the history really well. Some of his descriptions are great too (e.g. the fishing sections),
But he seems almost pathologically incapable of mixing with the people of Siberia, whether they be Russian or indigeonous. So many descriptions of him spending time alone at the camp site or in the hotel while his Russian guides go out and mix with the locals! The whole thing also features the author's inner thoughts so much you get exasperated with him. It's a long book. This makes it feel longer
A good historian, but terrible travel writer.
I am a prolific reader, backpacker, flyfisherman, tennis player, traveler who admires the works of Paul Theroux, Denis Johnson, Richard Ford , Barbara Tuchman, J.M. Coetzee,Robert Massie, David McCollough and many others
The description of the journeys was ok.The reader was poor.
No, but I have to pick narrators more carefully.
Too folksy. Compare John Lee or Simon Vance.
No. See Werner Herzog's movie instead.
A Bit rambling. "Wild" was much better. Blue Highways extraordinary.
I would have given anything to have heard this book read...by someone else. It could have been an magnum opus. Instead, due to the ponderous and stilted narration, it became as monolithic and featureless as post WWII Stalinist architecture. I so regret the author's decision to read his own work given the amazing amount of information and care that went into its creation. The subject matter and history were fascinating but could not survive the weak narration. I gave up half way through, which is saying something given the length of the reading.
As a travelogue, this is entertaining enough, although I agree with other reviewers that it's also not especially insightful. It's often just a straight-up narrative of what happened, interspersed with (sometimes badly researched) history. It's the latter that really undermines the work. I can't speak for his grasp of Russian history, but his account of the Mongols is at least fifty years out of date and terribly bigoted. It's too bad, because the trip he takes is really epic, and he clearly had a lot of guts and a sense of adventure to take it on at all.
He's also not the greatest narrator of his own writing; the book would certainly have benefited from a professional reader who would have given it a greater sense of adventure through his/her delivery. The author undercuts his own authority because he hasn't bothered to find out how to pronounce names like "Genghis Khan" and "Ranulf Fiennes." The former comes up a lot, and it makes him sound particularly ignorant. At one point he quotes from a historical source which evidently uses the more modern (and more phonetic) spelling "Chinggis Khan." But at the end of the quote, the author returns to his own mispronunciation of the name, apparently not having noticed the difference.
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