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)
This book started slowly, but Frazier's travel experiences were worth the wait. I learned a lot about a place in the world I never paid much attention to. I enjoyed Frazier reading his own book because I could hear his Russian pronunciation. One of my favorite audiobooks and worth a repeated listen.
Runner, Commuter, Dietitian and lover of U.S. History.
I had no idea that Ian Frazier was considered a humor writer in the travelogue world when I first listened to this book. Perhaps it's because Russians and Americans are too culturally different to easily share a sense of humor, or that the author was challenged by the language. Or perhaps it's simply because Siberia is filled with tragedies, historical, economic, and environmental. But while comic moments were few, I grew to admire the resourcefulness of Frazier's guides and the warmth of the Russian people. I liked the book best when Frazier stayed in Siberia. At times, he digressed back to or about the U.S. and the journey lost its way. I rated as a "3" because Frazier's voice and his frequent forays from the main topic made for a sleepy listen at times. Perhaps the print version, which includes Frazier's original sketches from the trip, better conveys the spirit and uniqueness of Siberia.
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.
mostly nonfiction listener
Actually I only read Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier, Thanksgiving was in Virginia with my in-laws.
This is one book that is best as an audiobook, as Ian Frazier is more a storyteller than an author, and his reading of his own book greatly adds to its pleasures. Audio also works well for Travels in Siberia due to all the Russian - hearing Frazier's pronunciation (and growing fluency over the 16 years he spent writing the book), greatly adds to the narrative.
There are many reasons to read about Siberia and about Russia. Driving home from Virginia on the Garden State Parkway we passed many LUKOIL gas stations. The first 3 letters of LUKOIL come from three Siberian oil fields, Langepasneftegaz, Urayneftegaz, and Kogalymneftegaz - and the fact that we fill up our minivans at a Russian owned gas station should remind us how important this vast country remains to us. Frazier's interest in Siberia is less about energy, although he does talk about the impact on Siberia and Russia of the growth of the energy sector (Russia is the 2nd largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, and the world's largest producer of natural gas). Rather, Frazier decides to criss-cross Siberia multiple times (in a van, on trains, and other various forms of transport) for love. Not the love of a woman (his wife seems and family seem inordinately and amazingly patient with his extended Siberian wanderings), but for the love of Russia.
Siberia is fascinating for all sorts of reasons. Mostly, we are fascinated by Siberia by its size (5.1 million square miles - or about three-quarters of all of Russia), remoteness and cold weather. Across the Bering Strait, Russia and the U.S. are only 53 miles apart - a fact that Frazier takes advantage of in his early trips from Nome Alaska to Siberia.
Travels in Siberia will not make you want to replicate Frazier's adventures and spend your next spring break in the Russian North. Siberia, as Frazier describes it, concentrates Russia's tendencies towards dysfunction, corruption, and inefficiency. The end of the Cold War, the rise of the Russian energy industry, and the waning of democracy have only heightened these tendencies. As bizarre and brutal as Siberia can be (Frazier spends time visiting Soviet era Gulags), the Siberian people Frazier meets are (almost) uniformly welcoming, literate, and generous in hosting a traveling American.
Highly recommended if you are curious about Russia, Siberia, or just want to escape to another world for 20.5 hours, (the length of the audiobook), with a funny and learned traveling companion.
Retired nightclub performer/computer technician, I now teach hula and ukulele to seniors, and record Hawaiian music for my halau!
I LOVE books that are narrated by their own authors. A long time a Simon Winchester fan, I can now add this charming author to my list of favorites. There is nothing like listening to someone relate their own stories. His reference to the belt-sander effect of the wind on his face as he stood looking into the wind on Diamead Island in the Bering Strait, made me chuckle out loud. His sincere and rather humorous recount of the unique "smell" of Russia is delightful. I know just what he means because having been to Japan several times over the decades I know there is a recognizable and distinct aroma of that country as well. I have read only the first part of "Travels in Siberia" and can't wait to listen to the other two. I do, however, reserve the right to change my mind on the other portions, but I don't think I will. Mr. Frazier is a genuinely captivating storyteller.
Most people do not have the slightest idea what goes on in modern day Siberia but after traveling along with Ian Frazier you will. An added plus is the author is also the narrator and I am not sure this book would have worked if he wasn't the narrator. This is your typical travel book but Frazier adds pizzaz which made me stick with the book from beginning to end.
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.
ranks as one of the top 5 books i have listened to.
I loved the discription of the tundra and the camping at night.
I especially liked Sasha. I know there were a lot of Sashas but I think the one that drove and planned the trip was Sasha. I liked his personality and how he actually ended up more like a friend.
No I listened over a period of 2 weeks on my way to work and home.
I was most fascinated by the historic flashbacks, such when he writes about Genghis Khan, the development of the Russian aristocracy and the Decemberists. The travel writing is not so interesting, although Frazier certainly has a gift for storytelling. I haven't finished the book and might not ever because, so far (perhaps 2/3 in) not much has happened. I think for the most part, he relies too much on the reader having a strong idea of what Siberia is like. He tends to play against such assumptions, but since I had so little understanding of the difference between Siberia and Western Russia, much of the impact fell flat for me. I hope that the hardcopy book contains maps and photographs. The endless listing of places doesn't work particularly well in an audiobook format and, while he describes locales fabulously, there are plenty of you-had-to-be-there moments which slowed down the pace.
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