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Editorial Reviews

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

Publisher's Summary

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

Critic Reviews

"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)

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I Loved This Book

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I don't know if my overwhelming love for this book will transfer to other readers but Ian Frazier's obsession with travel and all things Russian were infectious. I found the story laugh out loud funny with some beloved interludes striking me with the giggles randomly during the day while I sort socks and cook soup long after I finished the book. It was banned as bedtime listening because my laughter kept my husband awake! It may be that the author's stories about the Soviet ethos reminded me of my own trips through Central Asia and Eastern Europe. It brought my travel memories and personal brushes with the quirkiness of the Soviet/ Russian worldview into clearer focus. But, whatever the reason, to me, Ian hit the nail on the head and captured that world perfectly. I can't recommend the book more strongly. It is wonderfully engaging and funny as all get out. Listening to Travel's in Siberia is the next best thing to being right there with Ian Frazier on his next trip to Russia.

33 of 35 people found this review helpful

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Ultimately fascinating

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.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Judith
  • Richmond, IN, United States
  • 11-06-10

Great Listen

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.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • John
  • Escondido, CA, United States
  • 12-08-10

Enjoyed it

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.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Darwin8u
  • Mesa, AZ, United States
  • 02-04-14

Literary lovechild of John McPhee & Bill Bryson

A gifted narrator, Ian Frazier for me seems to occupy a genetic/literary lovechild space somewhere between Bill Bryson (mother: Midwestern appetites) and John McPhee (father: New Yorker affectations). Like Frazier, I too have been drawn to Russia. I remember traveling to Moscow and St. Petersburg shortly after the wall came down (and before the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis). There is something magnetic (both attractive and repellant) about the people, the culture, the geography, that sucks a certain type/flux of person in.

Both a travelogue and an historical review of Siberia, 'Travels in Siberia' never once disappoints. Frazier hits all the major markers about Siberia: its size, the cold, its history, language, food, the cold, gulags, the cold, transportation, hot women, resources, food, language, hot women, the cold, politics, people, the cold, and hot women. Seriously, the women in Siberia are apparently really hot.

Other things I enjoyed while reading this: 1) All the books referenced by Ian Frazier (check out the selected bibliography. Some books just have a sexy bibliography). There is now a whole slew of Siberian exploration books, Russian novels, and Decembrist history that I want/need to read. 2) Frazier's simple, spare drawings were perfect for this book. 3) The dynamic arc created by this book being written over the last 15+ years. It reminded me of certain Impressionist paintings done at different times of the same exact scene. The colors, light, and shapes shift because of shifts in time and season. The same is true of Frazier's book. You exit the book with a significantly different view of Siberia from which you entered it. That large and desolate country changed in 15 years, certainly, but more than that Frazier changed by both his experiences in and his experiences THRU Siberia.

Now that Pussy Riot* have been released from their own stint in a Siberian penal colony, the book seems like a perfectly timed pre-read for the Olympics. While Sochi is more Caucasus/Black Sea than Siberia, it is still Russia in the way it seems focused on the repressed, totalitarian, corrupting cold. Gays are to stay away. Stray dogs are being round up and shot. Pussy Riot is freed to garner some PR goodwill (yeah, good luck with that Putinbaby). It all seems like some 21st century match-up of Siberian protesters (gays and Pussy Riot) vs the modern Russian Tsar (Putin, obviously). I'm waiting for a whole new set of protesters gearing up for their slow train ride to a Penal Colony. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

* I should disclose that I am really attracted to Pussy Riot. Not that "ooh they are solo pretty" attracted way, but in that singular way you (Yes, you faithful reader) are attracted to people with a sharp purpose, excess energy, the ability to capture a moment perfectly, and a willingness to go badasshard against institutions as big and strong as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian totalitarian state. Pussy Riot did everything the Decembrists did, but they did it in heels and backwards. Plus they have the name Pussy Riot, which is kinda silly, but still also makes my tongue swell, and eyes dart back and forth (looking for Mom) when I say it out loud.

13 of 18 people found this review helpful

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Sidetracked In Siberia

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.

10 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Sandi
  • Williamsburg, NM, United States
  • 02-08-11

History and Travel

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.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Thanksgiving Traveling in Siberia

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.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Warnie
  • Plano, TX, United States
  • 02-16-12

Not as good as I'd hoped.

I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. Frazier goes through a lot of Siberia's history, which I thought was really fascinating and very well told. However, I didn't find him quite so compelling any time he was talking about his travels there. He goes on and on about how much he loves Russia, and yet...he didn't convince me, despite the fact that he went back so many times. To me, it seemed that he talked an awful lot about the inconveniences, and the things that he found gross, and the things that didn't work or that broke down, and how horrible the bugs are, and the ways that his Russian guides/travelling companions/people he stayed with/other people staying in the same places annoyed him or made him mad. He does a great job of describing all those things, but there are not a lot of descriptions that actually made me think that he felt genuine affection for Russia or the people he met there (other than maybe all the hot Russian women he sees walking around), or that made Russia seem as magical to me as he says it seems to him.

I might have enjoyed this a bit more if I'd read it instead of listening to the audio version; Frazier reads it himself, and, while he's certainly not a terrible reader, he's not really a great one either. Sometimes he would get going and read in a very natural way; other. times. he. would. read. like. this. Which, personally, I find really painful to listen to. There were also some really weird pronunciations here and there, as though he wasn't actually thinking about what he was saying.

Anyway, whether it was his personality I couldn't get behind or whether it's just that I found his reading off-putting, I ended up ready for it to be over by the time I was halfway through. I'd rate this two stars only, if not for all the lovely history parts, which really are great. And for Sergei, who is the one person he managed to convey with some little bit of depth.

Meh to the rest of it though.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Extraordinary look at the real Siberia and Russia.

Long, detailed but well worth the effort. It becomes fascinating as you allow yourself to get lost in the journey.