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Travels in Siberia Hardcover – October 12, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 125 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2010: Over 20 years after Great Plains, one of the more oddly wonderful books of the last few decades, Ian Frazier takes us to another territory worthy of his expansive curiosity: the vast eastern stretches of Russia known as Siberia. Through the stories of Russian friends, Frazier was drawn there in the early '90s, and he soon fell in love with the country--an "embarrassing" sort of middle-aged love, an involuntary infection. What he loves is its tragedy and its humor, its stoic practicality and its near-insanity: he calls it "the greatest horrible country in the world," and Siberia is its swampy, often-frozen, and strikingly empty backyard. He took five trips there over the next dozen or so years, and Travels in Siberia is based on those journeys. But as in Great Plains, when Frazier travels he follows his own curiosity through time as well as space, telling stories of the Mongols and the Decembrists with the same amused and empathetic eye he brings to his own traveling companions. His curiosity quickly becomes yours, as does his affection for this immense and grudgingly hospitable land. --Tom Nissley

From Booklist

Frazier (Great Plains, 1989; On the Rez, 2000) has long been fascinated by vast, empty spaces and the people who live in them. It’s only natural that he is interested in the place that is almost synonymous with nowhere: Siberia. Here he tells of his repeated visits, from a summer trip across the Bering Strait to a winter trip to Novosibirsk; however, the centerpiece of the book is his overland crossing from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. That’s a massive journey, and this is a massive book. He captures the character and particulars of the place but lets us down, somewhat, as a tour guide. The very best travel writers possess physical and mental toughness, but Frazier is often surprisingly timid: he allows his Russian guides to drive past prisons he really wants to stop and see. And when, at the end of the book, he finally visits an abandoned, snow-covered prison camp, he doesn’t explore the barracks building because it feels wrong: “I was merely a foreign observer.” His complaints about the discomforts of the journey occasionally leave us wondering whether he really loves Russia. Still and all, it’s an unforgettable and enlightening portrait of a place most of us know very little about. --Keir Graff

Read an Excerpt from the Book
Read the first chapter from Travels in Siberia [PDF].

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 529 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (October 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374278725
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374278724
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (125 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #614,909 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
i read two excerpts from this book in the New Yorker Magazine a summer or two ago and couldn't tear myself away. It's such an adventure. If you've ever read one of the great Russian novels or studied world history at all you already have an historical vision filed away in your head and this book brings it all back, richly. The spirit in which Frazier traveled to research this book and because he's written it so well you feel like a fly on his shoulder throughout the journey. i'm so happy the book is finally published, i've been waiting a long time for it. Highly recommended!
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Format: Hardcover
I'm going to write my review without biasing myself by reading the others.

I lived and worked in Siberian and the Russian Far East for several years in the 1990s. Frazier has always been one of my favorite authors; he is king of detail. "On the Rez" was a phenomenal book. Missing my second home, Russia, I snatched up Travels in Siberia the instant it became available.

I'm going to start with the limitations of this book:

1. East of Chita and Yakutia, the locals uniformly call their land the "Russian Far East." They do not call it Siberia, any more than people from Idaho or California call their land the Midwest. Just like Americans have the Midwest and the West, the Russians have the corresponding landlocked Siberia and the coastal Far East. It perpetuates Westerners' geographic misnaming of the region.

2. Leaving the history of Siberia's Indigenous peoples out of the book. This is the most egregious oversight of this book, and it's particularly perplexing given Frazier's history researching and writing "On the Rez." Can you imagine an author writing on the history and the experience of the Dakotas without mentioning the Sioux? This book manages to paint Siberia and the Russian Far East as the historic battleground of Russians and the Mongols, without mentioning the couple dozen tribes - of Asian, Turkish, or European descent - that migrated to, lived in, and defined Siberia for centuries before either the Russians or the Mongols arrived. In a few of these regions, Indigenous peoples still outnumber Russians, and it is still common to hear the native languages spoken on the streets or in government offices. Frazier writes about two visits to the Republic of Buryatia without clarifying that Buryatians are Indigenous descendents of the Mongols.
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Format: Hardcover
Ian Frazier's Travels In Siberia is a lengthy tome about not just Mr. Frazier's travels in Russia but a history of the country including Genghis Khan, the Decembrists, Stalin, Lenin and everyone in between. The book is extremely well written and you can feel Mr. Frazier's genuine love of the country coming through, but I felt a little shorted by the passages on his actual travels in Siberia. The first thing you think about when you think of Siberia is that it is a cold desolate place, but on his first trip he goes in the summer. While he does rectify this by going back and travelling through Siberia in the winter that trip seems more like an afterthought in the book. On his first trip, he spends much of his time sitting back in the camp his two travelling companions set up in various campgrounds, roadsides, etc. while they go out and experience the towns. It would have felt more like a travel book if Mr. Frazier had joined the two on their excursions into town and written about the locals instead of the many museums he visited. That being said, Mr. Frazier deserves credit for an extremely well written book especially his story of how he ended his first journey through Siberia on 9/11/01 and his resulting trip back to his home in New Jersey. It was quite compelling and the most heartfelt portion of the book.
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Format: Hardcover
Not by terror but really really good writing. The discouraging part of this book is that I.F. shows us now and again that he can evoke a place or situation brilliantly. For example at the ballet on page 441: "During the last act when the stage lights were bright and spilling out into the audience, I observed the audience's faces and they all were pointed intently at the stage, each with the devout, rapt, out-of-body expression of somebody watching the enactment of a deeply remembered dream."
But precious little of these evocative prose have to do with his two travels through Siberia. Most of that is just as much of a slog for us as it was for him. And, he is such a whiner. I'm all for honesty in travel writing. There's a place for how bad the toilet situation is, but so much of this book details the uncomfortable beds, the poor food, the ragtag breakdown vehicles, the frightening roads. I.F. worries about everything. It's sort of like Woody Allen complaining for 1000s of miles and hundreds of pages. It's funny for a while but gets old fast.
I enjoyed his initial excursion into NE Siberia from Alaska (though I could have done without his days worth of grousing and complaining and the details of awaiting a flight from Nome), but I think I.F.'s mistake was making the book about Siberia. As much as he likes the idea of it, he's obviously more suited to cities. He seems most enthusiastic when he's telling us about St Petersburg.
One thing I really have to thank him for is making me aware of Langston Hughes's I wonder as I wander. I had no idea that L.H. traveled through Central Asia and across the USSR. LH put up with a lot worse than I.F. did but had a lot more fun and wrote a much more readable book about it. I'm half way through that now and would give it 5 stars.
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