71 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great historical journey through Siberia
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...
Published on October 13, 2010 by Downtown Pearl
47 of 60 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great history lesson, but shaky travel book
I truly enjoyed reading this book. I am learning Russian and took my own first trip to the country this year; there is so much to learn and discover about Russia and I appreciated Frazier's interesting, concise and occasionally humorous lessons on the country's history, culture and geography. Indeed, I found myself laughing out loud at several passages - a valued...
Published on December 5, 2010 by Laura F
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71 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great historical journey through Siberia,
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!
98 of 114 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeously written, but flawed American viewpoint,
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. He then visits a bit with the Even peoples in Yakutia, but again fails to relate any information about their history, although the book has some history on the Russian colonization of the region.
3. Frazier entered Siberia with the notion that it is All About Gulags; that is a typical American lens/misperception. Siberia is a whole lot of things, and Siberians do not, nor did they ever, think of their land as Prison Land, any more than Californians currently obsess about Japanese internment camps in California. In both places the gulags are a sad and horrible history but they are far from defining the place. If you lived in Siberia for a year and listened to Russian conversation, you would never know there are any prisons there. Another stereotype of Siberia that Frazier failed to question, and ended up just perpetuating.
4. Siberia and the Far East are the very most beautiful (a) in nature and all the wilderness parks, which Frazier never seems to get off the highway to see!; and (b) in private homes, where Russians and other natives fully open their hearts and are your best friends for life. Frazier is more exposed to the (much harsher) "public life" of Russia, the train toilets and the public litter, than to its wonderful private life. Russians often said to me, "I've visited America, and it's boring there." What they often mean is that Russians, and particularly those who live east of the Urals, are a very social, hospitable, warm, fun people who know how to have a good time. Frazier for whatever reason barely gets a peak at this. And he writes about forests, but never really gets a look at how gorgeous they are in Siberia, because he is always sort of on the main drag, pushed on by two hosts from St. Petersburg who only want to drive faster rather than slowing down and actually seeing anything.
That said, this book is wonderfully written, has riveting detail, and has some truly brilliant insights into both the Russian psyche and the land that Frazier visited. Worth reading.
47 of 60 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great history lesson, but shaky travel book,
I truly enjoyed reading this book. I am learning Russian and took my own first trip to the country this year; there is so much to learn and discover about Russia and I appreciated Frazier's interesting, concise and occasionally humorous lessons on the country's history, culture and geography. Indeed, I found myself laughing out loud at several passages - a valued experience during a good read for me!
Nonetheless, as much as I appreciate seeing an author's sense of humor and personality shine through a narrative like this, I found parts of Frazier's discourse to be simply grating and tinged with a familiarly uncomfortable, unmistakable East Coast self-importance. As many times as Frazier may call himself a Midwesterner in the text, his worldview is clearly that of an affluent New Yorker. This is perfectly evidenced by his reference to his guide/trip organizer/translator/mechanic throughout Siberia as his `driver'. It took a native Russian teacher later to point out to him that he should call the talented person who shepherded him (and his expensive fishing rods) across thousands of miles of Siberia his `colleague' instead (also worth pointing out that in addition to this man's guide credentials, he's the head of the robotics lab at St. Petersburg State University, hardly a `driver' qualification).
Frazier goes on to display a latent sexism in a passage about the beauty of post-soviet-era Russian women. He marvels at the `beautiful women walking everywhere' in Krasnoyarsk, recalling a negative Cold War American stereotype of Russian female appearance and questioning its origins. In his quest to figure out how Russian women apparently became beautiful, he examines historical male perceptions of Russian women (including that of John Quincy Adams), questions a Russian male friend and then finally agrees with the theory of an American male economist that compares Russian female beauty to a commodity crop. Not once does he ask Russian female friends about this apparent phenomenon; had he taken this simple and evident approach, he might have heard numerous, more logical explanations, including the simple reason of the sudden availability of Western fashions after the fall of Communism.
In general, and as other reviewers on Amazon have pointed out, Frazier's attitude and approach keeps him tied to a high-way or zipped up in a one-man tent for good portion of his travels. As his Russian `drivers' go into towns and villages in the evening and get to know the local people and culture, letting the flow of the journey lead them to new experiences and friends, the author remains a somewhat hesitant observer. His obstinate request to see a Siberian prison causes an obvious cultural disconnect and tension between himself and the Russian guides; once again baring his East Coast mind-set, he seems to believe that the simple act of paying them to show him a prison should override their evident discomfort with exploring this aspect of Russian history.
On the whole, I liked this book. My repeated bouts of irritation with the author's personality, however, chip two stars off of my rating.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More History Book Than Travelogue,
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.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hours of boredom interrupted by ...,
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.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Constant language errors,
As a speaker of Russian, I found the constant mistakes in Mr. Frazier's Russian appalling. Or rather, not the fact that he made them (he admits that his grasp of the language is somewhat basic), but that Farrar, Strauss and Giroux let them be published. In his enthusiasm for his new language, Mr. Frazier tells us the Russian words for a great number of things, getting half of them wrong. "Go with God" is s'Bogom, not s'Bogum. Slippers are tapochki, not tapichki. Silver dew is serebryanaya rosa, not serebrennaya rosa. Russian swearing is mat, not mat' - the latter means "mother." Orlov does not mean "eagle" - it's the surname derived from "eagle," but an eagle is an oryol. Siberian dumplings are pozy, not pozhe - pozhe means "later." Grybii is a bizarre transliteration of the word for "mushrooms", which would make more sense as griby. These complaints may seem nit-picky, but would a book with the same number of English mistakes be issued by this publisher? Does Farrar, Strauss and Giroux not have any Russian-speaking editors?
As for content, other reviews have covered it quite well: it's part history, part travelogue (a strength, in my opinion - he writes history well); his summertime van trip across Siberia is rather boring and almost made me put the book down entirely; the book exists in a weird masculinized world, where women are only love interests, eye candy, or the good wifey waiting at home with the kids (this is a letdown for me, but may not be for others). I thought his best moments were simple descriptions of sensory experiences, which makes sense if we see this as a book written by someone discovering a new country and culture - his raw impressions shine more than his efforts to make sense of things.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Travels in Siberia,
`Travels in Siberia` is an excellent and up to date travel book through Siberia by American writer Ian Frazier, best known for his 1980s travel book Great Plains. Parts of the book were originally serialized in The New Yorker, which sponsored one of his five trips to Russia (those five trips making up the five main chapters of the book). There are countless older travel books about Siberia, many with the exact same title "Travels in Siberia", but things have changed rapidly since the collapse of the USSR so it's good to have a recent account. Frazier's fascination and love of Siberia is somewhat infectious, though he and his friends often wonder what the appeal is given all its problems and horrid history. Frazier is an excellent writer who focuses on the small detail, such as types of trash on the road, the types of clothes, food, restrooms, service (or lack thereof) etc.. one really gets the sense of how crude and rough it is, like a third world country. As a traveler, Frazier is ironically not very adventurous, given how dangerous Siberia can be, it is a safe pedestrian journey. The most daring thing he did was jump out of the car and snap a picture of a prison from afar. When his Russian guides went off to party with the locals, he would stay at camp alone inside the tent. Perhaps because his Russian language skills were very basic it limited his comfort level in new situations. We learn a lot about his guide Sergei, an archetypal Russian who had an amazing ability to fix any vehicle problem with a nail, wire and roadside refuse. In the end I think it's a good book because it covers so much territory and Frazier's eye for simple but revealing detail combined with his excellent writing and humor keep it always interesting and fun to read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars all-encompassing, but not always engrossing,
This review is from: Travels in Siberia (Kindle Edition)
Well-written with humor, honesty, and plenty of history, Travels in Siberia encompasses just about everything that could be said about the region. Frazier shares his various voyages to and within Siberia, including a cross-continental road trip in an often-breaking-van, interspersing his narrative with plenty of Russian history.
During his multiple expeditions, the author meets people from all walks of life, battles the elements, has a love-hate relationship with his guides, wrestles with his own nervousness and anxiety-ridden tendencies, is attacked by swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes, explores an abandoned prison, rides in all sorts of vehicles on terrains both monotonous and dangerous, and never manages to fall out of love with Russia.
I greatly enjoyed Fraizer's stories. However, I sometimes felt like his history lessons went on for too long. He delves into Russia's bloody history, going back to the time of Genghis Khan, through the tzars, the Decemberists, commuism and Stalinism, post-communism corruption, and into the future (where he describes the effects of global warming on Siberia's permafrost). I did like the recounting of local legends, but the countless Russians named (with their lives described in [often] unnecessary detail) became exhausting. Although it was easy to get swept up in the personal travelogue, Fraizer's history lessons did not always have the same page-turning draw.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars As Much A History As a Travel Book,
This is not a travel book per se - one where the author goes from point A to point B a la Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin and describes the point in between. It's more than that: Ian Frazier has given this book a lot of thought (he says he started the project in 1993) and because he covers a lot of history of the land and its people - ancient history, modern history and history in between It's as much history as travel. At the same time it's less than that too because when I put down a book by Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin down I have almost uniformly had the impression that I had been introduced to a new country and really knew something about it. Not his time. However, when I finished this book I felt unrequited in a way. I knew nothing about the people who had lived in Siberia long before the Russians, just a little more about those who live there today and nothing about how any of them manage to get along in such a strenuous climate, Nor had I been given a description of the forests, the rivers, the flora and the fauna that caused me to see them in my readers eye like Chatwin describes a Patagonian farm. However I had a picture of modern Siberia in sufficient detail to know that I have absolutely no interest whatever in going there - trash, cold, monotony, an aging and dilapidated infrastructure where there is any infrastructure at all - and a long story of the road trip from hell - 3.000 miles from St Petersburg across Russia and Siberia with two crazy "guides" in an ancient diesel Renault delivery van. Enough!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lofty, well-researched memoir/travel book hybrid,
This review is from: Travels in Siberia (Paperback)
As the title of my review mentions, "Travels in Siberia" is a cross between memoir and travel guide (with ample elements of history book interspersed between the two) written by an American who visited Russia several times during the early post-Soviet years.
This book interested me because I, too, am an American who has visited Siberia (though not as extensively), as my husband is Russian and from Siberia. There were several things I could relate to - such as feeling like an outsider because of linguistic difficulties, dealing with the unique filth of the public restrooms, and the admirable and often creative quality many Russians have to improvise a solution to many household and automotive problems. The part where he recalls struggling with putting on his boots and being stared at quizzically by his Russian hosts made me laugh-- my husband always chides me for "putting my shoes on wrong", and I didn't realize this is one of the great cultural divides. Frazier hits the nail on the head when describing many of the cultural differences in Russia compared to the US.
There are also many parallels between his voyage and mine--when he was in Russia, September 11 happened. Ten days after I returned to the US, the attack at Domodetovo airport hit and there were over a hundred fatalities. In both our cases, seeing the harrowing images of a place one had just come from was shocking, a deja vu that shakes the core.
One thing that makes this book especially notable is the many trips the author took in the 1990s and early 2000s-- a time when Russia was in a constant state of flux and socioeconomic change. Where he leaves off at the end of the book is where mine began, and his meticulous chronicling of the changes he noticed during his voyages is somewhat akin to a literary stop-motion video. The temporal and spatial breadth of his book is impressive, and makes it one of the best I have read so far on the subject.
However, there were some things that annoyed me. One was that the tone of his writing seemed to imply that most Americans don't know or care about what goes on in Siberia. Admittedly, maybe in the general population knowledge about Siberia is sparse, but of the people reading his book, it's relatively safe to say that most people picking up his book do have some interest in the region. It came off as haughty and slightly patronizing at times, the way he spoke - "As possibly the only person on earth today who has actually seen both Yakutsk and Elwood, Indiana..." I get that he seems to underestimate the reader at points in the book. It didn't ruin it for me, but the book would have been better if he had taken a more casual, approachable tone.
Another was that he, at times, embodied the stereotype he was bashing--that of the indifferent American. At one point he defies his Russian travel companions' warnings to not stay away from a particular prison by abruptly dashing out of the car and snapping photographs. His ignorance and subsequent stubbornness when it comes to apologizing was a little obnoxious. But it is a testament to his journalistic honesty that he included this incident in the book.
Stylistically, there were a few flaws. There are some parts where he departs from his natural, historian/reporter tone and tries to experiment with abrupt, short sentences in Beatnik style (pg 366-67) which seemed random and unnecessary, as well as kind of pretentious in a hipster way. Another downfall was that the ending seemed somehow unfinished, not well thought out. The last few pages are a fast-forward of Russia in the present time, with a handful of grim statistics about the country's population and relatively short life-span. There is a paragraph in which he extols the country's "incomplete greatness" that would have, ironically, made a much better ending than the one he chose.
Overall, though, this book is an approachable reference to a very vast, diverse region. It is a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn more about Siberia, Russia in general, or even those just looking for an interesting leisure read.
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Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier (Paperback - September 27, 2011)