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A Long Way for a Notable–“Travels in Siberia”

Earlier this week I finished Ian Frazier’s “Travels In Siberia,” one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.

It made an excellent companion to “The Tiger” by John Vaillant, my most recent Notable, also nonfiction. “The Tiger” happens in far eastern Siberia, and as I wrote previously, captures the entire geography and history of that particular region within the story of one tiger.

Frazier, one the other hand, is all over Siberia. And it’s an awfully long way across. This book describes several trips he makes into Siberia, the largest by far a trek with two guides along the route of the Trans-Siberian highway.

I hadn’t read Frazier before, though many of my reading friends recommend him highly. I expected that the book would be as much about him as about Siberia, which was fine. I appreciated his often self-deprecating humor, and his ability to recognize when he was inserting just a little too much of himself. I also enjoyed his “birdwalks” of distraction into details or stories about the places he was visiting. Just when I lost track myself of why we were going down a particular narrative path, he would once again connect his story to the place at hand. It seemed effortless, but is a mark of a strong writer.

Frazier refers to a kind of “Russia fever” that he caught, a condition that kept him from ever feeling quite finished with the country. Even after the primary journey of the book, a months-long journey across Siberia, he has to go back.

A question I usually ask myself when I finish a book is–what image will I keep from this? And in Frazier’s case, it’s his description of the smell of places, especially Russian airports and restrooms. I think this explains part of his popularity–he plumbs the depth of his travel experience, and employs every sense.

The key to my enjoyment of “Travels in Siberia” was to relax and enjoy the telling, and not be in a hurry to get to a destination. I did enjoy the reading, but I never felt that luscious compulsion to return to this, the compulsion that I always hope to sense when I crack open a new book.

I’ll certainly recommend this to people who enjoy travel books, who have a particular interest in Siberia, or who enjoy stories of cross-cultural experiences.

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