Sunday, January 03, 2016

Travels in Siberia (2010)

I don't think I even suspected Ian Frazier's "Russia-love" (his term) until I finally opened this one up and started reading it recently on a long train journey, from Washington state to Minnesota and back. Travels in Siberia is typical of all Frazier's travel books, filled with a deep backdrop of book reading and long, searching, peripatetic journeying. There's little else I know quite like it, though admittedly I'm not that versed on travel literature. Siberia appears to be a state of mind as much as a huge sprawling geographical region (eight time zones! on land!), as Ian Frazier and a million others have said. I knew it was cold but I did not know it was so big. I did not understand its history or relationship exactly to Russia, so among other things I really appreciated, as always, all the lucid 'splainin' Frazier is wont to. I think I may also know at least one high school chum similarly bit by this Russia-love of Frazier's. Genghis Khan is hugely important in the Siberia region, and for once I feel like I have some understanding of the generalized historical threat, and menace, of barbarians, who rode and sacked and pillaged, etc. As much as anything a palpable sense of sadness pervades much of the writing here. Part of it is by circumstance, such as the particular ending of his long eastward journey across the region, exhausting even to read about in some of its particulars. But there's another layer of sadness I keyed into right away even on my own train journey, traveling westward across the Great Plains of North America in North Dakota and Montana, and that is the amount of environmental change we are seeing in our lifetimes. The glaciers are gone now from Glacier National Park, and have been for some time. Mt. Rainier in Washington state is losing its once massive glacier. Similar trends are evident in Siberia, of course, which Frazier is able to witness (albeit imperfectly in many ways) on four journeys between 1993 and 2009. This inevitably invites sadness. There is also some shedding of naivete—or maybe that was just my own?—in the impossible levels of corruption interlarded through every aspect of everything Frazier encounters in Russia. It really is remarkable, and disheartening. Yes, it sounds like they often have stout hearts and good spirit, and as a culture are capable of great leaps of joy and inspiration. But the corruption. Is it really the way forward? Recommended with reservations—you may have to love Ian Frazier's travel writing, as I do, to weather some of these passages. He was driven at least as batty as I would have been by even just a little of this.

In case it's not at the library.

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