‘Travels in Siberia’ by Ian Frazier
When I moved from Nantucket back to upstate New York, I found myself with a long drive featuring an endless parade of fading in-and-out radio stations before me. All NPR wanted to talk about was Palmyra (a worthy topic, surely, but not one I needed to hear about for 8 straight hours) and all the other stations seemed to insist upon the same three Taylor Swift songs interspersed with Coldplay and Walk the Moon’s ubiquitous “Shut Up and Dance.”
We stopped overnight in my college town and I knew therein lied my salvation. A quick trip to Turn It Up!, the local used record store, produced a $3 copy the audiobook version of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Sibera. This opus was available on 16 audiodiscs read for your pleasure by the author. In a small audiobook section crammed with thrillers and romance novels, picking up Frazier’s book wasn’t a difficult decision. I love travel narratives, I knew nothing about Siberia, and had just enough interest in general Russian history that it seemed like a safe bet.
And so it was! Not only did discs 1-4 keep me awake and fascinated for the entirety of my trip across New York State, the rest of the book (procured from the library in physical book form the day after I arrived) proved equally gripping.
Travels in Siberia is the work of decades — Frazier started working on it in 1993 and it was published in 2010 — and the author’s unrelenting enthusiasm for Russia and determination to understand its culture and history comes through in every word. He calls it “unfortunate Russia-love,” but I wouldn’t want to read a book about the area from any other perspective. His unfortunate Russia-love is intoxicating and makes you appreciate Siberia, a distinctly unwelcoming place, in a way not possible otherwise.
Stylistically a mash of travel narrative and popular history book, Travels manages to weave Frazier’s personal travels, spotlights on various moments in Siberian (and Russian) history, and summaries of previous Siberian travel narratives together in an expert mix. Many travelogues focus on a the personal journey with only snippets of context, but Frazier masters both sides of the coin and provides an ideal entry point into Siberia for anyone willing to dive in.
Honestly, this isn’t a book I would likely have ever discovered if not for the slim pickings at Turn It Up!, but I am indebted to the serendipity of used book and record stores for this one. It was educational, fascinating, and a journey unto itself. Highly recommended!