Review: Travels in Siberia

While I was away, the Journal published my review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. I’ve posted it below.

(Original link here.)

Travels in Siberia

Ian Frazier, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 529 pp; $34.50

At the centre of The New Yorker’s recent food issue was a piece on April Bloomfield, a British chef working in New York who made her name at the Spotted Pig, a restaurant the magazine dubbed the city’s first “gastropub.”

An originally English term for bistros with upscale takes on classic pub fare, gastropubs have been the new big thing for a few years now.

At the Spotted Pig, the signature dish is a hamburger, chargrilled and served with crumbled Roquefort. Other gastropub staples include gourmet grilled-cheese or shepherd’s pie and french fries.

What connects the recipes, at their best, is a commitment to execution over outward innovation. They aren’t simple, but they can be made to look that way.

The point is to impress with flavour, to be excellent within existing forms, not to dazzle with appearance or gilt for gilt’s sake.

There’s something of the gastropub in Travels in Siberia, the new work from Ian Frazier. Both travelogue and history, the book is a little like the perfect hamburger. There’s nothing outwardly flashy to it. No gimmicks. No colon in the title. No counterintuitive theme. It’s just a beautiful book, well written.

For me, at least, it was the best non-fiction book of 2010, a work of astonishing scope made to look simple by one of the true artists of the genre.

Beginning 10 years ago, Frazier took two long treks across Siberia, a land he describes as being without formal boundaries, one so physically vast it encompasses eight time zones and so psychologically imposing as to exist for many not as “the place itself but (as) a figure of speech,” a symbol of exile and emptiness.

Before, after and in-between the longer trips, Frazier dipped in and out of the country on a series of short hops. Sometimes with companions, other times on his own, he explored the crannies of Russia’s hinterlands. He tracked down gulags and museums and retraced, as best he could, the steps of other journeys.

Like Frazier’s 1989 opus, The Great Plains, Travels in Siberia is as much chronicle of chronicles as it is straight travelogue. Frazier seems to have read almost everything published on Siberia and he retells the history here with both remarkable depth and an eye for the absurd.

Through successive regimes, Siberia has remained an exile of last resort. Rebels, intellectuals and others unlucky enough to displease whichever autocrat then ruling Russia have found themselves shipped to gulags and labour camps in the far east for centuries.

Frazier recounts many of those stories here. And while he never shies from the horrors of life in exile -disease, starvation, sometimes torture -he doesn’t belabour the point either.

Frazier’s writing isn’t glib, but he also isn’t afraid of the darkly comic.

About the life of the 19th-century author Nicolai Chernyshevsky, an influential figure in pre-revolutionary Russia, he writes that it “illustrates the unfortunate fact that a writer can hope and strive and suffer, and in the end even give his life, for work that turns out to be not good.”

On the larger subject of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, he opines that “time spent in Siberia was an important highlight of their resumés, a proof of authenticity just as going to jail has been for certain rappers.”

In lesser hands, entire chapters on subjects such as Siberian exiles under the Romanovs may have bogged down. But written in Frazier’s distinctive voice, they coast.

His retelling of Russia under the Mongols is especially strong.

Frazier believes the Mongol period playing a profound role in shaping modern Russia. In his telling, the centuries of terror and oppression helped craft the central conundrum of Russia today, “namely, how it can be so great and so horrible simultaneously.

“I think one answer is that when other countries were in their beginnings . Russia was beset by Mongols,” he writes. “That is, Russia can be thought of as an abused country; one has to make allowances for her because she was badly mistreated in her childhood .”

Throughout the book, Frazier seems to write almost beneath the surface. When describing his own travels, his sentences flow unnoticed before popping up in sudden, small explosions of humour.

During a long train ride -described as a “hump that must be got over, a central knot to be worked through” -Frazier spies a woman “so large and rumpled she seemed to be part bed herself.”

Later he encounters young men trucking cars from Japan with haircuts that “stand up straight in a bristly Russian way.”

The book slows somewhat midway through Frazier’s second, winter, trek. Frazier himself seems tired of Russia by that point and his observations dwindle. So much of what made the first two-thirds of the book spark -the wit, the detail -fade. But this is a minor quibble. Travels in Siberia is thick -more than 500 pages with footnotes -and Frazier generally keeps the flow alive, not an unimpressive feat in a book that spans more than a thousand years and lacks a single, overarching narrative.

As a writer, Frazier observes and interprets but he rarely draws broad conclusions. When he builds to a larger point, it often seems to be at least half joke, like with the Mongols and modern Russia. So it can be hard to describe precisely what Travels in Siberia is about, or what makes it so good.

It’s a bit like telling someone why one hamburger is better than another. Like April Bloomfield, Frazier isn’t so much an innovator as he is a master of execution. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about his method, but his product is nonetheless peerless.

Frazier takes the travel writing form to levels few others can. It even feels a bit limiting to call this a travel book; it’s like calling the Spotted Pig a diner. There’s so much depth to the book, and such a unique voice. More than 10 years in the writing, it seems destined to be a classic, a book to be read and reread over and over again.

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The case of the sausage-fingered man

I’m in the Munich airport, on my way home. Hopefully I’ll blog more when I’m back in Canada. In the meantime, here’s a post I wrote for Kosovo 2.0, a multilingual magazine currently planning their first print edition:

(Original link here)

I had this moment, leaving the apartment Monday, which may or may not say something about what it is to be a foreigner in Kosovo, or anywhere else.

I’m staying in a place up the hill from Prishtina’s city center. It belongs to another journalist. He’s in Belgrade for the week and left me the keys.

The apartment is on the fourth floor of a decent building down a long driveway near Magic Park, a skating rink cum banquet hall that plays loud pop music about 18 hours out of every 24.

Each floor in the building has four suites arranged around a wide foyer and staircase. My moment occurred on the second-floor landing.

I was walking down the stairs when a man with thick fingers and a moustache told me to stop. He had a sheaf of invoices and was, I presume, some kind of bill collector: maybe for the water, maybe the utilities.

As it turns out, “stop” was about the only thing either one of us understood in the other’s language. For about five minutes he tried to give me a bill  —I think —while I did my unilingual best to explain that I was just visiting.

“I don’t live here,” I said. He waved a finger. “I’m a guest,” I replied. He jabbed at his sheaf. “Guest,” I said again. “Guest.” As if by repeating myself I could achieve some form of immaculate translation.

And so it went on. He would say something. I would reply. He would jab. I would gesture. Soon we were half yelling in the stairwell.

Eventually, both of us frustrated, I just walked away, down the stairs, out the door and into the street.

It was the kind of event that always feels more sinister in the moment than it actually was. The two of us had no common language and no shared social norms. Neither of us knew what to expect from the other.

I was flustered. So was he. He wanted something. I couldn’t tell him why it would be useless to get it from me. It was a classic fish-out-of-water moment, the kind that litters travel writing and says, I think, almost nothing about Kosovo or Canada or even much about me or that guy.

Living as an outsider, a foreigner, one not familiar with the way things are done, can disrupt your everything. It can occupy your brain. Force you to think about little things you usually do without thought. And as a writer, that’s dangerous.

My original idea for this blog was to write about crossing the street. My first night in Prishtina, I stood at a crosswalk for an uncomfortable period, waiting for the cars to slow down. I considered how long I could be there before people would notice. I thought about working my way around or just going back to my hotel. I even tried to look like I was waiting for someone or otherwise occupied in something other than staring at a street. (I did this by putting my hands in my pockets and pacing. Once, I fiddled with a pen.)

The point of this story, I guess, would have been that you cross the road differently here. Back home you wait till the cars slow down, make eye contact and go. Here you just go.

Does this difference say anything about either culture? Probably not. But it’s the kind of anecdote writers, like me, use in lieu of actual understanding. It tells the reader how it feels to be me here, but it doesn’t really speak to what here is.

A few years back I interviewed an American author about a book he’d set in Buenos Aires. The writer grew up in New York and lived in Israel. He’d spent time in Argentina but not enough to consider himself local.

Still, he told me, he wanted to write the city like a local would. He didn’t want to dwell on the landscape an outsider would notice, the physical reality of any place that is jarring at first but soon blends in.

Sometimes I worry that, in writing about Kosovo all I have is the outsider’s reality, the run-ins with bill collectors and mishaps while crossing the road. After all, I don’t really understand this country. I don’t see how I could. I’ve been here barely a month and half of that was spent in a half-nervous fog.

But when I get home, I’ll still try to build something from what I’ve seen. I won’t cut myself out. I can’t pretend I wasn’t here. But I do hope I’ll have more to offer than awkward encounters and my own neurotic fears.

As for the bill collector, he left the tab at my door. It was there when I got home.

So Nate, if you’re reading this, there’s a bill here. It’s on the counter. I think you owe 4 Euros.

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What I want to do when I go back in time and become a kid again

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Raj Sherman’s Triple Crown

A few years ago, not long after I moved to Edmonton, I interviewed a Tory MLA for a story on homelessness. It was a good interview. He was frank and open in a way most politicians aren’t. But near the end of our talk, he did something most politicians don’t: He choked up. While talking about his upbringing, his eyes watered and he had trouble going on.

I walked out of his office a little stunned. I’d covered politics before and never had this happen. Outside, I phoned (or possibly e-mailed)* one of our legislature reporters. “You’re never going to believe what happened,” I said. “An MLA just cried.” Her answer came with little hesitation: “Was it Raj Sherman?,” she asked. “Because that happens all the time.”

I thought about that exchange today when I read this story in the Journal.

Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman says he wants to run for leadership of a provincial party: he just doesn’t know which one.


In the next month or so, Sherman said he plans to sit down with representatives of the three parties currently seeking new leaders: the Progressive Conservatives, Alberta Liberals and Alberta Party. He also wants to talk with his family before making a decision.


“Once I announce, I am running to eventually be premier of the province,” Sherman said. “Make no mistake about it.”

At first I thought it was funny. Now I just think it’s a little sad. I only met Sherman the once. But I liked him. And I’ve never heard anyone suggest he’s in politics for any but the best reasons.

The thing is, though, this makes him sound a bit unhinged. He wants to lead a party, but he doesn’t know which one. He wants to be premier, but it’s hard to imagine he knows how.

Four months ago, Sherman had political cache. He could have defected to the Liberals or the Alberta party and it would have been a coup for either. Now, not so much.

What’s sad, though, is that I think Sherman might think he can do it. He might really believe premier is a realistic goal and that playing the girl from Elimidate with Alberta’s political centre is the best way to get there.  To be honest, it suggests a mind not totally in touch with reality, at least in the political sense.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Sherman has a plan to build the kind of team it takes to win a major party leadership. Maybe he can overcome the bitterness of the Tory caucus (he didn’t exactly leave on good terms) and steal the crown from one of the front-runners. But I doubt it. And I would bet against it, even if someone offered me awful terms.

That’s just not how politics work, much as any of us might wish otherwise. And if Sherman doesn’t know that, or thinks he can overcome it, well, I don’t know. Good luck I guess.

But while he’s off deciding which kingdom to conquer Sherman might want to think about what it’s doing to his credibility. As a practicing doctor and government MLA, Sherman carried enormous weight when he spoke out about problems in the health care system. But if the public starts to think of him as ‘that guy who wants to lead three parties,’ that’s gone. If he becomes a joke, his critiques do too.


*Given that I can’t remember whether this was a phone call or an e-mail, it’s probably safe to assume the quotes below aren’t exact.

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Excuses, Excuses

Sorry for the link-free days this week. I know the five of you (that may be a generous estimate) who read the site depend on them so (that is most definitely an exageration.) I’m on the home stretch of a biggish project and, as I almost always do near the end of a story, have been stressing myself out and not getting much done this week.

I also haven’t linked or tweeted much about Egypt or the other recent revolutions. Not because I don’t think they are the biggest story in the world. They are. But because I haven’t felt I’ve had anything to add. I find the older I get, and the longer I do this, the more I want to be somewhere and describe what I see and the less I want to opine. I’m not in the Middle East and I don’t understand the politics of Egypt or Bahrain. I can’t tell you what will happen there in six weeks or even this weekend. Not with anything more than an uneducated guess.

I did read two stories today about groups that teach non-violence and may have had an influence on the current round of protests. Both are good reads and both are below. I’ll be in the Balkans next month. Maybe I can get an interview with someone from the group in the top story. I can always hope, anyway.

Inside the Serbian revolution factory

An interview with the leading scholar on non-violence

A sad, scary story about former heavyweight champ/Rocky V star Tommy Morrison

In Puerto Rico, tuition protests shut down the University

While in Texas, Hispanics drive population growth

And in Oklahoma, an entire contaminated town is demolished

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Jersey Shore Meets Charlie Brown

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Prison Rights, Abortion and the Dating Advice of Ghostface Killah

Haunting story in the NY Times about prisoners dying in a Texas jail, allegedly without receiving medical care. It opens with a strong anecdote before moving to the broader issue:

Ms. Cowling was pulled over on Christmas Eve for speeding and arrested for outstanding warrants on minor charges. She was bipolar and methadone-dependent and took a raft of medications each day. For the five days she was in Gregg County Jail, Ms. Cowling and her family pleaded with officials to give her the medicines that sat in her purse in the jail’s storage room. They never did.

(NY Times/Texas Tribune)

In B.C., a man claims prison dentists removed his teeth without his consent and have since refused him to give him dentures:

Although members of the prison population are entitled to access to health care, “the prison is stating that it is not medically necessary for him to have teeth,” said (David) Eby (from the BCCLA).

(Vancouver Sun)

A proposed law in South Dakota could legalize the killing of abortion providers:

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Phil Jensen, a committed foe of abortion rights, alters the state’s legal definition of justifiable homicide by adding language stating that a homicide is permissible if committed by a person “while resisting an attempt to harm” that person’s unborn child or the unborn child of that person’s spouse, partner, parent, or child. If the bill passes, it could in theory allow a woman’s father, mother, son, daughter, or husband to kill anyone who tried to provide that woman an abortion—even if she wanted one.

(Mother Jones)

Or not

(T)he Jensen bill wouldn’t legalize the killing of abortion doctors. It just looks like it does, right now. It would legalize of abortion doctors if abortion became illegal.


Elsewhere in the U.S., veterans are suing the army, claiming they were raped and then forced to work with their alleged attackers:

In one incident, an Army Reservist says two male colleagues raped her in Iraq and videotaped the attack. She complained to authorities after the men circulated the video to colleagues. Despite being bruised from her shoulders to elbows from being held down, she says charges weren’t filed because the commander determined she “did not act like a rape victim” and “did not struggle enough” and authorities said they didn’t want to delay the scheduled return of the alleged attackers to the United States.

(AP/Globe and Mail)

From my experience in Alberta, no politics are more hilariously dirty than small-town politics. Still, this story from Bell, CA, pushes the envelope:

As Bell prepared to hire a police chief in 2009, the top candidate for the post exchanged e-mails with the city’s No. 2 official: “I am looking forward to seeing you and taking all of Bell’s money?!” Randy Adams wrote shortly before starting the job. “Okay … just a share of it!!”

”LOL … well you can take your share of the pie … just like us!!!” responded Angela Spaccia, the city’s assistant administrator. “We will all get fat together … Bob has an expression he likes to use on occasion,” she continued, referring to her boss and chief administrative officer, Robert Rizzo. “Pigs get Fat … Hogs get slaughtered!!!! So as long as we’re not Hogs … All is well!”

(LA Times)

A beautiful elegy for a murdered gay-rights activist in Uganda:

David Kato was one of a group so tiny, hated and hounded—indeed, illegal—that most Ugandans had never knowingly met one. Gays like him called themselves kuchus, meaning “same”, as in “same-sex”. He was not the same in any way ordinary Ugandans cared to recognise.


Kids In ‘Scared-Straight’ Program Visit Horrifying Cleveland Cavaliers Practice

Ghostface Killah gives dating advice: “So its like um, basically…you know. Make her something to eat. Take her out, you know.”

Aaron Sorkin will guest on 30 Rock

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