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Travels in Siberia, II

December 13, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

At the end of August, I mentioned reading an article by Ian Frazier in that week’s New Yorker about his 2005 visit to the site of a former gulag in Siberia. I also noted that he would have a new book coming out in October, Travels in Siberia.

Well, it came out, and two weeks later I pondered whether to buy the physical book or the Kindle e-version. Before heading to Chicago last month, I bought the Kindle version in anticipating of reading it on the plane. Perhaps that was the wrong decision. I spent the flight to Chicago working on a NYT Thursday crossword, then reading a New Yorker. On the way home, the next night, I watched some dumb movie, listened to music, and I don’t know what else.

But I’m now reading the book, about a third of the way through, and missing the book version, since I would have liked to be able to refer regularly to the map of Siberia. In the Kindle version, the map is essentially unviewable (as is invariably the case). And even on the iPad, which usually renders graphics far better than the Kindle does, the map doesn’t work too well. The print and the cartographic details are just too small.

This is a minor nuisance, though, because the tale’s the thing, and the tale is fabulous, as is Frazier’s writing. Like in his earlier gem Great Plains, he bounces around a lot — deciding to visit, making early forays into Siberia from the west and the east, learning Russian, preparing for a drive across the length of Siberia. Years pass in between various of the episodes. People come and go. I’m now at the beginning of the Siberia drive, two days in.

The foray into Siberia from the east was not a deep one. After some time in Nome, he went due west across the Bering Sea to Provideniya, from which he took a fascinating side trip to a salmon fishing site. A better map would help, since a theme of this part of the book is just how stunningly close North America and Asia are, and how similar the Native cultures on either side are, which once one thinks about it is hardly surprising, as they are essentially one. The peoples, climate, topography, food sources are the same. However, history, governments, and funding aren’t, and however poor that part of Alaska is, the Russians have it worse.

Frazier also gets to Little Diomede Island for the briefest of stays, shuttled there by helicopter and shuttled back later in the day. With Russia’s Big Diomede Island looming not much more than a mile away, this is the place where one really can look out one’s window and see Putin rearing his head.

Excellent book. I just wish I could have seen Frazier in late October when he passed through town on his book tour. I intended to, but couldn’t make it. I do hope to see him some day, given how much I admire his writing (and given our slight connection as college classmates).

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