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Travels in Siberia, III

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Two weeks ago I wrote that I was finally reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia and enjoying it. The problem was, the day I wrote that post was the day I gave my final exam. Over the next week I put the book aside to grade and do assorted other tasks. By the time I was ready to return to it, other books tempted me. And I anticipated that by the end of last week a new temptation would appear, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. If I started that, I might never finish Travels in Siberia.

Thus began my big push, last Thursday, to finish the Siberia book. Not that that’s a problem, given how engrossing the book is. Yet, one of the frustrations of reading long books on a Kindle is the lack of sense of where you are, the difficulty of flipping to the table of contents to orient yourself. It’s all well and good that you can check at all times what percent of the way through you are, a measure less useful than it seems when you realize that there is a long section of notes occupying some 10% of the book near the end. But what I miss is seeing how many chapters are in the part I’m in the midst of, how far along I am in each of the various trips Frazier took to Siberia. Not to mention not being able to flip quickly to the map.

No matter. I managed. As for the book itself, I finished it early yesterday morning. Later in the day I re-read Neal Ascherson’s November review in the NY Review of Books, and he captures the beauty of the book far better than I could.

In Travels in Siberia we get to read a lot about Frazier’s highs and lows, sulks and exultations. On the surface, he has written an irresistibly subjective, first-person book. But Frazier, cunning as he is, never allows it to become just one more squelching “quest” of self-discovery. His narrative is made to seem artless, but he is a clever, practiced writer who has everything under control. He never lets his ego upstage Siberia.

Travels in Siberia is a very prolonged road movie of a book: always beautifully written, often very funny, serious, and moving in its cumulative impact.

It is impossible with a single quote to convey the flavor of the book, but let me try. One comes to mind that I read yesterday near the book’s end. Part V, the last part of the book, consists of a single chapter, giving an account of Frazier’s last trip to Siberia, just over a year ago. He writes about boarding an Aeroflot flight at JFK and reflects on how much Aeroflot has changed since his first flight in the 1990s.

Everything about the Boeing 767 we flew in was better than what I remembered of their former planes. Now they had real seats, not lawn chairs. Nothing about the interior looked beat-up or shabby. . . . Some years ago, a British public relations firm did an overhaul of Aeroflot’s image. Thus the plummy-voiced British recording that gave the English translation of the Russian announcements. Thus the Scottish plaid of the blankets that were passed out, and the stitched floral pattern on the pillows, and the less hostile attitude of the in-flight personnel. The stewardess who served our aisle had refined her instinctive contempt for the passengers into something transcendent and soulful. She looked a lot like Babe Ruth, only with a slightly bigger hairdo, and she mugged like Chaplin as she indicated approval, disapproval, commiseration, and various other responses to each passenger she served. Sometimes she turned her face upward, saintlike, and rolled her eyes and sighed.

No other country but Russia would name a commercial airliner after a writer. Just knowing I was flying on the Ivan Bunin gave me a small thrill. … On the airport runways after we landed, I saw Aeroflot planes named after Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Ivan Krasheninnikov (an explorer of Kamchatka who wrote a book about it). The plane I flew home in was the Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.

I started Isabel Wilkerson’s book on the Great Migration last night. This time I’m reading the physical book rather than the e-book. I already miss being able to hold my seemingly weightless Kindle in one hand, but I’m also already grateful for the easy reference to the table of contents. I’m in for another beautiful and moving book.

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