Travels in Siberia (and Keefland)

Travels in Siberia

: Ian Frazier's latest book


Book jacket for Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Cason and I ran over to The Bookies after school recently, ostensibly to find material for a "presentation" he'll be giving on Switzerland to his second-grade class later this month. (It goes without saying that his Powerpoint skills are far better than mine.)

In truth, I was also looking for the new Keith Richards memoir, Life, an excerpt of which I had read in this month's Rolling Stonemagazine. As I was browsing among the non-fiction books on display, I noticed the new Ian Frazier book, Travels in Siberia. Had to pick that one up for Tom Quinn of course, Polar Field Services' manager of support to NSF-funded projects working in Russia. I love the rare moments when Tom pauses for a second to tell a story about his adventures in Russia. Here's a whole book of Russian adventures, undertaken by a writer known--through pieces in New Yorker magazine and books like Great Plains and On the Rez--for his acuity and humor.

Frazier's book is a hybrid history/travelogue. It recounts several trips he's taken to Russia, in particular a 5-week odyssey he made through Siberia in 2001 or so in a breaking-down van with two Russian guides who are a show all to themselves.  Frazier's narration reminds me of Frances, my beloved mother, whose astute, informed, and sometimes plain bizarre observations on trips I miss more than I can say.

Sit next to Frazier while he riffs on “big gangs” of pigs found roaming around Siberian villages, apparently fresh from a mud-hole wallow:

Evidently, the wallowing technique of some pigs involved lying with just one side of themselves in the mud. This produced two-tone animals—pigs that were half wet, shiny, brown mud, and half pink, relatively unsoiled original pig. The effect was striking—sort of harlequin. The other animals that roamed the villages in groups were geese. When a herd of pigs came face-to-face with a flock of geese, an unholy racket of grunting and gabbling ensued. . . . Whether challenging pigs or not, the village geese seemed to gabble and yack and hiss nonstop. The pigs grunted and oinked almost as much, but always at some point the whole herd of pigs would suddenly fall silent and their megaphone-shaped ears would all go up, and for half a minute every pig would listen.

The passage is part of a "short interlude" meant to give readers a sense of the road.  A few paragraphs down, Frazier describes the effects of eating cottage cheese (a dietary staple obtained "in very fresh supply from the grannies along the road") drenched in sour cream for several meals in a row.

The only drawback to this diet was that it made us smell like babies. And as we were unable to bathe only infrequently, our basic aroma became that of grown-up, dusty, sweaty babies—the summertime smell of Mongols, in other words.

Speaking of sweaty babes, the Keith Richards memoir is, so far, quite a trip itself, Huck Finn to Frazier's Tom Sawyer.  Richards' book is a jazzy read--an intentional and detailed slur of memories, admissions, music theory riffs.  Jason Buenning, member of the planning group, would love this one, I think. --Kip Rithner