In a combination travelogue and history book, American journalist Ian Frazier explains his fascination with Russia, and Siberia in particular. He made five trips to Siberia in 16 years, plus another 5 or 6 trips to western Russia during that time.
Frazier digresses from his travel journals onto topics such as the empire of Chingis Khan, the Danish explorer Vitus Bering, the Decemberists, famous duels, and petty excuses for banishment to Siberia. Sometimes brief, sometimes extensive, these side tangents reminded me of Bill Bryson's style in At Home. History, politics, geography and people - there's more than a bit of everything, because this isn't a short book. I listened to the MacMillan audiobook, 20.5 hours, read by the author. Occasionally Frazier sounded like he was yawning as he spoke. In the print version, I would have skipped over the Russian words and phrases, but I appreciated hearing them pronounced for me.
The anecdotes from Frazier's camping journey across the continent were my favourite, especially hearing the details of daily Russian life as he encountered it, like wedding parties celebrating in the middle of the highway. Frazier's Russian driver on this trip had a knack for repairing their vehicle with bits of garbage salvaged from the roadside. He would clean the bug-encrusted windshield by splashing it with some drinking water, breaking apart a cigarette and sprinkling it over the glass, then dismantling one wiper blade to render the whole thing spotless.
Frazier saw a remarkably large number of beautiful women in Siberian cities and brought up the ongoing tragedy of the sex slave trade. I thought of Zara, who escaped this horror in Sofi Oksanen's novel Purge. Siberia is not on my list of places to see, yet I really enjoyed travelling there vicariously.