In his fifth book, Tayler returns to the Siberian hinterlands of Russia, the country where he has lived for the past 11 years and of which he wrote in Siberian Dawn. This time, however, he struggles 2,400 miles up the Lena River in an inflatable raft with his guide (and bane) Vadim, an ill-tempered veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war. Tayler follows the likely route that the Cossacks-who embody "the best and worst" of the Russian spirit-took in the 16th century, when they annexed much of Siberia for Ivan the Terrible. It was a hard trip then; it is a hard trip now. Tayler, a freakish polyglot who speaks eight languages, is unique among contemporary travel writers. Despite his fondness for death-prowled lands, he rarely complains and never falls prey to self-aggrandizement. The Lena River, however, very nearly undoes him. After a pleasant spell, the temperature drops, bad weather rolls in and soon Tayler is gagging on clouds of mosquitoes and shooing wasplike horseflies-all of which is grippingly described. "In more than two decades of travel," he writes, "I had never... hit this nadir of gloom." Along the way, he and Vadim come ashore to find devastated villages, teenagers dancing away in surreal Arctic discotheques, Soviet irredentists flying the hammer and sickle, drunken Russians and aboriginal people, Baptist missionaries, Yakut shamans (one of whom has his own Web site) and, in what is perhaps the book's most moving interlude, some of the last of Siberia's Volga Germans. The many incidental pleasures of this harrowing if sometimes repetitive book are chiefly literary and sociological. Tayler is good at describing the summer Siberian sky ("a glowing canopy of lavender"), and his thoughts on Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is adored by the very people for whom he provides the least, offers the American reader some borscht for thought about the appeal of their own benighted leader. About halfway through, the book catches fire when Tayler's patience ruptures beneath Vadim's shower of abuse. Movingly, Tayler and Vadim neither become friends nor grow to "understand" each other. This is a book about survival, and Tayler's observations are as bracing, and sometimes shocking, as a lungful of Arctic air: "Had any other people on earth," he writes of the Russians, "done so much to destroy itself?" Tayler's Siberia is unremittingly depressing, and the book concludes with little hope for its people or its culture. As a sympathetic but clear-eyed portrait of an unhappy but beautiful land, River of No Reprieve will be a difficult book to surpass. (July 11) Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg. His new book, The Father of All Things, will be published early next year. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Siberia today comprises many small, poor villages that grew out of the trade routes and exile and resettlement policies of various Soviet regimes. Tayler (Angry Wind; Siberian Dawn), who has lived in Moscow for the last decade, visited many of these villages on his 2004 trip down the Lena River. Traveling more than 2400 miles from southern Siberia to the Arctic Ocean in a small boat, Tayler has only his Russian guide, Vadim-a Soviet army veteran, survivalist, and "tragic figure"-as companion. The beginning of their trip offers good weather and many opportunities to meet the locals, whom Tayler depicts as isolated, resilient victims of alcoholism. Farther north, Tayler and Vadim encounter gale-force winds, cold weather, and people more reserved and wary of outsiders. This engaging travel narrative mixes history with the author's personal desire to understand the region and its people; indeed, its strength lies in Tayler's interactions with the people and in his depiction of the flavor of rural Siberian life. Recommended for armchair travel collections.-Sheila Kasperek, Mansfield Univ. Lib., PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
After 11 years in Moscow, American journalist Tayler took a river trip through Russia's Siberian hinterlands, encountering a punishing climate and plentiful nostalgia for the communist past. In the early 17th century, Tayler (Angry Wind, 2005, etc.) writes, the Cossacks sailed the Lena River from Lake Baikal to the Artic Circle, annexing the land for the tsar as they went. Since then, the settlements they established have been Russian outposts: home to exiles, ethnic minorities and pioneers who sought to build the Soviet state. Tayler set out to recreate the Cossacks' voyage in the summer of 2004, traveling 2,400 miles of the river north in a raft. He was inspired, he explains, by a desire to escape the confines of Moscow and to try to understand the people who are President Vladimir Putin's most stalwart supporters. The trip was punishing. Mosquitos and other pests abounded. Storms whipped up huge waves that threatened to capsize the raft. The guide, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, made it clear from the beginning that he preferred the company of Siberia's beautiful and barren landscape to that of his employer. Tayler, on the other hand, was interested in people, and he vividly sketches his sojourns into the remote river communities. Drunken, hopeless teens danced in shacks; drunken, hopeless adults bemoaned the end of communism; Tayler heard stories of underground nuclear blasts and resulting cancers; he saw villages abandoned and left to decay. Most of the people he met voiced enthusiasm for the Soviet days, glossing over Stalin's death camps to remember the monetary support and sense of mission they had under communism. Their enthusiasm for Putin reflected their desire fora return to this idealized past. An evocative glimpse of an isolated, seldom visited part of Russia, though its depiction of volatile drunks in a bleak landscape does no favors for the Siberian tourist industry.
"This is a fiercely evocative account of an astonishing journey, wrenched out of near-disaster."Colin Thubron, author of In Siberia and The Lost Heart of Asia
"Tayler . . . is unique among contemporary travel writers . . . bracing . . . River of No Reprieve will be a difficult book to surpass." Publishers Weekly
"Thanks to Tayler's keen powers of observation, readers will relish this trip of high adventure." Booklist, ALA
"This engaging travel narrative mixes history with the author's personal desire to understand the region and its people." Library Journal
"An evocative glimpse of an isolated, seldom visited part of Russia." Kirkus Reviews
"Reading this exciting, engaging book gave me an adrenaline rush."Spencer Rumsey Newsday