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Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asiaby Tom Bissell
Synopses & Reviews
A dazzling chronicle of the author's journey — sometimes raucous, sometimes powerfully sobering — through Uzbekistan to the disappearing Aral Sea. In the mid-1990s Tom Bissell was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan. After only a few months, the complications of a relationship he'd left behind forced him to return home. Haunted by his failure, Tom decided in 2001 to return to Uzbekistan — this time to investigate the ecological disaster of the Aral Sea and to try to help in a way that he hadn't before. Joined by his guide and translator — a young, partially American-educated, and unfailingly high-spirited Uzbek named Rustam — Tom makes his often wild way through Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara. Slipping more than once through the clutches of the Uzbek police, the two become close friends as they share numerous misadventures en route to the shores of the devastated Aral Sea. Bissell's narrative unfolds in high-octane, vividly observant, self-deprecatingly humorous prose, but it is shaped by his passionate interest in the Uzbeks — their region's long history of violence, their culture, and the ever-increasing, ever-more-tragic hole at the heart of their land. Both charmingly seductive and resoundingly insightful, this is the debut of a remarkably talented new travel/adventure writer.
"If you don't think you want to read a book about Uzbekistan, think again. Line by line, Chasing The Sea is as smart and funny and entertaining a travel book as you'll find anywhere; and behind the lines are real passion and a wholly justified outrage over one of the world's great political and environmental catastrophes. Tom Bissell is a terrifically sympathetic young writer. Give yourself a treat and read him." Jonathan Franzen
"The humor and poignancy in this blend of memoir, reportage and history mark the author as a front-runner in the next generation of travel writers." Publishers Weekly
"This is more than just a travel book; the author's ingenious and sometimes humorous writing makes it a special read." Booklist
"[E]rratic but enthralling....Bissell shines as a raconteur, if not as an analyst, and his ebullient narrative harks back to the travel classics of the nineteenth century, when the journey was an end in itself." The New Yorker
"Bissell may have been a flop as a Peace Corps volunteer...But his failure has still provided some benefit to humanity — at least to the part of humanity that enjoys a great read." The Washington Post
"A literate, elegiac account of travels in the outback of Uzbekistan....First-rate in every regard." Kirkus Reviews
Book News Annotation:
Michigan-born, New York-based writer Bissell admits that he is not a scholar, and does not actually know a lot about Central Asia. He bailed out of Peace Corp mission to Uzbekistan, but was haunted by the place for years and finally arranged a journey there in 2001 to write an environmental-disaster article for Atlantic Monthly, which turned into this book. He describes it as an idiosyncratic account of his experience.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In 1960, the Aral Sea was the size of Lake Michigan: a huge body of water in the deserts of Central Asia. By 1996, when Tom Bissell arrived in Uzbekistan as a naïve Peace Corps volunteer, disastrous Soviet irrigation policies had shrunk the sea to a third its size. Bissell lasted only a few months before complications forced him to return home, but he had already become obsessed with this beautiful, brutal land.
Five years later, Bissell convinces a magazine to send him to Central Asia to investigate the Aral Sea’s destruction. There, he joins forces with a high-spirited young Uzbek named Rustam, and together they make their often wild way through the ancient cities—Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara—of this fascinating but often misunderstood part of the world. Slipping more than once through the clutches of the Uzbek police, who suspect them of crimes ranging from Christian evangelism to heroin smuggling, the two young men develop an unlikely friendship as they journey to the shores of the devastated sea.
Along the way, Bissell provides a history of the Uzbeks, recounting their region’s long, violent subjugation by despots such as Jenghiz Khan and Joseph Stalin. He conjures the people of Uzbekistan with depth and empathy, and he captures their contemporary struggles to cope with Islamist terrorism, the legacy of totalitarianism, and the profound environmental and human damage wrought by the sea’s disappearance.
Sometimes hilarious, sometimes powerfully sobering, Chasing the Sea is a gripping portrait of an unfamiliar land and the debut of a gifted young writer.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 359-370) and index.
About the Author
Tom Bissell was born in Escanaba, Michigan, in 1974. He worked for several years as a book editor. His criticism, fiction, and journalism have appeared in Harper’s, Men’s Journal, Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Boston Review, and Best American Travel Writing 2003, among other publications. He has been nominated for several awards and not received any of them. He lives in New York City.
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