Midnight in Siberia – David Greene

You might have noticed that I disappeared for a week. How very astute of you. I was volunteering at a social justice+music summer camp, wrangling a small pack of eight-year-olds, and had absolutely no mental space for such things as writing, reading, or eating. (In sum: holy carp, eight-year-olds are exhausting.)

Still in the “modern male travel writer” section of my reading, this week’s book is David Greene’s Midnight in Siberia. As you can see from the “featured image,” this book features a Russian train journey. (Two, actually.)

There isn’t much to say about this book.

Greene is an NPR correspondent and has a way about his writing that is very NPR. There are no excess words. Everything is centered and clipped. It’s efficient news writing that reports not just the facts, but the experience. There are many, many quotes from various academic sources, just as there are in lengthy NPR pieces.

It was honestly like reading a transcript of a multi-part NPR story.

This isn’t a complaint. I like NPR quite a lot. I like how they tell stories, I like the stories they choose to tell. I like how they present things.

And I liked this book. I learned way more about Russia than I ever thought I would. I learned about its people and culture, about how they approach life and politics. I learned how we were different, and how we were similar.

So there you go.

What is interesting, at least to me, is that this book was written pre-Trump and there was a heavy, heavy focus on American democracy and Greene’s fairly ongoing surprise that few Russians wanted a similar democracy. Greene also wrote about how Hillary Clinton was likely going to be the next president, and how great America generally was as a country.

Very jarring. Very, “Oh, I remember thinking things along these lines, back before November 2016.”

Those comments took this book into a weird, very time-stamped place where I found myself very much wanting to find Greene and ask him about what he thought about America and American/Russian relations now.

But that has nothing to do with my actual blagh project.

As I said, this book had a verbal concision that one usually only sees associated with news outlets. There were (very few) moments of humor and moments of deeper emotion, but this book was far more concerned with the external landscape of Russia and the internal landscape of Russians than the author’s internal landscape.

Which is not a complaint. It’s exactly what the book was trying to do, and it did it very well.

I didn’t feel close to the author. I didn’t feel like a companion or friend. I felt like I was at newspaper’s length.

And, not a complaint. It’s the type of book it is.

I did not realize until now how, within the travel writing sphere, the style of focus could dictate a sub-category of travel writing. I assumed that all writing where a journey was underway would be travelogue, would be a reader-as-a-companion. But this one distinctly isn’t.

The more of these books I read, the more I feel that travel writing is an underexplored and underappreciated genre. Within travel writing, you can have romance, horror, action, drama, memoir, coming-of-age, journalism, mystery, and diarist forms (as well as others I’m not going to list because it would just get crazy). The genre is so versatile but, until this last year, I didn’t notice.

It’s fascinating. And I’m sure it means something, but I don’t know what quite yet.

Some quotes for your reading pleasure:

“Even as I got close to people in this new job and entered their lives, I would have to be careful to try to see things through their eyes and to never make assumptions. Feeling a connection with a person would not mean they would necessarily have a world view anywhere close to my own.”

“Hardship, upheaval, and a feeling of having no control over anything combine to shape the Russian soul. And the latest difficulty just girds many Russians to endure the next.”

“Tourists fled from Egypt–except for Russians. Interviewed on the beaches of Sharm-el-Sheikh, they asked reporters why anyone in their right minds would pick up and evacuate. They paid for a vacation, desperate for some sunshine. You think just an outbreak of violence would cause them to change their plans?”

“‘We have a saying, actually. Have a drink in the morning, and the whole day ahead of you can be free. Have something to drink in the morning, and the whole day can feel like a holiday.'”