I knew that I'd be posting book and author reviews here, but I've been hesitant because I didn't know what I could bring to the discussion that was new or interesting. There are so many fabulous professional and hobby book critics; what I have to say about a new book will not add much. But I read a lot, and my tastes are eclectic, and I have no reason to be current. So, if you want to read the newest, greatest book, visit The New York Review of Books or BookPage. But if you want to hear about an outstanding book or author you might have missed, then read on.
You Might Have Missed ... an incredible journey through Siberia.
Book: Silverland: A Winter Journey Beyond the Urals
Author: Dervla Murphy
Pub. Details: John Murray, 2007.
I discovered Dervla Murphy by accident. Ten years ago, I was browsing, with no intention of buying, in the travel lit. section at my local bookstore. And there was Dervla. I knew I couldn't leave the store without her. (If it sounds like I'm talking about meeting my soulmate, trust me, that's not far off the mark. That book, South from the Limpopo, began a great book love affair.)
If you have the good sense to read Murphy's book, you will find yourself asking, "Why have I never heard of her before?" I know, because that is exactly what I said. Silverland is her twenty-first of what is currently a twenty-three book tally. And she didn't start travelling or writing professionally until she turned thirty-two.
Murphy is not a typical travel writer. Her first journey, in 1963, took her from Ireland to India --- by bicycle. Later, she treks through the Andes with a mule --- and her nine year old daughter in tow. South from the Limpopo is a journey by bike more than 9,000 kilometres and through all nine provinces of South Africa --- during the tumult of post-apartheid democratic general elections. Silverland finds her travelling from Moscow to Siberia by slow train in the winter --- at age seventy-four.
Dervla boards this slow train in Moscow. Instead of the posher, faster Trans-Siberian, she chooses the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). She likes it "...partly because these trains' favourite speed is 20 m.p.h." For three months, she enjoys the company of her varied Russian co-riders and during stop-overs, she finds hospitality, as she always does, with generous and curious people that she has met along the way, or with hosts that have been recommended by friends. This way of staying lends all of Murphy's work an intimate look at local people and beliefs, but especially does in this area of the world where centralization has made independent voices rare.
A nature-lover and solitude-seeker, Murphy revels in the beauty of the taiga. "To the north, beyond gleaming white flatness, miles of coniferous forest stood out blackly against a curtain of molten gold ... while the slim clouds turned rosy, a weirdly static crimson orb remained poised above the trees, not sinking perceptibly. Then very, very, slowly it disappeared -- and a wondrously lingering red-gold suffusion tinged the whole landscape."
On a solo morning hike along a logging track near Lake Baikal, near the northern border of Mongolia, she meets a large brown bear. "Siberian bears like their meat and are six to seven feet tall when upright, a posture occasionally adopted to kill reindeer or people." Later, nearly back to Moscow again, she encounters a duo of human predators. "The driver leant out, still in his seat, and silently pointed a revolver at me -- the long sort, carried by Russian policemen." Her reactions to both, are classic Dervla moments, something you will come to love and appreciate as you read more of her wonderful books.
Erin Bedford, writer.