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Chasing the Sea


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About the Author

Tom Bissell was born in Escanaba, Michigan, in 1974. After his stint in the Peace Corps he worked for several years in book publishing in New York City. His criticism, fiction, and journalism have appeared in publications including Harper's Magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review, GQ, Granta, McSweeney's, The Boston Review, The Believer, Best American Travel Writing 2003, and other publications. He has been nominated for several awards and not received any of them. He lives in New York City.


Bissell's first journey to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996 was cut short by heartache and illness. Memories of that failure dog his return in 2001 to write about the rapidly deteriorating ecosystem of the Aral Sea. Once the size of Lake Michigan, the sea has already lost most of its water and will likely disappear by the middle of the next decade, leaving thousands of square kilometers of salty desert. Journalist Bissell examines that story, but also ponders broader questions about Uzbekistan and its people. Hooking up with Rustam, a young interpreter, he sets off on a road trip across the country. The format of the ensuing travelogue-cum-history lesson resembles that of itinerant political commentators like Robert Kaplan, right down to the repulsively exotic cuisine (e.g., boiled lamb's head) and digressionary mini-essays on the history of European imperialism in Central Asia. But Bissell rails against the way other authors "pinion entire cultures based upon how [their] morning has gone," aiming for a more accurate and balanced portrayal. An ongoing dialogue with Rustam over the region's history and culture, and the extent to which both were shaped by the Soviets, adds a personal dimension. The account doesn't flinch from portraying the region's corruption-crooked cops appear regularly on the scene-but despite the frequent bouts of despair, for both the region and himself, Bissell refuses to give up on the Uzbeks entirely. 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. (Sept. 23) Forecast: Bissell, who was born in 1974, has worked as an editor at Henry Holt, has written for Harper's, McSweeney's, Esquire and Salon, and will have a piece in the next issue of Heidi Julavits's much-chatted-about new magazine, The Believer. His first book will undoubtedly garner attention from literary outlets and set the tone for an ambitious book-writing career. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

"Enthralling. . . . Bissell shines as a raconteur . . . 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

"A hilarious and insightful misadventure in the post-Soviet bureaucratic badlands . . . fill[ed] with Kafkaesque settings and fearsome characters. . . . Bissell is a born raconteur but he is also a prodigious scholar, uncoiling the tangled history, ancient and modern, of this crossroads society in bright, taut cords." --The Washington Post Book World "Written with such panache and laden with so much information that it rises to real seriousness . . . moves along as deftly as a novel . . . [A] combination of crack-up wit, wild ambition and preposterous youth." -The New York Times Book Review "A geographically and intellectually adventurous memoir. . . . A wildly talented writer." --Outside

"Bissell seamlessly weaves in historical insights and cultural references, making his tale a well-rounded snapshot. . .. A fine and elaborate mosaic." --The Economist "An astonishing book. Both hilarious and deeply disturbing, it's a crash course in the history, ecology, and politics of a region that seems as remote-and as desolate-as one of the lesser moons of Saturn." -San Diego Union-Tribune

"Fantastic . . . Bissell proves at the age of 29 he is a maestro of the genre. Read this book and it will be difficult to imagine not traipsing after him wherever he may go in the future." -Austin American-Statesman "The narrative is propelled by a strong literary sensibility and Bissell's droll, self-deprecating humor. . . . A splendid debut." -Boston Globe

"If you don't think you want to red a novel 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 greatest political and environmental catastrophes. Tom Bissell is a terrifically sympathetic young writer. Give yourself a treat and read him." -Jonathan Franzen "[Bissell] is an adept tale-teller, and Chasing the Sea is a treasure box of history, folklore, social criticism and digressions on politics and economics." -Newsday

"Bissell offers a sensitive and erudite picture of this fascinating country, ambitiously engaging a broad sweep of history that encompasses Genghis Khan in the 13th century, Timur in the 14th century, and the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. . . . Achieves an engaging honesty." -The Far East Economic Review "A bravura exploration of the Aral Sea's dusty remains." -Men's Journal "Arresting . . .anything but dry history. . . . Bissell proves himself an apt ecologist, memoirist and historian, bringing readers on a memorable, and even joyous, ride." -The Journal News "A subtly amusing narrative. . . . Bissell is young; his first book proclaims that he's a writer to watch."-National Geographic Adventure "I've earmarked nearly every page of this extraordinary travelogue, drawn back again and again to savor the dervish spin of Tom Bissell's prose.... Can Chasing the Sea truly be Bissell's first book?" -Bob Shacochis "A beguiling debut." -Esquire "A literate, elegiac account of travels in the outback of Uzbekistan, tracing the origins and consequences of one of the world's most devastating ecological disasters. First-rate in every regard: to be put alongside such classics on the region as Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand and The Road to Oxiana." -Kirkus Reviews (starred) "Fluent and lively prose. . . . Bissell is observant, funny, intelligent, and a vigorous writer. . . . But Mr. Bissell doesn't write as an expert or a historian; he calls himself an 'adventure journalist, ' and in Chasing the Sea he has brought back an adventure worth sharing ." -The New York Sun "Tom Bissell's book is bittersweet and hurts in the way that exceptional writing should.... Shockingly thoughtful and informed.... There are moments in which one cannot help but laugh aloud. . . . This book is not to be missed." -Peace Corps Writers "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

"An intriguing look at a region that has long been under the heel of tyrants, from Genghis Khan to Joseph Stalin. . . . A marvelous book that reads like an adventure novel." -Toronto Sun "Startlingly clever . . . Bissell pulls his reader into the world of Uzbekistan and never completely lets go. In the end, we are left feeling the persistent tug of a tell-tale phantom limb." -Daily Michigan "The book could have been marketed as Nick Hornby Goes to Hell. . . . This is painful stuff, but brilliantly captured." --The Eye (Toronto) "[Bissell] displays an impressive knowledge of the history of the region . . . Brilliantly written and incisive." -Richmond Times-Dispatch "An ambitious work. . . . An informed, subtle, and humorous take on a country that for decades has been relegated to the back pages of history." -The Moscow Times

After an aborted stint with the Peace Corps in mid-1990 Uzbekistan, Bissell felt compelled to return and investigate the ecological catastrophe surrounding the Aral Sea. With energetic Uzbek guide Rustam, the journey turned into a real escapade. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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