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.
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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, the dazzling starburst digressions of blazing intelligence, the banquet of historical narrative and fresh geopolitical commentary, the honest human drama of the author's journeys through the haunting landscapes and flashpoint cultures of Central Asia.--Bob Shacochis, author of The Immaculate Invasion
“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
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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