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Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  639 ratings  ·  78 reviews
In 1996, Tom Bissell went to Uzbekistan as a naive Peace Corps volunteer. Though he lasted only a few months before illness and personal crisis forced him home, Bissell found himself entranced by this remote land. Five years later he returned to explore the shrinking Aral Sea, destroyed by Soviet irrigation policies. Joining up with an exuberant translator named Rustam, Bi ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published October 12th 2004 by Vintage (first published 2003)
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Average rating 3.85  · 
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Sep 05, 2009 rated it liked it
Now that more and more writers in my age bracket are getting published, I’ve noticed something unsettling: reading their books is a bit like listening to my own voice on tape and has the same cringe-inducing effect. I realize every generation has its own jargon, its in-jokes and iPod playlists, but experiencing it from the inside is different. And demoralizing. It makes you appreciate how hard it is to rise above the idle chatter and say something halfway original.

At any rate, Chasing the Sea stru
Vanessa Baldwin
Nov 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I lived in Central Asia for over a year as a Peace Corps volunteer and I feel a kinship with this author. I, like him, didn't know anything about the history of the region before I served there, and didn't make much of an effort to dig deep either. It is only now, ten years later, that I have made an effort, as did the author for his second trip. His research is enlightening, but reading this book did not change my perspective about my experience there. Instead, it felt as if all of my intuition ...more
I remember being really impressed with his article about the Aral in Harper's many years back but anyone hoping for a deeper look at that particular crisis will be disappointed. He barely reaches the Aral and is more interested in telling the rest of the Central Asian story.

Which is ok. I applaud him for writing a book about this forgotten part of the world. But having read several of his books now, I have to say there's something off about his gender relations. It's hard to put my finger on it
Jim Coughenour
Jul 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
A few years ago I read Tom Bissell's book of short stories – God Lives in St. Petersburg – and greatly enjoyed its ultra-dark comedy, but it didn't prepare me for Chasing the Sea, Bissell's account of his 2001 journey through Uzbekistan in the company of Rustam, his handsome, hip and silently desperate translator. Bissell's ostensible reason for his visit was to document the apocalyptic deterioration of the Aral Sea, but in fact it seems to be a private pilgrimage, an exorcism of past failure (he'd had a brea ...more
Jan 15, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed
One of those books that I found myself reading to the exclusion of my usual habits. I did not want to put the book down, and I did not want it to end. That this is Bissell's first book is astonishing, and it speaks to just how deeply ingrained his experiences were. It felt to me as if I was traveling with him, feeling the heat, struggling to understand the culture, excited by the quest, daunted by the distance to be covered. But more than that, I also felt the history unfold around me as Bissell ...more
May 28, 2019 rated it liked it
In some respects, the author's descriptions of life in Uzbekistan are identical to my own experiences in Kyrgyzstan and travels in Uzbekistan. But in other respects, Kyrgyz culture and history and post-Soviet government are so different from Uzbekistan's. And I'm lucky to be in the Peace Corps over 20 years after the author was, for internet access, at least.
I reserve some misgivings about the author's personality; I'm not convinced I'd like him if we met. And I don't love his writing style; he
Jun 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
The "Stans" were nothing but a blank space on my mind map of the world before reading this book. Bissell infuses warm and witty, honest travel experiences with stories of the brutal forces that have torn through Uzbekistan over the centuries, the most recent being the cotton industry that continues to destroy the Aral Sea and the people who used to live by its fishing industry. I couldn't help feeling at the end that the Aral Sea, the salty former seabed of which Bissell describes as appearing " ...more
Mar 03, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Sometimes I like to imagine this "Freaky Friday" moment where I become Tom Bissell and he becomes me. It's not that I want to have written this book so much I want to have lived it. Reading his writing (any of it, honestly) is like being cracked over the head with the idea that books are really nowhere near as crazy and as awesome as real life. Can you remember the last time a book did that to you?
Tim Martin
_Chasing the Sea_ is one of the finer travel books I have read in some time. Author Tom Bissell set out originally to cover the tragic disappearance of the Aral Sea, a once large inland body of water shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that has been slowly choked to death since the 19th century by diversion of the water to grow cotton. Through the course of the book though he not only covers the Aral Sea but also relates his previous personal experiences with Uzbekistan - he served for a time as ...more
Patrick McCoy
I have been a fan of Tom Bissell's writing ever since I came across it in Harper's Magazine. I specifically remember reading a short story set in Central Asia that eventually would be included in his entertaining short story collection God Lives in St. Petersberg and Other Stories. There were other nonfiction pieces as well, starting with the magazine version of what would become a book about his father, who fought in the Vietnam war, and later their trip back to Vietnam: The Father of All Thing ...more
Jan 06, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: around-the-world
I learned much more about Uzbekistan than I had planned, but not as much as I'd hoped about the Aral Sea. Perhaps the reality is that there is not much left to say about this particular environmental catastrophe.

Many reviews are lavishing florid praise on Bissell, but I felt his prose blossoms to be over-perfumed. That's a nice elaborate metaphor, right? Well with Bissell you get about two of those per sentence. This book is an overstuffed bouquet, a pungent vase that I can't find a
Jul 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
One of those books in which I had zero interest in the topic--I leave the "--stans" to my husband--but was curious about the writer, who had been highly recommended. What a terrific read this proved to be. It's a road trip in the old-fashioned sense of the word, where the destination seems to be getting further away with every spontaneous funeral, every debauched night, which Bissell tries valiantly to avoid, an impossible mission in a group of Russians. Learned a tremendous amount about Uzbekis ...more
Jun 18, 2010 rated it it was ok
Couldn't get all the way through it, instead of the travel narrative it purported to be, it was more of a history book, pages and pages of what was probably copied from a library. Learned a bit about Uzbekistan and the author has a good style of writing when he wasn't quoting history books.
Bob Newman
Dec 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
You can go home again....but maybe you shouldn't

Ambivalence is a part of modern life. We can't escape it in the complex modern world. Those who want to live without ambivalence may wind up in some kind of fundamentalist movement that promotes the "only truth". Me, I'm ambivalent about a lot of things. However, sometimes you run across a Mt. Everest of ambivalence, the epitome of having conflicting feelings about something, the man who celebrates Yom Kippur every single day.....God fo
Mar 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
I should mention that I struggle to make it through nonfiction books. I like long-form journalism, but find my attention dissipating around page 40 with most nonfiction. That's when I start eyeing the tall stack of novels and story collections on my nightstand. But Bissell's Chasing the Sea held my attention all the way through and kept me curious about this corner of the world.

The book is a mix of personal reporting and a condensed history of Central Asia and its relationship to Russia
emily Ying
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The author stayed in Central Asia, Uzbekistan specifically, as a member of Peace Corp. based on the cover of the book when I spotted in library you could tell it's dated a little bit before me but the author describes his life in such a vivid and detailed way that is still relevant to me as a recent college grad who wants to explore.
The book is like the authors impression and daily thoughts on his days while living in that land.
The book taught you a lot on the culture and history of Uzbes
Wes F
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Written by a burned-out former Peace Corps volunteer--this book gives some great insights (from an early 2000s perspective/context) on the history of Uzbekistan & the Uzbeks, including the effect of 70+ years of socialistic control and planning. What an unmitigated disaster overall. Though only the last chapter of the book actually deals with the man-made "designed" disaster of the Aral Sea, it is a fitting summary to the book's subtitle invoking the "ghosts of empire in Central Asia." Here' ...more
Apr 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Lewis Weinstein
There is a toxic, carcinogenic, tubercullin-inducing wound in the saline-riddled sand where once the Aral Sea existed as the world's fourth largest inland body of water. In 1969 the Sea equaled Lake Michigan in size. By 1996, when Tom Bissell was briefly posted to Uzbekistan by the Peace Corps, it had already shrunk by one third from its original 26,000 square miles, roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. Bissell was obviously so moved by the country and its people that he res ...more
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
for a start, I learned a lot about Uzbekistan that I didn't know before, though I definitely didn't catch or try to catch all of the details about the various Central Asian conquerers - I get why they're important to the narrative, but Bissell is honestly strongest when he's talking about the twentieth century. but the facts and dates aren't really the most important part of the book anyways. the most important part of the book is Bissell's attempts to understand this part of the world and to ma ...more
Keith Taylor
May 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Maybe I haven't been as grabbed by Bissell's later books, but I still love this one. I think he started an interesting thing with this book, or maybe just pushed something a bit farther -- the mix of memoir and environmental journalism, something that has come much more important in the 15 years since I first wrote about this book:
jhst kmil
Aug 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Extremely insightful and filled with historical and contemporary knowledge of Uzbekistan and Central Asia in general. 4-stars because by the end the author's own musings and unnecessary poetic prose were off-putting for a non-fiction book.

Regardless, one of the best books if you want to learn more about Uzbekistan.
Jun 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
Especially appreciated this book after traveling in Uzbekistan in September and seeing/hearing/noting many of the issues referenced in the book first-hand. Note the December 2017 "The New Silk Road" article in National Geographic to see the current-day importance of this region about which we in the west generally know so little. Tom Bissell's writing is engaging and provocative.
Mar 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Thorough, almost frustratingly so. Brilliant moments. I became overwhelmed with historical detail and was more interested in returning to the narrative.
Sep 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Entertaining, informative, alternately heartbreaking and funny, Tom Bissell's Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia takes us all over Uzbekistan, where few care about going. That is, save MSF and some hardy Peace Corps volunteers, of which, Bissell informs us, he wasn't, having washed out of Uzbekistan after only seven months of his own PC stint there. This book made me long for bedtime every night and coffee every morning, just to spend time trawling through the former SAsia ...more
Jan 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Zach by: Wendy Heise
A good read by a young novice author. He writes in a humorous, self-deprecating manner, and has a lot of poignent anecodates about his previous time in Central Asia. I really loved his brief historical pages whenever he would reach a new area, and talk about a 600 year old warlord that had conquered the area, or more modern dictators like the Soviets and the current president - drawing comparisons where they were actually required, and not just with a broad brush.

He does an excellent
Dec 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
Though my urge is to cite all my misgivings about the book (incorrect generalizations about Islam, the often ridiculousness of "adventure journalism", all the Peace Corps crap, the peculiar ending), I actually really liked this book, I could hardly put it down. The author makes Uzbekistan, and Central Asia, sound fascinating (when he's not making it sounds fascinatingly horrifying), and he does a good job of integrating into the narrative just enough history to stay interesting, but not enough t ...more
May 16, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-log, travel
Bissel tries to understand Uzbekistan without ever actually learning Uzbek--which he was supposed to learn in Uzbekistan with the Peace-Corps 2 years earlier but didn't because he left early because he wimped out.. basically.

Two years later, Bissel is back in Uzbekistan to gather material to write a book about the Uzbekistan experience he never had: Enter Rustam, his wild and currazy Uzbek translator who might... have something to hide? Lots of semi-interesting mildly buddy-comedy-esque stuff e
Jun 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Uzbekistan has always been a place that I've wanted to visit - to view the architectural wonders of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva and to glimpse the Aral Sea before it finally vanishes. Bissell's book isn't a travel guide, nor a history book nor a cultural introduction to one of Central Asia's most iconic nations. On an area of the world with so little readable and engaging literature, Bissell takes the reader on his journey of personal exploration and discovery of a land where he had served as a ...more
Pam Lindholm-levy
Feb 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book is twenty years old, but I felt as if I were sort of catching up with Uzbekistan, having been there in 1983 when it was still an SSR. Back then, religion was suppressed. Twenty years ago unhappy people were becoming what we know today in other parts of the Muslim world---jihadists.
Sounds as if so much has not changed: Soviet corruption for Uzbek corruption. Bad policies continue.
I'm a former TB bacteriologists. Bissell's episode with the MSF official at the TB clinic gave m
Aug 24, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really truly contemplated giving this book 5 stars. Like the work of a depressed Bill Bryson, the first half at least has the feel of the best kind of travel books - at once funny, insightful, historical, all pulled together in just the right way. The second half foundered through a little too much Uzbek history for me (and I like that sort of thing) and Tom Bissell's seemingly insatiable need to use words that I've never encountered got to the point where they made me actually understand less ...more
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Tom Bissell (born 1974) is a journalist, critic, and fiction writer.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.