May 9, 2004: Headlines: COS - Uzbekistan: Writing - Uzbekistan: Albany Times Union: Peace Corps Writer Tom Bissell probes the souls of hard places

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Peace Corps Writer Tom Bissell probes the souls of hard places

Peace Corps  Writer Tom Bissell probes the souls of hard places

Peace Corps Writer Tom Bissell probes the souls of hard places

Writer probes the souls of hard places

By KEVIN LANAHAN, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, May 9, 2004

Adventure travel writer Tom Bissell insists he feels fear like the rest of us, but you sure wouldn't know it by reading his resume.

He's escaped menacing heroin traffickers in Uzbekistan, covered the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and reported on the effects of isolation from the frozen depths of the Arctic.

"You conquer your fears by doing what frightens you," he says. "And as a writer there's nothing more rewarding than the feeling that what you're seeing is new and strange. You want to write it out (and) make other people feel that excitement, too."

Bissell, who just turned 30, recently visited Vietnam with his father, a veteran who hadn't been back since the war ended. That experience will be recounted in his second book, which he describes as "a personal and historical tour" of the country. On Wednesday, Bissell and Jim Shepard (author of the new novel "Project X" and a Williams College teacher) hold a joint reading and book-signing session at Borders Books in Saratoga Springs.

Bissell's first book, "Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia" (Pantheon, 416 pages, $24.95), chronicles his wild journey through exotic landscapes and ancient cities of Uzbekistan. The book's title refers to what is commonly described as the world's worst man-made ecological disaster, the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

Bissell first landed in Uzbekistan in 1996 as a young, unknowing Peace Corps volunteer. He discovered that the Aral Sea, located in central Asia and once the size of Lake Michigan, had shrunk to just a third of its original size due to Soviet irrigation policies that diverted the waters feeding the lake to supply vast cotton plantations. Villages that had resided by the sea for centuries are now struggling in the middle of the desert, and whole regions have been subject to dust storms and soaring temperatures.

Bissell's Peace Corps assignment, during which he suffered from what he describes as homesickness and heartbreak, was eventually cut short. But when he returned to the United States, he found he still had a strong connection to Uzbekistan and its people.

Years later, he sold an article on the disappearing Aral Sea to Harper's Magazine, and a publisher took notice and sent him back to Uzbekistan to write a book-length travelogue. "Chasing the Sea" has received rave reviews from such literary dignitaries as Jonathan Franzen and Bob Schacocis; Peter Matthiessen, the granddaddy of environmentally conscious travel writing, chose one of Bissell's essays for the 2003 edition of "The Best American Travel Writing."

Bissell now makes his home a block away from where the World Trade Center towers once stood, but he grew up in Escanaba, Mich., a small town on the state's Upper Peninsula. He describes his childhood as a "sheltered Midwestern life," but remembers renowned authors Philip Caputo ("A Rumor of War") and Jim Harrison ("Legends of the Fall") turning up each year to go hunting with his father.

Caputo, who had met Bissell's father when both were serving in the Marines, "would always have just finished some book or adventure and it was extremely exciting for a kid stuck in the woods of Michigan," the writer recalls.

Bissell now has his own list of adventures to draw from. The one that sticks out most?

"Visiting a refugee camp in Afghanistan," he says. "The people were, shall we say, upset. And for a few moments it looked like they were going to turn against me and other journalists there. The Arctic is mostly existentially terrifying, though hiking around alone makes you very vulnerable to polar bear attacks."

Vietnam, on the other hand, was to Bissell one of the safest countries he has visited. When asked to describe what it was like seeing the battlefields of Vietnam with his father, a former Army officer, he pauses to reflect.

"Going to the village where he was grievously wounded -- practically standing right on the spot where he hit a booby trap -- and seeing all the local people, some of them undoubtedly Viet Cong fighters back in the day, come out to say hello was just awe-inspiring," Bissell says. "It made me think well of humanity for once. Not a lot in my travels has, but that did."



* What: Book discussion and signing

* When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

* Where: Borders Books Music & Cafe, 395 Broadway, Saratoga Springs

* Info: 583-1200

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Story Source: Albany Times Union

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Uzbekistan; Writing - Uzbekistan



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