Bissell, Tom 1974–
Bissell, Tom 1974–
PERSONAL: Born 1974, in Escanaba, MI. Education: Michigan State University, graduated, 1996.
Chasing the Sea: Lost among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2003.
(With Jeff Alexander) Speak, Commentary: The Big Little Book of Fake DVD Commentaries, Wherein Well-known Pundits Make Impassioned Remarks about Classic Science-Fiction Films, McSweeny's Book (New York, NY), 2003.
God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, Believer, New York Times Book Review, and Boston Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Tom Bissell first got to know the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan in 1996, when he was sent there as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Although this first visit proved somewhat disastrous—he quit after seven months because of chronic illness and a nervous breakdown—he has since returned to the region several times. His books Chasing the Sea: Lost among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia and God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories focus on the region, although in different genres, both nonfiction and fiction.
Chasing the Sea began as an extended article that Bissell wrote about the Aral Sea for Harper's magazine. The sea of the title, the Aral, has been drained nearly dry by irrigation projects ordered by the former USSR government to further its goal of growing hundreds of thousands of acres of water-intensive cotton in country that once was and will soon again been a desert. The book, part travelogue, recounts Bissell's 2001 return to Central Asia to research that article, and is also part ecological study and part meditation on the history and the future of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the two countries that border the Aral Sea, as well as on neighboring Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Chasing the Sea was cited by critics as an auspicious, well-received debut. "Bissell's combination of crack-up wit, wild ambition and preposterous youth—he isn't thirty yet—makes it tempting to chip away at his achievement," Craig Seligman wrote in a glowing assessment for the New York Times Book Review, "but his book easily withstands nitpicking." Seligman was not the only critic who found Chasing the Sea witty; Washington Post contributor Steve Hendrix declared Bissell "a wickedly funny writer" and Chasing the Sea "a hilarious and insightful misadventure," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that "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."
Bissell followed Chasing the Sea with God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, a collection of "six razor-sharp, blackly comic stories," according to Newsweek contributor Andrew Romano. The stories' protagonists are all Americans in or recently returned from Russia or Central Asia and, in common with Bissell, they are generally not coping well with their initial experience. For their part, the natives of the region are not always coping well with them either; as Michael Upchurch wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "Most of the tough, bruising pieces in this collection probe at collision points between American culture and regions of the world where America is worshipped, envied, overestimated in its power, or seen as a deus ex machina that will step in and solve problems most Americans haven't even heard of." In "Expensive Trips to Nowhere" a rich married couple from Manhattan bickers their way through a hike across Kazakhstan; this story is both "scabrously funny" and "dazzling psychodrama," according to Entertainment Weekly critic Jennifer Reese. The "stunning title story," as a Publishers Weekly contributor described it, follows a missionary-cum-English teacher through his loss of faith and struggles with his gayness. Other stories trace the journey of two Western journalists in Afghanistan during the fall of that country's Taliban regime and follow the spoiled son of an American ambassador as he wrecks several lives through his dissoluteness.
"I had wanted to be a writer since I was fourteen or so," Bissell told Rolf Potts of the Rolf Potts' Vagabonding Web site. "I started out as a fiction writer—and remain one—and came to travel writing rather accidently. Indeed, I'd like to think that any success I've had as a nonfiction writer or a travel writer has been because of that fiction background."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, summer, 2004, Kyle Minor, review of Chasing the Sea: Lost among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, p. 577.
Booklist, September 15, 2003, George Cohen, review of Chasing the Sea, p. 202; January 1, 2005, Margaret Flanagan, review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, p. 811.
Boston Globe, January 25, 2004, Bill Beuttler, "Ancient Cities, Despots, and a Ravaged Sea," p. H9.
Chicago Tribune, January 23, 2005, Michael Upchurch, "Sense of Place: Tom Bissell's Stories Surpass His Travelogue in Evoking the Spirit of Central Asia" (review of Chasing the Sea), p. 5.
Economist (U.S.), August 9, 2003, "An American Abroad: Uzbekistan" (review of Chasing the Sea), p. 71.
Entertainment Weekly, January 28, 2005, Jennifer Reese, "Asian Fusions" (review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories), p. 86.
Esquire, September, 2003, review of Chasing the Sea, p. 66.
Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2003, review of Chasing the Sea, p. 786; December 1, 2004, review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, p. 1100.
Library Journal, January 1, 2005, Amy Ford, review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, p. 102.
Los Angeles Times, February 6, 2005, James Marcus, review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, p. R10.
Newsweek, February 14, 2005, Andrew Romano, review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, p. 59.
Newsweek International, January 31, 2005, Susan H. Greenberg, review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, p. 59.
New York Times Book Review, December 7, 2003, Craig Seligman, review of Chasing the Sea, pp. 14, 16.
Publishers Weekly, June 2, 2003, review of Chasing the Sea, p. 41; December 6, 2004, review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, p. 42.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 20, 2005, review of God Lives in St. Petersburg, and Other Stories, p. B2.
Washington Post, October 12, 2003, Steve Hendrix, review of Chasing the Sea, p. T13.
AbsoluteWrite.com, http://www.absolutewrite.com/ (March 4, 2005), interview with Bissell.
Michigan State University Libraries Web site, http://www.lib.msu.edu/ (March 4, 2005), "Michigan Writers Series: Fall 2003: Writer Tom Bissell."
PeaceCorpsWriters.org, http://www.peacecorpswriters.org/ (March 4, 2005), John Coyne, interview with Bissell.
Rolf Potts' Vagabonding Web site, http://www.rolfpotts.com/ (March 4, 2005), Rolf Potts, interview with Bissell.