Northern Illinois University Press


With Light Steam

A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths

Bryon  MacWilliams

With Light Steam is travel writing at its most insightful and most intimate. Wrapped in a towel or not, sweating profusely and beaten lightly by sticks, Bryon MacWilliams goes deep into the viscera of ordinary Russian life and finds there something true about his own troubled, steadily racing heart.” —Ken Kalfus, author of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

“I love this book! Even if you have never taken a banya, nor been to Russia, this book will convince you the banya could very well be Russia's greatest export.” —Mikkel Aaland, author of Sweat

With Light Steam skillfully blends Russian culture, ethnography, and history with personal reminiscences and experiences to produce a thoroughly engaging book that illuminates the Russian soul.” —Christine D. Worobec, author of Possessed (Northern Illinois University Press, 2001)

"Often very frank (this is a PG-13 read at least) and open, 'With Light Steam' is a personal and engaging look at a side of Russian life that few westerners can claim entry to or experience in... MacWilliams travels the breadth and depth of Russia,...and traveling with him is a joy. He is a refreshingly self-deprecating, easy-going traveler and a superb storyteller. This is a book not to be missed." — Paul E. Richardson, "Russian Life"

“This book is introspective American travel writing at its best. A genre-defying mosaic of memoir, historical research and a reflection on time and place, With Light Steam is easily in a league with Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier for spectacular American travel writing on Russia.” —Paul Connell, Newcity Lit

In 1996 Bryon MacWilliams left the relative stability of the United States for the chaos of post-Soviet Russia, and stayed. Over the course of nearly twelve years he reported on academe and the sciences for the world's leading publications, and sought out the best baths-or banyas-everywhere he went. His story of Russia through its cult of steam begins on a frosty Sunday morning in a gypsy cab traveling to a bathhouse in Moscow, where the steam is conjured by an out-of-work carpenter named Grisha, who takes on MacWilliams as a kind of apprentice, allowing him into an otherwise closed world through which MacWilliams could see himself, and Russia, with different eyes. The Russian bathers insist, only half-jokingly, that the American is a spy.

Writing in a highly engaging style, MacWilliams travels the country to convey the breadth of banya culture and what it means to steam, a process that is at once a simple cleansing and a deep purification. It awakens the body and quiets the mind, generating waves of good feeling akin to an endorphin high. Each chapter of this splendid book is an episode-spanning from several hours to several days-from the Far North, Moscow, the Ural Mountains, the Solovetsky Islands, and a southern stretch of the Volga River.

With Light Steam, the title is derived from the phrase used in banyas in lieu of goodbye, is the only book in English devoted to the banya and the only volume in any language to present Russia through the lens of its bath culture, the most Russian thing there is. General readers and scholars alike will be enchanted with this unforgettable portrait of a people and a millennia-spanning tradition.

Oct 2014 5.5x8.5 224 pages 31 illus.
ISBN 978-0-87580-708-9
$24.95t Paper

Bryon MacWilliams is an American writer who reported extensively from Russia and the former Soviet Union from 1996 to 2008. He was the Moscow correspondent for the U.S. weekly newspaper The Chronicle of Higher Education, and has reported for The New York Times, Newsweek, Nature, Science, and other publications. This is his first book.

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-708-9
paper $24.95