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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them Paperback – February 16, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Life imitates art—and even literary theory—in this scintillating collection of essays. Stanford lit prof Batuman (recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award) gleans clues to the conundrums of human existence by recalling scenes from her grad-student days in academe and exotic settings like Samarkand. A Tolstoy conference sparks her investigation into the possible murder, both physical and metaphysical, of the great man. She spends a summer in Samarkand reading impenetrable works in Old Uzbek as a window into Central Asia's enigmatic present. (Her baffled précis of one legend reads in part, Bobur had an ignorant cousin, a soldier, who wasted all his time on revenge killings and on staging fights between chicken and sheep.) The book climaxes in a Dostoyevskian psychodrama that swirls around a magnetic grad student in the comp-lit department. Batuman is a superb storyteller with an eye for absurdist detail. Her pieces unfold like beguiling shaggy dog tales that blithely track her own misadventures into colorful exegeses of the fiction and biographies of the masters: she's the rare writer who can make the concept of mimetic desire vivid and personal. If you've ever felt like you're living in a Russian novel—and who hasn't?—Batuman will show you why. (Feb.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

Possibly the best thing to come out of a graduate program in recent years (Dallas Morning News), Batuman's intriguing blend of travelogue, autobiography, and literary criticism offers a fresh perspective on some of Russia's greatest authors. Despite its challenging subject matter, The Possessed is accessible and entertaining, written with sly humor and a keen eye for absurdity. Some critics considered its essays uneven, but they still praised Batuman's infectious delight in literature and her examination of the many ways we can live lives more attuned to our favorite books. Perhaps the New York Times said it best: "She's the kind of reader who sends you back to your bookshelves with a sublime buzz in your head."

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (February 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374532184
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374532185
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #133,845 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Elif Batuman was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. She now lives in San Francisco. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award. She teaches at Stanford University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

140 of 157 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Teich on March 2, 2010
Format: Paperback
Please be patient. I will get to the book in a moment, but first I want to explain why this very good book matters.

My Polish grandmother was an austere, white-haired woman perpetually irked by her descent into the middle class. She believed that a lady rightfully avoided certain things such as work and cooking. She was, however, a great reader and had at one time aspired to be a poet. A sheaf of her poems written in a florid Slavic hand lies packed away in my basement. When I was thirteen, my mother pointed me in my grandmother's direction and instructed me to ask Grandma what to read. "You must begin", the old lady said firmly, "with Tolstoy. Resurrection and The Kreutzer Sonata." At the time I couldn't understand either and settled on "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Since then I have had a recurring love affair with Russian lit. From Gogol and Pushkin I journeyed on through Dostoevsky and got as far as Master and Margarita. Nearly every step of the way some Russian emigre -the very people who insisted I read these books- wagged a cautionary finger at me: "You will never truly understand a word of this. The translation is terrible. And the Russian soul is... beyond you.""

Now I have discovered The Possessed. This book with its comic-inspired cover lay in the Our Staff Recommends section of the bookstore, in a rack nine deep and quite undisturbed. So, hopeful that I would at last grasp the essence of the Russian soul or at least learn something, I bought it. Once I began to read, I couldn't put it down. Nor could I stop laughing. Elif Batuman has written a comic detective story in which the characters real and imaginary intermix and the revelation lies in the journey itself.
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There are flashes of charm in this book, counterbalanced by some very tedious patches indeed. Elif Batuman is apparently well-connected enough to have Roz Chast do the artwork for the book cover. She also seems to have a remarkable talent for self-promotion. This book has generated a considerable amount of buzz, and some near-hagiographic reviews.

I don't quite understand why. If one wanted to view things uncharitably, Ms Batuman spent seven somewhat aimless years as a graduate student in comparative literature at Stanford without ever really figuring out why she was there. She did prove quite adept at ferreting out travel grant money, which she used to make various trips to Russia and other former Soviet republics. This book is essentially a travel memoir - the record of those trips. Like most travel memoirs, it is interesting only in spots. Two of the book's seven chapters are quite well-written and manage to sustain the reader's interest (the author's attendance at a conference about Tolstoy held at the Tolstoy estate, a trip to Saint Petersburg to visit a reconstruction of an ice palace first built in the reign of Catherine the great).

But that's as good as it gets. Ms Batuman once spent a dismal summer visiting Samarkand. Inexplicably, she insists on telling us all about it. In excruciating detail, spread over three chapters. It takes up almost half of the book and is indescribably tedious. As a general rule, other people's travel memoirs are most interesting when things go wrong, but Ms Batuman's account of her summer in Samarkand almost made me stick pencils in my eyes, just to make it stop. Fortunately, the Kindle has an off switch.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Mulberry on June 17, 2010
Format: Paperback
This is the funniest, sweetest, most rewarding non-fiction book I've read in awhile. Although it's extremely literary, it's also hilarious, to the point that I had to give up on reading it in the quiet study area of the NYU library last week because I kept laughing out loud, to the annoyance of my chemistry-textbook-bound fellow students. It's also incredibly absorbing and addictive-- twice I actually missed my subway stop on the train because I was so engrossed in Elif Batuman's storytelling abilities.

Some highlights!
- the part in "Babel in California", the first essay in the book, in which Batuman compares the expression on the face of a certain elderly literary scion as that of "a cat which does not want to be picked up".
- all of the episodes with the comically evil landlady in "Summer in Samarkand"--the sections in which the furniture begins to disappear are gaspingly hilarious.
- so many moments with the Tolstoy scholars in "Who Killed Tolstoy?" which I read when it originally came out in Harper's last year--it's every bit as good the second time around.

This is a rare, rare book, and completely worth the ten bucks to buy it, take it everywhere with you, and read it more than once. A gem!
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32 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Duy Tran on February 22, 2010
Format: Paperback
Really, this series of essays lived up to the billing. First off, this book is downright funny, especially the series of essays "Summer in Samarkand," and the exaggerated retelling of the history of the Ice Palace. Ms. Satuman has a great feel for deadpan humor and comic understatement.

Second, it's a "smart" book and full of theory: some elegant, some comicly half-baked, and some straight-up weird. The last essay on Girard's theory of mimetic desire is incredibly interesting stuff, even though I didn't believe a word of it.

Third, it's personal, I felt like the book really revealed the personality of the author, and that I knew her well.
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