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137 of 153 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Young Turk
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...
Published on March 2, 2010 by Jeffrey Teich

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38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I once spent a dreary month in Moscow. But I don't feel the need to torture others with the details.
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...
Published on March 25, 2011 by David M. Giltinan


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137 of 153 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Young Turk, March 2, 2010
By 
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (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. Yet she knows so much more than Russian lit. She glides effortlessly across the artistic landscape from Babel to King Kong, from Tolstoy to Sammarkand. She is a keen tracer of lost personae. But there's more. Ms. Batuman has the delicate antennae needed to detect the nuances of academic silliness. She comes armed with a red-blooded aversion to the cult of pomp and obfuscation which dominates so much of modern scholarship. Better than that she comes armed with a facility for writing English which pleases the American soul.

But she is also a teacher. In her deft way she touches on the central themes of Russian literature which has thrived despite the successive ogreships of the tsars, the communists, and now the Putinists. What are the central themes? According to her (and others) the Russian must lead at least two lives and perhaps three or more. At minimum there coexist the public persona, the private one, and the inner one that carries on a dialogue only with itself. But don't we all have these? Here's the difference: Many a Russian author reveals this multiple existence through his/her work and thereby risks the brutal perils of self-incrimination. Add to that a rich broth of mysticism and magic, and you nearly have it. Neither Raskolnikov nor Rasputin came about entirely by accident.

This book is not without its occasional flaws. So what. The stories are fun anyway.

I am not quite all the way through The Possessed. A handful of pages to go. I will finish it tonight or tomorrow; and when I do, I will have to fight off the chagrin of ending. Like Pimen in Boris Godunov I will say: Yet one more tale.
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38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I once spent a dreary month in Moscow. But I don't feel the need to torture others with the details., March 25, 2011
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This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Paperback)
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. Two other chapters, the author's ruminations on Dostoyevsky prompted by a trip to Venice and an account of a conference devoted to Isaac Babel that she helped organize at Stanford, were readable, but not particularly interesting. Ms Batuman, or her editor, should have realized that departmental gossip, though it might be catnip for graduate students, is of almost no interest to anyone else.

One point needs to be addressed. Elif Batuman does not want you to think of this book as just a collection of travel pieces. Seven years in graduate school have apparently given her higher aspirations. So she places this really bizarre section at the end of her introductory chapter, in which she essentially seems to be claiming profundity by association. This kind of thing:

"What if you read 'Lost Illusions' and ... you went to Balzac's house and Madame Hanska's estate, read every word he ever wrote, dug up every last thing you could about him - and then started writing?
That is the idea behind this book."

Say what now? Is Ms Batuman suggesting that simply attending a conference on Tolstoy held at the Tolstoy estate will provide deep insight into his work, or magically improve the quality of one's writing about Tolstoy? This seems charmingly naive, not to say stupid. Or is she just trying to assign some kind of retrospective meaning to her seven years at graduate school?

At any rate, the book is studded throughout with Batuman's assorted drive-by thoughts about various authors, most of them Russian. These are largely innocuous, with the exception of her "analysis" of Dostoyevsky's "The Possessed", which is an embarrassment from start to finish. A plodding, blow-by-blow summary that stretches for pages is followed by a summary of what her Stanford professor told the class about it, leading in to her infatuation with charismatic classmate Matej, a smouldering Croatian cliche straight from central casting whose "narrow glinting eyes and high cheekbones" cause her to lose control altogether:

"a long-limbed, perfectly proportioned physical elegance, such that his body always looked at once extravagantly casual and flawlessly composed".

Matej alternates between smouldering and brooding, reducing his classmates (male and female) to a state of drooling concupiscence, eventually triggering some kind of epiphanic advance in Batuman's understanding of "The Possessed" (was the trigger his two-pack-a-day habit, the discovery that his great-uncle was a cardinal, or just the shock of finally landing him in bed?) It's to Batuman's credit that her discussion of "The Possessed" avoids the usual mind-numbing academic jargon -- an unfortunate side effect is that its utter banality becomes impossible to conceal.

I cannot agree with those more enthusiastic reviewers who suggest that Batuman offers particularly keen insights. She clearly enjoys reading, but is not especially adept at engaging the reader's enthusiasm. Unless you have a particular interest in obscure Uzbek poets, or the tedium of life in the former Soviet Union, this much-hyped book is likely to disappoint you.

It seems only fair to add that a recent New Yorker article by Ms Batuman, about Turkish soccer fans, was everything this book was not - interesting, tightly written, and great fun to read.
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38 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is hilarious, and can make you smarter, too!, March 29, 2010
By 
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Paperback)
I have lived a long time and read a lot of books. Some were totally trashy and probably made me dumber, but they were totally engrossing. Other books were a much tougher slog, but they usually improved my knowledge of some subject and sometimes inspired a better overall understanding of my own (long) life.

This book is unlike anything my eyes have ever seen. First and foremost, it is absolutely hilarious. Reading this book was as fun and addictive as watching the first season of Jersey Shore ("GTL: Grad School, Travel, Literature.") Except, each passing chapter gave my brain the sensation of a bounteous feast, instead of giving it brain-ulcers. That is, the book not only increased my knowledge of familiar and unfamiliar books from Russia and elsewhere, but it also made me think about such books, and my own life, in new ways. By combining personal insight and wisdom, literary theory, and a body of grueling journalistic service (visiting "Slap-in-the-Face," squatting or leaping over pits in Samarkand, depending on the type of pit) the author really provoked a lot of things for me to think about.

Like, "to what extent is the goal of controlling your own life achievable, or even desirable?" Most people would like to control, at least partially, what happens to them, i.e. to minimize slaps in the face. But, do you also want to control what you like or love, and is this even possible? On the one hand, the heart is supposed to want what it wants. On the other hand Woody Allen has been viewed, to some extent, as a nasty pedophile. Probably what you love is controlled by your own outlook and personality, in the sense that you want yourself to want certain things (like a crush where you love to love someone) according to your interests and world-view. On the other hand, why do you want yourself to want certain things? This comes down to your life and experiences, which are partly under your own control or responsibility, but are partly determined by the actions of other humans in the world, grappling with the same apparatus.

This is one example of the sort of train of thought that my brain did not expect to take upon reading about some grad students and Russians. The book is truly unique in genre and content--if you read it you will have your own variety of thoughts. It is certainly possible that you will not like the book as much! For instance, if you don't feel that what you love has much control over the rest of your life, or that it should, then maybe this book will make you really mad. Or, if you feel like it is inappropriate to make jokes or to learn about crazy ancient things, or to use literary theory, when there is poverty in like Haiti, or because 9/11 and some associated wars happened, then it will be hard for you to enjoy many of these essays. Finally, the author is evidently a lively young talented babe, so if you feel that people should only learn from the lives and thoughts of older men with distinguished personas and grave attitudes, then you should ignore this book.

Having characterized the least-ideal audience for this book as loveless, humorless, and sexist, let me emphasize my opinion that almost everyone will at least enjoy this book even if it doesn't explode their brain. Now, the author is definitely honest about her experiences and opinions, many of which will necessarily differ from people who are not six-feet tall first-generation-Turkish women from New Jersey. This is _personal_ story. So if she says, for instance, that creative writing workshops are a big problem for her, it doesn't mean you are stupid if you are or were in a creative writing workshop--it may feel that way because she is smart and funny, but the book does not ridicule anything, it is just ridiculously funny. I mean, how could she develop this feeling about creative writing workshops unless she was in them herself? Did you know, when Tolstoy thought of the idea for _Anna Karenina_ the point was to totally rip her? And then as he was writing more and more about what was originally supposed to be a fatuous, selfish, bourgeois woman, he was like, "this is my own life!" My point is that even if you tried to write an objective world account about, like, "Modern Islamic Thought," you will ultimately be including your own experiences. And if you are honest about your likes and dislikes, the result will be all the more warm and humane.

In summary, the author is really smart but not a punk. I think that almost everyone will enjoy this book, and hopefully you will even enjoy it as much as I did!
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32 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yeah sure, it sucks that there is no kindle edition, but it's a great read otherwise..., February 22, 2010
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (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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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars HIlarious & Engaging, June 17, 2010
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (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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23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Not-So-Serious Look At Serious Russian Lit, June 17, 2010
By 
J. J. Lisandrillo (Ft. Lauderdale, FL USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Paperback)
If you're looking for a scholarly text on Russian literature along the lines of Isaiah Berlin's "Russian Thinkers" then you would do well to stay away from this book. I have no doubt that Ms. Batyman is capable of writing such a book, and prehaps one day she will, but this isn't it. What "The Possessed" is, however, is a well written, often humorous, collection of essays that deal primarily with Ms. Batyman's experiences as both student and scholar, and that only lightly touches upon the lives and works of such literary luminaries as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Babel.

But while "The Possessed" may be light on original insights and observations, it does do a better job than almost any other book I've read of capturing the narrow, insular, often tedious world of graduate studies, espeically in a field as esoteric and heavily mined as that of Russian Lit. And it's also a pretty good travelogue, taking the reader on extended excursions to Tolstoy's sprawling estate, to one of the more remote corners of the former Soviet Republic, and finally to a St. Petersburg Ice Palance built to last for not even a single winter season.

In short, this is one book -- short on analysis, high on humor -- that can be judged by its comic book-like cover. I'm going to keep my copy of "The Possessed," if only to re-read some of its more funny passages, while hoping that Ms. Batyman will eventually write a weightier companion volume to set along side it.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic!, March 9, 2010
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Paperback)
This is a wonderful book, especially if you're interested in Russian literature and the whole graduate school experience. Elif Batuman is incredibly funny and smart and manages to be both glancingly anecdotal and profound. This is one of those great hybrid books that takes, as its jumping off point, the author's avoidance of the arduous process of writing a book (in this case a novel) and mostly describes what happens when the author is doing and thinking about other things, which in the end results in a different, and perhaps more interesting, book. I thought of Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage," which describes his efforts (or lack of efforts) to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. Both books were immensely enjoyable.
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30 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de force, February 21, 2010
By 
Computer Dr. (Chicago, IL, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Paperback)
"The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" is a book of many things; in part, it is a book about Russian Literature, travel to exotic places, but most of all about life. It is by turns extraordinarily funny, heart breakingly sad, and with profound insights. Lovers of Russian Literature will find new insight and fresh interpretations here. For those who are not so versed, this book serves as a gentle introduction to these works.

The book consists of a series of essays, some of which have appeared before in the New Yorker, Harpers and n+1. While these essays span great breadth in literature and places, they are brilliantly joined together by an amazing introduction and wonderful conclusion. The writing is beautiful throughout, with highly quotable passages, and the author is a gifted storyteller---each story is a journey with its own surprises. My favorite passages were those which described people, including the author's loves. Like a sketch artist, in a few almost abstract lines a person is drawn or a situation captured. The book is a journey for the mind and the heart.

This is a magnificent book, and an author you will want to get to know.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read, February 27, 2010
By 
Toby Bavli (HOBOKEN, NJ, US) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Paperback)
While very familiar with the works of Pushkin, Babel and Dostoyevsky, I admit, with embarrassment, to little experience with Chekhov and Tolstoy. With yet more embarrassment, I admit that I do not particularly care for Tolstoy who, despite his unquestionable genius, has always struck me as somewhat heavy-handed and sanctimonious. (Feel free to call me an idiot on this point - you wouldn't be the first).

That being said, I wholeheartedly recommend 'The Possessed.' Relatively short and easily read, Elif Batuman's genre-bending exposition on Russian lit is the sort of book that fits perfectly into a New York-DC round trip on the Acela (it did, in my case), but leaves you thinking for a long time after - and recommending it incessantly to anyone polite enough to listen.

Batuman's insights into the lives and worldviews, often intersecting, of the great Russian writers is enough to make 'The Possessed' a fascinating read, even to a relative dilettante like me. Part of the explanation is that the book's most interesting character is Batuman herself - spiritually ambitious, impulsive, insightful, and searingly funny. To me at least, 'The Possessed' is less about Tolstoy and Pushkin and more about how Batuman came to understand them - in its own right, a story well worth knowing.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Possessed of little, December 11, 2010
By 
Bruce Watson (Leverett, MA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Paperback)
I love Russian literature. I did not love or even like this book. Aside from the very clever and engaging essay on the Tolstoy convention, this book is rambling, not very funny, extremely self-obssessed, and mystifyingly over-rated. A ragtag assemblage of dull memoir, mediocre lit crit, and grad student angst, all made possible because the author wrote a nice New Yorker piece and was signed up to expand it into a "book." Fooled again by the hype.
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