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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them [Paperback]

Elif Batuman
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

16 Feb 2010

No one who read Elif Batuman’s first article (in the journal n+1) will ever forget it. “Babel in California” told the true story of various human destinies intersecting at Stanford University during a conference about the enigmatic writer Isaac Babel. Over the course of several pages, Batuman managed to misplace Babel’s last living relatives at the San Francisco airport, uncover Babel’s secret influence on the making of King Kong, and introduce her readers to a new voice that was unpredictable, comic, humane, ironic, charming, poignant, and completely, unpretentiously full of love for literature.

Batuman’s subsequent pieces—for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books— have made her one of the most sought-after and admired writers of her generation, and its best traveling companion. In The Possessed we watch her investigate a possible murder at Tolstoy’s ancestral estate. We go with her to Stanford, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg; retrace Pushkin’s wanderings in the Caucasus; learn why Old Uzbek has one hundred different words for crying; and see an eighteenth-century ice palace reconstructed on the Neva.

Love and the novel, the individual in history, the existential plight of the graduate student: all find their place in The Possessed. Literally and metaphorically following the footsteps of her favorite authors, Batuman searches for the answers to the big questions in the details of lived experience, combining fresh readings of the great Russians, from Pushkin to Platonov, with the sad and funny stories of the lives they continue to influence—including her own.

Product details

  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (16 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374532184
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374532185
  • Product Dimensions: 20.9 x 14.2 x 2.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 755,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


`Wildly original, creatively rambling ... the funniest book I've read in a long time' --The Times

`Part personal recollection, part literary criticism, it has the remarkable quality of being so dazzlingly good in its unique genre' --Sunday Telegraph

'Batuman has a deadpan, detached, absurdist style ... She's a master of the laconic quote ... consistently surprising and entertaining' --Irish Times

`A deeply clever and very funny collection of essays: half memoir, half love-letter to the Russian literary greats' --Guardian

`One of the best guides to life and literature I've ever read ... Eccentric and brilliant'

'The first outing of a major voice ... seriously and perceptively, about Russian fiction, and it really is funny' --Observer

`Batuman meanders skilfully through her experiences chasing meaning and life in Russian novels ... entertaining, clear eyed and passionate' --Scotland on Sunday

'She writes like a dream ... I found myself simply wanting to read more from Elif Batuman' --Evening Standard

'An intoxicating mix of memoir, literary criticism and philosophy with Batuman's idiosyncratic character at its heart .... charming and hilarious' --Daily Telegraph

'Her stories incorporate moments of real beauty and are driven by a serious purpose ... charming, complex and life-enhancing' --Sunday Times

`Read and delight in Elif Batuman's seriously funny, curiously melancholic book ... oddly moving, dazzlingly written' --The Herald

`A clever, life-loving account of a love affair with language ... an eloquent defence of the book'

--Independent on Sunday

'There are many times when Batuman embodies that great New Yorker tradition of intelligent, lightly comic non-fiction' --Guardian

`Part-memoir, part-travelogue, part-literary criticism, this curious and idiosyncratic book is also a delightful one' --Financial Times

`A joy to read. Batuman infectiously conveys the dreamlike inscrutability of Russian literature ... An intellectually bracing travelogue of literary adventures' --Economist

'It's impossible not to warm to the author of this book ... comic poignant and very entertaining' --Spectator --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

ELIF BATUMAN was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. She now lives in Twin Peaks, San Francisco (near the radio tower). She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Prize. She teaches literature at Stanford University.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By Colin C
I was excited about reading this book, being a Russian literature enthusiast (or should that be obsessive?) myself. I was slightly disappointed though as the realisation soon dawned that this book is, at best, three parts personal memoir and one part discussion of the wonder and uniqueness of Russian literature. Elif Batuman is a good writer, and her anecdotes about meeting Isaac Babel's eccentric wife and daughter, or going on a bizarre summer stay to Uzbekistan, are never less than engaging, and often very funny.

But, I think the book has been sneakily marketed as something which it is not; by the half way point, I think, there had been a handful of mentions of Tolstoy, and a tale of an academic conference related stay at his home, and some passing references to Pushkin, Babel (not really one of the greatest), and Dostoyevsky. The book does not in fact explore Russian books much at all - it mentions them in the context of the author's adventures, and as such, the emphasis is heavily on the adventures of a young Turkish woman in America and the former USSR, following her own path in life and describing the people she meets (the majority of whom do not seem to read Russian books!), not the books themselves. 'Possessed' is therefore frustrating if you want to gain many insights or fresh perspectives on most of the great Russian writers, and is better approached simply as a memoir which will occasionally mention some works you may know, or plan to read.

Overall, a little bit underwhelming.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The curate's egg - good in parts 25 Oct 2011
Elif Batuman's book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.

This gives the book a distinct lack of unity - sure, some of it is brilliant, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn't really why I came here. The book is subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them", and in a loose way, I suppose that's fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a fair amount of bringing together previously published lectures and articles.

I've no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case at least, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read. As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all - in my humble opinion!

I wanted more, I suppose something like it says on the tin - a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman's intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Possessed 16 May 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Elif Bauman is an American academic, from a Turkish family, who asks how she ended up spending seven years in California studying the Russian novel? In this book she talks about conferences she attended; such as one on Babel in California and another in Tolstoy's ancestral home. Also time she spent in Samarkand learning Uzbek, as well as other Russian visits and many other Russian authors. Actually though, what the book is about is her love affair with Russian literature and, as someone who shares her love for all things Russian, it is a joy to read. I adore books about books and Elif Bauman writes so well, with such humour and passion, that the book has become one of my favourites immediately and Bauman an author I hope I will hear (and read) much from.

Although a series of essays, Bauman has endless humourous stories to tell and she weaves her tales into those about the authors and books she loves, meandering delightfully off the point and having a wonderful sense of humour about all that befalls her on her travels. If you have an interest in Russia and a love of literature, then this book is for you. As for her original question about how she spent so long studying the Russian novel? Well, all I can say is that I am glad she did and I look forward to more from this extremely talented writer. An absolute joy and pleasure to read and I also learnt a lot. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Paul Bowes TOP 500 REVIEWER
'The Possessed' is a collection of essays loosely linked by Elif Batuman's experiences as a graduate student in comparative literature. Batuman, who now teaches at Stanford, is the American child of Turkish parents; not an obvious point of departure for 'Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them', as the subtitle has it. But it quickly becomes apparent that Batuman's title isn't merely a name-dropping reference to Dostoyevsky's celebrated novel. Batuman's 'possessed' are all those who have fallen under the spell of Russian literature, in many cases almost to the point of mania. Batuman at this time is one of their number, and the book is an account of how her obsession came to structure her life.

We are drawn as though by a cicerone through a tour of Isaac Babel, modern Samarkand, ancient Uzbek literature, the circumstances of the death of Tolstoy, the history of the palace of ice constructed by the grand-daughter of Peter the Great, and a host of incidental sidelights on the odd, precarious and occasionally surreal life of a graduate student. By the time she arrives at Dostoyevsky, in the final essay, the effect is almost anticlimactic.

Batuman writes well, and I found the book amusing and absorbing. If it has a weakness, it is that Batuman sometimes seems unclear whether she is writing a memoir of a period in her own life when books loomed unnaturally large, or a sideways disquisition on something less personal: the 'Russian soul'? The relation of great literature to life?

Recommended nonetheless for its wit and unusual perspective on its subject.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Give this book a try
What to say about this book, other than give it a try, especially if you like Russian writers. Quirky, funny, erudite and interesting.
Published 10 months ago by J.A.L.
5.0 out of 5 stars Love of literature combined with a sense of humour
I loved Elif Batuman's book! It is a hybrid - part autobiographical novel, part research diary; it is packed with knowledge (gained or being acquired) and ideas, and it will make... Read more
Published 13 months ago by A Buchler
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm obsessed
Great book, well written, and draws you in to stories of Russian writers.... not a subject I had much interest in before. Batuman has enormous creativity and big ideas
Published 14 months ago by Cal Flyn
4.0 out of 5 stars Turk unpossessed
I, Melachi ibn Amillar, being of unsound mind and body, did read Elif Batuman's "The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" (2010) in April 2013. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Melachi ibn Amillar
3.0 out of 5 stars More a travelogue than an insightful journey into Russian literature
I did expect this to be a rich exploration of Russian literature and the multiple positive quotes on the cover sucked me in. Read more
Published 18 months ago by nanda
1.0 out of 5 stars If you want to turn children away from literature, force this on them.
You know, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, yes, that one, if you enjoyed that, please don't read this. If you like Chekhov or Dickens, this is not for you. Read more
Published on 1 Jan 2012 by Ade
5.0 out of 5 stars Russian literature and a summer in Samarkand
I knew very little about Russian literature so I thought this could be an interesting book to read and I did find It interesting reading if not for the reasons I'd expected. Read more
Published on 17 Oct 2011 by Damaskcat
1.0 out of 5 stars Diabolically disappointing
For readers who love Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev and the other greats of Russian literature - or for people who have travelled to Russia and love the country - there is little of... Read more
Published on 2 Jun 2011 by Pirlo
4.0 out of 5 stars Good fun and a bit challenging
This is an entertaining - often slyly funny - account of the life of a would-be novelist who has to find an alternative career as in linguistics or literary education. Read more
Published on 31 May 2011 by E. Clarke
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