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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them Hardcover – 7 Apr 2011

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 298 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books (7 April 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847083137
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847083135
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 13.7 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 405,914 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

About the Author

Elif Batuman was born in New York City, grew up in New Jersey, and went to college at Harvard. She completed a PhD in comparative literature at Stanford University in 2007. She currently lives in San Francisco, and teaches at Stanford in the Interdisciplinary Humanities program. Her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, the London Review of Books, the Guardian, the Nation, and n+1. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and has a cat called Friday.

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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Colin C on 27 Jan. 2012
Format: Hardcover
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 By Thomas Cunliffe TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 25 Oct. 2011
Format: Hardcover
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 By S Riaz HALL OF FAMETOP 10 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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 Melachi ibn Amillar on 7 May 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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. The book gives an account of her travels, acquaintances and readings while enrolled on a postgraduate course on literature and languages in California. If that sounds a little odd, well so is the book, ranging from Stanford to Turkey to Uzbekistan and Saint Petersburg. Now, the central question, or joke, of the book is posed on page 57: "As a six-foot-tall first generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew." I, Melachi, have not read as much Russian literature as Ms Batuman, but have slept with more Russian women than her. Or so one imagines. But why, in short, would anyone care what I, or Elif Batuman, has to say about Russian literature? Perhaps cognizant of the answer to this, we are instead treated to the tragi-comic travails of jetsetting academics, in the manner of a David Lodge. Oddly, the narrator does not seem at all possessed -- she will go anywhere and do anything, providing she can get a grant. I assume there is some real scholarship going on as well, though, perhaps mercifully, we are spared this. As a travelogue with a linguistic bent it is interesting in parts, though rather haphazard. There are no cats in the book. There is a long section at the end about mimeticism involving a summary of the entire plot of "The Possessed" (the Russian novel, already rather well-known, I would have thought), the characters of which she seems to compare to those of her classmates, which I did not quite get.

But the strange thing about the book lies in the writing style.
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