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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Possessed
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...
Published on 16 May 2011 by S Riaz

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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining Memoir of Student Years, But Not Much about Russian Books!
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...
Published on 27 Jan 2012 by Colin C


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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining Memoir of Student Years, But Not Much about Russian Books!, 27 Jan 2012
This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (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
3.0 out of 5 stars The curate's egg - good in parts, 25 Oct 2011
By 
A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (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. Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory - a sort of "look how clever I am", but maybe that's my English perceptions getting in the way - American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.

I got a pretty good essay on the Russian writer Isaac Babel, and a long lecture on The Death of Tolstoy which can be found online on the Harpers Magazine archive. Other items were previously published in the New Yorker and elsewhere. Sometimes you get elongated versions of other articles -for example, one chapter, The House of Ice builds on an article previously published in the New Yorker and is devoted telling the story of how in 2006 a replica of Empress Anna Ioannovna's ice palace built in St. Petersburg. Its all very interesting, a sort of first person travelogue, the sort of thing which would be published in Granta magazine, but its hard to see its how it fits into this book about Russian literature.

Three chapters are devoted to Batuman's time in Samarkand where she was learning the Uzbek language. Its all very funny and contains many amusing anecdotes such as how she learned to choose water-melons in the market by listening to them talk.

In the final chapter, Batuman visits Florence where Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot. She moves on to discuss his novel The Possessed and after summarising the book in a few pages, she immediately lost me by interpreting the book in the context of René Girard theory of "mimetic desire" which was apparently "formulated in opposition to the Nietzschean notion of autonomy as the key to human self-fulfilment".

Four or five pages of discussion of this theory then follow, after which Batuman recounts a little tale of how when she returned to Stanford the department's dynamics had completely changed as new people had arrived (including the charismatic Matej from Croatia) and others had left. We get four or five pages of the impact on these changes and a fair amount about Matej's impact on Batuman's life, but I can't for the life of me see how they relate to Dosteovsky's book The Possessed. But then Batuman's writing jumps around so much its just as I said at the start of this book, like following a butterfly as it moves from one plant to another. Its difficult to focus in on one particular topic before she's off on another one. I'd have had no problem with Girard's theory of mimetic desire in the midst of a book which had been leading up to it, but to just drop it into a chapter largely discussing relationships within her department reads like a first-year female student at University who's reading her text books while eyeing up the boy at the next table.

I'm very disappointed with this book. Its lack of focus and structure completely detracts from some of the good things it includes. It seems a cheap way of putting a book together to me and if it had been subtitled "assorted writings of Elif Batuman" I wouldn't have bothered with it. The lure of reading about "the Russian literature reading experience" misled me in this case and I wouldn't recommend this book unless you're already into Batuman's work.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Possessed, 16 May 2011
By 
S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
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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
4.0 out of 5 stars A young academic explores her love of Russian literature, 23 April 2012
By 
Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Hardcover)
'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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Russian literature and a summer in Samarkand, 17 Oct 2011
By 
Damaskcat (UK) - See all my reviews
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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. Part autobiography and partly about Russian literature this book is full of surreal and inexplicable incidents which remain in the reader's mind after the book has been finished. There are useful lists at the end of the book of authors quoted in the text and of sources used which might send the reader off into new areas of exploration.

I found the author's summer in Samarkand, which forms the middle section of the book, intriguing reading. I particularly loved the description of a game called Perfect Chess `. . . in which each player has, in addition to the standard pieces, two giraffes, two camels, two siege engines, and a vizier . . .' Then there was the author's recurring nightmare about being sent to stay with a family of penguins to learn their language. I also loved her description of the reconstruction of an 18th century ice palace in St Petersburg.

Did I learn anything about Russian literature? Yes quite a bit. I'm now not sure whether I want to read any of it, except Chekov's short stories, because it all seems quite depressing. The book is intriguing reading because of its insight into other cultures which were certainly unfamiliar to me.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good fun and a bit challenging, 31 May 2011
By 
E. Clarke "Cambusken" (Glasgow, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Hardcover)
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. I imagine many in that vast industry will recognise the blagging and dodging you need to do to get grants, trips, odd teaching jobs, etc. And the episodes, as anecdotes, are entertainingly told, though I should add that the writing is unfailingly superb. Along the way there is a challeging engagement with (I suppose) literary theory, told as a coming of age story. Or rather as a forsaking of youth story. There is not much in that is entirely implausible, but I think you best read this as a novel, rather than think it gains anything by having "really happened". There is a fair enough dollop of Russian literature in it, but not really that much, and most of that obscure. There is a LOT of Uzbec literature in it (I am not sure why), and this turns out to be Arabian Nights type folkloric tales, which border on the boring. They resonate with some of the synopses of Russian literature, so perhaps the thing is the story telling, but I was not really convinced by this excursion to Eastern literature (but the incidents recounted on the way were highly entertaining). Why did she set out the action of the Demons at such length, and append to it a scholarly critique? Was this something she did in her search for a Literary Study job, didn't get it but decided to write anyway. Or is the whole point of the book? She certainly creates amazing resonances. Altogether an easy read but a challenging post-reading task of wondering why.
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19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hilarious, extremely well written -- for Russophiles who've been there and done that, 27 Aug 2010
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I was very curious about this book when it started cropping up on my Librarything (an interest site where you can catalogue the books in your personal library and browse other libraries similar to your own), although I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

Elif Batum is an academic and writer (not entirely sure about her history - I'm only halfway through the book, which - and I may be wrong - I think is mostly true but somewhat enhanced for effect and to achieve emotional truth) who has studied Russian literature and language in the US and beyond. Her sense of humour is terrific, and she writes like a dream. All the absurdity and madness are here, hilariously so. It's almost like a trip back to Russia, or back in time to university - or maybe better!!!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Give this book a try, 9 Oct 2013
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What to say about this book, other than give it a try, especially if you like Russian writers. Quirky, funny, erudite and interesting.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Love of literature combined with a sense of humour, 28 July 2013
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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 you laugh out loud. It tells about Russian classics, Uzbekistan and Uzbek culture and abut the vagaries of US graduate life, but, above all, the author's all-consuming love of things literary and her fresh take on lit-crit received wisdom will keep you under its spell from cover to cover.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I'm obsessed, 20 Jun 2013
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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
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