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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Review: The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Title: The Possessed
Author: Elif Batuman
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publish Date: February 16th 2010
Source: Library

Why You're Reading This Book:
  • You like funny memoirs.
  • You're an armchair traveler.
What's the Story?:

From "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."

My Two Cents:

This book was a little bit different than what I expected (in a good way). The subtitle of the book is "Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them." I guess I was expecting something about people who read Russian novels... not really sure what I was expecting actually. My book club chose the book so I just went along with the flow.

This book is really more of a travel book. Elif Batuman always seems to be in the right place at the right time and gets to go to all of these fabulous places in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Some parts of it were definitely familiar as I was just in Ukraine back in August. It definitely made me laugh. Batuman also finds herself in some pretty funny situations (scary toilets in Uzbekistan or losing a famous writer's last living relatives in a huge airport or judging a boy's leg contest) that made me laugh even more.

It's only when Batuman started talking about some of the Russian novels she has studied that I sort of lost interest. I haven't read very many Russian novels at all so many of those sections simply read as summaries to me and I didn't really get much out of them.

Bottom line: Armchair travelers will love this one.



  1. Sounds hard to categorize! I might have to give it a try.


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