Julie Ehlers's Reviews > The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

The Possessed by Elif Batuman
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really liked it
bookshelves: books-about-books, funny, memoir-and-autobiography

That The Possessed got published at all is somewhat bewildering. What is this book, anyway? Its subtitle claims it's about "Russian books and the people who read them," but that's not entirely accurate. It's really Batuman's memoir of her time in grad school at Stanford: her interactions with professors and fellow students, her time at a Tolstoy conference at Tolstoy's old estate, a trip to the recreated "ice palace" in St. Petersburg, and her summer spent in Uzbekistan attempting to learn about Uzbek language and literature. Scattered throughout are historical summaries and explications of various texts from what we in the U.S. would call Eastern Europe, some quite well known (e.g., works by Babel and Dostoevsky), some highly obscure.

The Possessed is broken up into long essays, and the fact is that some of it doesn't hang together as well as I would like it to. Ordinarily this would be quite frustrating for me, but in this case three things worked in the book's favor. First, I was really interested in the subject matter, one that I know little about. Second, and more importantly, Batuman has a fantastic dry sense of humor that weaves its way throughout the book; you can tell it's not so much that she's trying to be funny as that she's just a really funny person and it can't help but show. Her distinctive voice is one of the things that holds the memoir together, and that's a rare and impressive thing in a first book. Finally, I admired the book's ambition. Batuman has a lot to say and covers a lot of ground; she has a weird and complicated mind but does an admirable job of portraying it. Reading The Possessed was like hanging out with a really smart and hilarious person who has completely different preoccupations from my own and sees the world in a singular way. How can that be anything but fascinating?
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Reading Progress

December 14, 2015 – Shelved
December 14, 2015 – Shelved as: wish-list
December 4, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
January 7, 2018 – Started Reading
January 8, 2018 –
page 32
10.81% "This is hilarious!"
January 9, 2018 –
page 55
January 10, 2018 –
page 101
January 11, 2018 –
page 161
54.39% "This is a really fun read."
January 12, 2018 –
page 205
January 13, 2018 – Shelved as: books-about-books
January 13, 2018 – Shelved as: funny
January 13, 2018 – Shelved as: memoir-and-autobiography
January 13, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Ken (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ken I agree with many of the reasons you found to like it DESPITE its weaknesses. I'm a Tolstoy fanatic, so right out of the gate I was interested in the Yasnaya Polyana bit.

message 2: by George (new)

George Siehl An insightful review. I like it.

Julie Ehlers George wrote: "An insightful review. I like it."


message 4: by Bianca (new)

Bianca It does sound fascinating and very different.

message 5: by Esil (new) - added it

Esil Thanks for putting this one on my radar, Julie. I might try it as audio, which sounds like a good way to hang out with a really smart and hilarious person.

message 6: by Jenna (new)

Jenna Much of what you said here describes how I felt about her novel The Idiot, which I adored.

Julie Ehlers Jenna wrote: "Much of what you said here describes how I felt about her novel The Idiot, which I adored."

That's great to hear--I really want to read The Idiot now that I've read this one. Paperback comes out next month. :)

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