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

The Possessed by Elif Batuman
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's review

it was ok

Ostensibly, I'm in the target audience for this book, since 19th century Russian literature is one of my favorite eras and Dostoevsky is my favorite author. However, this book takes too many boring and seemingly inconsequential sidetracks. The book is subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" and Batuman reads Russian books, so really any tangential topic is fair game. Technically not misleading, but not what I was expecting.

The book is composed of 4 essays on Russian topics and one super long random essay. The random essay is about a summer in Uzbekistan that is split into 3 parts and separates the other 4 essays and totally kills any momentum. I didn't see the chapter list at first, so after I read 'Summer in Samarkand' (the fact that it's part 1 is implicit here), I thought, 'Good, that's done with and I don't need to read any more about Uzbekistan'. Alas, there are 2 more parts that I diligently read, hoping for some more concrete tie-in to the topic at hand. Nothing ever came. I kept thinking of a passage where Batuman describes being bored reading a Turkish novel, "I remember reading this on a bus in Turkey and feeling deeply, viscerally bored." This is how I felt reading her long and overblown essay on a boring summer spent in Samarkand.

That said, the 4 essays on actual Russian topics are very interesting. She covers Isaac Babel, Lev Tolstoy, Lazhechnikov's 'House of Ice' (which I haven't read or even heard of), and Dostoevsky and his novel 'The Possessed'. I was quite taken by the discussion of mimetic desire in explaining certain themes in Dostoevsky. If this book had the essay 'Summer in Samarkand' completely removed, I would immediately give it another star, maybe even 2.
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Reading Progress

May 21, 2011 – Started Reading
May 21, 2011 – Shelved
May 23, 2011 – Finished Reading

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