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18 November 2018


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The Possessed

Recently, a blood relative with no past history of Russophilia took a Russian literature course in college. He was utterly enthralled and is now considering a year off to work in Mother Russia. Such is the power of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

This uniquely compelling force of Russian literature is the central theme of Batuman’s book, subtitled "Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them." Yet the "people" here are mainly Batuman herself, and The Possessed is largely a memoir of her intellectual explorations of the Russian literary landscape.

That does not make the book any less interesting. On the contrary, Batuman’s first person narrative enlivens her exploration. Her self-deprecation and (at times astonishingly frank) openness about her own personal life make this a fascinating read. There is a remarkable breadth and combination of unexpected elements, from a hilarious conference on Isaac Babel, to an episode of CSI Tula, to her own bizarre attempt to transfuse Russian culture and literature by way of extended stays in Uzbekistan.

In short, Batuman’s tale of personal discovery is as diverting and multi-threaded as a nineteenth century novel. And it’s a great summer read that will help you rediscover your own initial fascination with all things Russian.


— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2010