“If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that when you hear ‘Russian literature,’ you think of college classes you wish you’d cut—and books that can seem as long as a Siberian winter. But in this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.”—Scott Martel, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)“A rare gem: a genuine affirmation of deep reading—of caring about ideas and being carried of by them—from an exceptional writer who’s not event 35.”—SF Weekly“It’s not often that one laughs out loud while reading a book of literary criticism. In seven delightfully quirky essays that combine travelogue and memoir with criticism, Elif Batuman’s The Possessed takes us on an unconventional odyssey through the world of Russian literature . . . Part sleuth, part pundit, Batuman both plays the game of literary exegesis and skewers it.”—The Christian Science Monitor“Possibly the best thing to come out of a graduate program in recent years . . . By writing about her personal experiences with such charm, Batuman manages to make literature accessible in a way few critics can: She loves the Russians, and because, over the course of the book, you come to love her a little bit, you come to love the Russians as well. She’s an example of not just how to appreciate literature, but how to live life through literature—without losing yourself.”—The Dallas Morning News“While some parts of the essays read like spy thrillers, others are more like episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with academic stealing one another’s parking spaces and then giving the finger . . . Batuman does what all great essayists do—she fills her readers with a passion for the subject at hand while simultaneously exploring its complexity.”—Simon Van Booy, Bookforum“A good personal-academic essay blends the best qualities of [memoir and literary criticism]: the charm, humor, digressions, and confessions of personal writing with the intelligence, curiosity, and analytical boldness of lit crit. Batuman . . . [gets] the ratios pretty much exactly right.”—Sam Anderson, New York magazine“A deeply funny, fiercely intelligent portrait of the not-always-rational pursuit of knowledge. Though Batuman lavishes attention on the specifics of her passion—and may indeed inspire you to spend the rest of this winter holed up with a thick Russian novel—her book is really about the process of learning itself. It’s a relatable, absorbing account of what it feels like to be infatuated with ideas, and to let them lead you to ever more weird and wonderful places.”—Eryn Loeb, Time Out New York"Can the practice of literary scholarship and the art of literary criticism generate true tales of hilarity, pathos, and revelation? Yes, if you’re Batuman, a writer of extraordinary verve and acumen who braids together academic adventures, travelogues, biography, and autobiography to create scintillating essays . . . Batuman became enthralled by the great Russian writers, studied Russian, and, after some rough spots, embraced the study of literature as her life calling. Precision is Batuman’s path to both humor and intensity, whether she’s writing about her fellow comparative-lit grad students at Stanford, 'magic' library moments (such as discovering a link between Isaac Babel and King Kong), antic miscommunications at international literary conferences, a visit to St. Petersburg’s ice palace, and, in several piquant installments, her strange summer in Samarkand, studying the Uzbek language and literature. Candid and reflective, mischievous and erudite, Batuman writes nimble and passionate essays celebrating the invaluable and pleasurable ways literature can 'increase the sum total of human understanding.'"—Donna Seaman, Booklist"In her first book, a picaresque memoir, Rona Jaffe Prize-winning essayist Batuman takes the reader on a journey both literary and physical as she traces the evolution of her fascination with Russian literature across the globe and several centuries. Batuman writes in a voice that is frank, droll, and at times dryly hysterical. Her devoted, sometimes tangential study of Russian language and literature and the Dickensian cast of characters she meets in its pursuit will strike a chord with anyone who has been to graduate school and amuse even those who haven't. Footnoted translations of quotations in foreign languages would be helpful, but this is otherwise a wildly entertaining romp through academia and the Russian literary pantheon that does justice to a literature that is deservedly praised but underread. Highly recommended for book lovers of all sorts, especially fans of Russian literature or metanonfiction such as Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris and Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road."—Megan Hodge, Randolph-Macon College Library, Ashland, Virginia, Library Journal"Life imitates art—and even literary theory—in this scintillating collection of essays. Stanford lit prof Batuman (recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award) gleans clues to the conundrums of human existence by recalling scenes from her grad-student days in academe and exotic settings like Samarkand. A Tolstoy conference sparks her investigation into the possible murder, both physical and metaphysical, of the great man. She spends a summer in Samarkand reading impenetrable works in Old Uzbek as a window into Central Asia's enigmatic present. (Her baffled précis of one legend reads in part, Bobur had an ignorant cousin, a soldier, who wasted all his time on revenge killings and on staging fights between chicken and sheep.) The book climaxes in a Dostoyevskian psychodrama that swirls around a magnetic grad student in the comp-lit department. Batuman is a superb storyteller with an eye for absurdist detail. Her pieces unfold like beguiling shaggy dog tales that blithely track her own misadventures into colorful exegeses of the fiction and biographies of the masters: she's the rare writer who can make the concept of mimetic desire vivid and personal. If you've ever felt like you're living in a Russian novel—and who hasn't?—Batuman will show you why."—Publishers Weekly
Elif Batuman was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. She now lives in Twin Peaks, San Francisco (near the radio tower). She is the recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award and a Rona Jaffe Prize. She teaches literature at Stanford University.