22 October 2011

Book Review: The Possessed by Elif Batuman

In an effort to bring more non-fiction reading to my life, I bought a copy of Elif Batuman's book of essays to read on my vacation.  The cover and the subtitle, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Love Them, convinced me that these would be just the thing.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if I had actually read any of the Russian books contained therein; perhaps I'm really just a lowbrow reader masquerading as a book snob.  Which is not to say I didn't enjoy this book at all.  I did.  I just happened to enjoy the introduction and the back cover more than the actual essays.

When a book has these words on the back cover, one has to think that much humor and hijinks among international literature will ensue: "If you're going to read just one book about conference planning, Isaac Babel, Leo Tolstoy, boys' leg contests, giant apes, Uzbek poetry, the life of the mind and the resignation of the sould--seek no farther: THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU!!!"

Promising, no? But for me, at least, this book fell short of my expectations.  I was expecting something much more consistently (and frequently) funny.  Not long essays about planning a Russian lit conference  with Isaac Babel's last living relatives , or living in Samarkand, or the Uzbek language and its maddening similarities to Turkish.  All worthy subjects, I have no doubt.  But apparently I would have preferred to read them if they'd been penned by Bill Bryson, David Sedaris, or J. Maarten Troost, three very funny non-fiction writers.

People who have actually read Babel, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy (and perhaps those not reading the book on a beach in the Virgin Islands) will enjoy this book, I have no doubt.  And perhaps I will even give it another spin one day.  But not today.

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