Wednesday, January 5, 2011
If you like to read, there are few websites as wonderful to browse as The Millions. It was on there that I came across this review/interview with Elif Batuman, the author of The Possessed. Elif is a six foot tall Turkish woman who is a scholar of Russian literature. Her book is about her experiences as a graduate student in that particular field.
As a wee lad (OK, in high school and college), I enjoyed Russian literature. So I thought I would enjoy this book. The title comes from Dostoevsky's book of the same name (which also goes by the title The Devils or The Demons, depending on your translation) and Dostoevsky is my favorite Russian author so all the more reason to like it.
I was right. I really enjoyed it. Two thoughts kept running through my head as I read it, though. My first thought was, "How on earth did this book get published?". While it is incredibly entertaining and does not require a vast knowledge of Russian literature, I do think knowing a bit about Russian stories helps increase the enjoyment level. That being said, who would pick this up? Why would a publisher think this topic had enough appeal to be made into a book? I'm still not entirely sure but I know how it got published.
It got published because Batuman is a very talented writer who has written for a number of publications including n+1 and The New Yorker. As a matter of fact, some, if not all of this book, has been previously published in those publications. Batuman also knows how the academic system works. She seems able to finagle grants and funding for her projects and I don't think it's a stretch for her to be able to finagle a book deal as well.
Regardless, it got published and it is good. The book is part travelogue, part literary criticism, part autobiography. The stories are very entertaining, if sometimes a little self-absorbed. Batuman shares details about herself and her friends that sometimes seem a little too personal or a little too unnecessary.
I had also hoped that this would make me want to read more Russian literature. It did. Unfortunately, much of the literature unfamiliar to me that she mentions is unfamiliar because it hasn't been translated into English. That's a bit of a problem. And as usual, I'm disappointed that a non-fiction work is not cited. She lists references used at the end but I like citations, darn it.
Which brings up my second thought that plagued me during this read, "How good is this book?". I did like it a lot. It made me laugh. It made me want to learn more about the subject. It is well-written. I could, and did, put it down quite often, though, opting to move onto other books. Maybe it was the mindset I was in, maybe it was something lacking in the book. Ultimately, I opted to make this a one-star book. But it's close. I think it's a fun read for anyone but a must read for fans of Russian literature.
Oh, and the magazine The Week, one of the few I enjoy, named it among their top-five non-fiction books of the year. So there's that, too.