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Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

This book is subtitled: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It is going a bit far to call these tales of adventure, but it is a wonderful memoir.
Are comical things more likely to happen to funny people, or is funniness simply the ability to make ordinary things seem comical? I think the later. Countless people have gone to graduate school—as Batuman did, in Russian literature at Stanford—and almost as many have spent some time studying abroad—as Batuman did when she spent a summer learning Uzbek in the Central Asian city of Samarkand. The clich├ęs about both—the unfinishable dissertation, the weird host family--could be wonderfully told or very trivial. Batuman really makes everything that happens to her seem funny and interesting--such a gift. In writing about her own education, Batuman manages to make it sound wonderfully grotesque, like a cross between Borges and Borat. How does she do it? It is her wry, detached sense of humor--she always on the lookout for scholarly absurdity, which she mixes with the understated wit of her writing. You'll never read Tolstoy again without thinking of this very funny book.

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