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Friday, 2 November 2018

Book review: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman (2010)

Early on in her book, Batuman recounts how she decided to study literature at a university rather than doing a creative writing course but I think that she should have gone back to do the writing course after her graduate studies, at least so that should could learn how to pace her own writing. This book just goes way too fast and I was constantly looking about, puzzled, at the scenery that had suddenly popped up, without any preparation, before my eyes. Before you had gotten used to one room, you were led unceremoniously into another one, which was filled with a completely different set of people, none of whose names you knew yet.

I was reminded of a large commercial building that sits in the middle of Sydney, the city in which I live. Its driveway on Castlereagh Street leads out of an underground carpark where cars and trucks go to park or to unload goods for the businesses that use the building. One day it had been raining and I saw a two-tonne truck in the middle of the driveway that leads to the street, spinning its wheels on the green paint that has been applied to the driveway to regulate traffic there. It stood stuck between the high walls of the space half-way between the basement and the street level as I walked past. The driver had his window down and I wondered if he was starting to panic just a little bit because of the impasse he found himself in.

Batuman’s book, which is really a memoir, is like the driveway: too slick to allow the reader to gain purchase, preventing him or her from taking anything meaningful away from the experience of reading it. I got about 21 percent of the way through the book before getting frustrated and giving up.

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