Reading "The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" is like sitting next to the smartest girl in class. Her wisecracks make the hands on the clock whiz past, and her sardonic commentaries behind the teacher's back seem to make life worth living.

If you haven't guessed by now, the genius in question is Elif Batuman, a writer of subtle humor and rigorous learning who's been kind enough to take us along on her personal journey into the great minds of Russian literature. This, dear friends, is a journey not to be missed.

Happily, readers of "The Possessed" are treated to the Gen-X Stanford professor's wry revelations about the great books, and frankly, quite a few other things. Batuman has intense feelings on a variety of subjects -- ranging from, but not limited to, doomed grad school romances, the vagaries of Uzbek plumbing, Turkish bodyguards, what really might have happened to Tolstoy, and the unpredictable nuttiness of academic life, the last of which our heroine documents with high hilarity.

In her first great flush of love for the Russian author Isaac Babel, for example, our guide explains that she "read the 1920 diary and the entire Red Cavalry cycle in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday in February while baking a Black Forest cake.

"As Babel immortalized for posterity the military embarrassment of the botched 1920 Russo-Polish campaign, he immortalized for me the culinary embarrassment of this cake, which came out of the oven looking like an old hat and which, after I had optimistically treated it with half a two-dollar bottle of Kirschwasser, produced the final pansensory impression of an old hat soaked in cough syrup."

No matter how devoted a fan the author remains, however, when she's offered the chance to meet Isaac Babel's elderly daughter, Nathalie, at a literary conference, she makes it clear Ms. Babel was nothing short of a monumental pain in the tuchis.

(Scholars, biographers and graduate students flocked to hear Nathalie Babel speak, however, and when one ventured to ask if it was true she still possessed a cache of indispensable letters belonging to her father, one thing was clear: She'd never tell.)

A small confession: Reviewing a book of the stature of "The Possessed" is slightly terrifying for a variety of reasons. What if one fails to convey how truly wonderful the book is? There is an undeniable magic in Batuman's ability to create tangential story lines and find the gossamer thread that ties them all together in the end. The pursuit of literary mysteries for the sheer pleasure of undertaking them is what proves most enchanting about "The Possessed."

There now. Don't you feel a bit smarter already?

Andrea Hoag is a Lawrence, Kan., book critic whose reviews and reporting appear in Publishers Weekly and newspapers nationwide.