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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Favorites: Part Three
Lauren Cerand

To celebrate the holidays we asked some of our favorite people in publishing what their favorite book was. Let us know in the comments what your favorite book is and be sure to check back throughout the week for more “favorites”.

Lauren Cerand is an independent public relations representative and consultant in New York. She writes about art, politics and style at LuxLotus.com.

When Oxford University Press asked me to recommend a holiday book pick, I was thrilled. For one thing, the blog is a daily must-read for me, and like the best sort of party, it’s a pleasure just to be asked. And although I feel as though I can’t wait to read the new catalog of OUP offerings, I’ve left it on my front table because the cover’s so pretty it makes me smile whenever I walk in the door. As an independent publicist, I spend my days, nights, and almost every waking moment helping worthy books and cultural projects reach their intended, ideal audiences. I feel like my friends at Oxford University Press share a similar enthusiasm for their endeavors, and that’s one reason we’re pals. Working in PR, I can be fairly cynical about the messages that reach me through the media. So many brilliant and truly extraordinary books go heartbreakingly undiscovered while, as for the rest, well, they’ve been oft discussed already. I’m used to finding out about world-changing books from blogs; indeed, the best of them have elevated our cultural discourse in radical ways. However, two books I’ve read explicitly for pleasure in the last two weeks physically landed in my hands for seemingly random reasons and I’m still stunned by how deeply both affected every fiber of my being (and how easily that might not have been the case).

The first, Our Lives Are the Rivers (Rayo/HarperCollins, 2006) swept into my life on the day before Thanksgiving when I walked by Bluestockings and decided to be thankful. I saw the cover on the shelf because there were four copies stacked neatly in a row, and rare beauty caught my eye. The woman who rang me up remarked that she’d never seen it before. I had already felt its magic, and we had found each other. Halfway through reading it, halfway through the night, I went online and meticulously researched the cover photo just to see if I could buy a print. Then I read everything about the book’s publication (simultaneously in English and Spanish!) like a crush that swells with each new piece of mundane trivia acquired. Jaime Manrique’s superbly crafted historical novel tells the story of Bolivar’s mistress, and it is one of those stories you want to describe in as few words as possible because language hardly does it justice. Pursue it.

The second, no less magnetic, was given to me by the friend and colleague who wrote it, when I expressed curiosity about his work. Much lamentation is given over to the fact that while few Americans seem to read contemporary literature, the smattering of us who seek out work in translation feels even more minute (P.S. Want a habit? Try Absinthe). Stephan Wackwitz’s memoir, An Invisible Country (Paul Dry Books, 2005; translated by Stephen Lehmann with a foreword by Wendy Lesser), is one of those books that I was actually amazed had been translated at all from its original German. It’s so unlike any book in English that I’ve ever read. Dazzlingly complex, perilously dark and unabashedly ambivalent, it’s the story of his life and his grandfather’s and the 20th century as seen through the lens of one family. I stayed up until 4AM more than once to read it and trace in my mind the labyrinthine narratives we tell each other as we hand down the version of reality experienced by each generation, and how it all goes round and round. Plus, Wackwitz’s photorealistic descriptions, philosophical musings and wry observations had me transfixed. For instance, “Perhaps it isn’t even true, as I believe Woody Allen and Arno Schmidt have written, that our lives imitate cheap novels. Perhaps cheap novels are an experimental spiritualist medium, wherein the voices of the dead communicate to us.” Or, “From the 1950s almost until his death, in the overbearing and depressed atmosphere of his dark study—redolent of cigars, books and dust, on its floor the preserved leopard’s pelt with wide-open jaws and brown glass eyes that had frightened me as a child—he wrote his memoirs for his children and grandchildren. No family gathering, no lavish family celebration, would pass without my grandfather’s presenting another volume of his serialized autobiography. Typically it contained two to three hundred densely typed onionskin pages. Each of his five children received one copy.” Or, “The point of this dream was that this small girl was more carefree and richer than I… In the dream, this girl talked me out of making an overly ingenious philosophical-political interpretation.” Or, “The Kitazawa bookstore in Kanda, at the foot of the Ochanomizu Hills (five universities founded in the nineteenth century lie scattered on their heights), is quite different from the ones of downtown Tokyo…” The temptation to quote entire passages of this book, one after the other, is too irresistible. Better to read them.

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