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Like most books of the same genre, there is sex in Ilan Stavans’ memoir. But that’s probably where the similarities end. Stavans’ On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language is a unique and interesting departure from the default memoir as we know it. Instead it chronicles events in Stavans’ life in the context of the different languages he has had to speak at one point or another. “Life is experienced through language, isn’t it?” he asks. “Gestures, voices, words.”

Proficient in Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, Stavans is a polyglot with a wide range of experiences and extensive travel history, during which he had to deal with issues ranging from identity to isolation, to looking at the world from his multi-cultural perspective as a Mexican-Jew hailing from a Polish immigrant family whose members have compelling stories to tell of their own. In this memoir, Stavans attempts to define his being through his acquisition of different languages, complimented by a smart storytelling that lends the book a remarkable depth. “How much of what we are, what we know about ourselves, is true?” he writes. “We are merely a sum of viewpoints, and human memory is treacherous and inconsistent.”

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