The best offbeat memoirs

Who am I?

I taught at Yale for 33 years and I hold advanced degrees from the Sorbonne. I am interested in literature as lessons for life, but I am mostly a passionate letter writer, especially to the great authors who have marked me. They are never really dead. I carry them around with me. I selected the category of Offbeat Memoirs because I have written one. I also have an Italian alter-ego, Donatella de Poitiers, who authors a blog in which she muses about how a lifelong Francophile could have forsaken la Belle France for la dolce vita in the Umbrian countryside, where the food and fresh air are way better than the roads.


I wrote...

Letters to Men of Letters

By Diane Charney,

Book cover of Letters to Men of Letters

What is my book about?

Have you ever wanted to write a letter to an author who has been important to you? I write to the authors I admire, both living and dead, who continue to keep me company. Among these are Kafka, Proust, Nabokov, Camus, Flaubert, Balzac, Leonard Cohen, André Aciman, Christo, and my father. In my 18 letters, I reflect on what these writers have taught me about myself, but also what they can offer the reader. Each letter is part memoir, part intellectual coming-of-age, part reaction to having read, loved, studied, and taught the work of these timeless writers.

As if writing to mostly dead guys weren’t “offbeat” enough, rest assured that there’s plenty of additional evidence for my laying claim to that adjective: “Dear Jean-Paul Sartre, There have been many Jean-Pauls in my life, but you’re the only one in whose bedroom I have slept.”

The books I picked & why

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My Life in Middlemarch: A Memoir

By Rebecca Mead,

Book cover of My Life in Middlemarch: A Memoir

Why this book?

What do the writers you are drawn to reveal about you? Why at certain points in our lives do we become “attached” to certain authors? The process of attachment is mysterious. As we age (and change) some things remain constant. Our attachment to a particular author may have begun in our youth, but evolved as we have. To reconnect with a favorite author can put us in touch with our younger self in unexpected ways. Mead shows how much Middlemarch has “spoken” to her throughout her life. This book is perhaps more in harmony with my own than any on the list. I have come to love books that underscore how what we read can be inseparable from the person we become.


Kafka in Love

By Jacqueline Raoul-Duval,

Book cover of Kafka in Love

Why this book?

I consider the author my French Writing Partner; I have been her translator. Our mutual love for Franz Kafka brought us together. Her book draws on Kafka’s letters to the women he could never bring himself to marry. Jacqueline and I feel that, in our shared devotion to Kafka, we perhaps understand him better than the women he left behind. He may have had a hard time finding his own soulmate, but in our case, he turned out to be quite the matchmaker.


Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed

By Lori Gottlieb,

Book cover of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed

Why this book?

On the theme of letters, the irresistibly charming author receives and answers them in her Dear Analyst column for The Atlantic. But in addition to showing us the challenges of being a therapist, she bravely includes us in her own therapy. It is hard for me to come up with enough superlatives for this book: wildly funny, insightful, heartwarming, honest, compelling, tender, intensely relatable, and enlightening about what it means to be human. I never wanted it to end. If Kafka had been her patient he might never have written a word.


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

By Susan Cain,

Book cover of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Why this book?

I write letters mostly to dead guys who aren’t about to answer any time soon (but then I wait for years before sending my love letter to André Aciman, who is alive and willing to answer)? I swim wearing my glasses and a hat. I don’t step on a plane without my Magic Flying Shirt and “I am calm” socks. Am I an introvert? Or just offbeat?

This book is helping me understand many things about myself, others, and how the world is organized so that the loudest mouths are too often considered the best leaders even though their ideas are not necessarily good. 

Introvert Susan Cain has a very important cause to which she is giving voice. And amazingly, decision-makers are actually listening.


Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss

By Margaret Renkl,

Book cover of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss

Why this book?

I adored this book by NYT columnist, Margaret Renkl, who comes from a colorful southern family and interweaves her close observations of nature with glimpses of her own autobiography. I see some links between it and my own book project—snapshots of a self at various points in life. She uses her birthplace and nature as her gauge, mirror, and touchstone, whereas I use my authors. I hope I’m not flattering myself too much by feeling that our enterprise is similar. So many quotes moved me to tears. I see that her true subject is responding to grief, but in a wise, eloquent, uplifting way. When Renkl says “Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world,” she’s not talking about screaming headlines. 


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