Survival Lessons
by Alice Hoffman

Algonquin Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-616-20314-6.
Reviewed by Sheila Trask
Posted on 11/11/2013
Review of the Month, November 2013

Nonfiction: Memoir

You may think you know who Alice Hoffman is. You've been reading her novels for years, from Practical Magic to The Dovekeepers. She writes women's literary fiction, right? After 23 such novels, it seems like a fair assumption. But did you know she's a popular young adult author as well? Or that she penned a nonfiction book, a memoir? Until recently, I didn't either, and I'm glad to have discovered some new Alice Hoffman titles to add to my reading list.

Hoffman's latest book is called Survival Lessons, and it's a heartfelt entry into the world of nonfiction, a personal journey made universal. Fifteen years ago, Hoffman received a breast cancer diagnosis that sent her reeling. Treatment and recovery proved completely foreign landscapes, with few familiar landmarks to direct her way. Hoffman wanted a guidebook, but found none. Now, all these years later, she has written the very book she wished for.

"There is a very thin line that separates readers and writers," writes Hoffman in her introduction. "You make a leap over that line when there's a book you want to read and you can't find it and you have to write it yourself."

The result is not a typical memoir, and in fact contains surprisingly few glimpses into Hoffman's actual ordeal. Instead, it's more of an optimistic instruction manual explaining how to take care of yourself when you're dealing with a serious illness, or any traumatic experience.

Hoffman's advice seems simple on the surface. Choose your heroes, she says. Eat chocolate. Only answer the phone when you want to. Read more closely, though, and you'll see the unique interpersonal observations you've come to expect from Hoffman. Anne Frank may be an obvious choice for a hero, for instance, but Hoffman also brings up a more unlikely choice: the mother she once criticized because she "would rather see a Broadway play than clean the kitchen."

Skimming through Hoffman's book, you might be tempted to dismiss it as too simple, the book-length equivalent of a "how to" article in a women's magazine. Read it again, though. You'll see that the brownie recipe is more than a list of ingredients. It's from her friend, Maclin, and she writes, "Maclin's brownies will not appear to be perfect. They will sink in the middle. The top will crack. You'll want to throw them out. Don't. They will be everything they should be and more." Just like life.

Likewise, her cousin Lisa's instructions for knitting a "beehive" hat are more than a handy project. They're a tool for working out the truths in life. Hoffman notes that trying something new, failing and trying again, "helps with understanding the importance of revision, and that the process is what can bring you the most joy."

Hoffman's gentle reminders are interspersed with her own photographs, and the words of poets like Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. The elegant presentation makes this brief book just right for gift-giving, and it would be a welcome addition to the bedside table of anyone struggling with self-care in a time of trouble.

Read an excerpt from this book (pdf).

Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. She received a BA from Adelphi University and an MA in creative writing from Stanford University. The prolific author wrote her first novel, Property Of, at the age of 21, and has since published 23 popular and critically-acclaimed adult novels, 8 fiction works for children and young adults, several short story collections and nonfiction articles, and a memoir. She is working on a screenplay. She currently lives in Boston. Visit her website.

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