Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A survival guide

Who better to write a survival guide for persons with life-threatening illnesses than a survivor? And if that survivor can write as beautifully as Alice Hoffman, all the better.

Many of the novelist's fans, myself included, were unaware that Hoffman battled breast cancer in the late 1990s. A naturally shy woman, she hasn't had much to say about her ordeal. Her website bio barely mentions it. She did, however, use her advance from Local Girls to start the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., and her advance from her first work of non-fiction, Survival Lessons (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), will support the same cause.

She writes in Survival Lessons that during her treatment she longed for some kind of guide for those in her situation. "I needed to know how people survived trauma," she says. Like novelist Ann Patchett, who has said she writes the books she wants to read, Hoffman decided to write her own survival guide.

In one sense, there isn't much here. The new book is just 83 pages long, many of those pages filled with photographs (taken by the author herself), poetry, a brownie recipe and even four and a half pages on how to knit a beehive hat. Yet Hoffman actually says a lot in her skimpy book, and for her target audience, it is probably just the right size.

Those facing the very real possibility of premature death may think they have about run out of choices. Hoffman, having had a few years to think it over, begs to differ. Her book offers a series of choices those struggling with serious illness can and should make. These include: Choose your heroes, choose to enjoy yourself (this where the brownie recipe comes in), choose your friends, choose how to spend your time, choose to accept sorrow, choose to make things beautiful and many others.

Survival Lessons may not add even one minute to anyone's life. That's what we're trusting doctors and hospitals to do. It will, however, add value to whatever years or days one has left, whether one faces serious illness or not.

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