Survival Lessons



I have always enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s novels, being introduced to her at age 16 and awaiting each new release. Her books have elements of magical realism and dystopian fiction, with several having ended up on bestseller lists and turned into feature films. I was very interested to learn, then, that she had written and published her very first non-fiction book.

Survival Lessons was started while Hoffman was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, while at the same time facing down other life disruptions and losses. She describes the book’s origins as a sort of ad-hoc list for herself of important affirmations and choices to remember while going through her ordeal and for when she made it through to the other side, as a survivor. This is the meaning behind the title of the book. While there are parts that are deeply personal, this book is not a memoir in the traditional sense.

During a first cursory glance of the subject matter and summary, I sighed and surmised that it would be probably be depressing and tearful. Also, did I really want to put myself through that in this post-holiday dead of winter? I could not talk myself out of foregoing something written by my favorite author, so I checked out our copy of Survival Lessons on audiobook, popped it in for a long car ride and ended up feeling much more uplifted and hopeful than I ever anticipated. But, most importantly, I arrived at my final destination with a list of people I already wanted to start recommending this title to.

While chemotherapy and cancer are mentioned, it is not the central focus; nor does Hoffman make her illness-or even herself-the main character of the book. Her aim here seems to be an all-inclusive observation of life upheaval; humans become survivors by making it through all manner of painful events that cause one’s view of their world and of themselves to change. Loss and joy run through all lives, she reminds us. It is impossible to have one without the other.

Each chapter is a "choice" that Hoffman presents to the reader, framing it within her own experiences. Chapter 1, for example, is “Choose Your Heroes.” Other “choices” include: choosing to plan for your future, choosing to forgive, and choosing to dream. Hoffman, never preachy, always includes the listener in her suggestions and experiences. This format results in a more reflective and personal experience, as opposed to simply reading someone else's story and trying to find where you-as the reader or listener-can relate.

While I was hoping that the author herself would narrate the book, Xe Sands took that role. While at times a bit cloying, Sands voice is ultimately pleasant and she adds dignity and emotion to Hoffman's words and experiences. If you are looking for an interesting and thought-provoking commute, by all means grab the audio version. With only 1 hour total running time and easy stopping points, you could get through this book in a just a few days. Survival Lessons is also available in print format, at 83 pages, and through OverDrive.

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