Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Third Angel and the Unseen Hand of Alice Hoffman

I have been an Alice Hoffman reader for over twenty years. From the first novel I picked up, Illumination Night, I was enchanted. The way she wove magic into the everyday lives of the characters was so unusual to me. The critics called it “magical realism lite” but in retrospect it seems more like Wilkie Collins taking the drama of the gothics and bringing it into England’s middle classes, magical-realism-wise. I couldn't have said that then, but because I recently read Mr. Collins, the comparison now makes sesnse.

I soon went backwards and prided myself on having read her entire printed canon. It was wonderful to live through Seventh Heaven, hand-selling the book with Elly and Bev at the old Book Nook in Whitefish Bay. When Oprah discovered Hoffman, the club had gotten pretty large. The books she chose were not my favorites either, the ones grounded by reality, not flights of fancy like Practical Magic.

It was hard to keep up. I decided that even though they were great, I wouldn’t read the kids books. And slowly, I got to a place where I’ve gotten with other authors, particularly prolific ones, where I thought I might have read all I needed to. Enough I said to Elmore Leonard at one point—I get it. No malice intended, my ride with him was quite rewarding. Maybe one day I’ll go back.

That’s what happened with Hoffman. I even skipped a few.

I digress. I like to meet authors. We developed over the years a big author event schedule at Schwartz Bookshops. Hoffman, however, for many years didn’t travel. When she finally did visit for a kids book, I was out of town.

I had one chance to see her. I was with my mother and father in Huntington, Long Island, sometime in the early 1990’s. My first time in their village area; though we often visited my uncle Stewart in Greenlawn nearby, they were not a townie kind of family.

It turns out the town was quite charming, filled with shops and restaurants, an old movie theater, and what is probably the most prominent independent bookstore on Long Island, the Book Revue. It was about 2 PM and to my astonishment, Alice Hoffman was reading that very night. I looked at my parents, not huge fans of my chosen career, hoping I would go to grad school or something, anything but bookselling. I wondered if they would be willing to hang around about fifty miles from home, for about five hours, so their son could hear an author they never heard of.

The conclusion was obvious. We weren’t staying.

Fast forward fifteen years. My father has died. My mom has just moved to senior housing in Brookline but I am left behind, helping with the estate sale. I am supposed to stay away from the house while they set up, and spend the time at various coffee shops, working on my laptop and reading.

I hit the Milleridge Inn , where my dad used to go with his bicycling buddies. It’s an old-fashioned white-tablecloth lunch, just like we would have together on road trips.

The map is brought out. I see that Huntington is not too far away. When will I ever be back? I’m a bookstore junkie and it’s time to hit the Book Revue and wander around Huntington.

Don’t laugh. You know what’s coming. I check their web site and Alice Hoffman is reading there that night. This time there’s no one to stop me. I hang out in Huntington for about four hours.

I buy a copy in the shop and decide to get it signed for Elly, my coworker who sold those copies of Seventh Heaven those years ago. Joining her fans, I can’t help myself and start making lists of suggested titles for a couple of other folks waiting for the reading.

It’s an interesting reading and discussion. I learn that you can read the book in either order. It’s based on a hotel she stayed at many years ago. The three time settings are touchstones in her own life. Seventh Heaven is based on some memories of her mom.

We meet. I sputter. She thinks I’m a crazy person for discussing my own Alice Hoffman-esque experience. I’m sure, like all successful authors, she’s met enough of them. I don’t know what to think, a nice coincidence I suspect. But there’s a little part of me that sometimes wonders.

Have your own Alice Hoffman experience by reading The Third Angel, now in paperback, or try perhaps my favorite Hoffman novel, Fortune's Daughter. The story of two women, one unmarried and pregnant, the other a discouraged fortune teller, is from her early years, but it was a New York Times notable book the year it was published.
Store update. The Shorewood and Brookfield Schwartz Bookshops are still scheduled to close on March 31st, but Downer Avenue's last day is now March 21st (I'm more definitive than I was on a previous posting). We start moving some cases on March 23rd and painting on March 25th. We don't have a firm opening date but we expect it to be as close to April 1st as possible. I've filled out the initial forms to launch our web site. As soon as that comes to pass, I'll go back and link as many book titles in this blog as I have time for.

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