Thursday, September 19, 2019

A post about Alice Hoffman's The World That We Knew and her upcoming visit to Milwaukee

Here’s the setup for Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The World That We Knew, which goes on sale September 24*. The story starts in Berlin, where a widow senses the grim future they will have under Nazi control, particularly after her husband's murder. Hanni can't leave, as this would mean abandoning her elderly mother, but maybe there’s hope for her daughter Lea. They know that their Rabbi has been experimenting with golems. Hanni is Orthodox, she can only talk to the rabbi’s wife, who refuses to help. On leaving, she is confronted by the Rabbi’s daughter Ettie, who has been spying on her father and might know how to make a golem. As part of her payment, Ettie wants a train ticket out of Germany too, for her and her sister Marta. The golem is created, with the task of taking care of Lea. Ettie warns Hanni that the golem, named Ava, must be destroyed when Lea is safe, or it will become too powerful and destructive. And the escape begins.

What a great book! But this is not the first book I’ve read by Alice Hoffman, nor my second. The history goes back a bit further than that, more than thirty years. And I know exactly when I came to read Hoffman and when my enthusiasm jumped to another level because in my twenties, I started writing down every book I read. I felt so bad about having started so late, but now I kind of laugh about that. Soon after starting as a bookseller, I began to create a monthly list, not just ranking but reviewing the books I read, and then I’d mail the list out to friends. It was Booklist, but not the one from the American Library Association. In 1987, I still worked on the floor of the Iron Block Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop. It was my Booklist, and I'm sure Stephen McCauley was thrilled to hear that The Object of My Affection was the #1 book for its month.

#1 for August was the first novel I read by Alice Hoffman. Illumination Night takes place on Martha’s Vineyard and follows a number of characters – a middle-aged woman who won’t leave her home, a nearly blind grandmother struggling with her delinquent granddaughter. And, as I note, “a giant who grows vegetables, with a penchant for the romantic.” At one point I wrote “Hoffman gets compared a lot to Anne Tyler and Louise Erdrich and will someday be a bestselling author – perhaps in twenty years?’

It took less time than that. She followed up with At Risk, a novel about a young gymnast who contacts AIDS from a blood transfusion. It was an earnest effort, but I thought that maybe we were going to end the relationship after two dates. I was wrong. Seventh Heaven was my #1 book for July 1990 (a really good year for reading!) and I noted that it more than fulfilled the promise of Illumination Night for me. Set in a Long Island subdivision, it features a shrinking boy, a young woman hiding out in the Lord & Taylor (Abraham & Strauss is also featured in the book – two department stores in one novel!), and at least one love triangle.

I loved Seventh Heaven, and what was even more fun, so did many of my bookseller colleagues at the Book Nook in Whitefish Bay. This was handselling at its most enjoyable. “Take this book and fall in love.” It’s one of my favorite things to do as a bookseller still, which I’m sure you’ve guessed. I’m pretty sure that Seventh Heaven was also Hoffman’s first New York Times bestseller. It also has one of my favorite hardcover treatments, from Fred Marcellino, whose most famous work is likely the iconic hardcover illustration for The Handmaid's Tale.** Here's the original Publishers Weekly review.

While Hoffman has often dropped ultra-realistic novels, it was really the ones with a little supernatural that I took to. I’m not a fantasy person, and that’s not what they read like. They are more like domestic magical realism, coined after the South American writers of the sixties and seventies that specialized in this sort of thing. Many of her books would feature what appeared to be werewolves, ghosts, and witches, the last of which is from Practical Magic, which is one of her better selling backlist titles, due to the movie adaptation.

I went back and read her first four novels, and discovered another of my favorites, Fortune’s Daughter, about a fortune teller who actually has the gift. I noticed that her work had softened a bit with age, which is not that unusual. Anne Tyler’s first novel is also kind of raw. And I continued to read each novel as it came out for many years. But eventually it came to a point where I was now often reading three books a month where I once read nine. So while I’d love to say I’ve read all 35 of Hoffman’s novels, I can’t say that. But 20 is good, right? I can’t think of too many other authors where I’ve read so much.

At about the time Boswell opened, Hoffman had a bit of a change of course. She started writing in a more traditionally historical genre. There was The Dovekeepers, a Biblical tale, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, set on the Lower East Side, and The Marriage of Opposites, which to my knowledge, is her only adult novel that focuses on a real historic figure, the mother of artist Camille Pissarro. This was one of Jane’s favorites, and we went on to sell more than 100 copies of this book. Like most independent bookstores, we have a lot of customers who like narratives set in the art world, and if you find a good one, you can run with it.

I’m so thrilled we’re hosting Alice Hoffman for the first time through Boswell. This is bucket list territory! We’ve teamed up with the Harry and Rose Samson Jewish Community Center, the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Research Center, and ABCD (After Breast Cancer Diagnosis) as cosponsors. We had actually looked at hosting Hoffman in the bookstore for a previous novel, but it didn’t come together. I had been talking to Laurie at the JCC, who told me that they would love, love, love to host Hoffman. And when The World That We Knew was announced, I saw that it would be of great interest to JCC patrons, as well as HERC, another of our regular partners. I had been chatting with ABCD about doing something, as Hoffman has been a strong advocate of breast cancer awareness and documented her story in a nonfiction book called Survival Lessons. Sadly, this book went out of stock just as we were putting together marketing for this event. 

One of the things that I love about The World That We Knew is that I can see all the themes that you can see a clear through line from Hoffman’s earlier novels to her present work. - the tension between mothers and daughters, the risks and rewards of first love, and that there is magic in the world, and you must know the rules, but sometimes you have to break them to get what you want. Whether you’ve liked Hoffman’s earlier works or her more recent historical fiction, The World That We Knew blends both together. The truth is that I could write for several more hours about Alice Hoffman – such an important part of my life. I might say a few more words and some point. But for now, The World That We Knew goes on sale September 24. More information about the September 26 ticketed event on the JCC website, which some would say is 32 years in the making!

*I feel like maybe I should have listed the event ticket link up front, which is

**I think at one point, I actually chose what to read based on whether it had a Fred Marcellino jacket.

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