Review by New York Times Review
"WHERE shall wisdom be found?" is the famous question posed in the Book of Job. The answer is quite a letdown: "It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air" - if not from the eyes of Phyllis Diller and the "human stunt puppet" (Henry Alford's term) known as "Granny D." But already I am being unfair. . . . It must have been a great book proposal: Alford ventures forth to cull wisdom from books fat and thin, from Google, but primarily from informants over 70 years old. Why from the oldsters? For the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: because that's where the goods are. "If people are repositories of knowledge - the death of an old person, an African saying runs, is like the burning of a library - then I want a library card," Alford writes. "I want borrowing privileges for the rest of my life." In "How to Live," Alford speaks with two voices. For much of the book, he addresses us in the light tones of the former Spy magazine contributor who won a Thurber Prize for humor writing for his book about the theater, "Big Kiss." He has a quick wit ("I used to be svelte," he writes, "but with age I have svelled") and generally stays out of the way of his good material. Touring the perennial Page 6 girl Sylvia Miles's New York apartment, he calls her chaotic quarters "a yard sale that is itself having a yard sale." Happily, there are many moments when he wears his wisdom quest lightly: "Ooooh, I wish you could have talked to my Aunt Bea," his friend Suzi tells him. "One time she warned me, 'Be careful of the fourth dimension.'" Alford asks, "What's the fourth dimension?" "Orgasms." Alas, the search for wisdom cannot consist entirely of Granny D, an advocate of publicly financed elections, nattering on about road kill; Yale's ageless Harold Bloom, railing against the moderns (he dismisses Toni Morrison as "supermarket fiction"); or the odd and amusing Eugene Loh, father of the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, explaining why he fishes meals out of restaurant Dumpsters. It's the Eddie Sutton excuse, again: because they are there. Alongside the relentless grab bag of quotations from Confucius, Buddha, Socrates and "The Precepts of Ptah-Hotep," Alford has a powerful, personal story to tell, all kidding aside. While interviewing his stepfather on the meaning of the older man's life, the writer precipitates a family crisis that ends his mother's 36-year marriage. There's nothing funny or ham-handed about this family tale. Alford's mother is practically his surrogate; they go on assignments together, and it's clear he inherited her verbal felicity. She is a crossword whiz who calls her retirement community a "finishing school" and the old people with vision problems "macular degenerates." On the last page of the book, Alford's mother has a getting-of-wisdom moment that is neither dramatic nor satisfying. Unfortunately, my interest had started to flag about 40 pages earlier, when the author took this big chance: "Did I mention that I had been living all this time with a 17-year-old cat?" He adds a parenthetical plea, "Please, reader, keep reading." My marginal notation was: "Check, please!" Everything I Needed to Know About Wisdom I Learned From My Roommate's 17-Year-Old Cat? Sheesh. Now comes seven and a half pages about the cat, Hot Rod, mostly from the mouth of Alford's roommate, Greg, who ruminates about Hot Rod's "wisdom in the absence of intellect." From Hot Rod, Alford flits quickly to a visit with a Hurricane Katrina survivor and to a drop-in on Ashleigh Brilliant, apparently the world's most prolific publisher of bumper sticker clichés, e.g., "Appreciate me now and avoid the rush." Surely this is the wisdom of the butterfly, not of the bee. Alex Beam is a columnist for The Boston Globe and the author of "A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books."
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Alford (Big Kiss) recognizes that the elderly have been through more in their lives than the rest of us, and figures it might be a good idea to talk to some of them and see if they have any meaningful advice to impart. This plan sets off a prolonged meditation: what is wisdom, anyway? Some of his interview subjects are famous, like playwright Edward Albee or literary critic Harold Bloom--but it's the less recognized figures who consistently provide Alford with the most evocative source material, like the retired schoolteacher who lost her husband, her home and all her possessions in Hurricane Katrina but refuses to feel sorry for herself. The search is not all rosy: shortly after , Alford's interview with his stepfather, he loses his sobriety and the author becomes a sideline observer as his mother initiates divorce proceedings and moves into a retirement home. Such scenarios depart from the laugh-out-loud stories for which Alford is best known, but there are still enough moments of rich humor, like the guided tour of Sylvia Miles's cluttered apartment, for longtime fans of Alford. (Jan. 2) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
Alford (Big Kiss: One Actor's Desperate Attempt To Claw His Way to the Top), a veteran writer for The New Yorker and the New York Times, embarks on a quest to find wisdom. Alford notes that Benjamin Franklin helped pen the Constitution at age 81 and Michelangelo completed the Pieta at 91. Who better to consult than septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians? He interviews well-known figures--literary critic Harold Bloom, comedian Phyllis Diller, spiritual leader Ram Dass, and playwright Edward Albee--as well as lesser-known yet equally captivating people. Granny D trekked across the United States in support of campaign finance reform at 97, 80-year-old Lutheran pastor Martin Marty achieves communion with God through napping, and Alford's mother leaves her husband at almost 80. Alford also culls insights from the likes of Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, William Blake, and Buddha. Instead of telling readers how to live, he positions himself as a listener, allowing readers to eavesdrop with him and reap the benefits of his research. Alford is a master of turns of phrase, diction, dialog, and technique. Essential reading; recommended without reservation for all public libraries.--C. Brian Smith, Arlington Heights Memorial Lib., IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
New Yorker contributor Alford (Big Kiss: One Actor's Desperate Attempt to Claw His Way to the Top, 2000, etc.), who is also a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, braids interviews with personal vignettes in his search for the meaning of life. Meet 97-year-old Granny D., who walked 3,200 miles across America for 14 months to support campaign-finance reform. And Eugene Loh, an 87-year-old retired aerospace engineer who spends his days rummaging through dumpsters for browning bananas. And Ashleigh Brilliant, America's premiere aphorist, responsible for penning 10,000 quips such as, "I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent." They are just a few of the colorful characters whose lives the author probes in his quest for wisdom. Drawing from books, psychologists, philosophers and his many interviewees, Alford runs their disparate insights through a sieve. "Wisdom is slippery," he says. "It comes in many forms and guises. Sometimes it is intermingled with a certain amount of unwisdom." Interviewing such personal heroes as playwright Edward Albee and spiritual guru Ram Dass, he plunders the vaults of others' experiences, comparing notes and weighing everything against his own worldview. Is wisdom a product of experience? Is it the property of thinkers like Epicurus and Confucius? Does wisdom boil down to simple proverbs? These are the questions that Alford tackles without a map, but with objective curiosity, humorous verve and scholarly diligence. His mother's unfolding crisis becomes a catalyst and the book's anchoring story line. After 36 years of marriage, she divorces the author's stepfather, whose addictive personality and depression force her to make serious late-life choices. Selling the house, she packs up her cow-themed bric-a-brac collection and moves from Massachusetts to a retirement community in North Carolina near one of her daughters. Her uniqueand uniquely Americanvariation on the universal phenomenon of aging will appeal to almost every reader, as will her son's familiar internal struggles. Taking a lighthearted approach, Alford discovers that wisdom is a process rather than a fixed point. Bumpy but rich with surprises. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.