- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Twelve; 1 edition (January 2, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0446196037
- ISBN-13: 978-0446196031
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,126,799 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) Hardcover – January 2, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred 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)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
"A bit David Sedaris, a bit Charles Grodin" (Cleveland Plain Dealer), with a little Studs Terkel and Mitch Albom (Tuesdays with Morrie) thrown in for good measure, Alford, when he's on, has all the critics in stitches. They extol his keen wit and ability to keep a somber subject lighthearted. Drawing on such a wide range of source material has its benefits and drawbacks: Alford covers a lot of ground, but the result is, for some reviewers, a narrative that's a little too slack and uninspired. Whether it's his treatment of his mother's marriage or a rumination on his aging cat's wisdom, some things just seem out of place. Then again, maybe when we're older, we'll come back to How to Live, and it will all make perfect sense.Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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Top Customer Reviews
As a general rule, his success is inversely proportional to the fame of the interviewee. Conversations with Harold Bloom* and Edward Albee lead to unhelpful pseudo-profundities like "wisdom is a perfection that can either absorb or destroy us", and pointless exchanges about the dictionary definition of "wisdom". A series of meetings with actress Sylvia Miles reveal little more than her apparently bottomless self-infatuation. The most interesting thing that is gleaned from self-styled guru Ram Dass's pontification on "wisdom" and "spirituality" is his admission that he doesn't plan to attend his own brother's funeral. This, quite rightly, bothers Alford, though he later suggests that Dass is redeemed by the calm acceptance he displays in the aftermath of a disabling stroke. It's unclear whether this reflects Alford's innate generosity of spirit, or an unwillingness to admit to himself how worthless his pilgrimage to meet with Dass has been. Sandra Tsing Loh has already written more about her eccentric father than anyone might possibly want to know, so Alford's decision to include further anecdotes about Mr Loh's dumpster-diving and public urination is baffling.
* I should add that the most memorable response Alford elicits, in an otherwise fairly ho-hum interview with Bloom, is in answer to the simple question "What have you gained with age?" Bloom: "A healthier respect and affection for my wife than I used to have..." (smiles) "Next May will be our fiftieth anniversary". Somehow that moment of sweetness makes one forgive Professor Bloom many of his more pompous utterances over the years.
Fortunately for Alford, and for the reader, his conversations with less well-known senior citizens are more rewarding. The best chapters of this book are those in which Alford describes meetings with `ordinary' senior citizens: Charlotte Prozan, a San Francisco psychotherapist he met on a cruise organized by The Nation; Althea Washington, a 75-year old retired schoolteacher who lost her husband and her house in Hurricane Katrina; Setsuko Nishi, 86-year old professor emerita of sociology at Brooklyn College and CUNY; Doris Haddock (aka Granny D), who staged a 3000-mile walk across America in support of campaign finance reform back in 1999, when she was still a spry octogenarian.
Most affecting of all are the author's conversations with his own mother and stepfather. In what comes as an obvious shock, shortly after he interviews each of them, his mother (aged 79 at the time) asks for a divorce. Alford's account of the events that follow, and the reverberations throughout the family, is remarkable for his ability to navigate obviously treacherous emotional territory without ever becoming exploitative or judgemental. In all of his writing, one senses that Alford is fundamentally a true mensch, a really decent guy. It's part of what makes his work so enjoyable, and it really serves him well here. His writing about his family is funny and moving (never exploitative: David Sedaris, please take note), and is one of the best parts of this book.
Interspersed among the conversations are the results of Alford's auxiliary research - what various philosophers have to say about wisdom, what other cultures have to offer on the subject. There is also a (desultory) consideration of deathbed confessions and famous last words as possible sources of insight. These are, at best, intermittently amusing.
This book is a departure from Alford's previous work, the two collections "Big Kiss" and "Municipal Bondage", humorous essays reminiscent of, and often much funnier than, the work of David Rakoff and David Sedaris. Though his choice of subject here doesn't afford him the chance to be as hilariously funny as he was in the earlier books, he is witty and engaging throughout. The interviews with Bloom, Dass, and Albee would have benefited from a little less deference: one gets the sense that Alford was holding his natural snark in check. "How to Live" doesn't quite have the mischievous exuberance that made "Municipal Bondage" such a joy to read, but it does have compensating virtues of it own, particularly the interviews with `ordinary seniors' and Alford's extremely moving writing about his own family.
I had expected Henry Alford to be charming. Who knew he could be wise as well?
4.5 stars, rounded up to 5, because I think Alford's hilarious Municipal bondage: one man's anxiety-producing adventures in deserved more critical acclaim than it received.
The author obviously spent a lot of time and energy in background research... and also... in the effort of attempting to arrange interviews with some hard to pin down elderly subjects. One such subject Eugene Loh... was nauseating to read about. Eugene is an "eighty-seven-year-old retired aerospace engineer who left Shanghai to come to the United States to graduate school; he has five science degrees, including ones from Cal Tech, Purdue, and Stanford." As the author ruminates what it was like watching AND SHARING all the food that Eugene takes out of trash cans... including black bananas... and partially ate sandwiches... a potential reader would have to fight off a "gag" reflex... when he goes to a Starbucks trash can and pulls out a "coffee cup with two inches of milky coffee in it and a cigarette; Loh fished the cigarette out and then drank the coffee."
At times the reading became a laborious task in order to get to some key points the author was trying to nail down. To me... the best parts of the book... were the always enlightening historical quotations and facts that were peppered throughout... such as: "Einstein never dreamed of Hiroshima when he approached Roosevelt and convinced him to build the atom bomb. When Einstein heard it was dropped on humans, he pulled out his hair and said, "I don't know what the weapons of World War III will be. But I know the weapons of World War IV-sticks and stones."... and that when William F. Buckley died... the papers he bequeathed to Yale weighed seven tons... and even as diverse a subject as actress Sylvia Miles... who was nominated for best supporting actress twice... once for 1969's "MIDNIGHT COWBOY"... and once for 1975's "FAREWELL, MY LOVELY"... despite the fact that her combined time on screen for both movies was nine minutes.
"The term wisdom has had roughly EIGHT-MILLION definitions over the course of history"... and you have to invest some time and effort to learn the ones presented here".
But perhaps the best advice of all comes from Mark Twain who said:
"WISDOM IS THE REWARD YOU GET FOR A LIFETIME OF LISTENING WHEN YOU WOULD RATHER HAVE TALKED."
It's a diary about the time the author spent collecting information for a book about the wisdom of old people. Besides his mother, the old people are almost a side bar. Which is too bad, b/c it seems there may have been a lot more from all those clever people, who granted him an interview, to share with the reader. Somehow his cat makes a major appearance in the story, too. Surely other readers are also scratching their heads about that one.