Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book Review : How to Live (Henry Alford)

Third in a series of three reviews of books which address some of the issues associated with aging.

How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)

A more accurate title for this book would be "Growing Old Gracefully", as it's obvious that the question Alford is really interested in is "How should we come to terms with our own mortality?" He decides the best way to find out is to ask a bunch of elderly people, then try to distil key life lessons from the resulting conversations. Framing this process as a “search for wisdom” doesn't help particularly, and occasionally causes him to get sidetracked into some fairly unproductive academic discussions. It’s not surprising that encouraging people to talk about their own lives works far better than asking them about “wisdom” in the abstract, an approach which, predictably, yields mostly just bland generalities.

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?

****: Four stars out of a possible five.

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