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 unique—and uniquely American—variation 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.