I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
August 20, 2006
Review by LIESL SCHILLINGER
I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
By Nora Ephron.
137 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $19.95.
It’s remarkable how many novelists and screenwriters are not chatty people. Walk into a crowded, humming party and spot the one person standing silent as a lamp in the shadows, or lurking against a wall absorbing someone else’s harangue, and you may well have found your future N.B.A. winner (that’s National Book Award, not basketball), or blockbuster film writer. It recalls the scene in Steve Martin’s 1991 comedy “L.A. Story” in which a table of gregarious lunchers is introduced to a mysterious guest who, they are told, has studied the art of conversation. “Oh, you’re taking a course in conversation?” Martin’s character asks. After a long pause, the woman responds, sphinxlike, “Yes ...” then clams up entirely.
This is not true of all varieties of novelist and screenwriter; and the diarist-humorist type is another animal altogether. The person who observes and chronicles the blow-by-blows of her (or his) own disasters and triumphs — and those of friends and family — tends to be voluble. In fact, she (or he) tends to be the person delivering the harangue. In her latest essay collection, “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman,” the roman-à-clef author, playwright, screenwriter and film director Nora Ephron offers rearview reflections on her life as a talker and writer, as well as a flinching but honest look at the image she lately confronts in the mirror. Like her fellow Upper West Side loyalist Jerry Seinfeld, she has found a lot of “something” in the “nothing” of everyday life.
In the manner of all natural-born embroiderers, Ephron augments tales she has told before and also divulges new insights, grievances and gossip — from the tragedy of the empty nest (“Your children are gone, and they were the only people in the house who knew how to use the remote control”) to the tyranny of personal maintenance (“I spend time getting into shape; then something breaks”) to her summer as an intern in the Kennedy White House in 1961, where her only private communication with the president was the word “What?” drowned out by the roar of a helicopter. This late-breaking revelation was prompted by her astonishment, a few years back, upon learning that the former White House intern Mimi Fahnestock had kept mum about her special relationship with J.F.K. for 41 years. Ephron writes, “I assure you that if anything had gone on between the two of us, you would not have had to wait this long to find it out.” Natch.
As a child, she explains, she was told “at least 500 times” by her mother, Phoebe (herself a screenwriter), “Everything is copy.” Now 65, Ephron believes she at last understands what her mother meant (though it seems hard to believe it would have taken her all that long to catch on). “I can’t understand why anyone would write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing,” she writes. Nothing is off limits to her, even personal humiliation — especially personal humiliation. “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you,” she explains. “But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”
Ephron has owned her laughs for several decades, but her worst face plants are behind her. In 1979, her second husband, Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, left her for another woman while she was pregnant with their second child. Four years later — the year she and Alice Arlen wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Silkwood” — she published the autobiographical novel “Heartburn,” about the collapse of her marriage. The book became a best seller, and then a movie, in which two two-time Oscar winners played the leads: Jack Nicholson, as the louse, and Meryl Streep, in a raven-hued coif, as Ephron’s alter ego. (Talk about revenge.)
In “Heartburn,” the author had fretted, “One thing I have never understood is how to work it so that when you’re married, things keep happening to you.” But, in 1987, after she married Nick Pileggi (the author of “Wiseguy,” “Casino” and the screenplay for “GoodFellas,” based on “Wiseguy”), she evidently found she could keep things happening by holding on to her inner Everywoman, and embracing other women’s romantic pratfalls. In movies like “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” among other Oxygen-friendly fantasies, Ephron brought the continent’s bounders and wafflers to heel, in service of her credo (and Lorenz Hart’s dictum) “Unrequited love’s a bore.”
But lately Ephron has learned that there is one betrayer upon whom no woman (with the possible exception of Cher) can exact vengeance or impose a fairy-tale finish: the body, with its dazzling flurry of early gifts, and its misleading air of permanence. Just as you begin to count on it, off it goes, hooking up with its smirking henchman, the aging process. She does not hide her pique at this 11th-hour deserter. “Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger?” she asks. Ruefully, she catalogs the body’s defections, and the desperate measures she has taken in her attempts to woo it back — creams, waxes, injections, dental work, dyes, threading, bleaches: “Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death,” she writes. But she doesn’t wallow. Instead, she does what she has always done — she buries the bad news under a barrage of shareable anecdotes, humorous self-deprecation and womanly bravado.
Ironically, back in the 70’s, Ephron’s body helped her literary career lift off, when she wrote about her micro-bosom for Esquire, in the article “A Few Words About Breasts.” “If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that,” she wrote. Publishing intimate physical digressions is still one of the surest ways for writerly women to get attention quickly: the path from sex columnist to serious (or at least self-supporting) writer is pocked with stiletto holes. There’s been progress in intervening decades, or at least, change: now men (gay and straight) have horned in on the full-
disclosure racket, while women raised in an era of androgynous tastes are at liberty to loathe both flat and rounded profiles. This very summer, a former gamine, revolted by the “tacky, slatternly” curves maternity had brought her, published an essay in the June issue of “Elle” called “I Want My Small Breasts Back.” Its author might take heart from one of the pronouncements in Ephron’s chapter, “What I Wish I’d Known”: “Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of 35 you will be nostalgic for at the age of 45.”
Ephron’s breast piece appeared in her 1975 collection “Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women,” which has been reissued several times. “For a while there I wrote about women,” she wrote in an introduction in 1983. Of her essays, she said, “Some of them I believe as sincerely as I did the day I finished writing them, and some are written by someone I used to be.” Of course, she never stopped writing about women; and she never stopped writing about the person she used to be. It seems apt that, in 30 years, Ephron’s essayistic gaze has traveled only slightly north. Through it all, her focus has remained on the heart. This current gatherum of hard and funny truths spares neither the author’s pride nor her audience’s, but it does salve wounds, and many of Ephron’s insights are bound to come in handy. It stands to reason: men come and go, but our bodies are always with us.
Liesl Schillinger, a New York-based arts writer, is a regular contributor to the Book Review.
What's so funny about diet, dyeing and dying? Ask Nora Ephron.
Reviewed by Bunny Crumpacker
Sunday, August 20, 2006; BW04
I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK
And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
By Nora Ephron
Knopf. 137 pp. $19.95
Nora Ephron is funny. She has the credentials to prove it: 12 screenplays, including three nominated for Academy Awards; Heartburn, the story (with recipes) of the disintegration of her second marriage; and five collections of essays.
I Feel Bad About My Neck, her newest collection, is subtitled "And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," though it might more accurately be called "A Measure of One Woman's Life." A certain melancholy pervades the humor here. The book opens with the title essay about aging and concludes with a rumination about death called "Considering the Alternative." Between are essays about books treasured along the way, thoughts "On Maintenance" (bodily upkeep), the stages of parenting, a timeline of beloved cookbooks, cabbage strudel, her love affair with an apartment and "The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less."
There's more, but basically this is a kind of retrospective -- wry and amusing, as you'd expect, but also a bit strained and sad. It's a condensation of a life graced with privilege, which can make empathizing with Ephron a bit difficult. We all end up too aware of our own deterioration, but we don't all have our hair done twice a week or have our unwanted facial fuzz "threaded" by a woman who uses "a fantastic and thrilling method of hair removal she had learned in Russia." Then there are the three hours every six weeks spent having "four tiny, virtually invisible blondish streaks" added to her hair (which has already had the gray covered over), the weekly manicures and regular pedicures, and vast amounts of skin cream and bath oil. It's all brave (and funny) to talk about -- but odd, because if you've spent all that time and money trying to look younger and better, doesn't it make more sense not to tell anybody you've done it so they can think you just naturally look young and good? And then there's the time and the money. As far as money is concerned, she's earned it, no question about that -- but the specifics of what she's writing about, here and in other essays in the collection, are much less than universal. There are worlds where having your facial hair regularly threaded is as affordable as the judicious use of a pair of tweezers, but that choice is a luxury many women don't have.
Most women will love the essay about her purse. She may "feel bad" about her neck, but she "hates" her purse. She's writing here for women "who understand that their purses are reflections of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away" and who aren't wildly successful at changing -- at the right time -- from a winter purse to a summer one. Her list of permanent purse contents includes loose Tic-Tacs, lipsticks with no covers, leaky ballpoint pens and crumpled tissues that might have been used but equally well might not have been -- who can tell?
There's a lot of interesting advice in a chapter called "What I Wish I'd Known." She tells us that "the last four years of psychoanalysis are a waste of money," but she doesn't say how you know when the last four years begin. I like "If the shoe doesn't fit in the shoe store, it's never going to fit": So many things could be substituted for shoes in exactly the same sense. She tells us that "The plane is not going to crash," but later she notes "Overinsure everything." The essay's last words: "There are no secrets."
"The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less" is a marvelous compilation of high and low points and moments of great clarity and learning. Under "What my mother said," there is "Everything is copy." This is a lesson the daughter learned well, as her ex-husbands would agree.
Despite the elegiac tone of this collection, it would be nice to think that we'll have Nora Ephron around for a long time. She's always good for an amusing line, a wry smile, and sometimes an abashed grin of recognition as she homes in on one of our own dubious obsessions.
"Goodbye" may be her final word in this uneven book, but with any luck, it'll turn out that she doesn't mean it. ·
Bunny Crumpacker is the author of "The Sex Life of Food: When Body and Soul Meet to Eat."
August 14, 2006
By Nicki Gostin
July 31, 2006 issue - "Childbirth," Nora Ephron says, "is no fun, but at the end you get a big present. This is not true of old age." Ephron is only 65, and looks a good 10 years younger—no, honestly—but she's already beginning to see the signs. When she's shopping for clothes, for instance. "There are stores that you know you simply cannot go into, or if you do go into them the only thing you can buy is black pants." Or when she's writing. "I'll pull something up on my computer that I wrote three years ago, and the type is so small because I used to be able to read 10-point type. Now it's 14. Sometimes 16." And then there's the matter of her neck. Ephron not only has a dozen screenplays to her credit—"You've Got Mail," "Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally"—but also a novel ("Heartburn"), a play ("Imaginary Friends") and the best-selling essay collections "Crazy Salad" and "Wallflower at the Orgy." Her brand-new book of essays, "I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman"—does anybody do better titles?—takes on topics ranging from Manhattan real estate to Ephron's internship in JFK's White House. "It didn't upset me that he never hit on me," she says. "It upset me more that I didn't have the right clothing, if you want to know the truth."
But most of the book, of course, has to do with aging—and if you know Ephron's work, you know not to expect the usual platitudes about the compensation of gaining wisdom. "For the last 15 years I've been reading pieces about how much happier you're going to be when you get older and wiser," she says, "and I just kept thinking, Are they nuts? Are they not looking in the mirror? Are they not trying to hit their forehand back over the net without their shoulder going out? I wouldn't want to be 20 again because of Internet dating, but would I be happy to be a little bit younger? Absolutely."
Ephron supports plastic surgery—to a point. "You should tell the doctor, 'I just want to look rested,' and then they won't do that much and you still end up sort of looking like yourself." But as her title essay explains, the wattled neck can be fixed only in conjunctionwith a radical face-lift, and, she writes, she "would rather squint at this sorry face and neck of mine in a mirror than confront a stranger who looks ... like a drum pad."
"Savor your neck," she implores. "Because I'm not kidding—it's only a matter of seconds. Keep walking around in things that show it off, because soon you're going to have to give them to Goodwill." Point taken. But if you could have a spirit like Ephron's, how bad could a wattle or two be?
Ephron wins by a 'Neck'
By Lynn Bronikowski, Special to the News
August 4, 2006
I Feel Bad About My Neck, in which Nora Ephron chronicles her life, her looks and the aging process, is the kind of book you want to buy for all your baby-boomer girlfriends as they dread their next birthdays.
Her little book of essays is indeed a gift - rich with laughs and comforting in its reflections on everything from hair dye, "the most powerful weapon older women have against the youth culture," to reading glasses: "I bought six pair of them last week on sale and sprinkled them throughout the house, yet none of them is visible. Where are they?"
Above all, the woman who brought us such screenplays as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail and the best sellers Heartburn, Scribble Scribble and Crazy Salad is daringly truthful. Let's face it - growing old is crummy.
Ephron loathes the many books written for older women that she characterizes as "uniformly upbeat and full of bromides and homilies about how pleasant life can be once one is free from all the nagging obligations of children, monthly periods and, in some cases, full-time jobs."
"I find these books utterly useless. . . . Why do people write books that say it's better to be older than younger? It's not better."
Ephron opens with "I Feel Bad About My Neck."
"The neck starts to go at forty-three, and that's that," the 65-year-old author observes. "Short of surgery, there's not a damn thing you can do about a neck. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut a redwood tree open to see how old it is, but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck."
She goes on with equal surety about lotions and potions meant to stop the clock, musing over an expensive anti-aging cream slipped to her at the cosmetics counter by a woman who "behaved as if she were slipping me a bottle of aged whiskey during Prohibition."
"It had just come in, she whispered. It was down in the basement. They couldn't put it out on display, or it would be gone in a twinkling. Only certain customers were being allowed to buy it."
Ephron takes on exercise, waxing, hair highlights, manicures and pedicures with equal anguish - all part of what she calls "maintenance."
Even purses aren't spared as she declares, "I hate my purse." She deems it a reflection of "negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away, and an ongoing failure to handle the obligations of a demanding and difficult accessory (the obligation, for example, that it should in some way match what your wearing.)"
Among her hilarious observations on aging, Ephron weaves flashbacks to her less-than- glamorous days as an intern at the Kennedy White House. "I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House that the president did not make a pass at," she says.
She then flashes ahead 40 years to the Clinton White House, which she observed from afar. She admits to falling in and out of love with Clinton, depending on what he was up to. For example, she quite piercingly blames him for the Unites States' being at war.
"If Bill had behaved, Al would have been elected, and thousands and thousands of people would be alive today who are instead dead," she surmises.
Just as sobering are her reflections on the death of her best friend by cancer and the conversations she wishes they'd had. Ephron is more melancholy than morbid about "the eventuality." But she knows one thing for sure: She wants champagne to be served at the reception after her funeral because "it's so festive."
Cheers to her! And never mind the neck - there are always turtlenecks.
Lynn Bronikowski is a freelance writer living in Denver.
August 13, 2006
BY CHERYL L. REED Books Editor
Nora Ephron is famous for writing about relationships -- Can men really just be friends with women? Can a pregnant wife ever forgive her straying husband? Now in a new collection of essays, Ephron explores the relationship women of a certain age have with their bodies.
"The neck starts to go at 43 and that's that," she writes in the opening chapter of I Feel Bad About My Neck. "You can put makeup on your face and concealer under your eyes and dye on your hair, you can shoot collagen and Botox and Restylane into your wrinkles and creases, but short of surgery, there's not a damn thing you can do about a neck. A neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut a redwood tree open to see how old it is, but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck."
Ephron, 65, spends much of her book's 137 pages chronicling what she and her friends must endure to feel presentable -- from medical manipulations to manicures. Although Ephron and her girlfriends all "look good for our age" and are honest about their birth dates, they still try to hide their necks.
"I look around the table and realize we're all wearing turtleneck sweaters," Ephron writes. "Sometimes, instead, we're all wearing scarves, like Katharine Hepburn in 'On Golden Pond.' "
Ephron writes as if the Big Question for women over 50 is not "Is there life after death?" but "Should I have a face lift, an eye job, or my neck stretched?" If not for Ephron's penchant for poking fun at herself, and ultimately the serious conclusion she comes to, this short collection would feel vapid and narcissistic. (There's a whole chapter on why she hates her purse and how her friends pay thousands of dollars for handbags.) Ephron, of course, doesn't look as old as she writes and her troubles are those that plague rich, white women.
As a sort of comic relief, Ephron includes essays on cooking, how she paid $24,000 for the privilege of renting an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and her battle with rent-control that eventually forced her out. There's also a chapter on her experience as a White House intern for President Kennedy, who never made a pass at her "perhaps because I had a bad permanent wave" or "perhaps because I am Jewish."
In one chapter she reveals how she fell in and out of love with Bill Clinton -- from a distance. Ephron blames the current Iraq War on Clinton's philandering: "The way I saw it, if Bill had behaved, Al would have been elected, and thousands and thousands of people would be alive today who are instead dead."
These essays may seem familiar. Most have appeared elsewhere -- the New Yorker, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, the New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine. In one of the few previously unpublished essays about her life, Ephron revisits themes of her earlier works -- her marriage with Watergate muckraker Carl Bernstein and his affair with a mutual married friend that she famously detailed in her book Heartburn. She later wrote the screenplay for the movie version, which starred Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Ephron offers a backstory about writing the screenplay for "Silkwood" and hints, by citing E.L. Doctorow, that her works are really just stories about her own life. She quotes from her own screenplay of "When Harry Met Sally," and we are meant to understand that we already know Ephron's life story because we have watched it play out on the big screen.
The stories in Neck are entertaining and, at times, hilariously funny, but they also have the disconnected feel of stream-of-consciousness writing. I'm not sure what I would call it, perhaps "Old-Chick Ponderings," except I don't think the publishing gurus in New York have coined that phrase yet.
For those of us who grew up on Ephron's comical explorations of men and women and adored her screenplays made into movies, reading this collection is somewhat sad. We realize that the woman who popularized our private musings about men and marriage isn't that hip, relationship-defining queen of chick flicks anymore but an aging, could-be grandmother. That realization is painfully evident in the book's final chapter, "Considering the Alternative." The alternative here is death. Ephron's best friend Judy has died at age 66.
Ephron mourns her friend's loss deeply, wearing and even sleeping in Judy's favorite white shawl for days after her death. "She is my phantom limb," she writes. "I think of her every day, sometimes six or seven times a day."
She names other friends who have died and how her lunching, turtleneck-wearing pals would rather not discuss the inevitable at the table. "Let's not be morbid," she quotes them. "Let's put little smiley faces on our faces. LOL. It could be worse."
Amid the chuckles, readers understand that Ephron's obsession about her body is really about diversion and loss. Ephron has entered new territory with this collection, giving us a truthful report about being postmenopausal. Her account offers us a credible backlash to all those who claim "Sixty is Sexy."
"No one really wants to read anything that says aging sucks," she writes. "We are a generation that has learned to believe we can do something about almost everything. We are active ... we are positive thinkers. But there are some things that are absolutely, definitely, entirely uncontrollable."
So, Ephron buys the expensive bath oils and pampers herself and worries about her neck. Because it's easier. We just hope all that soaking in the tub stirs up some new, frothy material for a longing audience.
Nora Ephron’s Sublime Wit Trained on Loss and Regret
By Anna Shapiro
I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, by Nora Ephron. Alfred A. Knopf, 137 pages, $19.95.
This is a book about age and regret. Since it’s by Nora Ephron, it’s funny. A funny book about loss is a puzzle, and it’s that puzzle that I, if not the author, tussle with in reading this delightful, maddening collection of personal essays whose wit is sublime and whose concerns are sometimes reduced to the ridiculous.
The title threw me: Nora Ephron has a beautiful neck, a long neck. She’s a swan. Then I read the title piece: Now in her 60’s, Ms. Ephron has acquired a scar above her collarbone, but, mainly, it’s her throat that makes her feel bad. It has become crêpey, saggy, wattled. Writing these essays like a Joan Rivers with better values, she deplores having to bear the signs of age, the maintenance required to counteract them, and the impossibility of succeeding in counteracting them. She likewise deplores those who would say such losses are made up for by wisdom gained, and deploys a fair amount of wisdom anyway on subjects ranging from parenthood to home decoration and handbags. Along the way, some losses are even revealed to be no such thing, as in this deadpan nugget: “The empty nest is underrated.”
One could say: Hey, we all have to put up with decline—what’s she complaining about? It would be especially easy to feel enviously grudging reading “The Story of My Life in 3,500 words or Less,” which telegraphs a history that’s a string of triumphs, from winning first prize in high school for an essay on “Why I Want to Be a Journalist” to becoming one on first try—at 22—to writing a best-seller upon turning to fiction, then writing the screenplay for the cultural landmark When Harry Met Sally (1989).
But Ms. Ephron disarms jealousy by mocking her own anguish in a style that veers between hey-girlfriend coziness and wit that has everything to do with good writing. Her sentences are informed as much by Randall Jarrell as by shtick—sentences like “You have to cut a redwood tree open to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.”
So that string of triumphs is, in the girlfriend mode, cast as victories snatched by luck from the jaws of defeat, or at least insecurity: She won the essay prize only after the teacher nixed her lead; the best-seller came from the despair of being betrayed by an adored husband in her seventh month of pregnancy; and the cultural landmark was the distillation of youthful fears and loneliness. She seems always to be saying, “I’m just one of the girls.”
She brings the skills of a novelist to this claim, so you do identify, even if your accommodations to femininity take different forms. I’m not the kind of person whose pocketbook is full of capless lipsticks, loose Tic Tacs or gray-bristled toothbrushes (all this from “I Hate My Purse”), but I recognize “tampons that have come loose from their wrappings” and “Kleenexes that either have or have not been used but there’s no way to be sure one way or another”—even as I protest against the accuracy of what she’s writing. (She’s admitted defeat; I’m still battling.)
Likewise, my medicine cabinet is not full of expensive face creams, partly because they’re expensive but mostly because, until the laboratories can give me something that mimics what elastin did for my face, I don’t want to be gulled by the hope of even small improvement. I don’t spend the eight hours a week on exercise, tweezing, manicure and so on (catalogued with exasperation but also breezy satisfaction in “On Maintenance”), but I’d probably be glad to have a hair-threader (and time to devote to all those activities), though my experience with a pedicurist named Olga (“Tsk, tsk, tsk, vy you no push down cuticle?”) put me off that little luxury.
The point is, Ms. Ephron has me in her pocket. I’m absolutely on her side and feel that she’s on mine, that we’re in this together.
As, indeed, we all are. But I experience a kind of double vision, or impatient disappointment, when I read some of these essays, not because of their funniness and warmth and zingily brilliant observation, but because someone this smart knows she’s not just writing about vanity or even grief—as when she registers her biggest losses, to death, in “Considering the Alternative.” What she’s really writing about is the insult to our identity that we suffer when we see that unfamiliar face in the mirror—pouchy, crumpling—a face that’s too strong and exaggerated to be our own, and that also seems to have, with all those dark, complicated areas, too many features. It’s different as well as worse: It’s not who we are.
She writes about regret throughout these pieces (“Je regrette beaucoup,” she wonderfully says in “Considering the Alternative”), but I felt frustrated at the insistence on jokiness that forced this truly smart woman into a pose of superficiality. The unbearable thing is for life to get worse. It’s not a matter of what things are in themselves (pretty much okay, not so bad, better than for some people, for almost all people), but for life to be worse today than it was yesterday. I’m not asking her to be Susan Sontag, but I don’t want the woman who wrote Scribble Scribble (1978)—and who was one of the first women to direct pictures in Hollywood—to pretend to be Erma Bombeck either, even just for a sentence here and there, and certainly not for a freelancer’s fee.
Is it that these pieces were for magazines that won’t allow a serious idea through the door? Maybe not. Two of the best, “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir” and “Moving On” (canny about the New York obsessions of real estate and styles of cooking, respectively), were first published The New Yorker—and still I wanted more. On the other hand, two of the pieces that to me represent Nora Ephron at her best take the pose of the miffed would-be girlfriend—someone who has only affectional concerns—to comment on larger matters. Both were New York Times Op-Ed pieces.
Interestingly, I only remembered the shocker from “Me and JFK,” the piece on Kennedy’s affair with White House aide Mimi Fahnestock that first appeared, in slightly altered form, in The Times (“think about that long, long list of women JFK slept with. Were any of them Jewish? I don’t think so”), and not the final sentences, so rich, so superb: “And now, like Mimi Fahnestock, I will have no further comment on this subject. I request that the media respect my privacy and that of my family.” The other Op-Ed piece is a reproach to Bill Clinton for failing to speak out against the war in Iraq, a reproach so oblique and take-back-your-mink-ish in tone that, in contrast to the offense, it has the power of a mallet.
Ms. Ephron has done reporting, fabulously, and she’s used material from her own past for fiction. In her under-3,500-word autobiography, she quotes E.L. Doctorow: “[T]here is no fiction or nonfiction ... there is only narrative.” Whether fiction or non-, however, her wonderful, entertaining narratives lose the kick of seriousness when the subject is your pal Nora Ephron, but I suspect it doesn’t have to be that way—if she lives and writes long enough. “On Rapture” is a lovable paean to reading novels, and yet in “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” she admits that she can never get past the first chapter of Proust. Remembrance of Things Past! An encyclopedia of loss—and of a cherishing, akin to regret, of all that time sweeps away. Nora! Don’t start with the first chapter! Start with the third volume: It’s a circular novel, it won’t matter. You’ll love it, trust me.
Anna Shapiro writes about reading, Remembrance of Things Past and cooking in her collection of essays A Feast of Words (W.W. Norton). Her most recent book is the novel Living on Air (Soho).
CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER
I Feel Bad About My Neck By Nora Ephron. Knopf, 160 pp., $19.95.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Nora Ephron's new collection of essays contains one called "Rapture," which begins like this: "I've just surfaced from spending several days in a state of rapture -- with a book. I loved every second of it. I was transported into its world. I was reminded of all sorts of things in my own life. I was in anguish over the fate of its characters."
Right away, I thought: The last book that made me feel that way was Michael Chabon's novel, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." But of course the world contains an infinite number of books that might make Nora Ephron feel transported.
Lo and behold, after four pages about great books in her life, Ephron circles back to name the one that has just captured her heart. Guess what?
It is no small thing to discover the literary equivalent of a friendship where you finish each other's sentences.
Ever since I read "Heartburn," Ephron's 1983 roman a clef about her breakup from Carl Bernstein, I've felt such a kinship. She zeroes in on the microconcerns of womanhood and -- sometimes -- names them as they have not been named. It's a quality that those who never read "Heartburn" saw on the screen in her most-famous movie, "When Harry Met Sally . . ."
"I Feel Bad About My Neck" is the brilliant title of her new collection and the first essay in the book. I grabbed it immediately because I, too, hate what has happened to my neck in recent years. The loss of neck-youth deserved its own, funny day.
And still, something nagged by the end of that essay. Sure, I feel bad about my neck, but I also feel bad about spending time thinking about it. It's so absurd, so vain. How does Ephron fold her wrinkly neck into a bigger picture? I wasn't sure. I'm still not.
That essay is followed by another on the difficulties of being a purse-carrying woman, which proceeds from this beginning: "I hate my purse. I absolutely hate it." In another, we find out that Ephron hates what is happening to her eyes, too.
The 15 works in this book contain musings on aging (Ephron was born in 1941), a smattering of thought on parenthood, enjoyable nods to two of her primary passions -- home and food -- and, perhaps the truest piece, an essay called "Considering the Alternative," in which she writes movingly of death and friendship.
Some of the work, including a cheekily framed piece that made a resonant point about being disappointed by Bill Clinton, was first published elsewhere. All of it is easy reading, and sometimes too easy.
In the decades since Ephron first started writing in her smart, down-to-earth way, the personal essay has become ubiquitous. Imitators lined up at newspapers to follow in the footsteps of Erma Bombeck and early Anna Quindlen. Now it's all over the blogosphere as well. The world oozes with the wittily turned phrase and the nicely made observation on quotidian life.
I want Nora Ephron to be more than quick-tongued. I want her to be, even at 65, completely fresh. I want her to be both funny and wise. Too often here, she skims the surface on topics that deserve the full benefit of her intelligence.
Her neck might sag, but it's her brain that could be in better trim.
Sandstrom is the assistant managing editor for features at The Plain Dealer.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BAD ABOUT MY NECK AND OTHER THOUGHTS ON BEING A WOMAN"
By Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron has led a fascinating life. She's rich, well-educated, talented, attractive. She's an accomplished essayist, novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, producer and director. Perhaps best of all, Meryl Streep played her in a movie.
To be sure, that movie was "Heartburn," based on her fictionalized account of her breakup with husband Carl Bernstein.
But Ephron has never shied from using her life's ups and downs as comic, acerbic material for her books and movies, which is why her latest book, a slim volume of essays about the perils of growing old, grates a bit.
To be sure, her writing will resonate with Baby Boomer women about wrinkles and breast cancer and an increasing inability to read 12-point type.
But the only chapter of real substance is the last one, "Considering the Alternative," a poignant meditation on the death of her best friend, Judy. The rest of the book feels lightweight, and what's more, many of the women who fork out $19.95 for it may discover they've already read large parts in magazines.
Ephron has a chatty, self-deprecating style and endless repository of funny stories, but some of the subject matter seems too trivial even for her to salvage.
There's a long chapter on her love affair with her rent-controlled apartment that ended when the new management raised the rent to $12,000 a month, so she moved from the West Side of Manhattan to (gasp!) the East Side, where she bought a place.
How nice for her.
You have to wonder about a book that contains a chapter titled "What I Wish I'd Known" that is a list of cute and/or obvious bromides that probably belong on a needlepoint pillow -- "Buy, don't rent" and "Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from."
There are other, more banal insights, too: "Back up your files," "Overinsure everything," and this last claim that, coming from a woman who prides herself on her cooking, is nothing short of egregious, "There's no point in making piecrust from scratch."
This is a very thin excuse for a book, by an author who has done and can do much better, brought to us by Knopf, a distinguished publishing house, whose editors should have known better.
By Susan Salter Reynolds
August 20, 2006
Maybe she makes you laugh; maybe she bugs you. Maybe you like the movies she wrote or co-wrote ("Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally," "Silkwood," "Heartburn") or maybe they're too cute. Maybe her problems seem silly, the petty annoyances of the over-privileged and overeducated. Maybe she seems dated because the age of the unapologetic New Yorker who rarely travels beyond the Hudson is dead, or at least irrelevant.
Then again, maybe Nora Ephron has become timeless, the 2006 version of the Earth Mother (a moniker that very possibly would make her retch). Certainly she writes, for all her funny commentary on modern life, like someone who has something useful and important to tell her readers. Which is to say there's something earnest at the heart of Ephron's writing, always has been, and it's probably the last thing she'd ever want to acknowledge.
In her milieu and time (she began her journalism career by parodying the New York Post during the 1963 newspaper strike; the Post hired her at once), "earnest" was the kiss of death. "Funny" got the message home, be it that you can't trust the government or that marriage can cause unbearable pain or that when people you love die it's almost impossible to go on but you must, if only because they'd want you to. Look, Ephron's parents killed themselves with alcohol. Her second husband cheated on her when she was pregnant with their child, she's been divorced twice, and that's just the beginning of her life story, which she's not been shy about telling. But you never feel she's using her readers for therapy; rather, she's figured something out that she wants to let you in on, and to make it palatable she'll make you laugh.
Most of these essays are about aging (not gracefully). In some, Ephron sounds like Eloise in a manic snit: She hates her neck and her purse and finds the maintenance needed to go out in public (in New York, anyway) overwhelming. There is much good information here on things like Kelly bags, leg waxing and threading ("a fantastic and thrilling method of hair removal"). But there are also some (uncharacteristically upbeat) essays about things Ephron loves: the apartment in the Apthorp on Broadway and 79th Street where she lived for some 20 years, journalism ("I can't understand why anyone would write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing"), Dr. Hauschka's bath oil and Bill Clinton (a relationship that soured over time).
She puzzles over the past. (Why was she "probably the only" female intern in the JFK White House in 1961 he did not make a pass at? Was it because she's Jewish?) She offers advice in digestible bits: "Buy, don't rent." "The empty nest is underrated." "You can't be friends with people who call after 11 p.m." It is hard for funny people to let go of irony and be vulnerable, especially in print. What we have in these essays is Ephron in her 60s, a woman whose friends are starting to die, who can't — no matter how hard she fights or how clever she is — control everything. Hair color, yes; neck, no. Life, yes; death, no.
Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
'Neck' is Ephron at her best
Writer examines life 'as a woman of a certain age'
Deseret Morning News
"I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK AND OTHER THOUGHTS ON BEING A WOMAN," by Nora Ephron, Knopf, 137 pages, $19.95
In "I Feel
Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman" — an example of Nora
Ephron at her best — the prolific screenwriter and novelist examines her life
"as a woman of a certain age."
This results in complaints about her purse, the need she feels for hair dye, the treadmill, the lotions and creams she uses to slow the aging process but don't — and oh, yes, she hates her neck!
"If you want to get really, really depressed about your neck," she writes, "sit in the backseat of a car, right behind the driver, and look at yourself in the rearview mirror. What is it about rearview mirrors? I have no idea why, but there are no worse mirrors where necks are concerned. It's one of the genuinely compelling mysteries of modern life, right up there with why the cold water in the bathroom is colder than the cold water in the kitchen."
And there is no way out of this situation. Ephron has learned that tightening up the neck requires tightening up the face, and she is staying away from a face lift. She writes that one of her biggest regrets is that she didn't spend her youth "staring lovingly at my neck."
Ephron realizes she is getting older, so she is "wise and sage and mellow. And it's also true that I honestly do understand just what matters in life. But guess what? It's my neck."
Purses are another thing. She sees them as "reflections of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away." Besides, they have to "match what you're wearing."
She has tried to live without a purse, but "I need stuff. I need stuff for work. I need cosmetics to tide me over. I need a book to keep me company. I need, sad to say, a purse."
So she tried having two purses for a while, one for daytime and one for evening. For the second one, she even tried a "Prada-style backpack purse, but ... I put so much into it that I looked like a Sherpa."
Ephron includes a chapter on "maintenance." "What you have to do just so you can walk out the door knowing that if you go to the market and bump into a guy who once rejected you, you won't have to hide behind a stack of canned food." As a result, she explains, eyeliner needs to be worn whenever she goes out.
There are, according to Ephron, two types of maintenance: "Status Quo Maintenance" and "Pathetic Attempts to Turn Back the Clock." The latter includes such well-known procedures as face lifts, liposuction, Botox, major dental work and "removal of unsightly things like skin tags or varicose veins."
Ephron is especially concerned about all the time it takes to do her hair: "365 days a year! Nine work weeks!" Once, in 1972, Ephron went to Africa where there were no hairdressers. "As far as I was concerned, that was the end of that place."
Even worse is the problem of hair dye. Ephron claims that "In the 1950s only seven percent of American women dyed their hair; today there are parts of Manhattan and Los Angeles where there are no gray-haired women at all."