Until recently, most people, when asked if they recognized the name Nora Ephron, might have come up with "When Harry Met Sally," "You've Got Mail" or even her novel Heartburn. It would have depended upon the age of the respondent whether they would have picked out the movies or recalled the book -- or just have drawn a blank. But long before her foray into screenwriting and directing -- years before her debut as a novelist, and even before she was Carl Bernstein's horribly wronged wife -- Nora Ephron was a funny, sassy, truly expert columnist very much in the Dorothy Parker mode.
Ephron's first book of journalistic pieces was called Wallflower at the Orgy -- a perfect summation of her slyly self-deprecating, ironic point of view -- but she put her name on the map with a piece called "A Few Words About Breasts," just one entry in a series of columns she wrote for Esquire about the state of modern women. It was later reprinted in her second book Crazy Salad.
Back in May of 1972 when it first appeared, it seemed wildly funny, as so many of her pieces still do, and absolutely on the money. The latter still seems to be true 30 years later, and it's still peppered with lots of splendid wisecracks, but there's a certain understandably innocent sadness that clings to it now.
Most of the piece deals with Ephron's anxiety over never developing a sizable bust, and she flings wisecracks, most at her own expense, throughout the piece. As always in her best essays, she sustains the tone without straining one iota, and sails into one of the finest endings she ever crafted -- and she has crafted many a fine one.
"After I went into therapy, a process that made it possible for me to tell total strangers at cocktail parties that breasts were the hang-up of my life, I was often told that I was insane to have been bothered by my condition. I was also frequently told, by close friends, that I was extremely boring on the subject. And my girl friends, the ones with nice big breasts, would go on endlessly about how their lives had been far more miserable than mine. Their bra straps were snapped in class. They couldn't sleep on their stomachs. They were stared at whenever the word 'mountain' cropped up in geography. And Evangeline, good God what they went through every time someone had to stand up and recite the Prologue to Longfellow's Evangeline: ' ... stand like druids of eld .../With beards that rest on their bosoms.' It was much worse for them, they tell me. They had a terrible time of it, they assure me. I don't know how lucky I was, they say.
"I have thought about their remarks, tried to put myself in their place, considered their point of view. I think they are full of s---."
There was nothing quite like "A Few Words About Breasts" back then, and I doubt whether there's ever been anything like it since.
Ephron's next book was called Scribble, Scribble, and contained her thoughts on the media, which were as sharp and funny as those in Crazy Salad. A great deal was also going on in her private life just about then, as her next work, the novel Heartburn, demonstrated. It was basically a sad story, leavened with humor and a sampling of her favorite recipes, all tossed together in a lightly fictionalized account of her marriage to Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame.
It was only when she began working on the first of her screenplays that Ephron's humor pieces nearly disappeared from the scene.
'We All Look Good for Our Age'
Now the multi-talented author has returned to the genre that first made her reputation, and has done so with remarkable success -- and with what has to be one of the classic titles in the annals of aging-boomer sagas: I Feel Bad About My Neck. The title essay -- the first in the book -- is, like "A Few Words About Breasts," a perfectly balanced classic.
Quoting here and there can only give a smattering of what's so wonderful about the construction and tonal consistency of this little piece. You have to read it all to get the full effect (and it seems that many readers are, since the book has been on the best-seller list for many weeks). A few examples will have to suffice, though explaining Ephron's setups and then printing the punchlines, in essence, ruins the effect the jokes have in context. But here goes.
"Sometimes I go out to lunch with my girlfriends -- I got that far into the sentence and caught myself. I suppose I mean my women friends. We are no longer girls and have not been girls for 40 years. Anyway, sometimes we go out to lunch and I look around the table and realize we're all wearing turtleneck sweaters. Sometimes, instead, we're all wearing scarves, like Katharine Hepburn in 'On Golden Pond.' Sometimes we're all wearing mandarin collars and look like a white ladies' version of the Joy Luck Club. It's sort of funny and it's sort of sad, because we're not neurotic about age -- none of us lies about how old she is, for instance, and none of us dresses in a way that's inappropriate for our years. We all look good for our age. Except for our necks."
And somewhat later:
"According to my dermatologist, the neck starts to go at 43, and that's that. 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. The neck is a dead giveaway. Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck."
The book is subtitled And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, which in the end turns out to be somewhat misleading since the essays wander all over the place in terms of subject matter. This book is nowhere near as unified as Crazy Salad and Scribble, Scribble. In fact, it's a little slapdash. That accounts for some of its charm, but it also points to the weaknesses that undermine a number of the pieces. Some are thin, just joke machines wound up and turned loose until they wind down.
Some of them fall flat (like "I Hate My Purse" and "Blind as a Bat"), some are only mildly amusing (like "On Maintenance"), and yet some are extended bits of memoir -- filled with wonderful social observations -- that are unlike anything Ephron has written before (this category would include "Serial Monogamy: A Memoir" and "Moving On").
But because this is Ephron, a lot of the jokes -- even in the flat or simply amusing pieces -- are good ones, and that's true even when they don't contribute to sustained, insightful essays.
In "On Maintenance" -- which is really just a series of jokey turns -- she writes about what's necessary to make your hair look presentable: "We begin, I'm sorry to say, with hair. I'm sorry to say it because the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming. Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death."
In "What I'd Wish I'd Known," Ephron offers a quick series of pithy sentences or small paragraphs filled with proverbial (female) wisdom about the nature and process of aging. Here are just a few:
"Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of 35 you will be nostalgic for at the age of 45.
"At the age of 55 you will get a saggy roll just above your waist even if you are painfully thin.
"This saggy roll just above your waist will be especially visible from the back and will force you to re-evaluate half the clothes in your closet, especially the white shirts."
Every female reader will roar in recognition, and the men won't be too far behind.
But the raison d'être for this collection, aside from the splendid title essay, is its final piece, "Considering the Alternative," and that's because it's not just about aging but also about the death of friends. Quoting from it would do the piece a disservice. Buy the book, as so many others already have, and enjoy the beauty of this final piece. Then see if you can find yourself copies of Crazy Salad and Scribble, Scribble, and treat yourself to humor and skill applied with remarkable consistency over the long haul.