email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""Who Could That Be at This Hour?"3 Willows4th of July99 DaysA Beautiful MindA Change in AltitudeA Corner Of The UniverseA Falling KnifeA Frog ThingA Great and Terrible BeautyA People's History of ChristianityA Question of BloodA Slight Trick of the MindA Step Toward FallingA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December Abraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesADHD NationAfter DarkAgainst EmpathyAgainst Medical AdviceAll the Bright PlacesAll the Way HomeAll Unquiet ThingsAlphavilleAlways Forever MaybeAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAmerica AmericaAmong the DepartedAn EducationAn Object of BeautyAnatomy of a MisfitAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaBad BoyBad RatsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeauty QueensBed of RosesBefore I DieBefore I FallBefore the FrostBig BrotherBiteBlack Elk SpeaksBlameBleed for MeBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBody SurfingBog ChildBoneMan's DaughtersBoomsdayBorder CrossingBorn Standing UpBoys Are DogsBoys Will Put You on a Pedestal (So They Can Look Up Your Skirt)Brava, ValentineBreak Through PainBreathingBridge of SighsBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBrutalBy BloodC StreetCalm Beneath the WavesCanadaCellCemetery DanceChange Your Brain, Change Your LifeCheeverCinnamon KissCleopatraClose Your EyesCompulsionCross CountryCyborgasmDakotaDancing at the Shame PromDarkest FearDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDead EvenDead Little Mean GirlDear Zoe,Death Without TenureDeceptionDefending JacobDefine NormalDeliriumDevil in the DetailsDiscovering Pig MagicDisturbing GroundDivergentDivine JusticeDivisaderoDoing ItDon't Wake UpDown the Rabbit HoleDr. Andrew Weil's Mindbody ToolkitDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDriftlessEven Dogs in the WildEvery Exquisite ThingEvery Little Thing in the WorldEye ContactFaith, Hope, and Ivy JuneFaking NormalFalling ManFamily and Other CatastrophesFamily FirstFans of the Impossible LifeFear of the DarkFellsideField of BloodFile Under: 13 Suspicious IncidentsFiregirlFlat Lake in WinterForest of the PygmiesFortunate SonFraudFreak the MightyFree RefillsFull Steam Ahead!Furiously HappyGenerosityGenomeGetting a Good Night's SleepGetting the Love You Want Audio CompanionGiftedGirl in TranslationGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoing BovineGood and GoneGranny Torrelli Makes SoupGraysonHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHarmlessHe's Just Not That Into YouHealthy AgingHeartbeatHeftHigh HeatHolidays on IceHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow Full Is Your Bucket?How Successful People ThinkHow to Build a HouseHow to See Yourself As You Really AreHow to Set a Fire and WhyHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurt Go HappyHypnography for MenHypnography for WomenI Am I Am I AmI Am Not Joey PigzaI Can See YouI Drink for a ReasonI Feel Bad About My NeckI'd Know You AnywhereI'm Traveling AloneIdiot AmericaIf a Tree Falls at Lunch PeriodIf I StayIf You StayImagine Me GoneIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestInheritanceInnocentInside the O'BriensInvincibleInvisibleIt Takes OneJennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, ElizabethJust LifeKiss of Broken GlassKissing Ted Callahan (And Other Guys)Knife CreekLeaping BeautyLie to MeLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife InterruptedLife of PiLife StrategiesLisey's StoryLitLittle Black LiesLittle ScarletLive For Your Listening PleasureLiving Your DreamLong Shadow of Small GhostsLooking for BobowiczLosers BracketLost in the ForestLove Is a Mix TapeLove Times ThreeLove, AubreyLowboyMadappleMade for LoveMade For YouMagical ThinkingMagnificenceMaliceMan in the WoodsMeditation in a New York MinuteMeetings with a Remarkable ManMiddlesexMind MappingMindfulness for BeginnersMirrorMaskMischlingMissing PresumedMolly Moon's Incredible Book of HypnotismMommies Who DrinkMunich AirportMy AbandonmentMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Name Is RedMy One Hundred AdventuresMy Sister's KeeperName All the AnimalsNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNever Let Me GoNew York 2140Night FilmNina: AdolescenceNinety DaysNone of the AboveNot a Crime to Be PoorNothingNurtureShockObjects of My AffectionOdd Child OutOlive's OceanOn Chesil BeachOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOutliersPaint It BlackPanicParadise LodgeParanoiaPeace Is Every BreathPeople Who Eat DarknessPharmakonPictures of Hollis WoodsPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlease Stop Laughing at UsPositivityPresumed InnocentPretty Girl-13Prisoner of Night and FogPuddlejumpersPunkzillaRacing the DevilReady for AnythingRebuttalReleaseRequiemRescueRevolutionary RoadRoomRun for Your LifeSay You're SorryScatSchool of FearSeason to TasteSecrets of a Passionate MarriageSee How SmallSeeds of HopeSex and SpiritSide Effects May VarySilencedSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSinlessSix Impossible ThingsSkelligSleeping BeautySnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSolitaireSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful to YouSourlandSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkStill MissingStory of a GirlStress ReliefSupreme CourtshipSurviving OpheliaSwimming to ElbaSworn to SilenceSycamoreSymptoms of Being HumanTeaseTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTen Minutes to RelaxTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe DrifterThe Abortionist's DaughterThe AccidentalThe Accidental BillionairesThe AdultsThe Almost MoonThe Anatomy of HopeThe ArrangementThe Art of ChoosingThe Art of Exceptional LivingThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Average American MarriageThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe Beat Goes OnThe Best AwfulThe Big LoveThe Boat RockerThe Book of JoeThe Book of LiesThe Book of the DeadThe Boy Who DaredThe Boyfriend ListThe Brass VerdictThe Breakout PrincipleThe Burden of ProofThe Case for GodThe Case of the Case of Mistaken IdentityThe Cemetery BoysThe ChemistThe Chosen OneThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe Cuckoo's CallingThe Dangerous Art of Blending InThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Death of Bunny MunroThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Diviner's TaleThe DollmakerThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dynamite RoomThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe EndThe End of Our StoryThe Erotic EdgeThe Essential KamasutraThe Family GeneThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Forgotten GirlsThe Fortunate OnesThe Geography of You and MeThe Gift of an Ordinary DayThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl on Mill StreetThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Guy Not TakenThe Heart of YogaThe Hearts of MenThe Heretic's DaughterThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Keeper of Lost ThingsThe Kings of LondonThe Language God TalksThe Language of SecretsThe Language Of YogaThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last Time We Say GoodbyeThe Male BrainThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Memory Book The Mermaids SingingThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe Mystery of the Third LucretiaThe Myth of LazinessThe NarrowsThe Necessary Death of Lewis WinterThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe NixThe NursesThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Opposite of InvisibleThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outcasts of 19 Schuyler PlaceThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe Penultimate PerilThe Perfect GirlThe PostcardThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe PyramidThe Qi Healing KitThe ReaderThe Republican BrainThe Rule of FourThe Rules of SurvivalThe Savage CityThe ScarecrowThe Second GirlThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe ShallowsThe SharkThe Shock of the FallThe Silent BoyThe SisterThe Sound of Broken GlassThe SpindlersThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Survivors ClubThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe Tail of Emily WindsnapThe Tenth JusticeThe Thing About JellyfishThe Third AngelThe TouristThe Treasure Map of BoysThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe VegetarianThe View from SaturdayThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Weight of the NationThe Whiz Mob and the Grenadine KidThe Whole TruthThe WilloughbysThe Witch's BoyThe Wolves of AndoverThe Words We Live ByThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsThe Yin Yoga KitThings You Didnt SeeThirteen Reasons WhyThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThis Book Is Not Good For YouThis Full HouseThis Is HowThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadTony & SusanToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTransformation TriburbiaTrue BelieverTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTwinmakerTwistedTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder Rose-Tainted SkiesUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnder WildwoodUniversal HarvesterUnlessUnthinkingUp in the AirVery ValentineVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWalkingWarWatching the DarkWays to Die in GlasgowWe Are OkayWhat the Dog SawWhen My Heart Joins the ThousandWhen We Were AnimalsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Reach MeWhere She WentWherever You Go, There You AreWhite HotWild AwakeWild ChildWildwoodWill They Ever Trust Us Again?Wolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYoga SanctuaryYou Know Me WellYou Look Different in Real LifeYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know Me
Why do we read the memoirs of famous people? To learn their secrets of success? To see the sordid underbelly of their lives and the price they've paid to get where they are, so that we can console ourselves about the relative sanity, or even nobility, of our more pedestrian lives? Just to revel, voyeuristically, in the sheer beauty and glamour that surrounds them?
None of those explain the pleasures offered by Nora Ephron's 2006 light-heartedly morose musings on her life, I Feel Bad About My Neck.
Ephron, the sixty-seven-year-old journalist, film director, and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood) started out rich, privileged, and connected, growing up in New York City and Beverly Hills with parents who were successful writers, so there's not much about her journey that's instructive for most of us. And she doesn't seem to have sacrificed a lot to get where she is: along the way there are a couple of disappointing marriages and a handbag or two that weren't quite right, but no permanent damage to her soul. Nor is she a celebrity in the Angelina Jolie sense: we wouldn't buy People magazine just to find out how she lost a few pounds or to knock ourselves out with how beautiful her babies are.
Maybe then, the appeal of this book is the somewhat disappointing but oddly satisfying message that the rich and prominent are just as dull as we are, consumed with the same unfortunate trials of life: wrinkles, bad hair days, unfaithful husbands, and the death of friends; and that having more money takes the edge off some of those trials, but cannot, ultimately, save one from them.
This book seesaws between the cozy girl-talk of inclusiveness and the reminders that her life is not, in fact, like yours. She enjoys the humor of belaboring the trivial and the mundane: How do you find the right purse for all occasions? How many items should you serve at dinner? Why must we buy different lotions and creams for our arms, legs, faces, and feet? Why do we have to get manicures all the time?
And then--wait a minute--we don't have to. It is a safe bet that most women couldn't afford manicures as often as she gets them, nor could they afford the constant rounds of what Ephron calls "maintenance" – the hair coloring and blow-drying and pedicures and sessions with personal trainers that she says have to be done with regularity just to keep everything from falling apart. Not to mention--although she does--the more occasional "needs" for Botox, facelifts, major dental work, and the removal of skin tags and other harmless signs of aging that afflict the vain.
At times, it seems that Ephron could have called her memoir, "Thoughts on being a Woman that Probably Don't Apply to You." She presents herself as a working woman with an imperfect and deteriorating body, disappointments and betrayals in her love life, and some amusing challenges in learning to cook, be a decent parent, and take care of herself, just like the rest of us . . . but it's a tease. She is not everywoman. Not unless everywoman receives repeated invitations to travel on the private yachts of friends and turns down those invitations not because she has to work or can't afford the cruise-wear, but because she can't imagine the inconvenience of having to do one's own hair while aboard a boat.
Two of the most entertaining sections of the book were beautifully edited into New Yorker essays over the last few years. One was her set piece on finding and keeping a glorious eight-room apartment in the Astor-built Apthorp building on the Upper West Side, even as rents rise 400% in three years; fistfights break out among the neighbors over the placement of bicycles; fires, burglaries, and ulterior-motived renovations go on all around; Rosie O'Donnell (whom Ephron identifies as a friend) moves in, wreaks havoc, and to Ephron's amazement--how could anyone let go of a foothold in Heaven?--moves out; and "key money," the under-the-table cash paid by wannabe tenants to building superintendents, people who are moving out, and anyone else who might be able to provide an inside track on apartments about to be vacated--rises from the $24,000 Ephron paid in 1980 to the $285,000 paid by a neighbor some years later. To those who have never lived in New York City, who may think that finding a decent place to live is an ordinary business deal within the reach of anyone with a steady income, this story may stretch the limits of credulity. I am here to tell you it's all true, and that Ephron's personal and detailed account of it all will stand as a classic insider look at Manhattan real estate in the 1980s. If the current economic crisis ends up changing anything fundamental about the way that people acquire and pay for their homes, then Ephron's story will become an even more valuable snapshot of the rental market in its heyday.
The other excerpted essay was a celebration of the joys of cooking, eating, and idolizing celebrity chefs. During my own years in Manhattan, the paying of rent didn't leave much over for food, so I will admit to a less-than-excited reading of this section, and yet it is quite likely that, for those who like this sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing they will like. The fetishizing of food and wine into a hobby/obsession seems still to be growing, all across the country. (As further testament to her own love of the topic, Ephron made her alter ego, played by Meryl Streep, in the 1986 film Heartburn, a food writer by profession.)
Again, Ephron is somewhat like the rest of us--she worries and frets over what to serve at dinner parties and she struggles with maintaining her weight while developing her skill as a cook--and in other ways, she is not like us at all. She develops an interest in the writings of Craig Claiborne, then a hero-worship, and then a full-blown fantasy life involving Craig, herself, and some exquisitely cooked delicacies . . . then she meets him, he invites her over for dinner, and she reciprocates. Later, she becomes friends with the food and design superstar Lee Bailey and slavishly adopts his decorating schemes and menu-planning techniques. Her specific fantasies may or may not do anything for you, but the book teases you into thinking about what your life would be like if your own deepest desires--menu-related or not--were so easily made real.
The source of much of Ephron's humor is the bursting of bubbles regarding glamour. Yes, she's in a position to have dinner with Craig Claiborne after a period of obsessing about him. But it turns out he's dull, once you get to know him. Yes, she can pay for any cosmetic enhancements and personal services she wants, but she can't stop her neck from getting saggy. Her summary of taking care of her aging body is this: "After a certain point, it's just patch, patch, patch." Yes, life is easier for the rich, but it's still life.
Ephron herself narrates the audio version of this book (available, unabridged, from Random House Audio) and she is, naturally, a clear and mostly amusing reader of her own work. However, her tone is so consistently sardonic, full of heavy self-deprecation delivered in a staccato rhythm, that the tale can feel monotonous. There is virtually no variation in her delivery no matter what the content. At times, the even-keeled, dry-humored delivery feels just right for the material; at others, though, one wishes for an actor with more range.
© First Serial rights 2009 Heather C. Liston
Heather Liston is a free lance writer based in San Francisco