- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK: AND OTHER THOUGHTS ON BEING A WOMAN

By Nora Ephron

Knopf, $19.95, 137 pages

At the very end of “I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman,”

Nora Ephron gets around to the subject of death.

After frolicking for a little over 100 pages in a memoir-like format that includes some of her best previously published essays about love, marriage, raising children and choosing the right purse, the plucky 65-year-old author and screenwriter (“Crazy Salad,” “When Harry Met Sally”) writes about the death last year of a very close friend. And doing so suggests what could well be the book’s raison d’etre:

” … I meant to have a conversation with Judy about death. Before either of us was sick or dying. I meant to have one of those straightforward conversations where you discuss What You Want in the Eventuality — well, I say ‘the eventuality’ but that’s one of the oddest things about this whole subject. Death doesn’t really feel eventual or inevitable. It still feels … avoidable somehow. But it’s not. We know in one part of our brains that we are all going to die, but on some level we don’t quite believe it.”

In that light, one could say that the power of this compact book and its boundless humor hinges on defying, denying, taunting, ignoring and making peace — sort of — with death. Why else compile a life’s worth of funny — make that laugh-out-loud funny — anecdotes about life’s day-to-day reminders of mortality?

Oh, Ms. Ephron may take readers along a hilarious ride that covers many of the indignities of getting older — tell-tale necks, graying hair, the empty nest — but what she is really saying here is: I hate not being young anymore. And so, for the greater part of the book, she reminisces.

And the reminiscences are beauts. Moreover, one is so busy laughing through the early pages of the book, that searching for meaning seems well beside the point. Why be concerned with what the author is getting at in these parlous times when she can so adeptly distract a reader?

For example, in a chapter entitled “On Maintenance,” referring to the measures women will take to look young she writes: “Jolen creme bleach turns the mustache on your upper lip to the exact color of Richard Gephardt’s hair, which is better than its looking like Frida Kahlo’s mustache, but it’s still slightly hairier than you mean it to be.”

Or how when she was raising her children “sentences you never expected to say (because your parents said them to you) fall from your lips, sentences like:

“Do you have any idea what that cost?

“Because I say so. That’s why.

“I said now.

“Stop that this minute.

“Go to your room

“I don’t care what Jessica’s mother lets her do.

“A tiara? You want a tiara?”

Or, in the matter of purses: “I need, sad to say, a purse. For a while, I searched for an answer. Like those Hollywood women who are willing to fling themselves into the Kabbalah, or Scientology, or yoga, I read just about any article about purses that promised me some sort of salvation from misery.

“At one point I thought, Perhaps the solution is not one purse but two … Another solution I tried involved spending quite a lot of money on a purse on the theory that having an expensive purse would inspire me to change my personality, but that didn’t work either. I also tried one of those Prada-style semi-backpack purses, but I bought it just when it was going out of fashion, and in any case I put so much into it that I looked like a sherpa.”

Ms. Ephron touches (lightly) on her three marriages. She was once married to Carl Bernstein, against whom she took wickedly funny revenge in “Heartburn.” She is currently married to writer Nicholas Pileggi.

Her first husband she describes as a “perfectly nice man, although he’s pathologically attached to his cats. It’s 1972, the height of the woman’s movement, and everyone is getting a divorce, even people whose husbands don’t have pathological attachments to their cats.” One imagines there was more to that story.

But in the end, if death is the big foe in this book, necks are the messenger. And it well may be, that beyond her devilishly funny essay about how she was the only White House intern in the 1960s who John F. Kennedy didn’t make a pass at, or her thoughtful essay on the books that bring her rapture, or her attachment to the rent-controlled apartment on the West Side where she raised her children, it all boils down to necks.

And without giving away all the funny things she has to say about the one part of an aging person’s body that plastic surgeons won’t fix without doing a face lift, there is this: “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.”

Anyone with a neck ought to read this book. A heart or brain will also suffice. The laughs are many. As for death, it is probably best kept at bay with lots of bath oil to keep the skin, as Ms. Ephron writes, “as smooth as silk.”

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