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Through a glass, humorously

Ephron serves up scattered riffs, rants, and reflections on aging

Nora Ephron’s essays have the rare combination of youth and wisdom. Nora Ephron’s essays have the rare combination of youth and wisdom. (Iiona Lieberman)
By Wesley Morris
December 12, 2010

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Nora Ephron’s new book of essays is called “I Remember Nothing.’’ That, of course, is a lie. She forgets the title of the movie “Reversal of Fortune’’ but appears to remember everything else. Sex with a lawyer during Vietnam protests. Her wallet being stolen during Nixon’s resignation. The recipe for a good omelet. “Twenty-five Things People Have a Shocking Capacity to be Surprised by Over and Over Again’’ (number 16 “Mary Matalin and James Carville are married’’). Ephron is pulling our leg. She’s also making a point. The collection’s first essay — the title one — is a joke on self-pity. Her memory isn’t failing her. Her taste and indulgences just filtered out what’s not worth remembering. Presented with the opportunity to have sex or protest a war, I think a lot of us would choose the sex. That’s the comedy: Of course, we would.

Ephron is 69, and her most recent collections — the previous one was “I Feel Bad About My Neck’’ — constitute the reflections of an aging woman. They have the rare combination of youth and wisdom. She’s advising. She’s ranting. She’s reminiscing. In the new volume, she recalls her run-in with the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross and her stressful friendship with Lillian Hellman. These are rather privileged reminiscences, it’s true. But Ephron’s skill as a personal essayist resides in her finesse. She locates a kernel of universality in what would otherwise be self-saluting. I’ll never have a meatloaf named after me (at least, I hope I won’t). But the gist of her essay, “My Life as a Meat Loaf,’’ is that she no longer does, either. That saddens her — not as a rich, famous, well-connected lady but as a woman who lost something, however absurd the loss.

“I Remember Nothing’’ is not the sustained comedic performance that “I Feel Bad About My Neck’’ was. The new book is mostly scattered riffs. Ephron has included five rants called “I Just Want To Say’’: One, on the spurious benefits of chicken soup (“I Just Want To Say: Chicken Soup’’), lasts for a short paragraph. But another, about the headaches of dining out (“I Just Want to Say: No, I Do Not Want Another Bottle of Pellegrino’’) is a seasoned diner’s aggravation with restaurant trends. What keeps her cantankerousness from sounding geriatric is that she’s right. Except about the salt. She’s wrong about that. The mild crunch of sea salt can be divine, Nora, and unlike regular table salt you can see where on your plate it went (which is precisely why she prefers it).

In any case, in a riff like that she’s practicing the social criticism she’s so good at. Ephron lives in Manhattan, and she doesn’t appear to live there in Town Cars and entourages. She’s that woman in the lobby of the movie theater complaining to an usher that the picture’s out of focus. I’ve been that woman. And in reading “Going to the Movies,’’ I became her all over again. This piece and another about her entry, as a young woman, into journalism are the closest Ephron gets in “I Remember Nothing’’ to her platinum-edition Esquire years, which were collected in “Crazy Salad,’’ from 1975. Most of the articles she wrote for that magazine were first-person, reportorial social criticism about women during the early feminist era. They were righteous but offbeat, appalled and engaged, and bewildered and tough. They could be devastatingly funny or simply devastating. The country was changing for women, and Ephron chronicled the changes.

Prolonged exposure to that book or even to a softer-boiled performance like “I Remember Nothing’’ raises other questions about Ephron’s work. Why can’t her movies be more like her essays? The obvious explanation is that her movies need plots and happy endings. Her essays do not. Her films have moments of good storytelling with some distinctly bad ideas. Her movies are what her best nonfiction writing rarely is: cute. She doesn’t trust herself as a director the way she trusts herself as a journalist. She was trained only for the latter, and I think that training freed her to take risks. I also think the macho climate of the journalism world in which she cut her teeth gave her something both to prove and subvert. The movie industry is similarly rife with men, but Ephron often seems grateful to be allowed to direct among them. As a director, she’s a pleaser. The ending of “You Got Mail,’’ in which Meg Ryan runs into the arms of the man (Tom Hanks) who just put her out of business, is the single most appalling finale of a serious romantic comedy.

But with “I Feel Bad about My Neck’’ and “I Remember Nothing,’’ all is forgiven. Or most is. The new book includes a bit on failures — it’s called “Flops’’ — in which Ephron is candid about the horror of tanking. She writes: “I now know that when you shoot a movie where the crew is absolutely hysterical with laughter and you are repeatedly told by the sound guy that you are making the funniest movie in history, you may be in trouble.’’ Probably. But I think if Ephron started mining her trove of essays for material, she could cut her trouble in half.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

I REMEMBER NOTHING
By Nora Ephron
Knopf, 160 pp., $22.95