'The Most of Nora Ephron' Serves A Feast
01/09/2014 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
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The Most of Nora Ephron is a one-stop shop for all your Ephron needs. The work anthologizes huge portions of the author’s career, publishing selections from her life as a Newsweek feature writer, an essayist, blogger, novelist, Oscar nominee for the screenplay When Harry Met Sally, and Tony award winner for her play “Lucky Guy,” about Daily News reporter Mike McAlary’s work on the Abner Louima story.  

Ephron is famous for her humor and for writing and directing such hits as Sleepless in Seattle, Silkwood, and the more recent Julie & Julia. But before reading The Most of Nora Ephron, I was a Nora neophyte. (I saw When Harry Met Sally, arguably her most recognized work, for the first time a few months ago, and read her famous essay “A Few Words About Breasts” just last year). So one of the surprises of reading Ephron, for me, was her frankness — her penchant for telling it like it is. Not to mention the broad scope of her interests, from food to politics to the everyday.

The anthology began as collaboration between Ephron and Robert Gottlieb, but, as Gottlieb explains in the introduction, Ephron, who was already sick but keeping her illness quiet, slipped away from the work. Gottlieb completed it posthumously. Organized by vocation and chronology, it begins with her years as a journalist and ends with blog posts and essays published a few years before her death in 2012. With the exception of “Lucky Guy,” dedicated admirers won’t find much new in this thick tome (it’s over five hundred pages,) but as a primer text or introduction to Nora, one couldn’t ask for much more.

This is not so much a neutral package as an admirer’s eulogy. And for the most part that’s okay. It doesn’t interfere except to give the work a new weight. I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by the timing of its publication. But that’s probably okay, too, because the work is really good. It’ll make you a better writer, a better eater, a better observer.

I responded more to the later pieces than those in the opening sections, whose stories, although interesting, aren’t riveting, and are perhaps a little dated (written in the seventies for Esquire and other magazines, they are mostly feature stories, including spotlights on the man closest to the Kennedy assassination, a profile of a political writer running for president, and an essay exploring why the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine can’t stop crying).

Ephron’s novel, Heartburn, comes as a welcome retreat from the journalistic pieces—it’s all Nora, with a fully developed voice, and it stands the test of time. Semi-autobiographical, based on her marriage to Carl Bernstein (famous in his own right for uncovering the Watergate scandal with Bob Woodward), it gives us Rachel, a thinly veiled Nora, who discovers her reporter husband is in love with another woman, and deals with it through cooking and humor. It’s a fast read, still poignant – and still funny.

The complete texts of When Harry Met Sally and “Lucky Guy” are as good here as they ever were on stage or screen. But my favorite selections are her blog posts and essays, because she tackles more contemporary subjects, such as the Iraq War. Her newer stuff is spunkier and, perhaps not surprisingly, more enjoyable. She got better with time.

Ephron was a well-known foodie, and the volume is chock full of recipes and food tips. For the political junkie, a cross section of her political essays, from the seventies and eighties, and blogs, from the Bush years up until Obama’s inauguration, provide context to the women’s movement and the Iraq war. Her Judaism, pervasive throughout, is an integral part of her worldview.

Nora’s death hangs like a specter over much of the later work, especially in essays like “Consider the Alternative,” in which she confronts her mortality. For this reason, I find everything to love and hate in this short essay (which is tucked in the back). It has cooking advice. Her charm and wit. Way too many adverbs. Coquettishness, self-deprecation. Honesty. It’s about death - and life.

The Most of Nora Ephron: Start with humor, fold in two parts journalism, add a screenplay, a play, and a novel. Serves a feast.  

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