Oh, the joys of Nora Ephron! That voice. That snobbishness. That candour. "I Remember Nothing", the author's latest collection of essays, covers subjects as varied as meat loaf, memory, the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome (from playing too much online Scrabble), the internet, Christmas dinner, divorce and ageing. But mostly ageing. "I have not yet reached the nadir of old age, the Land of Anecdote, but I'm approaching it," she begins. "The past is slipping away and the present is a constant affront." Ephron's musings on ageing—its horrors and wisdom—is the connective tissue of this book.
An early piece in the collection, "Journalism: A Love Story", begins with Ephron's first post-college gig as a mail girl at Newsweek. It follows her up the ladder to clipper, researcher and then over to the New York Post as a reporter. Warm and wistful without dipping into nostalgia, the piece is a model autobiographical essay; it should be taught in classes to students of every age. “Journalism: A Love Story” alone is worth the price of the book.
Like her peer Calvin Trillin, Ephron is good at exuding candour and good-natured crankiness in her non-fiction. The two writers have a lot in common (not least many of their readers): style, a background in journalism, and a light touch. "The Legend", for one, is nominally a piece about the time that Ephron's mother booted Lillian Ross out of her home at a dinner party. It is actually (or, also) a masterfully quiet essay about what it means to have charismatic and alcoholic parents. There's also a tidy piece that articulates a case against egg-white omelettes, a topic that would surely have felt weightless in the hands of a lesser writer.
An essay about Teflon is worth excerpting extensively for the way it illustrates Ephron's rhythm and hilariously associative logic:
"I loved Teflon," she writes. "I loved the no-carb ricotta pancake I invented last year, which can only be cooked on Teflon. I loved my Silverstone Teflon-coated frying pan, which makes a beautiful steak. I loved Teflon as an adjective; it gave us a Teflon president (Ronald Reagan) and it even gave us a Teflon Don (John Gotti), whose Teflon-ness eventually wore out, making him an almost exact metaphorical duplicate of my Teflon pans. I loved the fact that Teflon was invented by someone named Roy J. Plunkett, whose name alone should have ensured Teflon against ever becoming a dangerous product."
The book's weightier meditations are equally rich, as in a set of passages about what it's like to find out that one's partner has been unfaithful. Ephron admits to steaming open credit card bills, snooping, and poring over mysterious receipts: "Once you find out that he's cheated on you, you have to keep finding it out, over and over and over again, until you've degraded yourself so completely that there's nothing left to do but walk out." She writes, too, that a "good thing about divorce is that it makes clear something that marriage obscures, which is that you're on your own." These are hard-won insights.
The writer's wisdom makes her rare fumbles rather surprising. Ephron is forthright about her own snobbishness—which is generally entertaining— but one essay in the collection may leave a reader wishing she had kept certain grievances to herself. The essay in question, "I Just Want to Say: No, I Do Not Want Another Bottle of Pellegrino", is a complaint about imperfect waiters, sea salt (which scratches Ephron's tongue) and the problem with dessert spoons, which is that they are too big. Thankfully, the piece is just one tiny misstep in an otherwise ingenious collection. Ephron may consider herself hopelessly old-ish and ill-adapted to the age of Twitter, but "I Remember Nothing" finds the author operating at her very best. Given Ephron's accomplishments, that's no mean feat.
"I Remember Nothing" by Nora Ephron is published by Knopf and is out now in America and Britain