We might hope that the coincidence on the best-seller lists of Nora Ephron’s funny, sisterly collection of essays I Feel Bad About My Neck and Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, a book that explores the mendacity, incompetence, and corruption of the war effort in Iraq, or, this week, Bob Woodward’s State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III on the same subject, implies something encouraging about our national character—our realism and appetite for self-criticism. At least the success of these books reflects, beyond their intrinsic merit, our hunger for candor. Oscar Wilde said something about England being the capital of hypocrisy, but the US, outdoing England in many of the qualities we inherited from it, may have now surpassed it there, so that the rare appearance of truthfulness is gratefully rewarded wherever it should be found. Ephron addresses many commonplace hypocrisies, among them:
Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better. Even if you have all your marbles, you’re constantly reaching for the name of the person you met the day before yesterday. Even if you’re in great shape, you can’t chop an onion the way you used to….
Where books written for seniors are apt to be full of unconvincing cheer, Ephron’s charming book of self-questioning, confession, and resolve faces the reality that she’s sixty-five, dyes her hair, and is not happy about her neck, her purse, her failure at ambitious exercise programs, and other personal failures shared by many of us. She gives further salient examples of ways old is not as good as young: “We can’t wear tank tops, we have no idea who 50 Cent is…,” “I’m sorry to report, I have a mustache,” she’s shocked to discover she’s shopping in the same store as Nancy Reagan, and the true nightmare of the empty nest is that the kids “were the only people in the house who knew how to use the remote control.”
None of these confrontations with mortality is arcane, all are universal, and people of either sex can relate to them, despite the gender-specific nature of some of the complaints and the subtitle “and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman.” She dislikes purses, for example, and no doubt would be especially against them for men. Some of her observations concern regrettable tendencies in modern society, such as that “parenting” has supplanted the mere condition of being a parent. Where once you might have said to your children “BECAUSE I SAY SO. THAT’S WHY,” you now have to say “we should talk about this.”
Many readers of I Feel Bad About My Neck will be familiar already with Ephron the accomplished human being—director of successful films like Sleepless in Seattle—and the hapless heroine/narrator in her earlier writings, especially Heartburn, a novel based on the breakup of her marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein, which also became …