The Late Nora Ephron: Post 2 of "Ephron, Fey, Rivers"

The good news is that I Feel Bad About My Neck is a Very Good book. The bad, or sad news is, that it is definitely her last. Unless some family member or friend of the family takes it into their heads to go through Ephron's notes, notebooks, drafts, unsubmitted or rejected material etc, and whip it up into a posthumous book. Not sure Ephron would approve of that, were she to have a say in the matter.

I don't know to what extent men enjoy this book. I don't think most men are very interested in women's ambivalent relationships with their handbags, or with the nuisance of removing unwanted hair from various parts of their body. Though I think men could benefit from a peek into what goes on in a woman's mind. For women, however, this book -- so funny, insightful, wise, and touching -- is a godsend; and some of the essays are definitely "unisex".

The essay that is the epitome of "what goes on in a woman's mind" is surely "On Maintenance". I'm not suggesting for a moment that that's all women ever think about. But, as Ephron says, "Maintenance takes up so much of my life that I barely have time to sit down at the computer."  You (er, the female "you" among us) read it, and you can't but smile, sigh, nod and empathize. For example, a few lines from the section headed SKIN:
For exactly five minutes in 2004 StriVectin-SD was thought to be the Fountain of Youth. It instead turned out to be simply skin lotion, a bottle of which cost an arm and a leg. But meanwhile, for one brief shining moment, I believed it was the answer to everything. ....  Now it sits on the bathroom counter, taking up space, alongside similar testaments to my gullibility -- relics of the Retin-A yars and the glycolic-acid era and the La Prairie period. One of my good friends once gave me a tiny jar of La Mer cream, which I think cost about a hundred dollars a teaspoon. I still have it, since it is way too valuable to use.

See what I mean?

So maybe in your part of the world having your nails done is not de rigueur. Maybe you're perfectly happy using Dove or Nivea, no matter what the women's magazines say and no matter how much your beautician insists that Obliphica oil is the new Fountain of Youth. Or maybe you happen to love exercising and can't get enough of it. (Like you, my dear friend J., you know who you are). But on the whole, we women share similar hang-ups. If it's not our girth, it's our hair. If it's not our hair, it's our skin. We often spend an inordinate amount of time either on actual body-and-looks maintenance, or on worrying about it, reading about it, talking about it. I for one draw the line at dreaming about it.

Then there's the essay that every parent can identify with, laughing and wiping a tear or two: "Parenting in Three Stages". Gosh, is it ever difficult to choose a few sentences that will do this essay justice! But here are a select few:

From Stage I:
Back in the day when there were merely parents, as opposed to people who were engaged in parenting, being a parent was fairly straightforward ....In any event, suddenly, one day, there was this thing called parenting. ... Parenting meant playing Mozart CDs while you were pregnant, ... and breast-feeding your child until it was old enough to unbutton your blouse.

From Stage II:
Your adolescent says words you were not allowed to say while growing up, not that you had even heard of them until you read The Catcher in the Rye.
Your adolescent's weekly allowance is the size of the gross national product of Burkina Faso, a small, poverty-stricken African country neither you nor your adolescent had ever heard of until recently, when you both spent several days working on a social studies report about it.
From Stage III:

... four years quickly pass ... Your children go. Your children come back. Their tuition is raised. But eventually college ends, and they're gone for good. The nest is actually empty. You're still a parent, but your parenting days are over. Now what? There must be something you can do. But there isn't. There is nothing you can do. Trust me.
Meanwhile, you have an extra room. Your child's room. Do not under any circumstances leave your child's room as is.Your child's room is not a shrine. ... Turn it into a den, a gym, a guest room...
 ... every so often, your children come to visit. They are, amazingly, completely charming people. ... They survived you. You survived them.... don't dwell. There's no point. It's over. Except for the worrying. The worrying is forever.
Forgive me, but this is the point where I actually cried; at this last sentence, which I put in bold.

The last essay, "Considering the Alternative", broke my heart. Even though I knew Nora Ephron died in 2012. (I don't consider this to be a spoiler; only in the sense that it can spoil your mood, as it did mine.) I won't bother quoting any more from her essays; it's too difficult to choose -- so much of it is worth quoting, and so much of her writing has indeed been quoted over and over again. Even ending this post makes me sad -- it's as if I'm saying good-bye to her again.

Enough sentimental mush; go get yourself some Nora Ephron! And if you're not in the mood for reading, just watch one of her movies!

The Early Nora Ephron: Post 1 of "Ephron, Fey, Rivers"

.. so, as I was saying, I needed something to cheer me up. This is because, 5 months earlier, I underwent surgery -- see "What not to bring to hospital" . The surgeon had said recovery would take around 6 weeks, but 5 months later I was still in agony and parts of me weren't functioning. So no wonder I needed cheering up.

Of course, I got lots of emotional support from family and friends everywhere. My cousin Gail in Toronto took a practical approach: "Laughter is the best medicine," she said, and proceeded to put together a parcel of 5 humorous books and mailed them to me:
Nora Ephron: Crazy Salad Plus Nine (Pocket Books, 1984)
Nora Ephron: I Feel Bad About My Neck And Other Thoughts on Being A Woman (Vintage Books, 2008)
Tina Fey: Bossypants (Back Bay Books, 2012)
Joan Rivers: I Hate Everyone... Starting With Me (Berkley Books, 2012)
Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Anchor Canada ed., 2008)

At the time of writing this post, I've read most of the first Ephron; all of the second one; all of Bossypants; assorted chapters of the Joan Rivers one; and I've only peeked at the beginning of the Fundamentalist.

I started with Nora Ephron, because I was most familiar with her and trusted her to be good. After all, she wrote When Harry Met Sally, which I must have seen three times; and Sleepless in Seattle, ditto. She is astute and funny -- no one can contest that.

Nonetheless, Crazy Salad was a bit of a let down. It is somewhat dated, and very wordy. Ephron rambles on and on, eventually making her point. I could tell that writing of the rambling conversational kind came easily to her. And I suppose no one told her that sometimes less is more. But in 20 years or so, she learnt. Her later book, I Feel Bad etc., is better mainly because she makes her usually-excellent points more clearly and briefly. Not brief by any means, but briefer than 20 years earlier. Most of her essays, or articles, were written for magazines or other publications, and as such, perhaps she was encouraged to fill up a certain number of columns and/or inches. Or else no one dared criticize her :-)

As for subject matter -- some of the people she wrote about mean nothing to me (e.g. Barbara Howar), though they probably mean something to Americans of my generation. Some topics may have been very topical, relevant, at the forefront, even brave at the time; but by now they sound "been there, done that". However, other topics remain vital and important today too. A case in point is "Dealing with the, Uh, Problem", 28 [pocketbook] pages long, dated March 1973.

Uncharacteristically, after an intro of less than one page, Ephron states plainly: "This is an article about the feminine-hygiene spray, and how it was developed and sold. I will try to keep it witty and charming, but inevitably something is going to sneak in to remind you what this product is really about. This product is really about vaginal odor". (p. 98) Wow! Quite shocking for 1973.
Ephron continues to illustrate her point extensively: She quotes the super-vague, euphemistic language that promoters of this product used; she refers to research that demonstrates the product is unnecessary and unhealthy; she gives the history of the product; and quotes Ralph Nader's explanation of how the manufacturers and sellers "...exploit a person's sense of fear, a person's sense of being ugly, a person's sense of smelling badly" (p. 103) -- when, by "person", he basically means women.
Nor was Ralph Nader alone in this attitude: "'Honey,' said Bill Blass when asked to explain why his line of cosmetics included a so-called private deodorant, 'if there's a part of the human body to exploit you might as well get onto it.'" (p.117). Revlon, incidentally, has (or at least had, when Ephron wrote) several such products aimed at men, one of which carried the Bill Blass label.

Fast-forward to 40 years later. What has changed, except for the fact that more companies are making more money exploiting our fears? I don't know how many intimate sprays and liquid soaps are on the market these days; when I see this category at the supermarket or drugstore I just walk on. My doctors always told me that any gentle soap, such as baby soap, will do just fine.

So much for Nora Ephron's first book.
Next: Her last book, I Feel Bad About My Neck. I found it very worth-while. It's much shorter, so I suppose my post will be shorter, too :-)

E.L. Doctorow & Amos Oz : The story of a kid growing up

Shortly after posting the previous post -- the one saying how wonderful the book World's Fair is -- I suddenly realized which book it reminded me of. I'm quite sure this didn't occur to me at all while I was actually engrossed in Doctorow's novel. But once the thought popped up, it seemed to me obvious.

I'm referring to Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness.

Oz's book is an autobiography that reads much like a [very convincing] novel; Doctorow's book is a novel that reads much like an autobiography. Except that it can't be -- no child remembers such details, with such vividness, of his childhood. Then again, though the book may not be an autobiography, it does rely heavily on Doctorow's childhood memories, both conscious and subconscious ones, as is made plain in the fascinating New York Times essay Doctorow Revisits the 'World's Fair' of his Novel by Herbert Mitgang.

The large paperback copy of World's Fair I was reading is a second-hand book -- no idea where I got it -- that is littered with comments penciled in the margins. I'd say "adorned" rather than "littered" were the comments interesting or enlightening. But the reader took the persona's voice much too literally. Edgar-the-child waxes lyrical and philosophical about the sights and sounds around him, and describes what happens to him in language and in a depth that suit an older author looking back on his childhood, not a six-, seven- or eight-year old boy. I wonder whether the original owner of the book ever figured that out.

Some of Doctorow's memories and references mean nothing to me, because I have a very sketchy knowledge of New York City, and suspect I've never even been to the Bronx -- where so much of the story takes place. Not to mention that the numerous names the narrator, Edgar, mentions of radio programs, radio announcers and narrators, popular sports players and others are totally unfamiliar to me. Whereas when Amos Oz mentions people, places and characteristics of daily life of Israel in its early days, it evokes in me powerful memories and associations.

For example: Making a phone call was a Special Occasion. You (or more likely your parents) dressed up in your Sunday -- I mean Saturday -- best, and walked into the center of town (not on the weekend, of course!) to the only drugstore/pharmacy within miles; where you got permission to use the heavy, black Bakelite phone, and the owner flipped a special switch, and you called your uncle or cousin in a faraway city (like maybe 100 km away), who has been told in advance, by postcard, that you'd be phoning on such and such-a-day and time. Then there's the smell of olives, or pickles, bought at the local grocery, fished out of a large tin or barrel, and weighed on old fashioned, heavy metal scales.

Both Doctorow and Oz have an exuberant, hilarious way of describing the games and the mischief the boys (Edgar -- be it the real or the fictitious one -- and Amos) got up to. Both boys were avid readers of whatever they could lay their hands on. Both were highly aware of, and sensitive to, the ups and downs of the complex relationship between their parents -- far more aware than their parents realized. And both authors must have done some serious research to be able to write convincingly about their ancestors; though Oz goes into that far deeper than Doctorow (which is in keeping with the stated scope of each book, so that's fine.)

There are plenty of other points of resemblance, but as I said in my previous post -- this is not an academic paper. This is just me musing about how Book A suddenly reminded me of Book B.

I've been trying to anticipate your reactions:
Some may agree, to this or that extent.
Some may say, "Ma pit'om?!", i.e., "what are you talking about?!" "since when?" or even "rubbish!"
Others may say, "Well, I liked World's F, so I'll probably like A Tale of." And then -- hopefully -- they'll read it; and either agree or disagree.
But what about those who'll say, "Didn't care much for Amos Oz's story, so I won't bother reading Doctorow's." Or vice versa. Either of which would be a pity. But such is life. You can't get everyone to read the book which you thought of as a Life Changer. And no-one likes being told, "Oh, but you must read The Adventures of Jumping Jack of Java", or "The Secret to Superb Sex after Sixty"!"

So that's it for today.

*               *             *

World's Fair / E.L. Doctorow - Oh, my!

This is not a book review.

Over the years, since early 1996, I've more-or-less kept track of what I read, and have written over 200 book reviews for my own pleasure. Some are mere two-or-three- word impressions, such as "As suspense thrillers go, not bad" (Vertical Run, by Joseph Garber); "Eminently forgettable" (Clean Break, by Val McDermid); "Delightful and witty" (Mort, by Terry Pratchett); Some are puzzled ruminations about the storyline and characters, e.g. the 1235 words I wrote trying to figure out Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans.

Then comes a book like World's Fair and leaves me speechless.
It's simply a Good Book. A shining example of what literature is all about.
I have no desire to analyze it and define what makes it so good. That would be "work", like writing a term paper. It would require re-reading it not for the sake of enjoying it all over again, but for the sake of taking it apart, finding quotations to support or exemplify my "findings" and "conclusions". That's not fun.

It took me a while to read, switching from the large soft-cover to my Kindle and back. It's not an unputdownable novel. I put it down several times, whether because I reached a chapter which was Greek to me -- say all about baseball or football in America in the 1930s; or because I reached a sad chapter and wanted something to cheer me up. Of which I had plenty, since my cousin Gail in Canada, avowing that "Laughter is the best medicine", sent me half a dozen humorous books (Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, Joan Rivers, and more). Mind you, World's Fair has its fair share of humorous passages. One that comes to mind is chapter 18, which describes Edgar (the protagonist) and his friend Bertram's "pretend", swashbuckling games. And the beginning of chapter 27, the essay that Edgar wrote and sent to the World's Fair on the theme of the Typical American Boy -- funny, incredibly moving and thought-provoking.

So there. I've finished reading the novel, and I'm not going to review it.

But if you're ever in the mood to drop best-sellers, pulp fiction, and pretentious blah blah, and lose yourself in a Really Good Book, try World's Fair.

"Yom Iyun" -- a one-day seminar on translation - registration has begun

The ITA - Israel Translators Association is holding a one-day seminar of lectures, workshops, food, fun and networking.
When? - Sunday, April 21, 2013, at 08:30-17:30 hrs.
Where? - The Adenauer Conference Center in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem.

Want more details? - Of course you do! Just click the link.

Do you have to be an ITA member to attend? - No, but it'll cost you a few extra shekels. I highly recommend that you put those shekels to good use by joining the ITA; this way, you'll pay the lower rate, as well as help bolster the organization and hopefully be encouraged to attend future events, too. 

Wish I could attend, but  am not well enough yet. (Why, what's wrong? Oh, I had some surgery a while back. So why am I not well yet? Because. C'est la vie. Don't nag. I'm doing the best I can.)

The thing that amuses me is that the ITA chose to refer to this event by its Hebrew name, "yom iyun"; probably because there is no exact equivalent in English. It's one of those annoying words that the Heb-to-Eng translator comes across quite often, rolls his/her eyes and emits a "Grrr"-kind of exasperated growl. Just a tiny example of what we translators are up against every single day. Yes, even when we're not officially working. Because our brains -- at least the language-section thereof -- keep at it, wherever we are, whatever we're doing.

So go ahead, sign up for the Yom Iyun, and send me your impressions. You can also pick up and send me a copy of whatever handouts are distributed, and email me your notes, or post them on your respective blogs and send me a link! 

The Secret Life of Blog Posts

Once posted, your blog entries develop a life of their own, for better or for worse. Some wither and die, others flourish and keep attracting attention. It took me a while to realize I have at least some control over this.
Early in my blogging days, pleased with my own creativity, I often attempted to give wise-cracking names to my blog posts. I thought I was making  them sound intriguing, when in fact I was obscuring the issue at hand, and making it needlessly difficult for potential readers to find stuff that I desperately wanted them to read.

Looking back at my list of posts, I myself can’t figure out what some of them are about, judging from the title alone. Why be cryptic? Why be a smart-Alec? (What’s the feminine of ”smart Alec”? Smart Alexa? Smarty Pants?) 
Here are a few examples:
When will they ever learn? [Learn what? What are you getting at?]
Some respect for the dead [Er... what are you talking about?]
Suspicious minds [Are you referring to that Elvis Presley song? No? What a pity!]  

Yes, okay, after reading the posts the titles do make sense. But that’s not good enough. 
Looking back, I can see why certain posts keep getting hits, by web surfers who have absolutely no interest in what I have to say. It’s the blog title, of course. One such case is my late sister’s story, which I uploaded as tribute to her memory. The poor girl died 29 years ago, and the number of people who still remember and love her is dwindling. The story is titled 405 South. So yes, lots of people looking for driving directions involving this route innocently click the link when it comes up in their search results. I bet that, when they see it’s a piece of nightmarish fiction by a dead girl rather than matter-of-fact, helpful directions of how to get from X to Y, they grimace and move on. I bet not one of them got distracted, took the digression, and actually read the story.
[On the other hand, an old friend of my late sister’s, who’d lost touch and didn’t know what became of her, Googled her name and had a nasty shock.]

Like most bloggers(?), I often go to my Stats page to see who’s been reading what, which of my posts is popular, etc. Do you want to know which is the Numero Uno big hit? From my first posts in March 2008 to the present? Of all the subjects I’ve ever covered, some of them pretty important to me and my readers, the winner is “Obliphica oil: What's in a name?" ; a trivial rant about the name obliphica, which I found objectionable. It garnered more hits by far than any other post. I guess lots of people Googled the word, perhaps wanting to know where they could get this fad oil at the best price. And they couldn’t care less that I thought the name was silly.

Another post with a misleading name is An Open Letter to the Grievance Committee. Unsuspecting souls looking for info on a local grievance committee to whom they could complain about some injustice, say, found a post that had nothing to do with any actual grievance committee; it was a post strictly relevant to freelance translators and editors who are put in an uncomfortable situation by clients. An important post, in my opinion, to me and my colleagues. But giving it an inappropriate  title was a mistake.

In recent months I have tried to make the names of my blog posts less “clever” and more to-the-point, making sure they contained a relevant, informative key word or phrase.
 E.g.: Kindle, cataract surgery, tips for lectures and presentations, Linked In, etc.

Puns are great fun, and if you can make a pun and still get your message across loud and clear – great, go for it. But if you want readers far and wide to find you because of what you have to say – keep it simple. 

The amazing Arthur C. Clarke

No matter how good non-fiction is, when I'm done with one or two, I usually crave a dose of fiction. By which I generally don't mean a contemporary best-seller. So when I finished the superb, thought provoking Thinking, Fast And Slow / Daniel Kahneman, I reached for the sci-fi shelf. And this is what I jotted down, as I read the slim volume I picked up:

Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End (first published: 1953)
Interesting plot and characters. Unforeseen plot development.
As a reader mentioned on Amazon, this is not a typical Arthur C. Clarke sci-fi novel, in the sense that it isn’t based on hard scientific research. It’s more in the realm of fantasy-sci-fi. It has a lyrical quality, it has supernatural beings, and it makes a philosophic point that is at odds with the one usually espoused by Clarke. But all that is beside the point I wanted to make:
The funny thing is – like with many other futuristic, sci-fi novels – that sci-fi writers, no matter how brilliant, did not foresee or dream of such things as the internet, ebooks, email, mobile phones that are in effect handheld computers that can do tons of complicated stuff; text messages, e-photos, and more. Humanity could be so advanced, technically/mechanically; yet they still get their info in the form of paper, tons of it; they’re still stuck with clunky fax machines, and any serious computers are huge and take up entire rooms.

In terms of the effect of technology on humans and their daily life, Clarke’s 1956 novel, The City and the Stars, tells a different story. But, since I read it 10 years ago, in Feb 2002, I must confess I don’t remember the details, and only have the brief note I wrote to myself at the time:

Feb. 2002
Arthur C. Clarke  - The City and the Stars 
Amazing SF, especially considering when it was written (1956). The breadth of vision and the scientific insight and foresight are amazing. When it comes to human nature – nu, we've read better. The predominance of the male point of view, seeing the entire universe as a man's domain, with women only an adjunct, is typical of its time (and much later times.)
As it happens, half-way through Childhood's End, I came across the following newspaper article, which made me smile, because it described the up side of today's technological advances: No Flying Cars, but the Future is Bright, wrote Virginia Postrel. I find that a very comforting thought.

Have you read either of the above Arthur C. Clarkes? Both? Any comments?