Thursday, September 6, 2012

Nora Ephron – A Writer Worth Remembering

Nora Ephron is one of those writers who I've known about for years and yet I’ve never got around to reading – until recently, that is, when I breezed through her final essay collection, entitled I Remember Nothing. When I say breeze, I mean breeze, as I finished the book in less than two hours and was left wanting more.

Ephron is known primarily as a screenwriter who wrote such popular films as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Julie and Julia, and others. She got her start in the writing business working as a journalist at Newsweek and the New York Post

In I Remember Nothing, Ephron recounts a series of anecdotes about her life and career. Her writing style is witty, intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny (her humour is quite self-deprecating). She is one of those writers who could, and did, transform the sad and tragic elements of her life into cinematic drama, often into comedy.

In this slim collection, Ephron has plenty to say about the aging process, and the deterioration of the mind and body once a person hits a certain age. At 69, she finds herself forgetting people’s names at parties, lamenting the breakdown of specific body parts, and fearing more of the same in the years ahead (sadly, Ephron passed away on June 26, 2012.)

In I Remember Nothing, Ephron takes on other subjects with humour and empathy, including computer games, being addicted to computer games, inheritance, professional failure, Christmas dinners, meat loaf, and going to the movies. I particularly enjoyed this observation about divorce:
"Of course, there are good divorces, where everything is civil, even friendly. Child support payments arrive. Visitations take place on schedule. Your ex-husband rings the doorbell and says on the other side of the threshold; he never walks in without knocking and helps himself to the coffee. In my next life I must get one of those divorces." 
My feeling at the end of I Remember Nothing is that I wish it contained more stories, more anecdotes, and more commentary on life. But there are other essay collections by Nora Ephron, and I will eagerly seek them out because she is worth reading, and worth remembering.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Hell of a Woman is a hell of a ride

A Hell of a Woman, a novel by Jim Thompson (originally published in 1954)
Reprinted by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition (1984)

Jim Thompson (1906 – 1977) is a suspense writer who produced his best work during a prolific period between 1952 and 1955. Among the stories written during that time was A Hell of a Woman, which contains all of the classic noir elements of a Thompson novel: a sociopath narrator, plenty of hairpin plot turns, coarse language and the seedy underbelly of American life after World War II.

Part of the joy of a Jim Thompson novel is the rapid plot turns, and the language, which is harsh and crude. In A Hell of a Woman, Frank Dillon is a down-on-his-luck, door-to-door salesman during the 50s who plans to rescue a beautiful young woman from the clutches of her elderly aunt and steal $100,000 from the older woman. Frank’s internal dialogue is like a roller coaster ride of unfiltered thoughts. Here is Frank's initial description of the elderly aunt:
“The door flew open while I was still beating on it. I took one look around at this dame and moved back fast. It wasn’t the young one, the haunted-looking babe I’d seen peering through the curtains. This was an old biddy with a beak like a hawk and close-set, mean little eyes. She was about seventy – I don’t know how anyone could have got that ugly in less than seventy years – but she looked plenty hale and hearty. She was carrying a heavy cane, and I got the impression that she was all ready to use it. On me.” 
A Hell of a Woman is a wild romp of a story that has more twists and turns than a demolition derby, and is full of nasty surprises. You’ll often find yourself laughing out loud as Frank’s hapless scheme unravels with horrific and deadly consequences.

If A Hell of A Woman is your first introduction to Jim Thompson, you won’t be disappointed. Other Thompson novels that I’ve read (and recommend) include: The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, Savage Night and The Grifters.

Monday, September 3, 2012

An absorbing memoir by Gore Vidal

Point to Point Navigation by Gore Vidal
Published in 2006, Vintage Books (A Division of Random House, Inc.)

In Gore Vidal’s second memoir, Point to Point Navigation, the late playwright Tennessee Williams is quoted in a letter to a friend commenting on Vidal’s third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948). Says Williams: “There is not really a distinguished line in the book and yet a great deal of it has a curious life-like quality.”

This sentence could not more accurately sum up my impression of Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation, a disjointed and uneven memoir that could have benefited from a bit more planning and editing, but whose journey is completely absorbing. The book is, at times, acerbic, gossipy, erratic and discursive, but it’s vintage Vidal.

Throughout his long and productive life as a novelist, essayist, and a screenwriter for stage, TV and film, Vidal was a dedicated self-promoter who never shied away from cameras or controversy. He understood the power of media and used it extensively to promote his views about history, politics, academia, sexuality and religion.

Vidal also understood the power of celebrity in our star-obsessed culture, and in Point to Point Navigation, he serves up a glittering tapestry of famous people whom he knew and befriended throughout his life, including Truman Capote, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Nureyev, Paul Newman, Tennessee Williams, the Kennedys, Johnny Carson and Francis Ford Coppola.

Throughout the writing of Point to Point Navigation, Vidal must have been aware that his time was running out (he died on July 31, 2012). A year prior to starting this memoir, he had lost his long-time partner, Howard Austen, to cancer. The pain of that loss, combined with a lingering sense of his own mortality, gives the book a sense of gloominess and poignancy. Interestingly, many of his recollections about famous people are focused on, or near, the end of their lives as well.

Is this a book for everyone? No. If you are acquainted with Gore Vidal’s work (particularly his historical novels or his essays), then I would recommend Point to Point Navigation, but read Palimpsest first. This slim memoir should not serve as an entry-point, but rather as complement to, Vidal’s many works of fiction and non-fiction.

It’s not hyperbole to declare that Vidal was one of the finest prose stylists of the 20th century, and for the true Vidal aficionado, this book is a fitting end to a remarkable literary career that spanned six and a half decades.