Sunday, March 16, 2014

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (Nora Ephron)

Crazy Salad is a collection of twenty-five articles Nora Ephron wrote for her Esquire magazine column in the early 1970s, when she was actively involved in the second-wave feminist movement. A few of the articles are light, but most are not so much. She covers an expansive array of topics such as body image, health, porn stars, politics, business, marriage, and other social mechanisms. Ephron’s style, as usual, is honest and witty, and sometimes ruthless, but not quite as artistically expressive as her later works (for example, I Remember Nothing). She might have been more moderate in her approach since she was writing as an employee rather than an independent author. But this was relatively early in her career. Maybe her lyrical genius was still under construction.
By now, the content of Crazy Salad is historical original-source documentation. Even at the risk of diminishing her treasured cause, Ephron candidly exposes some basic weaknesses within the women’s movement, particularly how cattiness among the leaders resulted in lack of clarity in strategy and direction. But, looking back, her articles also prove American women’s progress as generally valued members of society. Some of the feminist events Ephron reports on would currently be considered radical expressions: onstage, do-it-yourself abortion demonstrations, public vaginal exploratory sessions with a speculum, and such things. If these kinds of events still occur, I’m unaware of them. Hopefully, American women are no longer compelled to such drama in order to make their point.
Despite its silly title, Crazy Salad is not one of Ephron’s comic collections. The most amusing article is a bittersweet monologue on breast size obsession. Another piece on feminine deodorant spray has a few chuckles, but it also criticizes the manufactured demand for such unnecessary and potentially harmful products. While product testing is probably better these days, marketing tactics don’t seem to have changed much. Women are still prime targets for oft-futile promises to correct our perceived imperfections, as evidenced by the ubiquity of beauty potions, cosmetic surgeries, and fad diets.
President Nixon and his daughter Julie (
Of course, Ephron addresses the political maneuverings of the feminist movement, but that’s not the only place Washington shenanigans make an appearance. Ephron talks about the wives of politicians, whose job was to practice longsuffering and make their husbands look good. She writes about President Nixon’s daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, whose Mickey-Mousish idealism smacked of stupidity, and Nixon’s personal secretary, Rosemary Woods, who was implicated in the alleged deletion of a swath of tape-recorded evidence in the Watergate scandal. Ephron describes how Woods and other political secretaries devoted themselves to their statesmen employers, sacrificing their own opportunities for families or personal realization, and how these women received precious little loyalty in return.
Per my standard preferences, I found the political pieces kind of snoozy, but I got through them without too much pain thanks to Nora’s deft pen, and I considered myself better educated in American feminist history. I was expecting something lighter and was therefore disappointed only in that respect. Being what it is, I recommend Crazy Salad for a great first-person look at women’s issues, succinctly written despite the intrinsic complexities, with Ephron’s famous blend of brutal honesty and easy grace.
Nora Ephron at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival
Note: My edition of Crazy Salad is part of a bound two-book set also including Scribble Scrabble: Notes on Media, a title that sounds forebodingly political to me. Since I was ready for something big on adventure and light on politics, I decided to save the reading and review of Scribble Scrabble for later.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Big Brother (Lionel Shriver)

Lionel Shriver’s new novel, Big Brother, tells the story of a forty-something woman, Pandora, whose brother, Edison, has recently grown grotesquely obese. Pandora’s husband, Fletcher, on the other hand, is a fitness fiend and nutrition nazi. When Edison comes for an extended visit, Pandora is distraught by his dramatic upsizing, and she determines to help him lose weight. In the endeavor, her marriage is compromised, and therein lies the story.

I bought Big Brother after hearing an interview with Shriver (also the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin) on NPR. Having read Kevin, I already admired her work, and the concept of this new novel captured my acute attention. As expected, the actual reading was excellent. The story is intellectual and psychological. Shriver’s prose, as in Kevin, is rich with observation, analysis, and intent, as she addresses the base human drives of food, love, power, and ego. The primary plot is simple, but because the key elements are so universally experienced, it’s surprisingly alluring.

Big Brother’s characters are multidimensional and believable. You’ll root for each of them and shake your head at them in turn. Pandora, who narrates the story, is the wallflower type. She rose to national notoriety somewhat accidentally with the surprise success of her custom doll business. Since she’s uncomfortable in the limelight, she takes deliberate steps to maintain her humility and normalcy. Conversely, her brother is a self-important, unctuous, jargon-spouting jazz pianist who left home straight out of high school and flourished on the New York music scene. In his middle age, his career deflated, but his ego ‒ and his body ‒ did not.

Obesity in America (from
While the primary plot centers on Edison’s food issues, Pandora and Edison also reminisce about their unconventional upbringing, each from their own contrasting perspectives. Their mother’s tragic death was a suspected suicide, and their father, a Hollywood television actor, was more attached to his onscreen children than his biological progeny. Throughout the pages, Shriver deconstructs these complexities without the coldness of an overt psychoanalysis. Instead, it’s a show-and-tell of dysfunction, and Pandora is, mostly, the voice of reason.

The surprise ending isn’t ‒ obviously ‒ what you’ll be expecting. But it isn’t even what you’d expect for a surprise ending. It’s strangely settling and unsettling at once.

My only criticisms of Big Brother tie back to We Need to Talk about Kevin. First, Pandora’s narrative style is identical to Eva’s (the protagonist in Kevin). Although Pandora’s characteristics and circumstances are effectively differentiated from Eva’s, both women are hyperanalytical intellectualizers with expansive vocabularies, which probably means that Shriver is too. Shriver’s mind and lexicon impress me, but if she can’t find unique voices for her first-person narrators, she might consider writing in third-person next time. Also, and mainly, Kevin is still Shriver’s masterpiece. The characters in Big Brother aren’t quite as gripping, the development not quite as driving, the climax not quite as spectacular.

Lionel Shriver (from
Nevertheless, Big Brother is a great psychological drama, and because of the subjects it addresses ‒ overeating and extreme dieting, marital power balances, family dysfunction ‒ it will easily appeal to most thoughtful readers. It certainly held my attention, exercised my mind, and earned my heartfelt recommendation.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Einstein: His Life and Universe (Walter Isaacson)

This book took me so long to get through. Sometimes I loved it. Sometimes I dreaded it. I mean, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein is comprehensive and often captivating, but for liberal-artsy me, the science stuff was agonizing. Because I wanted to offer you a decent review, I read the (many) physics-centric pages closely enough to get the general gist, but not, I’m afraid, a thorough understanding.

On the other hand, the chapters on his life, his family, his personality, are great. Einstein often comes off as an average schmo, which makes me love him more. I also love him more for his nonconformism and nonchalance, his maverick approach to his work, faith, and politics.

Per the author’s modus operandi, the book includes a cast of characters, extensive endnotes, and an index. He details Einstein’s childhood, education, and coming of age, his scientific pursuits, his shifting perspectives on politics and religion, but most interestingly to me, his tumultuous personal and professional relationships.

For example, it’s clear throughout the book that Einstein was generally good-humored, but he also had a special gift for making the wrong enemies. As a young adult, he sometimes thumbed his nose at the established academic leaders, provoking their uglier sentiments. Consequently, he struggled to land even a low-end academic job. Instead, he worked as an assistant in a Swiss patent office from 1902-1909. Years later, his professional relationships hadn’t improved much. He was passed over for the Nobel Prize several times due to ill will, and although he was eventually awarded the prize in 1921 after significant political maneuvering, it wasn’t for his famous relativity theories. Instead, it was for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, an almost insulting token distinction.

Einstein’s closest personal relationships weren’t much cozier. He had a mysterious illegitimate daughter whom he quietly abandoned, a hostile first marriage, strained relationships with his two legitimate sons, and multiple affairs which he barely bothered to hide from his second wife, Elsa. He openly believed in and operated on the principle that monogamy is unnatural.

Einstein's Princeton home (from
But in less intimate contexts, his geniality shined. My favorite anecdotes occurred at his Princeton home, where he cheerfully helped neighborhood children with their math homework, and where he brought out his violin and accompanied carolers who came to his door. He was also a press favorite. While Einstein claimed to dislike media attention, his actions demonstrated otherwise: He accepted most opportunities for publicity and sprinkled the interviews with pithy witticisms.

The description of Einstein’s intellectual evolution shows how fundamentally human he was. As he aged, he followed the same pattern of spunk-to-funk that most of us do. Early in his career, Einstein’s theories were considered audacious and rebellious, and he criticized the closed-mindedness of his scientific elders. But he himself settled into stubborn conservatism later in life, refusing to work with the hypotheses of younger physicists, especially regarding the random aspects quantum mechanics. He believed in a meticulously ordered universe designed by an inscrutably intelligent (but not personally relational) God who would not “play dice.” So Einstein sought a unified field theory until his death. He never discovered that theory, nor has anyone else. Even though his creative productivity was diminished in that pursuit, he significantly - although unintentionally - contributed toward the advancement of quantum mechanics: By arguing against it, he forced the young physicists to prove him wrong, and they did, thus strengthening their new theories.

Isaacson also demonstrates how Einstein’s sociopolitical shift followed scientific process: When presented with hard evidence that he was wrong, he changed his position. Before the war, Einstein supported pure pacifism and total disarmament, but after the Nazis came to power, and then in light of Russia’s brutal post-war policies, his stance became more mixed and unorthodox. He supported some armed defense but disdained nationalism. He favored social welfare but preached for personal responsibility. These seemingly contradictory opinions prompted criticism about his political naivete.

Einstein and his violin (from
Einstein fervently supported intellectual freedom and was repulsed by Americans’ mindless communist witch hunts. And, in the spirit of those witch hunts, he was consequently suspected of communism. Although the FBI compiled a large dossier of allegations against him, they never found anything incriminating. But he wasn’t altogether disrespected for his politics. In 1952, the new-ish nation of Israel offered Einstein the presidency. He declined. He was a great physicist, but not a great politician or manager, and he knew it.

Einstein died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm in a Princeton hospital at age 76, but the book continues because, well, the story doesn’t end. He was cremated per his wishes, except for his brain, which was - without Einstein’s permission or his family’s - commandeered by the pathologist who performed his autopsy, sliced up, and rather indiscriminately distributed among various neurologists for what turned out to be mainly haphazard research, very little of which proved beneficial for scientific purposes. Because of the method the pathologist used to preserve the brain, DNA cannot even be extracted from it.

Walter Isaacson
From Einstein’s birth to his traveling brain, Walter Isaacson has constructed another thorough biography - a little too thorough for my preferences this time. I can’t criticize though. Physics isn’t my passion, but it was Einstein’s, and after all, this is his story. Space-time-energy lovers will be all over this book. But if you’re more poetry-and-ice-cream like me, skim through that shiz, and eat up the descriptions of Einstein’s character - his optimism, determination, conviction, nonconformity. Celebrate his curiosity, which was his master, and he its happy servant. I wish I had passion like that.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)

I picked up Water for Elephants on a whim because I liked the title and the premise was cool: Old-timey circus workers rescue a trained elephant from cruelty. I understood that, while the story was fiction, the author did some research and incorporated several real-life incidents. So, based on this, I actually crossed the threshold of a physical Barnes & Noble, picked Water for Elephants off a wooden shelf, and presented my plastic card to a human cashier. For all this effort, I truly hoped the novel would be superb. In some ways, it was.  But overall, no.

Water for Elephants is the story of the struggling Benzini Brothers circus, for which the main character and narrator, Jacob Jankowski, works as a veterinarian. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, a kind and beautiful performer. Unfortunately, Marlena is married to the violently temperamental animal trainer, August. When the circus acquires an elephant, Jacob and Marlena struggle together to defend the sweet pachyderm against August’s rages. The story divulges the slimy underbelly of circus life, including gross mistreatment of both human workers and animals, right up to the stunning climax when Marlena ends August’s reign of terror.

Photo from
Gruen alternates the novel’s setting between a contemporary nursing home where 93-year-old Jacob now lives in a state of semi-dementia, and the 1931 traveling circus. In the nursing home, as Jacob waits for his family to escort him to a modern circus, he wafts in and out of lucidity and mentally revisits his old Benzini Brothers days. Although the flashback technique feels a little worn and, in Gruen’s hands, contrived, it does set up a finely constructed and sentimental ending, which is one of the novel’s strengths.

Aside from the tender conclusion, the story itself has other redeeming qualities. The plot is engaging enough to keep you reading, especially as it nears the climax. Also, Gruen exposes the abuses that occurred in depression-era circuses and, which I fear, probably still exist to some extent. Several scenes are emotionally excruciating, but responsible consumers should be aware of ugly realities.

Unfortunately, Water for Elephants also disappoints.  First, the characters are shallowly constructed. I didn’t walk away with a lasting identification with any of them, and in fact, by the time I wrote this post, I had to look up all of their names. Also, Gruen’s writing style is flat and unmemorable. While the premise was promising, her blasé rendering diminished what might have been a great novel in the hands of a more skilled wordsmith.

Photo by Lynne Harty (
If you care about animals, you want a good story, and you’re not a finicky reader, then step right up! Water for Elephants will entertain and amaze, and it may even spur you to reconsider your attitude toward traveling animal shows. But if you’re hungry for something profound and beautiful, then move along, folks. There are lots of bigger, better shows out there.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Redundancy of the Day + Bonus Oxymoron! August 16, 2013

"Participants under the age of 18 are not permitted to participate..."

(Cystic Fibrosis Foundation website)