It's not easy being Nora Ephron

Hollywood's funny lady writes cleverly of parenting, purses, and the shame of a saggy neck.

Nora Ephron wrote the literate and funny screenplays for "When Harry Met Sally" and "Heartburn." With her understated wit, she has punctured many a bubble of conformity and made audiences laugh in recognition. When her latest book arrived, I was amused by the title: I Feel Bad About My Neck. Here was a new body part to agonize over, one the beauty magazines haven't caught up to yet.

Books about women and aging usually leave me cold, if I bother to pick them up at all. They seem to fall into two categories: cheerful books on celebrating the aging process (give me a break!) and ones that rail against aging with either rage or humor. Ephron's book – made up of 16 essays, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue, and other venues – fits into the latter group.

While very little in the book is meant to be taken seriously, it is clever enough to qualify as more than just an assemblage of one-liners. Whether you agree with her observations or not, Ephron's perspective as an admittedly high-maintenance, New York-dwelling, successful screenwriter will keep you entertained.

She doesn't stop with necks, but takes on other afflictions (and a few delights) that mark this season of her life: her loathing of purses, the struggle to keep fit, the vagaries of parenting, and her favorite books.

These topics are laced with wry observations, told in an intimate style that makes Ephron seem like a close friend spilling details about her life. (That sound you hear is the ka-ching of cash registers as women buy this book as gifts for friends, sisters, and mothers.)

But let's get back to necks. She paints quite a picture of lunching with her friends – all wealthy women in their 50s and 60s – as she looks around the table to realize they're all wearing turtlenecks. Or blouses with mandarin collars.

All in an attempt to hide their scrawny or saggy necks. This body part, Ephron concludes, is hopeless.

Among this group of women, other beauty issues are more readily solved: gray hair can be colored, patchy skin can be covered with makeup, and wrinkled faces given chemical treatments, but short of plastic surgery, necks are "doomed." She's skewering the obsession with appearances while squeezing comic mileage out of the situation.

"Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth," Ephron writes. "You have to cut a redwood tree open to see how old it is, but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck."

Graying hair is another age marker, and hair dye, Ephron concludes, is the most powerful weapon women have against the youth culture. She makes a persuasive case that hair dye has enabled women to feel comfortable about remaining in the workforce far longer than they otherwise might.

Coloring one's hair has also led to acceptance of other beauty processes, such as face-lifts. (Hey, once you take that first step into the salon, they own you.)

Speaking of people who own you, adolescent children are described quite cogently in "Parenting in Three Stages."

Ephron points out that despite devoting yourself to understanding every emotion your child has ever experienced, the kid still has an attitude: "You love them wildly, way more than your parents loved you. And yet they seem to have turned out exactly the way adolescents have always turned out. Only worse. How did this happen?"

Like other parents before her, Ephron adopts a "wait it out" approach. Or, she suggests, you can be more proactive: "When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you."

Ephron's mood turns subdued, almost wistful, by the last essay, as she copes with the passing of a close friend. She articulates the sense of indecision that can grip one at her stage of life: "Do you splurge or do you hoard? ... Is life too short, or is it going to be too long? Do you work as hard as you can, or do you slow down to smell the roses?"

And, lest matters become too morbid, she adds another imponderable to the list: "And where do carbohydrates fit into all this? Are we really going to have to spend our last years avoiding bread, especially now that bread in America is so unbelievably delicious?"

Well, exactly.

April Austin writes about arts and gardening for the Monitor.

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