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Nora, over and over

Nora Ephron is a treasure, but her "I Remember Nothing" is a too-thin collection of oft-told jokes and thrashings of familiar targets.

And Other Reflections

By Nora Ephron

Alfred A. Knopf. 137 pp. $23

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Reviewed by Karen Heller

I love Nora Ephron. I love everything about her, even the neck she feels so bad about.

Ephron has what might be deemed a mighty big life. One of the many, many things I love about her is how she takes risks, mastering one craft, then moving on to another. She knows when to move on or, as she says, "my religion is 'get over it.' "

Ephron grew up the child of two Hollywood screenwriters (and, sadly, drunks), fled East to college, worked a lousy job at Newsweek, smartly went to the New York Post, quit that and then famously skewered Post publisher Dorothy Schiff in Esquire, the piece beginning "I feel bad about what I'm about to do here."

At Esquire, she became famous for her small breasts (another classic article) and devastating prose, one of the few women in a stable of journalist super-studs.

"I didn't know much about anything, and I was in a profession where you didn't have to," she wisely observes in "Journalism: A Love Story," one of the best pieces in I Remember Nothing. After conquering the intoxicating world of New York's magazines, she became an accomplished screenwriter (Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally . . .). Then, recognizing that her personality was suited to directing, she took on that. And she married three times, twice badly, the last enduringly to writer Nicholas Pileggi.

The title of this latest essay collection is, of course, absurd. Ephron remembers everything but forgives almost everyone except, famously, second husband Carl Bernstein.

That's another thing women love about Ephron - that she managed to turn her failed marriage with Bernstein into a triumph. She married one of the two most famous reporters in America, a notorious hound dog, and - big surprise - when Ephron was hugely pregnant, Bernstein cheated on her with the very tall wife of the British ambassador, the incident belonging more to fiction than to life.

Ephron did not sulk or drink, which she had every right to do. Instead, she got even and wrote the very funny novel Heartburn. It holds up exceptionally well (and kindly includes recipes). Ephron wrote the script for the movie, and Meryl Streep portrayed her. In other movies, Ephron cast Meg Ryan as a younger, blonder, but equally thin and witty version of herself.

Again, genius.

However, here is where it pains me to write that I Remember Nothing is a thinner version of I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006), itself not exactly a Russian novel.

Those of us who are advanced Norologists recognize the recycling of jokes. She's told the one too many times about always forgetting the title of Reversal of Fortune, to the point where I never forget it. Bernstein comes in for more thrashing, albeit brief, this time via a tale of an antique porcelain box he bought for the aforementioned mistress. The first time Ephron clunked him was fair game; repeated efforts seem churlish, especially when the former couple share two adult sons.

Many of Ephron's contributions are slight, more like party games or tweets. The chicken soup "essay" is five sentences. Several pieces are basically lists, funny, but lists.

Ephron is marvelously witty, a master of the incisive aperçu, but this doesn't mean every retort needs to be committed to print. In the old days, she would have simply lobbed them at Dick Cavett.

No, I wish Ephron had taken another risk and written a true memoir of her life, including the sad parts, the naughty bits. She admits to having missed a Vietnam War demonstration for a romp in the sack, thereby allowing her to write, "If you knew Norman Mailer and me and were asked to guess which of us cared more about sex, you would, of course, pick Norman Mailer. How wrong you would be."

I'd like to know more about her life with the not-so-famous, not merely the Lillians, Hellman and Ross. I want to know how she manages to do so much so well. I want to know more about how she finally found true love, what it's like being one of four sisters, three of them writers, and the children of parents who succeeded and then horribly fell apart. (Delia Ephron's movie Hanging Up deals somewhat with the subject.)

So, no, I don't really care to read her views on Teflon, the egg-white omelet, or having the meat loaf named after her at Graydon Carter's Monkey Bar.

I want Ephron to commit her big life to a substantial book, not produce a wanner version of what she's done so splendidly before.

I want fewer eggs, more Nora.

Here is where I believe that book might have begun: "My mother became an alcoholic when I was fifteen. It was odd. One day she wasn't an alcoholic, and the next day she was a complete lush." That's from Nothing's most affecting entry, "The Legend." Ephron later notes, "For a long time before she died, I wished my mother were dead. And then she died, and it was one of those things where I thought, Why did I think that?"

Then the piece dissolves into a thrashing of the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross - rather than sharing more of her remarkable story.