Learn new languages, hone new skills, tone new abs; a lot of us saw this pandemic lockdown as the opportunity we’d been waiting for all our lives. Time previously spent commuting and socialising was now in our gift. We would apply ourselves, improve ourselves, emerge from this better.
Another delusional pandemic scheme of ours was to read more, or perhaps even read at all. Already a regular consumer of books, I had designs on slashing through the to-be-read pile and finally getting around to some of the heftier, dustier tomes on my shelves.
Turns out that my time previously spent commuting was actually when I did most of my reading. I was commuting by public transport, I hasten to add, lest you think I’d have a book open while driving or even cycling. Working from home suits me down to the ground but I’ve had trouble making regular time for reading; the couch and TV are much more enticing.
Still, I’ve read some bit. So far in this lockdown I’ve finally cracked into old-school classics like Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, newer giants like Things Fall Apart, modern Irish literature like A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, and escapist sci-fi like The Day of the Triffids, where the world is hit by a cataclysmic affliction that paralyses society. Maybe I didn’t find reading escapist enough.
All the above were already on my bookshelves. Because I tend not to re-read fiction, normally I don’t buy novels and borrow them instead. Libraries here have been closed for the last few months, though. Luckily, my workplace had an active bookswap area from which I had snaffled plenty of attractive novels over the years before pandemic intervened. I’m pretty well stocked for books.
In fact, I’ve only bought one novel during lockdown — and I chose well because it was brilliant.
What happened was that during Christmas, my time for catching up on films and chocolate, I was fortunate to catch a movie on TV I’d heard was good: A New Leaf, a 1971 comedy starring Walter Matthau and Elaine May, the latter also being its writer and director. Indeed it was good, and if that wasn’t reward enough in itself, May’s film reminded me of a comedy novel I’d been meaning to read for ages: Heartburn by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nora Ephron, which is the novel I bought.
I must admit that not reading Heartburn until now was almost entirely because of a song on the soundtrack of the movie adaptation and which was used extensively in trailers: ‘Coming Around Again’ by Carly Simon. Its clunky nursery rhyme rhythm and gauche lyrics, sung by a singer I didn’t like anyway, grated with me so much that it turned me away from the film and, by association, the book. Such is the damage done by bad music. To prove my point, I present the following: a well-known live version of this song has Simon joined by a cluster of kids (stage-school brats or child labour; it makes no difference) pitching in for a coda of ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’, a nursery rhyme that gets a passing mention in Ephron’s story. Yes, that’s the one.
Anyway, I overcame my gag reflex, generously absolved Ephron of responsibility for that appalling record and ordered Heartburn, the book, online.
The story of a pregnant woman, Rachel, whose husband cheats on her and plots to leaves her for another woman may not seem like light pandemic reading, and that’s coming from someone who thought this was an opportune time to read Things Fall Apart and The Day of the Triffids. Fortunately, Heartburn is a comic novel and Ephron is a brilliant comic writer. Every page is brimful of zingers, quips and witty observations; I’m resisting the urge to pluck and plant them here, just so you can discover them for yourself. And if you’re a foodie, so is Rachel: recipes from her series of cookery books pop up during her story.
Commuting also features in Ephron’s narrative, in the form of the Washington D.C. — New York shuttle (air, not space). While the trip may be short in U.S. terms, the cultural chasm between the two cities is clearly vast, and Rachel is a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, that staple of comic writers and film-makers. As an Irish person who once visited New York for a few days, I naturally have a deep affinity with and knowledge of the city we Newyorkophiles like to call “New York”. Another of my pandemic books has been a frequent dip into a collection of pieces by S.J. Perelman, a Marx Brothers scriptwriter and the much-imitated doyen of New York humorists, so Ephron’s novel and Rachel’s character found a willing audience in me.
Another entry on the credit column for Team Rachel; Heartburn is based on Ephron’s own similar experience, courtesy of her then-husband Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. And I bet you thought he was married to Woodward. It’s a measure of Ephron’s brilliance that by halfway of Heartburn I was wondering if we had all been too hard on Richard Nixon. The lesson there is: if you’re thinking of cheating on your heavily-pregnant wife, check first that she doesn’t have a best-selling book in her, especially one as funny and winning as this.
The movie version of Heartburn, with the screenplay also by Ephron, stars Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and is directed by Elaine May’s former comedy partner Mike Nichols: an all-star collective you’d normally consider reason enough to check out any movie. However, it also features that awful Carly Simon record. So, stick to the book — and if you want some far better New York-flavoured bittersweet pop as a soundtrack while you read, I suggest this album instead: