Isolation with Nora

It started with Heartburn. The novel, you understand, by Nora Ephron.

It had come my way as a recommendation from a friend, as a book perfect for These Times. And it was. For three glorious days I was transported out of myself and lockdown London and into the life of Rachel (Nora) and the 1970s on the East Coast.

I really did, for the first time, forget about The Situation.

I finished the book and moved on. I read other things. But nothing else compared, nothing had the wit and style and compulsive energy of Nora’s writing. I was hooked.

So I sought her out and, deep in a writerly love affair, ordered the full collection of her writings. I liked that it is called The Most – not the best – of Nora Ephron. It is a tome, and the description fits her: she writes effusively. The most, she is.

I’m aware that it would be more proper to refer to her, as one does with writers, by her last name. But her nonfiction – she was a journalist and essayist much more than a novelist – is intensely relatable. Reading her this week, she has kept me company, has been my friend. She isn’t Ephron, she’s Nora.

And here’s the thing: I’d quite like to be Nora, too. Minus the divorces.

She is smart, witty, pithy. She digresses from her point. She is acerbic. With a phrase, she has conjured an entire personality.

She is honest, wise. She does not shy away from the hard topics: divorce, feminism, family, death. On love, she is mercifully quiet.

Wouldn’t it be something, to be as gutsy as Nora? I thought she must have acquired wisdom with age, but many of the essays in the book date from the 70s, when she was in her 30s. I guess I have about a decade to learn to put it all out on the field. We’ll see.

She writes about journalism, and you can tell how she despises much of the news industry. But she loves it, too, perhaps even better for knowing its flaws. I don’t know a single journalist who doesn’t feel the same way.

Her description of a mid-century newsroom is enough to make me nostalgic for things I never knew. It’s also enough to make me very glad I missed it, too. But it reminds me of why I do what I do: the excitement of a break, the thrill of holding people to account. I have much to learn.

And then there’s New York. It’s the backdrop to her writing, seeping through all her stories. She is, unarguably, part of the Manhattan elite. She hangs out with New York Times food critics and artists from the Village. It’s glamorous and creative and gossipy.

No doubt it’s also unattainable. But Nora’s New York chimes with my long-harboured desire to disappear to the Big Apple – for, I don’t know, six months, a year – and just write and meet interesting people and in some way live outside myself. Just for a little bit, just to see.

Of course you cannot, in fact, live outside yourself. If I were to disappear as above, I would still be chronically anxious – and being several thousand miles away I would likely be acutely anxious too. And yet I can’t help but feel the shock would force me to write, and cope, and be more gutsy. To be a little more like Nora, but without her inexplicable antipathy towards the New Yorker, my one true love and another cause of my ridiculous obsession with the place.

Just as Nora can’t let go of the ideal of being married, I can’t get over the ideal of the city, or rather, myself in the city. She is, like I say, very relatable.

And like all writers, she writes about writing. We can’t help ourselves. It makes me like her even more.

I often worry that while writing comes naturally I don’t really have anything to say. It should, I fear, be the other way round.

So I am going to try to remember Nora’s maxim, learned from her mother, that ‘everything is copy’.

Everything is copy. Even, it seems for me, Nora herself.

Review: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to read almost as much as I love to write, and yet by my estimates it’s been about six years since I wrote about a book. Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, however, is simply too awe-inspiring not to talk about. I thought it’s billing as a ‘new history of the world’ was an exaggeration – but this epic tome spans centuries and continents with remarkable ease.

Admittedly, I did find it too dense in detail, and so long that it was hard to understand its message without consciously zooming out in my mind’s eye, yet no book has ever taught me so much about the world as it was and as it is now. Concentrating on the region between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas – the “spine of Asia” as Frankopan calls it – the book takes us from the birth of civilisation in Mesopotamia, through the Roman era, the empires of the Muslim dynasties, the Mongols and the Ottomans, to the European empires and their breakdown into the Middle East as we know it, right up to the origins of 9/11 and the war on terror.

In doing so, it introduces us to a new way of seeing a region so often thought of as chaotic, even backwards. Instead we see how the Middle East’s current problems are a result of its long-lasting importance to trade, empire, religion and geopolitics, which led to its endless manipulation by whichever Great Powers were in the ascendance. In the latter stages of the book we see just how much the current world powers, Western Europe and the US, are responsible for the bloodshed and turmoil which they now fear so greatly. Perhaps we knew this already, but the sheer scale of the mess and cross-purposes, of the short-termism and misunderstanding, is hard to comprehend without having it all laid out in front of you, as Frankopan so elegantly does.

I confess that these later chapters were a much easier read than anything predating 1600-or-so. This is probably in large part due to the fact that I am much more familiar with modern history. But I also felt that my understanding of the early history was impeded by a lack of maps (at least in my Kindle edition) which meant that at times I only had a vague inkling as to what was happening, being, as I assume most people are, unfamiliar with the borders, cities and geographies of the ancient and medieval Middle East. Indeed, this remains my main criticism of the book.

Nevertheless, it was refreshing and illuminating to read a true history of the world from a non-Western perspective. Frankopan breaks free of the canon of academia (and its awful written style) to tell another story. In a time when the Middle East continues to dominate headlines while being fundamentally misunderstood, this unlikely best-seller exposes the history of the region in all its complexity. It would be a very good thing if it found its way onto the bookshelves of diplomats and politicians the world over.

For me, too, the book has come at an opportune time; I am about to start a Masters in the Theory and History of International Relations, with a focus on the Middle East. This has always been my main area of interest, and yet until now I have never explored the region within academia. The Silk Roads, I am sure, has given me the best possible grounding for this next challenge.