“Salt,” I said to my brother, pointing to the white crystals sprinkled on the bookcase in our late father’s home office. “At least, I think it’s salt. If it were sugar, there’d be ants everywhere, right?”
Marc swiped his finger across a shelf and gamely stuck his finger in his mouth. “Yep, salt,” he said.
After moving my mother to an assisted living, I was packing up the remaining possessions in her apartment, including my parents’ African art collection.
I’d first noticed the salt in a closet where the overflow of masks, statues, carved wooden utensils, and other objects were kept. They had bought them in Côte d’Ivoire and surrounding countries in the late 1960s, when we lived in Abidjan, then the capital. My father, a Foreign Service officer, was posted there. It wasn’t hard to guess who had done the sprinkling. The ladies who looked after my mother were all from West and Central Africa. To someone, these objects, which my parents collected for their beauty or cultural interest, must have had a spiritual significance.
Jennifer Epstein’s new novel The Gods of Heavenly Punishment (See Review) follows her acclaimed 2008 debut, The Painter From Shanghai. Epstein, a former journalist, is also adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn. We met when our children were in kindergarten together at PS 29. We began this conversation over borscht and pelmeni in a neighborhood restaurant February 21 and continued via email.
Jennifer Cody Epstein On Asia, WWII, and Her New Novel
Christmas Day, 2012. I’m riding a packed flota back up to chilly Bogotá from the tropical lowlands. The fringe over the windows is jiggling to the beat of the motor, syncopated by potholes. I sit behind the driver, facing a life-size, crown-of-thorns decal of Jesus’ head, deep-sea blue. Vallenatos jangle over the bus loudspeaker. A stop is wherever someone wants off. The driver pulls over. People jump out.
What a setting. Anything could happen. An accident, le coup de foudre, a kidnapping. This is Colombia.
“The Book Is Always Better” read a sign perched on top of a stack of Harry Potters and Twilights in the Harvard Coop bookstore last spring. I remembered the sign waiting in line to see director Joe Wright’s new AnnaKarenina, adapted by Tom Stoppard and starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
IMDB lists twenty-seven movie and TV versions of Anna K, going back to 1907. The 700-page book has also been made into at least four ballets and ten operas.
I’m not a screenwriter, but I imagine the elevator pitch goes something like: “Whaddya think, boss? Beautiful high-society woman married to a stiff finds passionate love with a handsome officer, and her husband and society treat her so bad she throws herself in front of a train. Not bad, eh?”
Anna Karenina: The Movie. If the Book Is So Great, Why Do We Need Adaptations?
EXODOS. I deciphered the Greek letters, extrapolating from the Cyrillic alphabet learned in college Russian. Exodus! A hairy Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments popped into my mind. A domestic Moses, my husband spurred our lagging, quarreling kids on to baggage claim and immigration.
How can you tell a modern, Western country is in the midst of an existential economic crisis? Bread lines? People begging in suits? Garbage and vermin? Tumbleweed? Packs of feral youth and stray dogs?
I’m in gorgeous, light-drenched Lisbon for a two-week literary conference, staying at a residence in a drab suburb near the huge, green-and-yellow-tiled Campo Grande stadium. I ride the subways, walk up and down the hilly, chipped-stone streets, poke my nose in stores, people-watch in cafés. I try to see people’s expressions in their cars. Portugal’s economy is at its worst since 1945, its central bank says, and one of the worst-off countries in the euro zone. Yet people here go about business purposefully. They look calm, dignified, not conspicuously depressed. They dress nicely though not as expensively as Parisians or Romans.
I met Delia Velasquez in the late 1990s through her daughter, Ericka Rubin, who was a friend of our babysitter. My daughter, Zoë, and son, Gabriel, were adopted from Guatemala, and she and her husband, Alberto, both from Guatemala, were curious to meet us. They had three sons, and we became friends. One blistering July day in 2005, I brought Gabriel over to play. Ericka, Doña Delia, and I sat in their Brooklyn kitchen, talking and cooking, and the subject of marriage came up. I mentioned my grandmother was married at fourteen.
David and I leave our children, thirteen and ten, watching television in our rented house in Barjac, a village in southern France, to go hiking. They often fight like scorpions in a jar, but are best friends right now. “Bye,” they wave, eyes screen-ward. We don’t expect to be long. But after ten days of family vacation, we crave time alone together.
My friend Alison and I have had a running joke that we’re cousins. When we met several years ago, she said, “I bet we’re related. My great-grandmother’s maiden name was Lichtblau.” Her father, like mine, left Vienna in 1938, but she didn’t know much more. Still, we called each other “chère cousine” for fun. Her father, like mine, left Vienna in 1938, and her great-grandmother had the same last name as I do, Lichtblau. Now I’m very fond of Alison, but never seriously believed we were related. The name’s not as rare in Austria as it is here, and I have a family tree going back to my great-great-grandfather—which gets us to 1811, amazingly. (My grandfather, born in 1877, was forty-three when my father came along in 1920, which partly accounts for the long generational leaps.) Alison didn’t know her great-grandmother’s given name, but her married name wasn’t on my tree and had never come up in family reminiscences. Reminiscence is to us Lichtblaus what watching sports on TV is to other families. It’s what we do when we get together. We sit in my aunt and uncle’s Upper West Side apartment on furniture that somehow made it over in 1938 despite looming disaster, and within five minutes, we’re talking about Grandma’s lover. So, I was pretty confident that I’d have heard of Alisons’s great-grandmother if she was one of us.
Eli Miller, one of the last Brooklyn seltzer men, delivers his syphon bottles when he divines need. Calling ahead isn’t his style. He has a formula that factors days, bottles, weather, holidays. It’s always right, but his timing’s terrible. At five on random weekdays, the bell rings as I face an empty fridge or race out to collect a kid. He’s a walking library of Brooklyn lore, a writer’s dream. But I’m always too pressed to listen. He tactfully ignores my impatience. “Julia, you’re my favorite customer,” he rasps, his impish smile a surprise in his long face.