Not all legends begin with the words, “Once upon a time,” or take place a long time ago. The Happy Ending Music and Reading Series presented on April 6th at Joe's Pub focused on (modern) legends and beliefs, and none of the stories read that night could be mistaken for the legends you heard as a child. The writers featured were Tea Obreht, Dean Bakopoulos, and Fernanda Eberstadt.
Tea Obreht was the ideal author to choose for a night devoted to legends.
Her debut novel “The Tiger’s Wife” is a novel steeped in myth and legend and set in a country that closely resembles Obreht’s native Croatia. The main character of the novel is Natalia Stefanovi, a doctor who was raised on a steady diet of mythical tales told by her grandfather. When she finds out that her grandfather has died she is forced to re-evaluate her memory of him, which is based on his legends.
Since Amanda Stern requires that all the writers who participate in the series “take a risk on stage,” Obreht read a section of her novel in her native tongue, Serbo-Croatian. Obreht claimed to be "barely competent" in reading Serbo-Croatian, but she had no reason to worry.
“When you tell a story in the Balkans," she commented, "it’s an epic story no matter what it is...there is a real lilt to the language.”
While Obreht embraced legends in her book, Fernanda Eberstadt used her book “Rat,” to deflate a myth: that the south of France is flush with money and glamour.
The title character in "Rat" is a 15-year-old girl devoted to her feckless single mother who has grown up in “a honky tonk resort.” Rat is both a native and an outsider.
Dean Bakopoulos was the only author that night to set his story in America. He is the author of his forthcoming book “My American Unhappiness.”
The book’s main character, Zeke Pappas, is a 33-year-old scholar who is trying to find out why people are so unhappy. Zeke asks everyone he meets why they are unhappy and the answers turn into an obsessive project entitled, “The Inventory of American Unhappiness.”
If this title sounds grim, it’s not. Bakopoulos’s characters are witty and delightfully odd, for instance, Zeke is a clairvoyant on a small scale: he can "divine" the Starbucks orders of strangers. For his risk, the author claimed to possess the same skill, and tried it on Amanda Stern. Did he get it right? Listen and find out.
Jay Brannan provided the music (and witty remarks) for the evening. His recent album, "Goddamned" debuted at No. 25 on the overall iTunes music charts.
Tia Obreht on the legendary grandfather in "The Tiger's Wife": "Because my grandfather was far more comfortable with extolling my accomplishments than his own, my knowledge of the incident was vague until I got to medical school…The person who finally filled me in on this story was a star-struck assistant in first semester Pathology who related it all sixth-, or seventh-, or eighth-hand."
Fernanda Eberstadt on Rat's mother: "She [Rat] is burning from the shock of seeing her mother as others might see her. Vanessa has done something demonstrably dangerous and she has been scolded like a child for it."
Dean Bakopoulos on his main character: "Zeke is a very strange, introverted sad little man, so it’s pretty autobiographical. He is not as happy as I am, but he thinks he is: he’s delusionally happy."
Bakopoulos on the magic of Starbucks: "Starbucks is a source of simple pleasure; an acceptable and fulfilling vice, if you will. I like to look at people, measure the hardness of their day, their circumstances; the general crumminess they feel in their hearts, and decide what sort of beverage (and perhaps) snack might remedy their misery."