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January 13, 2005

Too Bad This Didn't Make It Into Her Tour Diary

by Ron Hogan

"I haven't been in a venue like this since I was twenty years old," Cynthia Ozick said as she approached the podium at the front of KGB, where she was reading from Heir to the Glimmering World as part of the monthly "Novel Jews" series the Forward co-sponsors at the Lower East Side literary cynosure. (I thought it was because her previous publisher never sent her out on book tour, but, no, she just doesn't go to bars...)

After remarking that the largely twenty-something audience was probably too young to remember the "adorably obnxious, or maybe obnoxiously adorable" Shirley Temple directly, and commenting upon her own jealously of the screen moppet growing up, Ozick turned to Christopher Robin Milne, the real-life inspiration for his father's Pooh stories. A fictional reconfiguration of what it would be like to live an adult life with such a legacy forms a major part of her novel, and she read a chapter in which "the Bear Boy," as she calls her stand-in, recalls the process by which he was dragged into his father's creative acts. A second chapter dealt with Rose, the teenage protagonist, and her run-in with a Depression-era Communist-feminist; the passage was a great display of Ozick's witty dialogue.

The standing-room-only crowd had plenty of questions, and Ozick didn't particularly want to answer many that dealt explicitly with political issues, which isn't surprising since the first question was about the "morally ambiguous" (to the questioner's mind) situation of reading at a bar named after the Soviet secret police. But she was quite eager to discuss literary matters, such as what she'd been reading--a combination of Jonathan Rosen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Amos Oz, and Gish Jen--and why one of her characters had referred to Christianity rather than Judaism during one patch of dialogue, arguing that the reader needed to respect "a true dichotomy between the characters and the writer," honoring the "closed system" of the novel in which the author's opinions are irrelevant to the actions and beliefs of the characters she creates. She also revealed that she loves "The Pagan Rabbi" the best of all her stories, and that it's only writing if you press pen down on paper; sitting at a keyboard just doesn't count where she's concerned.

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