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Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Storiesby Joan Silber
Finalist for the National Book Award
"Like a gymnast off a springboard, Joan Silber begins this, and many other flawlessly pitched paragraphs in her recent story collection, with a punch — a short, simple sentence that establishes a particular. She sticks her landing, too (having traveled some distance in the meantime), with another demonstration of muscle: two final sentences, as arresting in their slow pace and awkward construction as the epiphany they describe." Christina Schwarz, the Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
Intense in subject yet restrained in tone, these stories are about longings — often held for years — and the ways in which sex and religion can become parallel forms of dedication and comfort.
Though the stories stand alone, a minor element in one becomes major in the next. In "My Shape," a woman is taunted by her dance coach, who later suffers his own heartache. A Venetian poet of the 1500s, another storyteller, is introduced to a modern traveler reading Rilke. His story precedes a mesmerizing narrative of missionaries in China. In the final story, Giles, born to a priesthood family, leans toward Buddhism after a grievous loss, and in time falls in love with the dancer of the first story.
So deft and subtle is Joan Silber with these various perspectives that we come full circle surprised and enchanted by her myriad worlds.
"Big ideas come in lovely small packages in this collection by Silber (Lucky Us, etc.). Six elegantly connected stories explore, through first-person narratives, the conflicts and commonalities of love, faith and sex. A minor character in the first story becomes the narrator in the second, and so on, with each story building on its predecessor until they come full circle. Alice, a flighty American would-be dancer, struggles with her body and the difficult men in her life in 'My Shape'; Duncan, an embittered gay dancer (and one-time teacher of Alice) describes embarrassment, heartbreak and the comforts of renunciation in 'The High Road.' In 'Gaspara Stampa,' the titular 16th-century Italian poet narrates her torturous love affairs and the art she makes of them; in 'Ashes of Love,' an ex-hippie and world traveler, whose capricious wife left him to raise their troubled son, later tries to balance his attentions between the boy and his new, younger lover. In the title story, a missionary's wife in turn-of-the-century China tells of learning to live in a foreign world and faces death during the Boxer Rebellion. Each of Silber's narrators reflects on his or her shifting fortunes with the calm wisdom of hindsight, without diminishing the power of immediate experience. Silber uses the device of interwoven narratives beautifully; these lengthy stories can stand alone, but the subtle connections and emotional resonances help create a satisfying structural unity. Silber's wise, compassionate chronicles of longing, devotion and the search for comfort, both spiritual and physical, will move readers to contemplation and delight. Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] standout second collection from Silber....Silber travels the globe and the centuries with ease. If more collections were like this one, readers would gladly abandon the novel." Kirkus Reviews
"Silber uses the ingenious approach of bringing one character, object, or thought forward into the next story to create a ring of narratives that have no real beginning or end....Recommended." Library Journal
"Silber covers a lot of ground in these stories....She has an ear for language, a way of turning a phrase to make it mean more than it should. And although there is much sadness in these pages, there is more than enough hope to overcome the darkness." Charlotte Observer
"Perhaps [Silber's] characters can seem a little similar....And her women figures definitely speak in stronger, more compelling voices than her men. Nevertheless this is thoughtful work, poised and sometimes surprising." Miami Herald
"[S]ix lengthy, fully developed, satisfying stories....With admirable versatility, the author uses in her stories both sexes as narrators, men and women speaking with equal conviction within the various time periods in which their stories are lived." Dallas Morning News
"The characters' actions are not always likable, but they win sympathy by not trying to wrest it from the reader. The voices are immediately seductive, looking for a way past fear and clinging they know isn't possible in life, only in recollection." Chicago Tribune
Six elegantly connected stories explore, through first-person narratives, the conflicts and commonalities of love, faith, and sex. A minor character in the first story becomes the narrator in the second, and so on, with each story building on its predecessor, until they come full circle.
Shortlisted for the National Book Award: "Joan Silber writes with wisdom, humor, grace, and wry intelligence. Her characters bear welcome news of how we will survive."--Andrea Barrett
About the Author
Joan Silber teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and has taught in the Warren Wilson MFA Program. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and has won a PEN/Hemingway Award. She lives in New York City.
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