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Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories

Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories

by Joan Silber

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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
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


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
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. National Book Award finalist. Reading group guide included.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. Agent, Geri Thoma. (Apr.) Forecast: The dreamy interconnectedness of Silber's stories is elegantly hinted at in the lovely cover art. Booksellers can confidently recommend this collection to readers who don't normally gravitate to short stories, and expect Silber's audience to grow. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Silber's collection is described quite appropriately in the subtitle as "a ring of stories." Each of the six tales works well as a standalone piece, but through subtle commonalities they all weave into one spiraling, interconnected example of fiction. 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. (By the third story, readers will be trying to guess what aspect will be the connecting factor.) Subjects range from an American expatriate teaching yoga in France to missionaries caught in China's Boxer Rebellion. Loss, religion, spirituality, and sex figure in each of the stories in varying doses and are reflected in the perspectives of each narrator. Silber, a former winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for her first novel (Lucky Us), teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Recommended for all collections, especially those where short stories have a following.-Leann Isaac, Jameson Health Syst., New Castle, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Six stories, delicately intertwined "by a great net of glorious strands," in a standout second collection from Silber (In My Other Life, 2000, etc.). The first of these longish tales, "My Shape," follows Alice (each story spans decades of its narrator's life), a buxom young woman who wants to dance. She has a vagabond's life, living with unsatisfying men until she gets a job on a French cruise ship and marries Jean-Pierre. The two move to France; then Alice returns alone to America, where she tries once more to dance (tutored by a sadist named Duncan Fischbach), until later in life she meets one Giles back in Paris and finds out finally what love can be. "The High Road" first takes up the life of Duncan Fischbach when he falls in love with Andre, then revisits him when he's old: having given up on the whole idea, he falls passionately, and chastely in love with Carl, a young singer performing the work of Italian poet Gaspara Stampa. "Gaspara Stampa," in turn, imagines the short life of the Renaissance poet, fleshing out the inspiration for her poetry, which glorifies the pain and suffering of love as much as honoring its comforts and joys. "Ashes of Love," a more contemporary tale, follows young lovers Tom and Peggy as they travel the globe, adventuring, sightseeing, arguing, saving up money back in New York and then traveling again, until Peggy gets pregnant and everything irreversibly changes. The title story is set in China at the turn of the 20th century as a young missionary couple (the great-grandparents of Tom's wife) and their children attempt to convert the Chinese. The proselytizers are naive, too blinded by their own sweet devotion to Christ to see real trouble when it comes inthe form of the Boxer Rebellion. Last is Giles's story, "The Same Ground," a meditation on love. Silber travels the globe and the centuries with ease. If more collections were like this one, readers would gladly abandon the novel. Agent: Geri Thoma/Elaine Markson Agency

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

Joan Silber is the author of six previous works of fiction. Among many awards and honors, she has won a PEN/Hemingway Award and has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, NY
Date of Birth:
June 14, 1945
Place of Birth:
Newark, New Jersey
B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1967; M.A., New York University, 1980

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