Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories


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 ...

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Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories

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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 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.

Finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for Fiction

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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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393326871
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/6/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 636,660
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Silber

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.


Joan Slber is the author of four other books of fiction -- Lucky Us, In My Other Life, In the City, and Household Words, winner of a PEN/Hemingway Award. Her work appears in the current O. Henry Prize Stories and The Pushcart Prize, and in Norton's The Story Behind the Story: 26 Stories by Contemporary Writers and How They Work. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, and other magazines. She's received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Silber lives in New York City and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and has taught in the Warren Wilson College M.F.A. Program. She is currently at work on a novel about travel, and is also writing a book on time in fiction for Graywolf's Craft of Fiction series.

Silber says that the first story in Ideas of Heaven grew out of an incident someone told her about a dance coach humiliating his female student. The coach's repeated question, "How much do you want it?" suggested, for Silber, the lure of a higher purpose and the religious impulse sometimes embedded in odd places. The story's villain became the protagonist of the next story, and Silber saw that what she really wanted to write about was sex and religion -- "forms of dedication, forms of consolation" -- which she saw often filling in for each other.

Author biography courtesy of the National Book Foundation.

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Silber:

"The title story of Ideas of Heaven is about American missionaries in China, and I based it loosely on a book of letters from a woman sent out in the 1890s by Oberlin College. I visited China just as I was beginning this story, and something quite amazing happened. In a park in Luoyang a man in his 70s began chatting with me in very good, American-accented English. When he heard I was a college professor, he asked if I'd heard of Oberlin College. It turned out he'd been taught by Oberlin missionaries in Shanxi in the 1930s -- a later group of the Congregationalists who were the models for my characters. I couldn't get over the coincidence, though I don't think it seemed astounding to him. His name is Li Xing Ye (he uses Mark Lee in English), and we've written many letters back and forth since then. I sent him a copy of the book and he was very pleased -- he did say it would take him a long time to read it."

"Grace Paley, my first fiction writing teacher, was a crucial influence. She taught me that humor could be a component of serious fiction and that character was always the thing to look at. Her first assignment was to write something in the voice of an actual person you didn't like.

"I've lived in New York my whole adult life, and as Burt Lancaster says in The Sweet Smell of Success, ‘I love this dirty town.' New Yorkers tend to stake their honor on their degree of self-possession -- whining is okay but panicking is not. They don't necessarily succeed in this and can blunder as badly as anywhere, but this is their standard, their own form of cowboy valor. I have to admit that I'm drawn to this sort of urban restraint."

"When my writing career was not going well, I began putting in volunteer time as a Buddy -- a kind of weekly helper -- to a person with AIDS. It turned out to be a totally great thing to do -- it retuned my perspective and expanded what I thought I could do. I'm still doing it eight years later."

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

Table of Contents

My Shape 13
The High Road 35
Gaspara Stampa 65
Ashes of Love 97
Ideas of Heaven 143
The Same Ground 200
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