Reading Group Guide
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
The Author on Her Work
A friend I’d known years before had told me a story about a dance coach who’d humiliated her. She mocked herself when she told the story, but I felt that I understood it. What haunted me in her account was the teacher’s repeated question, “How much do you want it?” An ecstasy of sacrifice was asked of her, for the sake of a fairly frivolous goal she had no hope of attaining. I was interested, not only in the odd sexuality of the scene, but in this confused desire to submit to a higher purpose. In my first notes, I had the idea that a religious impulse was embedded in this.
What was hardest and newest for me in this story was not the lurid scene between Alice and her dance coach, but the open treatment of religious longing. I had wanted to write about this for some time, and many paragraphs laden with treacle and gravitas hit the cutting room floor in previous attempts.
This story led to other stories. I saw that what I really wanted to write about—and there was plenty to say on this topic—was sex and religion. I was thinking of the ways in which they tend to pick up for each other’s failings, to take up one another’s slack. All of these stories are about forms of devotion and forms of consolation.
- The title of this book, Ideas of Heaven, pinpoints the theme of many of the stories. What are the characters’ ideas about heaven, both divine and worldly, that shape their lives?
- The author says that writing about religion was more difficult for her than addressing sexuality. In the past, however, religion was a common topic of literary writing, and sex was taboo. How do modern writers like Silber grapple with our modern American yearning for the divine? Do you think she is successful?
- In “Gaspara Stampa” and “Ideas of Heaven” the characters are devout Christians. In the other stories, set in modern times, the characters’ ideas of religion are more fluid: they embrace Buddhism, meditation, yoga. How has the concept of religious faith expanded in recent years? Is this a particularly American or Western change, or do you think that people all over the world define faith so broadly? What would Gaspara Stampa have thought of Alice’s tonglen meditation?
- The author says that these stories “are about forms of devotion and forms of consolation.” While it might be easier to find the devotion to religious beliefs and to loved ones, where do you see the consolation that the characters find in the divine and in worldly love?
- Sex and romantic love figure prominently in the stories as a source of passion, comfort, and pain. In many of the stories, the protagonist will lose a first love, only to discover another, different kind of love with a new person. Do you agree that each love is unique, or that love is a universal force, the same in every person?
- There is also violence in these stories: Peggy’s death in a car crash in “Ashes of Love,” the massacre of the missionaries in “Ideas of Heaven,” Sylvie’s death in a terrorist bombing in “The Same Ground.” How do religion and love help the victims or the survivors deal with these deaths? In any case does religion cause the violence?
- Silber quotes from Ranier Maria Rilke and Gaspara Stampa, two poets whose work focuses on deep love. How do different writers try to capture that passion? How do Stampa’s confessional love poetry, or Rilke’s meditations on lovers, or Silber’s fictional stories of sex and religion help you to feel most deeply the power of love?
- The author writes in the first person in every story, creating the voices of very different men and women living in disparate cities and times. Do you find that each protagonist has a convincingly individual voice? How does Silber give her characters their own voices while maintaining her own style throughout?
- From childhood through the upheavals of young adulthood to the unexpected events of midlife, these stories encapsulate whole lives in a few pages. How does the author distill such rich characters into so small a space? Do you feel that you understand the characters better for having known them for their whole lives? Is Duncan Fischbach, for example, more tolerable once you know his whole story?
- Each story is tied to the others, as a small element becomes a major element in the next. Did you notice the links between the stories as you read? Did the links feel natural or contrived? Is the experience of reading these linked stories similar to reading a novel? What’s the effect of all these different times and places set together in one book?
About 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.
Books by Joan Silber
A dazzling new collection of interconnected stories by the National Book Award finalist.More
Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award: "Unqualified praise goes to this rarity: an extraordinary novel about ordinary people."--Chicago TribuneMore
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 BarrettMore