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  1. Book ImageFools: Stories

    Joan Silber

    Longlisted for the National Book Award

    "'Linked' doesn’t begin to describe the complex web Silber has woven…Emotionally, it’s astounding…[A] beautiful, intricate, and wise collection." —New York Times Book Review

A Note from the Author

My last three books have been linked stories, and when I give readings, often somebody in the audience asks, “Do you plan all the stories in advance or do you just make them up as you go along?” When I hear myself say, “I just make them up,” I sound very carefree and irrepressibly inspired, which is unfortunately not true.

I start with a first story and then I keep digging for routes to investigate further what it’s about. In Fools, the first story came after a trip to India, a gorgeous and very disturbing place. One consoling thing for me was seeing that every city seemed to have a Gandhi museum—Gandhi being the great figure of visionary stubbornness. I pondered whether America had anyone like Gandhi, and I thought of Dorothy Day, famous Catholic radical, who began as a Village anarchist, and I set my story in her world of anarchists in the 1920s. Anarchists were considered “fools” for their dedication to ideas—and for the next stories, I started to think harder about how people live for ideas (and why we think money or love can let us live without them). In this form I’ve come up with, characters who are hateable in one story can be humans we’re allied with in another. This is very important to me.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what different ways are characters in the book fools? Does persisting with their folly make them wise? The author has said that when she was working on the book, she would tell people its title and then say, “But I mean fools in a good way.” What does she mean by this?
  2. Many of the stories take place over a long span of time, as characters progress, fall back, and go forward again. A short story doesn’t often cover many years. What techniques does Silber use to manage time? Which stories are most striking in their use of time? Why would Silber want to do this?
  3. Fools contains six linked stories. Some of the links are clear right away and others are more subtle. Which were your favorite discovered connections? How is a book like this different from a novel? Why do you think the author arranged the stories the way she did? How does this book compare to other linked story collections you’ve read?
  4. Does Silber make us feel sympathy for conventionally “unlikeable” characters? If so, how does she accomplish this?
  5. The stories take place at different points in history—from the 1920s to now—and are set in different parts of the world—New York, Paris, even a little of India. How did this expansiveness affect you as a reader? Was your attention better or worse for it? Do the characters in different eras and places have different belief systems?
  6. The characters all think about money. Some choose principle over money, some steal and betray, some are duped, and the book ends with a surprising act of generosity. Is money often used in plots? Does the author seem to have a particular view of it here? Is this theme linked to our era of financial uncertainty?
  7. In “Two Opinions,” Louise’s mother tells her, “You think you can do without ideas but you can’t.” Louise is more interested in love at that time. Can love or money let a person live without ideas? Is it a common contemporary belief that they can?
  8. Gandhi suggests that people are happiest when they can act on their beliefs, which is not always easy. Which characters in Fools live under illusions? Which characters betray their own beliefs or lie to others? What happens as a result? Which characters have the most integrity, and are they rewarded or punished?
  9. Many of the characters have unconventional marriages or families: Vera doesn’t really want a legal marriage, Louise lives thousands of miles from her husband, and Gerard is long separated from his wife but deeply tied to her. Are these arrangements viewed favorably? How do these characters fare?
  10. The stories all use different narrators, and incidents are sometimes seen from different angles. Norman, for instance, is viewed one way by Anthony and another in his own memoir. Why did the author choose to close with Liliane? Can an untrustworthy character be a trustworthy narrator?

About Joan Silber

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

Books by Joan Silber

  1. Book CoverFools: Stories

    Longlisted for the National Book Award

    "'Linked' doesn’t begin to describe the complex web Silber has woven…Emotionally, it’s astounding…[A] beautiful, intricate, and wise collection." —New York Times Book ReviewMore

  2. Book CoverHousehold Words: A Novel

    Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award: "Unqualified praise goes to this rarity: an extraordinary novel about ordinary people."--Chicago TribuneMore

  3. Book CoverIdeas 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 BarrettMore