Silber, Joan 1945–
Silber, Joan 1945–
PERSONAL: Born June 14, 1945, in Millburn, NJ; daughter of Samuel S. (a dentist) and Dorothy (a teacher; maiden name, Arlein) Silber. Education: Sarah Lawrence College, B.A., 1967; New York University, M.A., 1979.
ADDRESSES: Home—43 Bond St., New York, NY 10012. Office—Sarah Lawrence College, 1 Mead Way, Bronxville, NY 10708. Agent—Geri Thoma, Elaine Markson Literary Agency, 44 Greenwich Ave., New York, NY 10011.
CAREER: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York, NY, copy editor, 1967–68; New York Free Press, New York, NY, reporter, 1968; waitress, 1968–71; salesclerk, 1971–72; assistant teacher in day-care centers in New York, NY, 1972; Ideal Publishing, New York, NY, editor of fan magazines Movie Stars and Movie Life, 1975; Kirkus Service, New York, NY, reviewer, 1976; Warner & Gillers, New York, NY, lawyer's assistant, 1977–78; Women's Action Alliance, New York, NY, legal proofreader, 1981; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, member of faculty, 1985–90, 1994–. Visiting assistant professor, University of Utah, 1988; visiting lecturer, Boston University, 1992; writer-in-residence, Vanderbilt University, 1993. Also affiliated with New York University School of Continuing Education, 1981–84, Warren Wilson College M.F.A. Program for Writers, 1986–, Aspen Writers Conference, 1988, 92nd Street Y, 1987–90, 1994–99, Indiana University Writers Conference, 1987, 1989–90, 1994, and 1997, Manhattanville Writers Conference, 1996 and 1999, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference, 2001, Napa Valley Writers Conference, 2005.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel, 1981, for Household Words; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984–85; New York Foundation for the Arts grant and National Endowment for the Arts grant, both 1986; Pushcart Prize, 2000; O. Henry Prize; National Book Award finalist, 2004, for Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories.
Household Words (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1980, reprint, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
In the City (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
In My Other Life (short stories), Sarabande (Louisville, KY), 2000.
Lucky Us (novel), Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 2001.
Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to books, including Writer's Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, Writers Digest, 1977; An Inn Near Kyoto: Writing by American Women Abroad, New Rivers Press, 1998; and Pushcart Prize XXV, Pushcart Press, 2000. Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Redbook, New Yorker, Ploughshares, Boulevard, Witness, Paris Review, and Aphra, and of book reviews to Ms., New York Times Book Review, Yale Review, Newsday, and Village Voice.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel about travel and the lure of solitude for Norton; a book on time in fiction for Graywolf's "Craft of Fiction" series.
SIDELIGHTS: Joan Silber has published novels and short stories marked by a subtle use of language and focused on the everyday experiences of her characters. Her first novel, Household Words, depicts the life of Rhoda Taber, a middle-class homemaker living in New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s. After her pharmacist husband dies, Rhoda determinedly cares for her family and "goes on" for "where else is there to go?" Her "life is relatively unremarkable," explained Susan Isaacs in the New York Times Book Review. "There are no thunderous confrontations here…. Rhoda's consciousness never rises, her horizons never soar. Instead she stays in New Jersey, raises her two daughters, visits with friends, works, vacations, suffers." Isaacs continued: "The heroine exhibits strength and integrity under the most mundane circumstances—comforting a wailing baby, presiding over a lonely Thanksgiving dinner."
Marilyn Murray Wilson maintained in the Los Angeles Times, though, that the lack of drive on the part of the main character is the novel's weakness. "What Rhoda does not have—and I can't help but perceive it as a flaw in the book—is a goal of some sort…. She … floats from day to day, year to year, with no plan, no dream, no real reason for living…. Her life has no urgency." Isaacs, however, felt that Household Words "is about ordinary life. There is no zippy dialogue, no literary razzle-dazzle. People live, die, raise children, put on girdles and teach school. But the details add up to a novel full of dignity and humanity." Linda B. Osborne similarly commented in the Washington Post Book World: "Silber's writing is strong and richly detailed, spotlighting the drama inherent in ordinary lives without sentiment or pretension."
In Silber's In the City, a young Jewish girl from Newark moves to 1920s New York City, hoping to find friends more suitable to her artistic tastes. The story focuses on what New York Times Book Review contributor Joyce Johnson called "the tension between freedom and vulnerability that rebellious young women have typically experienced." Pauline easily gains access to the trendy circles she yearns for, adapting herself to their manners and language, and experiences new love. Silber told Laurel Graeber in the New York Times Book Review that she had originally intended to set her novel in the 1960s, but opted instead for the 1920s: "To transfer it to the 1920s was a way of saying that I wanted it to be about youth, not just a particular time frame," she explained.
Lucky Us features "an unlikely couple [who] weather a crisis in this forthright novel about love and accommodation," observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Elisa is an artist in New York; she is in her late twenties and not sure what she wants to do with her life. Another character, Gabe, is a camera shop clerk who is about fifteen years older than Elisa. The two meet while working at the camera shop and, against the odds, fall in love. Bookish and companionable Gabe is a former drug dealer and ex-con who learned his lesson during his brush with the law. Elisa still flirts with the wild side, exploring drugs and promiscuity. Still, the relationship between the two advances, and eventually they talk marriage. On a whim, Elisa takes an AIDS test before their wedding and discovers that she is HIV positive. Gabe tries to be supportive, but Elisa breaks off their relationship, returning to the abusive Jason, who originally infected her, but with whom sex is animalistic and raw. Eventually, when Elisa falls ill, Jason tires of her and she leaves. Reunited with Gabe at a wedding of two AIDS patients, "the story closes on a gently hopeful but indeterminate note," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Booklist reviewer Danise Hoover called the book "a timely and wonderful tale." Ann H. Fisher, writing in the Library Journal, concluded: "It's difficult to imagine that such a simple plot could yield such a profound, engaging tale."
The author has also published a couple of short story collections, including In My Other Life and Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories. In the former, Silber gathered together twelve short stories focusing on characters who took wild chances in their youth and have lived to see their later lives play out. One story tells of a woman moving to the country with her lesbian lover and their mixed-race adopted child, against the nagging objections of an ex-junkie friend; another follows a woman who was in a rock band in her younger days but now works with inner-city children. "Some of these reflective characters can hardly believe they've outlived their perilous youth," a Publishers Weekly critic noted. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, called Silber's stories "carefully rendered documentaries of lives in transition."
Ideas of Heaven is a collection of six short stories, each linked to the other so that minor characters and events in one story enlarge to central themes and protagonists in the next. In this way, the plots of the stories follow a circular pattern until the final tale is connected to the first. "The overlapping … gives this slender book the weight and breadth of a novel," commented Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly. In the first story, "My Shape," Alice, a woman whose teenage years were influenced by her large and shapely breasts, meets her husband on a cruise ship and lives with him in France, but she abandons him to pursue a dancing career. A failure at dance, she is humiliated and insulted by her gay dance teacher, Duncan. In the second story, "The High Road," Duncan takes center stage and shows a softer side to the bully of the first tale when he falls in love with Andre, a man he cannot have. After visiting Andre in later life, Duncan once again falls into platonic love with Carl, a young singer performing works by Italian poet Gaspara Stampa. Stampa figures in the self-titled third story, in which Silber explores what the life of the renaissance poet might have been like." Ashes of Love" follows carefree and footloose couple Tom and Peggy as they travel freely, until Peggy's pregnancy changes their lives forever. "Ideas of Heaven" concentrates on a pair of missionaries in China—Tom's wife's great-great-grandparents—who are so devoted to their religious work that they fail to notice the danger around them during the Boxer Rebellion. In the final tale, Alice, now middle aged, reappears as the woman with whom Giles, the narrator, falls in love.
"Wonderfully evocative of time and place, this is a collection to be read and savored by all," commented Booklist reviewer Danise Hoover about Ideas of Heaven. "Big ideas come in lovely, small packages in this collection" of short stories, remarked a writer for Publishers Weekly. "Silber travels the globe and the centuries with ease," observed a Kirkus Reviews contributor, who concluded, "If more collections were like this one, readers would gladly abandon the novel."
Silber told CA: "I've always been interested in getting long spans of time into my fiction—my first novel, written before I knew any better, covered twenty years in a woman's life. Recently I've been writing short stories that pretty much cover characters' whole lives. Alice Munro has been a great influence in this. And Chekhov, whom I read early on, showed me how fiction could suddenly light up a character who'd been unlikable. The patern of Ideas of Heaven, in which a minor person in one story is major in the next, comes from a similar impulse. I'd like to think a recent interest in Buddhism has added coherence to these long-held learnings. The novel I'm working on now hos parts set in Thailand and Vietnam and shows the marks of travel to Asia in recent years."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Silber, Joan, Household Words, Viking (New York, NY), 1980.
Atlantic Monthly, June, 2005, Christina Schwarz, "A Close Read: What Makes Good Writing Good," review of Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories, p. 117.
Booklist, April 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of In My Other Life, p. 1525; September 1, 2001, Danise Hoover, review of Lucky Us, p. 53; February 15, 2004, Danise Hoover, review of Ideas of Heaven, p. 1038.
Christian Century, December 14, 2004, review of Ideas of Heaven, p. 22.
Entertainment Weekly, April 23, 2004, Jennifer Reese, review of Ideas of Heaven, p. 86.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2000, review of In My Other Life, pp. 328-329; August 1, 2001, review of Lucky Us, p. 1062; February 15, 2004, review of Ideas of Heaven, p. 152.
Library Journal, April 1, 2000, Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, review of In My Other Life, p. 134; July, 2001, Ann H. Fisher, review of Lucky Us, p. 126; February 1, 2004, Leann Isaac, review of Ideas of Heaven, p. 127.
Los Angeles Times, March 6, 1980, Marilyn Murray Wilson, review of Household Words.
New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1980, Susan Isaacs, review of Household Words; March 29, 1987, Joyce Johnson, review of In the City, p. 8, and Laurel Graeber, "Everyone's 1920s Are Different," review of In the City, p. 9; June 11, 2000, Carmela Ciuraru, review of In My Other Life, p. 17.
Philadelphia Inquirer, September 11, 2000, Rita Giordano, review of In My Other Life.
Publishers Weekly, March 20, 2000, review of In My Other Life, p. 71; September 3, 2001, review of Lucky Us, p. 55; March 15, 2004, review of Ideas of Heaven, p. 54.
Washington Post, November 11, 2004, Carole Burns, "Off the Page: Joan Silver and Houck Smith," transcript of online chat with Joan Silber and Carol Houck Smith.
Washington Post Book World, January 31, 1980, Linda B. Osborne, review of Household Words.
Westchester County Business Journal, November 29, 2004, "Two Sarah Lawrence Faculty Members Named National Book Award Finalists," p. 26.
Women's Review of Books, July, 2004, "Paradises Lost," review of Ideas of Heaven, p. 20.
BookReporter.com, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (October 19, 2001), interview with Joan Silber; (October 5, 2005), Chuck Leddy, review of Lucky Us.
National Book Foundation Web site, http://www.nationalbook.org/ (October 5, 2005), biography of Joan Silber.
Sarah Lawrence College Web site, http://www.slc.edu/ (October 5, 2005), biography of Joan Silber.