Improvement (Silber)

Joan Silber, 2017
Counterpoint Press
256 pp.

One of our most gifted writers of fiction returns with a bold and piercing novel about a young single mother living in New York, her eccentric aunt, and the decisions they make that have unexpected implications for the world around them.

Reyna knows her relationship with Boyd isn’t perfect, yet as she visits him throughout his three-month stint at Rikers Island, their bond grows tighter.

Kiki, now settled in the East Village after a journey that took her to Turkey and around the world, admires her niece’s spirit but worries that she always picks the wrong man. Little does she know that the otherwise honorable Boyd is pulling Reyna into a cigarette smuggling scheme, across state lines, where he could risk violating probation.

When Reyna ultimately decides to remove herself for the sake of her four-year-old child, her small act of resistance sets into motion a tapestry of events that affect the lives of loved ones and strangers around them.

A novel that examines conviction, connection, and the possibility of generosity in the face of loss, Improvement is as intricately woven together as Kiki’s beloved Turkish rugs, as colorful as the tattoos decorating Reyna’s body, with narrative twists and turns as surprising and unexpected as the lives all around us.

The Boston Globe says of Joan Silber: "No other writer can make a few small decisions ripple across the globe, and across time, with more subtlety and power." Improvement is Silber’s most shining achievement yet. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1945
Raised—Milburn, New Jersey, USA
Education—B.A., Sarah Lawrence; M.A., New York University
Awards—PEN/Hemingway Award
Currently—lives in New York, New York

Joan Silber is an American novelist and short story writer, who grew up in Millburn, New Jersey, received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.A. from New York University. She taught at NYU and now teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Silber lives in New York City.

Silber is the author of Household Words (1981), which won a PEN/Hemingway Award, and Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories (2004), which was a finalist for both the 2004 National Book Award and the Story Prize. She has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Her work has been published in The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Pushcart Prize collections, and has also appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Paris Review.

2017 - Improvement
2013 - Fools (Stories)
2008 - The Size of the World
2004 - Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories
2001 - Lucky Us
2000 - In My Other Life (Stories)
1987 - In the City
1980 - Household Words
(From Wikipedia. Retreived 12/18/2017.)

Book Reviews
Silber writes her new novel, Improvement, as a series of interlinked stories, a generous structural decision that both allows characters to fully inhabit their own narratives and gives space to the lives that intersect or run parallel to them.… This is a novel of richness and wisdom and huge pleasure. Silber knows, and reveals, how close we live to the abyss, but she also revels in joy, particularly the joy that comes from intimate relationships.
Kamila Shamsie - New York Times Book Review

[I]t feels vital to love Silber’s work, which has been too little loved, too little mentioned, beyond a small readership that seems to be composed mostly of other writers.… Silber’s great theme as a writer is the way in which humans are separated from their intentions, by desires, ideas, time.… She has an American voice: silvery, within arm’s length of old cadences, but also limber, thieving, marked by occasional raids on slang and jargon, at ease both high and low, funny, tenderhearted, sharp. It gives her the rare ability to reach the deepest places in the plainest ways.
Charles Finch - Washington Post

You can feel, in those words, how tenderly Silber treats her large cast of men and women, how she deals out small moments of grace even as things go terribly wrong for them. This seems like a good place to bring up Silber’s voice: unshowy and intimate, precise and colloquial, she seems almost to be confiding the novel to us, a worldly wise aunt not unlike Kiki herself. She marshals great feeling in the course of Improvement without making it seem a big deal.… An everyday masterpiece.

The prose serenely glides over irreversible, defining moments and how differently characters deal with the curveballs life throws at them.… Improvement is a meditation on the space of time and distance and certain defining events change people and propel them to re-calibrate their priorities in life.… The prose eloquently evinces human emotions—love and heartbreak, regret and loss, guilt and redemption.… Improvement reads like fragmented character studies of a disparate group of people, intricately woven together by chance and fate. Exquisitely woven, this is a rich tapestry of human conditions.
Chicago Review of Books

In Silber’s artfully structured new novel, the stories of a multitude of characters ricochet in cunning ways, crossing generations and continents.… [An] intriguing contemporary chronicle.
BBC Culture

If your must-read this month is a love-and-loss story seasoned with single motherhood and smuggling schemes, National Book Award finalist Joan Silber's Improvement hits the sexy sweet spot from page one.

There's always room for Joan Silber's Improvement.
Vanity Fair

[R]eminiscent of [Silber's] compact story collections in novel form, with mixed results.… With so many characters, it’s a lot of ground to cover…, and some of the subplots lack the depth needed to make this a fully cohesive ensemble novel.
Publishers Weekly

[I]nterconnected stories, in which the connections are not always initially apparent.… The subtle ripple effects of individual choices and actions are eloquently portrayed through Silber's penetrating eye in this elegant and thought-provoking novel. —Lauren Gilbert, Sachem P.L., Holbrook, NY
Library Journal

Silber weaves together character studies that examine love, money … and the ripple effects of choices made. Silber’s decision to write events of great magnitude from everyday points of view lends realism and universality to her story.

(Starred review.) There is something so refreshing and genuine about this book, coming partly from the bumpy weave of its unpredictable story and partly from its sharply turned yet refreshingly unmannered prose. A winner.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, please use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for Improvement … then take off on your own:

1. How would you describe Reyna. What is the significance of the fact that her body art is "piecemeal"? In what way is Reyna's life like her tattoos? When she tries to explain to Kiki that tattoos are no different than patterns on rugs, Kiki asks her, "are you a floor"? Is she? 

2. What do you think of Boyd? Why does Reyna raise no protest when Boyd comes up with his get-rich-quick scheme to smuggle cigarettes? Were you screaming an internal "nooooo!" at some of her decisions? Why is Reyna so attracted to him?

3. Talk about the similarities, or at least commonalities, between Reyna and Darisse. Why does Darisse hesitate with Silas?

4. What is the reason that Teddy falls apart after the accident? To what degree is he responsible for all the dysfunction, and now the accident, in his life?

5. As a young adventurist, Kiki led a colorful life in Turkey. But she came to see herself as "flung about by the winds of love." What does she mean? How has her experience colored her attitude toward life when we meet her early on in the novel?

6. Of the many characters in the novel (were there too many?), whom do you find most sympathetic and why? Who most exasperated you and why?

7. All of the characters reach a point at which they seem to ask a question central to the novel: how does one avoid assuming responsibility for the results of one's action and choices — all the while pretending to have control over life's outcomes? How does that question pertain to each of the characters?

    How do you answer that question as regards to your own life? Are you responsible for your destiny? Are any of us? Or is life a series of accidents and random occurrences over which we have little control? Isn't it fair to say that chance far too often intervenes and throws our plans and best intentions awry (aka the butterfly effect)? Or might you say it's how we respond to random chance that determines the degree of our control? What does the novel seem to suggest the answer to the question is?

8. What role does love play in Improvement? "People thought love was everything, but … surely too much was asked of love." Even the sign at the vet's office where Reyna works warns: "New Puppy? Love is not Enough." Do you agree? Or is that a cynical view? Isn't love the very thing we need more of? Or is love "not enough" because we misunderstand the meaning of love?

9. What is the significance of the book's title, "Improvement"?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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