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Originally published Friday, July 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Ideas of Heaven": Exquisitely told tales of sensual, spiritual journeys

On the next-to-last page of this astonishing little book, there's a paragraph that puts its subject matter in crisp perspective: "I could...

Seattle Times book critic

On the next-to-last page of this astonishing little book, there's a paragraph that puts its subject matter in crisp perspective: "I could see that sex and religion were always fighting over the same ground — both with their sweeping claims, their promises of transport — and each ran into the breach left by the other, each tried to fill in for the other's failings. Forms of devotion, forms of consolation."

A nominee for a National Book Award last year, Joan Silber's "Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories" (Norton, 250 pp., $13.95), just released in paperback, follows six strikingly different narrators as they muddle their way through various forms of devotion — to an art, to a faith, to another person.

When devotion goes wrong, they simply shift gears and seek out various forms of consolation — again in art or faith or another person.

In the process, Silber playfully guides the reader from present-day France, New York and California to 16th-century Venice and the China of the Boxer Rebellion. A small item in one story — a classical song recital, say — will serve as the cue for taking a centuries-long leap into the next tale.

Author appearance

Joan Silber will read from "Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories," 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

Her narrators include a cruise-ship showgirl, a sadistic gay dance teacher, 16th-century poet Gaspara Stampa, a 19th-century Christian missionary's wife, a widowed Parisian history teacher and a young American traveler blundering his way into early fatherhood. Silber shares Alice Munro's ability to encompass, with surpassing ease, a whole lifetime within 40 or 50 pages. She mixes everyday detail and subliminal longing in exactly the right proportions to reveal what the most urgent questions in each of these lives would be.

With a light touch, she pinpoints the way that intentions and results in life can casually part company.

"It was a painless job," her cranky gay dance teacher remembers, "a reasonable thing to do until I found something else, and then it became what I did."

She's equally astute in hinting at the decent core behind her characters' sometimes feckless-seeming behavior. "I was heedless and ambling," her footloose American traveler admits, "and had no idea where my honor was going to lie." All Silber has to do is mention that "honor" to make you curious as to how it will manifest itself.

All this — and she's funny, too. "Sleeping your way to the top," her cruise-ship showgirl laments, "is a bit of a myth, in my experience."

The contemporary tales in "Ideas of Heaven" couldn't be more satisfying, as they portray characters caught between the lure of the sensual and a sense of the ineffable. But it's the two historical tales that are the showpieces, effortlessly ushering you into their distant eras.

"Gaspara Stampa," about the 16th-century Venetian poet, is the linchpin of the book. In it, the young Stampa — "from a family at the edge of the world, untitled and unmoneyed yet beautifully educated" — enters Venice's salon scene as a musician and singer.

For a brief while, she thinks marriage might be a possibility. After it becomes clear that her low social rank nixes that, she goes for unsanctified carnal passion instead — and her poems, celebrating an eros that verges on blasphemy, sing with an exaltation and nimbleness of mind reminiscent of John Donne's best work. (The same could be said of "Ideas of Heaven" as a whole.)

In the title story, set on the eve of China's Boxer Rebellion in 1900, the sensual is tightly confined within its female narrator's yearning for "the Divine." "I was not ignorant about physical love," she says when she marries a missionary, "but I had not quite understood the way that this diffuse yearning would locate itself so pointedly in the vital tissues of my body, once Ben was actually with me."

She's in for some other shocks as well, including the bewildering physicality — smells, noise, unreadable faces — of faraway realms that previously existed for her only as a kind of fantasy.

"I understood that facts are more solid than we can stand," she says upon docking in Yokohama. "Every particle of strangeness was perfectly real."

In China itself, her final destination, the conversion success rate among the locals will be negligible — and the resistance to Christian missionaries will grow bloody.

There's a music to Silber's prose throughout "Ideas of Heaven," and a grand symphonic feel in the way she links story with story. There's also a thrill in seeing six fully realized fictional worlds placed in such close and artful juxtaposition. In short, it's hard to say enough good things about this beautiful book.

Michael Upchurch:

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