Joan Silber ( is an American novelist and short story writer. She is the author of Household Words (Penguin Books, 1981), which won a PEN/Hemingway Award, and Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories (W.W. Norton, 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.


Improvement is told in three parts and jumping back and forth from the 1970s to 2012. The multilayered story drops in on the lives of loosely connected individuals, all trying (and mostly failing) to improve their lives in some way. Reyna, a white single mother living in Harlem, is torn between staying loyal to her African-American boyfriend Boyd (after his three-month sentence at Rikers Island for selling drugs) and getting more deeply involved in the interstate cigarette smuggling scheme Boyd hatched with his cousin and pals. When she pulls out of a smuggling run at the last minute, her decision sets off a chain reaction with dire consequences for one of Boyd’s friends, his love interest left stranded in another state, and a truck driver.


We also read the backstory of Reyna’s great-aunt Kiki’s marriage to a Turkish rug seller turned farmer. Fold in the tangential stories of three German antiquities smugglers who stop by Kiki’s farm for a night and leave a lasting impression, and a jump forward 30 years to find one of the German smugglers in the hospital dying of heart disease. It’s a rollicking, character rich contemporary American ride.



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256 pages in Counterpoint

First published 2017

ISBN 978-1619029606


Joan Silber

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