For too long, Joan Silber has labored in the shadows, her work overlooked, underappreciated and read by too few. I’m here to correct that. Or at least give it my best shot.

I just completed her latest novel, Improvement, and it is a stunning work, full of subtlety and insight, conveying an understanding of how ordinary people struggle to make something of their lives. Politicians who want to connect with “real” Americans would have a better chance of doing so if they studied Silber’s work, beginning with Improvement.

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hen I was in graduate school and working on an early version of my first novel, Hawke’s Point, my thesis advisor asked me if I’d read Richard Russo. I hadn’t, but when he said my writing reminded him of Russo’s, I rushed out to get everything I could lay my hands on. The advisor’s comment was reinforced when a reviewer of Hawke’s Point also cited a similarity to Russo.

At first, I didn’t really see it.

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Kids Write the Darndest Things

As a writer I love to read—first, for the joy of devouring a good book and, second, because as a writer I always learn something I can use. And as an aging baby boomer, I love to watch and try to mentor the youngest generation as it finds its footing in the world. That’s why I look forward each week to the 90 minutes I spend leading a teen writing club. It combines the best of both my worlds, and invariably I learn a lot—about life and about writing.

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No, You Can’t Have Her Number

I should have seen it coming. There were hints, but I made light of them, and took just a few tentative steps to deflect them. It wasn’t enough, and my problem persists: Readers of my first novel, Hawke’s Point, wanted to know a lot more about Mary Louise. Or more specifically, they want to know how I knew so much about Mary Louise. The men even want her phone number, as though I have it on speed dial.

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The Letters of Edith Wharton

When I was having trouble with the first chapter of a novel I was writing, a good friend and writing mentor suggested I take another look at Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Its first chapter is a classic; it not only draws you into the story but it also lays the groundwork and foreshadows everything that is to follow.

In fact, the opening was so good I couldn’t stop and quickly reread Wharton’s wonderful classic.

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I’ve been to a lot of book club meetings in my day, but never one quite like this, never one where the stakes were so high. This wasn’t going to be a casual conversation about books with a group of friends; this was going to be a conversation with eight strangers about a book that meant everything to me: Hawke’s Point, my debut novel published in 2014. Was I nervous?  You bet.

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When I told my wife and some friends that I was finally going to take their advice and read one of Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache novels, they all told me the same thing: You must read them in order!  So of course I started with No 2, A Fatal Grace, and then turned to The Beautiful Mystery, which is No. 9. Well, I’m here to tell you that despite what everyone tells you, you can read Penny’s novels out of order and still live to sing their praises.

But unless you’re also the ornery type like me, why would you? You’ll be doing yourself a favor to follow directions and start at the beginning with Still Life.

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Can Books Change the World?

So, I’ve been reading Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. I like to keep up with the latest fads and, as President Trump pointed out not too long ago, Douglass “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job that is being recognized more and more.”

Douglass is probably the most famous abolitionist of all time, and his work was widely recognized in the years before, during, and long after the Civil War, including by President Abraham Lincoln, whose response to Douglass’s criticism was to invite him to the White House to talk about their differences. Over time they developed a strong friendship and at least a partial reconciliation of their views. Lincoln listened, changed, and came to appreciate Douglass, and the feeling was mutual.

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Next time you feel overwhelmed by the number of books on your to-read list, think of Ron Charles, the fiction editor at the Washington Post. Charles and his colleagues at the newspaper get 200 books a day to choose from, with a lot careers depending on their decisions. I chatted with Ron for the premier issue of Late Last Night Books a few years back. Here is a shortened version of that conversation.

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Mark Willen