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The Stories of J.F. Powers (New York Review Books Classics)
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44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on March 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
These wonderful stories mine the whole of American life, but Powers was at his best when he wrote about the very narrow slice of life that confines, constricts and defines the lives of Catholic priests. The comedy inherent in parish and church politics, the worldliness of men who have supposedly dedicated their lives to God, the loneliness of other men who have discovered that God is absent from most of their daily routine---these are Powers' favorite subjects, and in exploring them he produced some of the saddest and funniest stories to be found outside of Joyce's "Dubliners."
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
In a world where bestselling authors Joe Queenan, P.J. O'Rourke, Dave Barry, Christopher Buckley, and (God-forgive-me) Al Franken are hailed as leading humorists, there are three giants of American humor that are criminally underappreciated: Florence King, Jim Goad, and the late James Farl Powers. While King and Goad follow in the Rabelasian tradition of the better known humorists listed above, J.F. Powers wrote in a deep and subtle field of allusion and irony. His humor is poignant and instructive in a way that is both profoundly human, yet open to the face of the divine.

The stories collected here also include Powers's tragic pieces, as well as other sketches and thinly disguised passages of his own family life. These are exemplary works, and perhaps the best examples of American writing ever produced, for Powers has often been called "the writer's writer" for the craft and care with which he chooses words.

Attention has been paid to the fact that Powers was a Catholic writer, and there have been critics who strain to invoke comparison with Flannery O'Connor. For me the only points of tangency are that they were Catholics, were writers, wrote about humor and irony, but that is about it. Their voices create entirely different worlds, and their characters are hewn from different rock, and their anima sprouted from different soil.

Powers is a distinctly different writer, speaking from a different landscape and with a plainness of style that invokes the Midwest and invites comparison with Willa Cather. But as William Faulkner said and wrote, Powers's subjects are circumscribed by "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing."

And so we return to Powers's comedy. For his humor is deeply funny both for what is on the page, and for that which is unstated. Indeed, with a single sentence Powers creates paragraphs of detail in the reader's imagination; we have seen each of these people and each of these situations before, oftentimes in the mirror. But Powers is gentle, and gives us a kind of catharsis as we follow the bumbling path of flawed souls, venial, petty, and helpless, but not hopeless.

If there is a counterpoint in American letters to which Powers should be compared, then I suggest H.L. Mencken, for in many ways Powers is the answer to Mencken, for all which he found contemptible, Powers has also found funny, but more importantly sacred. Mencken's American cynicism and misanthropy have been answered by Powers with prose that is his match, and a literary redemption of the common soul that could only have been inspired by both a love of man and a love of the written word. Until the Library of America recognizes Powers for the giant of American writing that he is, we will have to be content with this edition. A pity, for the binding is poor, and already sections are falling out of my copy. From heaven, Powers must observe this condition with the wry and ironic amusement to which, during his earthly life, he gave voice.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
I have reviewed on Amazon the earlier collections in their original format, "Prince of Darkness" (1947) and "Presence of Grace," (1956) as well as the novel "Morte d'Urban" (1962). The collected three thin volumes, thirty stories total, are reprinted as "The Stories of J.F. Powers" in 2001 from NY Review Press, as well as reissues of the two novels. As another reviewer on Amazon here noted, I too prefer the original volumes, but the fact that NY Review Press has reprinted the five books (the two novels and this anthology) in handsome editions after Powers (1917-99) languished as a cult favorite and, curse and blessing for him, status as a "writer's writer" who took years to create, it seems, a single story, judging from over forty years and the small shelf of five thin books as originally printed 1947-88.

Denis Donaghue provides an efficient introduction to this rather prickly author, whose moral backbone, no-nonsense manner, and ear for the telling phrase and the revealing pause made him one of America's most talented recorders of fictional priests, laity, and in two great stories a cat as the narrator of Midwestern foibles, dreamers, and ordinary folks, whether in rectories or social halls. His best stories do involve the clergy, as any reader of Powers will recognize, but these at their best emerge more vividly when included among the lesser attempts at themes such as baseball, the space race, race relations, wife-swapping, and a chillingly rendered Welcome Wagon lady.

Powers took his good time writing these stories, so take yours reading them. If you would like more advice on each of the thirty, take a look at my reviews of "Prince," "Presence," and "Look." There, I briefly comment upon each story in the order they were originally printed. This anthology preserves this order, but outside of an introduction adds no new stories to the small but, if you take the best of the clergy stories, memorable tales. As Powers explained why he as a layman wrote about clerics: a man taking out an insurance policy provides no real tension usually. But when a priest takes out an insurance policy, you have material for a story...
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2012
Format: Paperback
I'll open my review by saying that I came to this collection of stories after reading Power's two novels in the NYRB series, _Morte D'Urban_ and _ Wheat that Springeth Green_, and I had no previous experience of his short stories. So I can't add anything to some of the reviewers' comments on previous editions being better.

I will say that I found the short stories to have a different feel to them than his longer works - there is much more tension in them and less of the understated humor. It wasn't a book where I could read one story after another; I usually needed a break between each one to just mull it over.

Many of the stories concern Catholic priests in some American situation and have the feel of the '50s and '60s. I think Powers chose priests to write about so much because they represented a man stripped of a number of encumbrances - family, owning a home, business responsibilities - and so freed him to write about more elemental themes. Many of these themes aren't particularly noble or exalted; spirituality rarely lifts its head. Hierarchy and bureaucracy are the background for many of the pieces. Parishioners have a minor role, usually as one more responsibility to get through in the day. Men come out of the seminary full of energy and ideals and ambition and slowly become the senior old grouch bedeviling a new generation of energetic idealists.

The baggage today around clergy, especially Catholic clergy, is so very different that the stories seem to almost be from another time, and I have to wonder that his priests seem to never regret their decisions to forgo women, family and a choice of home life, but it isn't a huge issue in the enjoyment of his work.

Although most of the stories are about priests, and some of those are going to be familiar ones if you've read his two novels, others have the perspective of a black child observing a race riot out the window, a boy who follows his obsession with baseball fantasy until it implodes in the harsh light of reality. And a cat narrates at least two of them.

All are very well-crafted and will remain with you after you finish _The Stories_.
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on May 15, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
J.F. Powers is a well-kept secret from many readers, who will delight if they encounter his work--two novels and now, these stories.
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on March 20, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
For this review I concentrate on J. F. Power’s priestly stories which comprise two thirds or so of the book’s contents. The tribulations of the Roman Catholic priesthood is a major concern of fiction.

Powers was admired by his literary peers for his proficiency in the short story. One of his two novels won a National Book Award, but he is generally considered a short fiction master who occasionally turned out a novel than vice versa.

In the major elements of fiction writing he is adept. He gives his characters a presence; he renders settings with clarity and impact; and bestows on the milieu his tales takes place in, a strong sense of authenticity. He has been called a writer’s writer, a praise that signifies a close study of his works helps one learn the craft of story writing.

An overview of the priestly stories suggest to me Powers is a pessimist about the efficacy of the vocation at the parish level. He is not the first Roman Catholic to reprove his/her church. Joyce comes to mind in that regard. Only Powers’ imparts an aura not so much of distaste but of regret. Here are men of the cloth who want to fulfill the broader duties of compassion and succor to the laity but find themselves mired in intra politics and convention. The incidents of conflict are small in scale but large in implication. Story after story of petty intrigue and contention add up to a bleak regard of priesthood functioning at a parochial level. Despite the amount of detail pertinent to the nitty-gritty of parish activity, the stories emanate I get an impression of corporate politics in priestly garb. Yet the author’s tone isn’t scathing; more a brooding contemplation such as suggested by the painting of Jesus pondering Jerusalem from a hill side. Powers, like any pessimist, is a disappointed idealist.

I think the collection is rather uneven because “Moonshot” is formatted as a one act play, and “Folks” in the form of a short letter between a preface and an after word is puzzling as to how a reader is to take it.

A brief comment on the author. Powers never wore a priest’s cloth, though he did attend Catholic seminary and worked in a Catholic associated university. He included several priests among his best friends. From comments by those who knew him I gather he wasn’t a constant writer in the sense of Trollope with his one thousand words a day timed to two hundred and fifty words every quarter hour. Rather Powers was a fitful writer whose stints at composition occurred between intervals of sundry activities. One started on a story though he was dogged in its completion. He revised copiously until, as his daughter put it, the pile of pages had the density of a plank. Between stories he wrote miles of letters. His daughter Katherine has compiled them in a book the title of which– Suitable Accommodations – comes from a favorite expression of her father who was rather nomadic in his choice of residences.. Her preface provides considerable background on a well loved father. From it I drew the above remarks.
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on January 17, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Beforehand I'd just like to say that I am a priest and that this review is written from that perspective.

These stories focus of priestly life of the mid-twentieth century. They include many details and insights into certain realities of what priests do. In particular, the in which he is able to express the interpersonal interactions between priests is very interesting. He has hit the nail on the head in many ways, one example being the awkward interactions between the Bishop and a priest in the story "Zeal." The Bishop finds that he just can't get away from Fr. Early fast enough and yet he then goes looking for him. He's uncomfortable around him, yet he misses him when he's gone.

Also, in "A Losing Game," Powers has put into words what many priests have felt when looking for things for their rooms. In this story, the pastor of the parish keeps everything (i.e., tables, chairs, and other furniture) hidden away, so that no one can use it. The way in which the junior priest finally manages to get the easy chair he wants really does communicate the odd style of passive communication that so many priests use amongst each other for various reasons.

Powers overall does an excellent job in showing certain aspects of priestly life of which people are often unaware. I recommend these short stories to anyone who wants to understand priestly culture better. In particular, I think that many priests will find these stories quite amusing and relatable.
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on December 2, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Powers stories are crafted with sardonic realism and an ear for the "language" of Catholic priests. I first read these stories in the 1950's and am delighted to have a Kindle version of the New York Review of books edition. Perfect when reading time is limited.
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on October 7, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Powers is just amazing! He was never published here in my country, and Brazil is missing such sagacity and delicacy. "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does" keeps coming back to my read, always telling something new, that i still can't dare do try another story!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Advertised as used, condition good, the book was actually in almost new condition. Having paid for only standard shipping, I was thrilled to receive my book in what had to be record time. I will look for this vendor each time I need/want a book. I couldn't be more pleased.
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