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Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963 Kindle Edition

4.8 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Length: 477 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* His body of work may be small—three collections of short stories and two novels—but National Book Award winner J. F. Powers drew praise from such prominent fellow writers as Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. His fiction primarily concentrated on the lives of Catholic priests, but he had long planned to write a novel of family life, which he never finished. He did, however, write thousands of letters, which his daughter, Katherine A. Powers, has carefully and thoughtfully assembled. They reveal a complicated and, at times, exasperating figure, a man and an artist at odds with the outside world. Beginning with the publication of his first short story at age 25, the volume contains letters detailing his experiences in prison (Powers served time as a conscientious objector during WWII), his courtship and marriage to Betty Wahl, an existence mired in poverty (“No money is the story of my life,” he once wrote), and his constant search for “suitable accommodations.” The locations vary from Chicago to Minnesota to Ireland; his correspondents include such literary figures as Robert Lowell, Jack Conroy, Katherine Anne Porter, and Evelyn Waugh. A major literary accomplishment. --June Sawyers


“A major literary accomplishment” ―Booklist (Starred review)

“In these letters, Powers shows a winning modesty, playing neither the whining, unappreciated artist nor the man the fates have treated unfairly. Drollery abounds: If an American is ever made pope, he writes to a friend, he should take the name Bingo.” ―Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal

“There are times when you want to wring Powers's neck, but you can't help caring about him, liking him, rooting for him....I do wish that Powers would find the readers he deserves, just as Peter Taylor did against almost all the odds, but he seems fated to be a writer known to too few, like Isabel Colegate, J.G. Farrell or Mordecai Richler. Pretty good company, it says here.” ―Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“What's amazing, given this meandering and self-mortifying life, is how often Suitable Accommodations made me laugh….devotees of the author's work…will recognize his voice in an instant: droll, delicious, resigned to the mass production of human folly, including his own.” ―James Marcus, The Los Angeles Times

“[Suitable Accommodations] reads like a fully realized epistolary novel, by turns exasperating and poignant and always funny.” ―D. G. Myers, The Daily Beast

“…observant, witty, and self-deprecating… ” ―Paul Elie, Harper's

“Fascinating, funny, and disturbing.” ―Minneapolis Star Tribune

“These vibrant letters… reveal a restless, promising writer and family man with a wry sense of humor and a hunger for literary camaraderie…this collection serves as a touching portrait of one writer's struggle.” ―Publishers Weekly

“One of the funniest, most socially exact, heartrending and thoroughly enjoyable writers alive.” ―Jonathan Raban, The Sunday Times (London)

“I see no limit to his possible achievement.” ―Evelyn Waugh, CommonWealth

Product Details

  • File Size: 5108 KB
  • Print Length: 477 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 20, 2013)
  • Publication Date: August 20, 2013
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,035,189 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I've long wondered about J.F. Powers but have learned little about him beyond the bare facts. That was all that was available, for decades. Now, this book lets us find out much more about his personality and his perseverance.

As the oldest child of a long-suffering writer bent on evading any 9-to-5 routine, Katharine Anne Powers presents her father, J. F. (James Farl known also as Jim) Powers, in a sensitive yet honest "autobiographical story of family life" in mid-century America. He never finished the fictional depiction of his real-life predicament, always chafing against conformity as a conservative Catholic intellectual during the WWII and the boom years, but as Katharine shows, Jim channeled self-pity and satirical send-ups into his correspondence. From thousands of his letters and some of his journals, she depicts how Jim "worked up the theme of life mowing him down" (xx).

Resigned but never stoic, bitter yet motivated, J. F. took life's difficulties personally. Born in 1917 in small-town Illinois, grandson of an Irish immigrant, early on he opposed giving in. Encouraged by pacifists, inspired by the little-known Detachment movement within the mid-century Catholic counterculture, the Powers family tried to turn away from the capitalist, consumerist, materialist, and militarist majority of FDR's deals and Ike's likes.

Certainly, reticence combines with frankness in the Powers clan. These letters reveal a young man determined to go his own way, somehow wrangling the respect of others who would support his desire to simply hide away in the woods, to farm (not a likely vocation), and to write stories.
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Two weeks ago I finally got around to reading JF Powers’ Morte D’Urban, a novel about a very sophisticated priest who finds himself exiled to rural Minnesota where he spends most of his time doing house repairs. I was so taken with the novel that I picked up this collection of letters.
I don’t know why I persist in thinking that writers will be exemplary people. This collection, put together by the author’s eldest daughter reveals Powers to be self-obsessed about the primacy of art before all else (including shelter and food).
Early on he says to a correspondent: “I don’t want a job of course. Only the freedom to write and, it may be, starve. For I intend to make it like that, have had my mind made up for some time, and might as well begin to find out if it is possible.” This is all fine, except that Mr. Powers has a wife and, eventually, 5 children.
He talks often of having made it clear to his parents that making money would not be a priority and regrets that his wife has not made it clear to her family. Thus it is with increasing dismay that the reader watches him turn down job after job and condemn his family to a life of multiple cold, wretched dwellings. No matter where the family lands they are always worrying about food and housing and according to his daughter’s “Afterword,” her parents were not good at sheltering their children from any of these worries.
Powers goes on whine that he is “the husband of a woman who no talent for motherhood (once she’s conceived.)” The bitterness toward his wife is especially hard to take since he spends many holidays away (he likes it that way) and has numerous ways to escape domestic pressures. His wife, also a writer, does not.
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I loved the book. It is especially meaningful because the Powers were friends of my family and I knew many of the people named in the book. I admire Katherine for her reseach, editing, and lovely comentary. It is a fascinating book that gives the reader an understanding of the Beatnicks and the Hippies that followed what Katherine refers to as the Detachers.
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"Suitable Accommodations" ( I dispense with the full title) is an autobiography by way of collected letters accompanied by commentary of its collector/editor Katherine Anne Powers daughter of the book's subject J.F. Powers short story and novel writer. His works earned him meager income though better paid peers admired them. The autobiography is limited in that the letters included are selected from a greater number and gloss over its subject's advocation. Nor does the book follow her father's life beyond 1963
As an expression of daughterly esteem, the collection stands apart from complaint. Strange however, so little is given in regard to what aside from parental merit J. F. Powers is remembered most for , literary excellence. But "Suitable Accommodations: does what a biography is supposed to do, add to the personal dimension of a person. We have Shakespeare's plays and sonnets; what would we give for personal details about him. The letters answer such questions as what sort of husband was he, what sports interested him, how did he react to criticism of his fiction, was he concerned about the income his writing brought? The enigmatic author becomes a more understandable person via his correspondence. There is one sentence, however, which says much about Powers and his creative efforts. "The requirements of art demand that you do violence sometimes to the facts as they took place, or interpret them differently, or make up incidents and conjure up characters that life itself, being such an erratic artist, seldom provides."

I wish that more about K. A. Power's mother (nee Betty Wahl) had been included. From Betty's journal extracts and what else I found out about her, she was an admirable woman. J. F. could rent an office to do his writing in solitude.
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