Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Tip from Your Local Bookseller

In lieu of a real post today, I think I'll just direct folks to the comments from a couple of earlier posts about the NBCC's "Good Reads," where a great discussion of the merits of the list has broken out. Additionally, I offer a recommendation of my own:

J.F. Powers is an author that few people read anymore, and that's a shame. He won the National Book Award in 1962 for his novel Morte D'Urban, and has been held in high regard by many writers for years, but I don't think he's ever found the readership he deserves. His books have made a small comeback, thanks to the New York Review of Books Press, which has given them hip new covers and put them back in print. (God bless the New York Review of Books for bringing so many books back from the dead.) Powers' subject matter -- the lives of Catholic priests in the Midwest in 50s and 60s -- won't appeal to everyone (it didn't appeal to me much when I found the books for the first time) -- but those with an open mind will find beautifully written stories, full of wry humor and plenty of pathos.

I discovered Wheat That Springeth Green, Powers' last novel, years ago in the tiny bookshop my friend runs. It's a bildungsroman of sorts, telling the tale of Joe, a star athlete in high school who, full of spiritual fervor, becomes a priest only to discover that it's not the life he thought it to be. Powers' dry sense of humor is on display throughout -- when an older priest at the seminary confronts Joe about stealing his hair shirt; when Joe can't remember the name of the new hippie priest the archdiocese has sent to his parish even after said hippie priest arrives (Joe's solution: to get the police to run the new priest's license plates); when the local defense contractor wants their new line of missiles blessed. Powers writes about priests the way Michael Connelly or David Simon writes about cops. Joe is a burned out, chain-smoking, borderline alcoholic who struggles throughout the book to rediscover the passion that drove him to the job to begin with. Powers' ability to render the quotidian details of this very specific culture is rare indeed. Rarer still that he's able to do it with such charm and grace.


At 10:13 AM, Anonymous John Freeman said...

Hey Patrick --

Thanks for this -- and all your kind words about the NBCC. You know, this book was a finalist for our fiction prize when it came out in 1988 (but it was beat out Bharati Mukherjee's The Middle Man and Other Stories)? I love it, too.

The NBCC actually has a series on our blog -- In Retrospect -- which looks back at some of these forgotten or overlooked 'mid-list' books, at least the ones which were NBCC finalists and winners, with essays and interviews and link round-ups. We've got about 100 of them assigned, but no one has claimed the Powers novel. Want to write an essay for us on it? If you could engineer a panel on the novel I'd do what I could from New York to help set up a discussion at Vroman's, too, if you needed any help.

As for the list, I think it would be fun to have an all retro list at some point, to see if there's any overlap in what people are re-reading or pulling from the stacks. I suppose during the year of Dawn Powell's resurgence you (an example of how, in some cases, the force of how a small group of articulate writers can be as powerful as any list) might have had one of her titles on it. Such a list could be something to do during holiday season, since as someone commented on Mark's blog, the best recommendation is a gift. It would be fun to have a list steering people to backlists at the end of the year when there is such a proliferation of 'best of year' lists.

One final note on recommendations and mid-list titles -- I think there's something to be said for the fact that novels with an outsider or against the grain aesthetic having a hard time with such an exercise (since they'll run up against our 'bourgeois' values, perhaps). Would Knut Hamsun's Hunger make a list today? I don't know. But I hope in the fact that the list might provoke such conversations that it makes a bit of difference.



At 12:14 PM, Blogger Patrick said...


I'd be honored to write the Wheat That Springeth Green post for you. I've been looking for an excuse to reread it this year, and this seems like the perfect reason. I also like your idea of counter-programing a retro list to coincide with the holiday season and the year-end "best of" deluge. The idea of a panel on this book or on "great forgotten books" or what have you at Vroman's could work, although our schedule is packed for the next few months. I'd like to see if we can get it off the ground at some point. We should talk about when it makes sense to do it.

As always, thanks for the comments.



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