Oct. 6, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 3

Rev. William B. Neenan, SJ

Books That Show Us the 'Before' and the 'After'

By Rev. William B. Neenan, SJ

Saddam's demise, the year of the Red Sox and Katrina - events such as these tend to blot out memories of an earlier time. Three of the 2005 Dean's List five new entries remind us however that in human affairs there is indeed always a before and an after and that in families powerful emotions connect across the generations.

Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile details how a maverick Congressman in the James Bond mold provided invaluable support for a CIA supported war that established a Muslim fundamentalist government in Kabul in 1989. And then came the unintended aftermath: 9/11 and the tale of the 19 terrorists who trained in this very same fundamentalist Afghanistan.

Tim Russert's Big Russ and Me is a recollection by a prominent national figure of his formative years growing up in modest circumstances. It is also a cautionary tale that one or two concerned individuals are more critical than a village in forming the character of the young. Russert's warm personal account reminded me of Tip O'Neill's advice, "Never forget where you came from."

Gilead is a novel in which a dying 76-year-old Congregational minister in Iowa ruminates on the meaning of life, specifically his life as reflected through memories of his father and grandfather, also ministers of the Gospel-three generations connected by a common calling but lived in very distinctive ways. These reflections are being written for the benefit of the minister's seven-year-old son - a fourth generation - in the hope that they may provide balm for him in Gilead.

The inept human response to Katrina reminds us that individuals still make a difference in the course of human events. George Washington made a great difference. After reading Joseph Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington, I am convinced that if not for Washington's sure and deft hand at several critical junctions between 1775 and 1799 there would today be no United States as we know it. No wonder so many streets in Massachusetts are named after him.

Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire is simply a great read and doesn't fit into a theme as for the other four entries. Hazzard is a superb stylist and gives us a fascinating portrayal of human drama in the midst of the unrest following the end of World War II in the Far East. Sometimes a novel is simply a novel.

Fr. Neenan is vice president and special assistant to the president. He has published his "Dean's List" of recommended books since 1982.

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