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Dean's List 2011: Struggles on a Personal and Historical Scale

10/06/11
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William B. Neenan, SJ, Vice President and Special Assistant to the President

By William B. Neenan, SJ |Vice President and Special Assistant to the President

Published: Oct. 6, 2011

The 28th annual Dean’s List features four entries, two focusing on individuals while two address great historic movements.

Jane Gardam’s God on the Rocks indeed features individuals, a menagerie of them: Margaret, a clear-eyed eight-year-old; her odd parents; a worldly-wise caretaker; and the inmates of a pre-World War II asylum — in other words, all distinct individuals representing all of us. Gardam weaves them all together keeping our attention to the very last page.    

I discovered Jane Gardam only this year even though she has been writing and winning awards for decades. Too late have I known you, Jane. Not on this year’s list are some of her books I’ve read just this year, Old Filth (“Failed in London try Hong Kong”) and Faith Fox. Immediately put down whatever you may be reading and pick up a Jane Gardam — any Jane Gardam.   

Early onset Alzheimer’s. These fearful words describing the reality are usually followed by complex coping mechanisms of the person herself, her husband, daughters, colleagues and her friends. All this is movingly depicted in Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice.  Alice is a successful scholar in mid-career, a wife, a mother of two daughters — and then, without a hint of warning, the onset of Alzheimer’s is followed by her gradual descent into the darkness of dementia.  All around Alice, everyone and everything inexorably disappears until, despite a ravaged mind, a person remains. Still Alice.  

Timothy Snyder's is a disturbing and important book, Bloodlands. These areas are defined by him as Poland, the three Baltic nations, Belarus and Ukraine between 1933 and 1945. In those places during those years the murderous policies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union killed 14 million individuals. Fourteen million! Each one of these 14 million had a name, a Margaret, an Alice.    

This staggering number excludes the other tens of millions who were casualties of World War II. Who it includes are the millions of Jews shot or gassed by the Germans, the hundreds of thousand Poles and Belarusians shot by the Germans as “reprisals,” the over three million Ukrainians deliberately starved by the Soviets in the 1930s and the 700,000 murdered by the Soviets during the Great Terror of 1937-38, and on and on in numbing horror.    

This is not a beach book. It is a simple reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and of what we are capable of doing in the name of a “cause.” A book to be read and reflected upon.  

John Allen is a knowledgeable and sophisticated journalistic observer of the Catholic Church. In The Future Church, he describes with considerable insight the world the Catholic Church will probably inhabit decades from now. A sampler: The three most populous Catholic countries in 2050 will be Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. Inter-religious conversation by then will not involve Catholics with Protestants and Jews, but Catholics with Islam. By 2050, China is projected to have over 200 million Christians, which would make it the world’s second largest Christian nation after Brazil.   

For many of us, myself included, I suspect Allen’s projections will be startling. That Catholic world decades from now will not be our “grandmother’s” Catholicism. But then Jesus’ last words to us were “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

-- Fr. Neenan is vice president and special assistant to the president. He has issued his annual Dean’s List of recommended reading annually since 1982.

The Dean's List for 2011-12
New entries this year indicated in bold.

James Agee, A Death in the Family       

John Allen, The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church
Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim   

George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest   

Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons   

Albert Camus, The Fall   

Clare Dunsford, Spelling Love with an X: a Mother, a Son, and the Gene that Binds Them    

Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington   

Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby   

Jane Gardam, God on the Rocks   

Lisa Genova, Still Alice    

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory   

Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter    

James Martin, SJ, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything    

David McCullough, Truman    

Alice McDermott, After This    

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son    

John O'Malley, SJ, The First Jesuits    

Marilynne Robinson, Home    

Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels    

Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Wallace Stegner, Collected Stories    

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter         

Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men    

Garry Wills, Saint Augustine    

Simon Winchester, River at the Center of the World    

Jay Winik, April 1865, The Month that Saved America