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The Dean's List

Photo by Lee Pellegrini

By William B. Neenan, SJ | Special to the Chronicle

Published: Oct. 3, 2013

As Boston College concludes its Sesquicentennial celebration, along comes this year’s Dean’s List with three thought-provoking, readable novels and one must-read biography. 

Jane Gardam is a treasure I have only too late discovered. To make up for my tardiness I urge you read Last Friends, the most recent of a trilogy of novels by Gardam. But before that you must read the two earlier novels of this trilogy: The first is Old Filth, acronym for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong,” which features Sir Edward Feathers, an Edwardian barrister in Malaya and Hong Kong.  Following Sir Edward’s tale, it is his wife Betty’s turn in The Man in the Wooden Hat.

And thirdly we come to Last Friends, this year’s addition to the Dean’s List. Here we meet again Sir Edward, now a widower, and Terence Veneering, Edward’s life-long nemesis and the erstwhile lover of Betty. Do not tarry.  These Jane Gardam novels are a sure-fire triple play.  Crafted with deftness, sudden surprises and sentences that are a simple delight to read. Believe me.

The Porter family has occupied a sandy stretch of the Massachusetts coast for generations. In Professor of English Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point, a Yankee matriarch of yesteryear, a Scots nanny, the 1960 feminist torn between her academic aspirations and competing maternal anxieties, and her son — an addicted college drop-out with a Thoreau fixation — are only a few of the members of the Porter family whose lives we follow with rapt attention in this novel. 

Although I must confess my own experience with the Neenan family was not particularly exotic, I did come away from The End of the Point feeling I had been in the midst of a tortured Porter family that was quite real.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, does not call to mind a visit to Lourdes or a walk along the Camino de Compostela.  Maybe the Canterbury Tales, with its series of stories on the way to Thomas á Becket’s shrine, is an apt comparison. Harold Fry, a married man, receives a note from old acquaintance Queenie Hennessey, who is dying in a hospice hundreds of miles distant across Britain. He judges that Queenie will continue to live as long as he continues walking. So walk he does for hundreds of miles.

Many fascinating experiences occur on this pilgrimage and Harold becomes something of a national celebrity.  But why is he really doing this, I wondered, as I read this engrossing novel? The answer to this question does come but I am not going to tell you.

Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life is a hefty tome. But when you read it I suspect you will come to see why George Washington is indeed the Father of our Country and most likely our greatest president. At least that has been my experience.  I also predict you will reevaluate the worth of others in that founding generation, such as John Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Some reputations may be enhanced, others tarnished. But George Washington emerges “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  At least in the heart of this countryman.

William B. Neenan, SJ, vice president and special assistant to the president, has published his annual Dean’s List of Recommended Reading since 1982.

(New entries in bold)

James Agee, A Death in the Family  

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim     

George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest                

Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons 

Albert Camus, The Fall 

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life   

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, Last Friends   

Lisa Genova, Still Alice     

Elizabeth Graver, The End of the Point  

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory   

Patricia Hampl, The Florist’s Daughter   

Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry 

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     

Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels  

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