In a way, both of my summertime recommendations are about searching for something precious.
A few months ago I picked up a book about a big bird that read like a thriller. The Grail Bird (Houghton Mifflin, 304p, $14.95) is the riveting story of the hunt for the elusive Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, a spectacular creature that was reputed to have gone extinct, until a tantalizing sighting (or was it?) a few years ago. The author, Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine, a publication of the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology, takes readers on a remarkable journey that begins in Ithaca, New York, and ends up deep in the swamps of the Mississippi Delta. The last officially confirmed sighting of what was called the Good God Almighty Bird (after what onlookers exclaimed when confronted with the magnificent specimen) was in 1944. Ill leave it to readers to say if they think that date should be revised, after they read about Mr. Gallaghers remarkable experiences.
The same year of that last official sighting, Ida Görres, a German scholar, published a book on a much different topic. Her study, The Hidden Face (Ignatius Press, 390 p, $19.95), is widely considered to be the best book ever written on St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun also known as the Little Flower. Its scholarship is simply dazzling, as are the authors insights on the psychological underpinnings of the spirituality of this most popular of all modern saints. Görress book, recently reprinted (2003), is very long, but by the end of her search for Thérèse, you will find that she has made an old friend come alive in a new way.
Veronica Szczygiel, Intern
The blistering months of summer have officially arrived. Whereas some would choose to delve into the sandy shores of Fitzgeralds West Egg or the icy precipices of Mary Shelleys Geneva, I opted for the hot, arid conditions of ancient Egypt as narrated by Christian Jacq in his five-volume series Ramses. Volume I, The Son of Light (Warner Books, 384p, $14.99), begins in medias res with a young Ramses staring into the eyes of a raging bull, a test to prove his manhood to his pharaoh father, Seti. Fans (like myself) of Tolkiens long and winding descriptions or Woolfs stream-of-consciousness narratives will take a while to become accustomed to Jacqs concise writing style. However, the roller-coaster paced action compensates for the shortage of description. It is all too easy to get sucked into the political intrigue, betrayals and romantic exploits of Ramses and his companions. One of the most fascinating characters is Ramses best friend, Moses. Watching him evolve from an Egyptians perspective forces the reader to reconsider the other side of the traditional Biblical story.
What really make this novel a joy to read are Egyptologist Jacqs historically accurate descriptions of the rituals, gods and goddesses and magical practices of this ancient land. As a reader, youre not just an observer of these cultural mores, you feel like an active participant. Welcome to the Nile.
Maurice Timothy Reidy, Online Editor
On a recent trip to Ireland, I spent a day in Derry, an underrated city with a great sense of history. While there I picked up Reading in the Dark (Vintage, 256 p, $13.95), by Seamus Deane. Set in 1940s Derry, Deanes novel chronicles the awakening of a young boy growing up in a family torn by political division. Over time the narrator pieces together the devastating truth at the heart of the conflict. It is a tribute to Deanes genius that while Reading in the Dark is a gripping read, on its way toward a shattering conclusion, you never hear the gears of plot turning. It helps that the book reads like a great memoir, with colorful details and anecdotes about growing up in Derry.
One brilliant set piece is worth mentioning: the men of Catholic Derry band together to rid their neighborhood of rats. After rounding up dozens of stray dogs, they ignite the rats lair, and set the dogs upon them as they flee. The battle that ensues is a terrifying scene that foreshadows the violence that would engulf Derry in the years to come.