These two books have three things in common: Both are by former Yankee writers from Massachusetts, both are compulsively readable, and both are about quests.
Suzanne Strempek Shea’s Sundays in America (Beacon Press, $24.95) begins with the flood of grief that accompanied the death of Pope John Paul II. “As a Catholic who in recent years had experienced a spiritual disconnect,” she writes, “I felt a true homesickness for that level of passion.” So she goes on a yearlong odyssey to 52 Protestant churches of all sizes and descriptions, from a Shaker meetinghouse at Sabbathday Lake in Maine to a Houston megachurch that seats 16,000.
Todd Balf’s Major (Crown, $24) is about another pilgrim: Marshall “Major” Taylor, a black bicycle racer who set seven world records and won both the world championship in 1899 and the U.S. championship in 1900, despite the pervasive racism of that time. He was the world’s fastest human — no machine of that era could match the speed of a racing bike, and Major’s time for the 200-meter sprint is only half a second off the current world record.
Major’s forte was “the jump,” the last two seconds of the race. “Those two seconds were his cathedral,” Balf writes, forced into religious metaphor. “His search for those two seconds, for a perfect jump, was a holy grail, a mantra repeated, a pilgrim’s pattern in the sand.”