underground reads

what new yorkers are reading on the subway

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Undergroundreads is going international, taking a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. I am taking three novels with me, besides my guide book. One, recommended by David Stein, is called Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta. I tried to go buy the book at the Strand, but couldn't remember the title, and kept asking the snarky pimply faced clerk if they carried something called Eat This Book. He said no, and couldn't have been gruffer. When I finally got around to looking up the title on my iPhone, he said they didn't have the Spiotta book, which I found surprising. He then confessed that he didn't hear me properly, and that they did in fact have one copy of the book, which apparently is about a 1970s radical protest gone wrong, and the lives of the protesters 20-some years later. My second novel falls in the category of, I should have read this book as a teenager, and I may have problems reading it now, but I will give it a try nonetheless, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. I may want my students to read it, so I had better check it out first. The third book is pure beach read: A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. I read The Kite Runner in two or three days and just ate it up like it was candy, cried my eyes out. So while my apartment is occupied by inlaws, that'll be me with Good Reads on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, not paying attention to train delays or urine-smelling subway stations. But sure enough, Underground Reads will be back in September, just in time for school kids and the exciting end of the baseball season. Read Underground!

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Manhattan bound A Train between Nostrand and Jay-Borough Hall
I have a confession to make. I don't find David Sedaris funny. I've read his stuff in The New Yorker. I've tried to read his books. I find them too wink-wink nudge-nudge, an assumption that his reader will be in on his jokes that, at least in my case, is wrong. I'm not proud of this fact. I meet people all the time who disagree with me completely, my wife included. Jessica is one of those people. "His writing his hilarious," she says. "It makes the subway ride go by fast." I want to jump up and down and stomp my feet. I hate not getting the joke. What is so funny? Jessica is a student adviser at Kaplan, the test-prep company. Mostly, she says, she listens to student problems, which as it turns out come in droves. She loves to read on the train, she says, and although she was packing an iPod in her bag, she felt too engrossed in the Sedaris book to strap on the earbuds. I ask anyone who reads this, please explain to me what is so funny.

Sister of My Heart

A Train between Brooklyn and Manhattan
I first encountered Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in the '90s while in grad school. She granted me an interview for the literary magazine we were trying to get off the ground, having published just one book of short stories, Arranged Marriage. Those stories, I felt at the time, captured something I didn't know about--the South Asian immigrant experience--but something much more universal and also attractive--the feeling of alienation within American culture. Her second book, The Mistress of Spices, didn't compel quite as much. Then life I found myself drawn to other writers. Angeline, who was reading Sister of My Heart on the A train, had that same visceral response as I did after reading that first book. Angeline, who first encountered Divakaruni at Rutgers in a multi-cultural literature class in college, is a far better reader than I am, I'm afraid. There's something about someone who will go out and read a writer's body of work, and Angeline, a second grade teacher, had just gone out and bought three of Divakaruni's novels. Sister of My Heart is the first one she's tackled, and it's about two cousins raised as sisters, set in India. She's nearly done with the novel after reading it for only four days, "a quick read" she says.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

C Train going underground between Brooklyn and Manhattan
Stephen, an audio engineer, first read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers ten years ago. What a brilliant idea, to reread this novel. When I think that she wrote it when she was 23, I want to give up my own writing. It's a beautiful story set in a small town in Georgia. I too hadn't read it in a long time, maybe 20 years not 10. I remember the deaf mute and the girl, but little else. Stephen, however, has a good memory and rarely rereads books. The last book he read on the train which he loved as much as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is 100 Years of Solitude, another novel that deserves rereading.


Manhattan bound Brooklyn C train
Sellevision is a "humorous" novel by memoirist Augustin Burroughs. about TV shopping networks, according to Brook, a fund raiser for a non-profit agency. Email becomes important to the plot, as does a woman's facial hair. Burroughs is one of her favorite authors, Brook says. He has written Writing With Scissors, Dry, and A Wolf at the Table. She thinks this might be his first novel.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Color of Magic

Uptown A Train in Manhattan, traveling on the F Line
Miriam, who is getting her masters degree in Bio-ethics, agreed with me that you've got to give Terry Pratchett his props. The Color of Magic, which Miriam was reading on the train, is the first of a series that spans 20 books. She says the books create a fantasy world. There are, in fact, wizards. She started reading much later in the series and is now returning to the first one.

The Secret Life of Bees

Uptown A Train in Manhattan
Alisha is a court reporter and was reading The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk. She hadn't progressed very far, page 14, but has hope because it was recommended to her by someone who has the same favorite book as she does, I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb. She reports that the novel is about a young white girl living in the South. Her mother died and she's being raised by her Black house keeper. Then she told me about www.bookcrossing.com. It's a website that encourages people to leave their books in places where others are likely to find them, effectively passing on good books to someone who might need a new book to read on the subway. I love this idea. When I was much younger, I didn't believe in collecting books, and I gave away every book I enjoyed, or throughout the bad books. I like to refer to my books now, as a teacher, so I hold on to them, but I still love to give away books to people who would enjoy them, and have people recommend books as well. Bookcrossing, according to the website, is itself a noun in the Oxford Concise English Dictionary that means "the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise." If only we had a little shelf built into the subway trains where we could exchange books.

I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings

Manhattan-bound A Train in Brooklyn.
The book you see in the picture is I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. Taking a picture with my phone in a moving train is tough, and I am sorry that I am not more of a photographer. Moses didn't want his picture taken with the book, and I don't blame him, in some respects. I am a guy he's never met before, accosting him on a subway train and asking him about his book. The book itself is well known to me; as I high school teacher, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings is a staple, or what Moses calls a classic. "It's a book about the American experience," Moses says. I asked him how. He said in the way we are still learning, as a country, to deal with race and gender, "regardless of how we see ourselves." It's not a "profound" book, he said, "because it's a reality."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Daughter of Fortune

Jay-Borough Hall, waiting for the F Train
There are certain trains where riders read. That seems to be always true on the F Train, especially between midtown Manhattan and Park Slope. I'll let you, gentle reader, find your own conclusions. So although I myself patiently waited for the A Train across the platform at Jay-Borough Hall, I guessed that by wandering over to the F side, I'd find a reader. Sure enough, Maria, a union organizer, read Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende while waiting for the F, which came two minutes after I approached her. Contrary to my assumption, however, she says she usually doesn't read books on the train. She reads magazines. However she got Daughter of Fortune at train station--I'm assuming she meant Grand Central or Penn Station. She assumes that by doing so, "it is something that has to be mass marketed," and therefore an easy read. Readers? Is this novel an easy, train-ready, read? Sadly, before I asked if I could take a picture of her holding her book, Maria's train came.

Kick Up Your Heels; The Subtle Knife

The F Train at 7th Avenue in Brooklyn
Susannah, an artist, was reading two books when I spoke with her earlier this week. She was reading a non-fiction book, Kick Up Your Heels...Before You're Too Short to Wear Them: How to Live a Long, Healthy, Juicy Life, by Loretta LaRoche, which she described as a "humorous book" about middle age and mid-life. Quickly, however, she pulled another book out of her bag, about which she waxed with more enthusiasm, The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. "This is really good. The series is really good." The Subtle Knife comes second in a trilogy. She said that Pullman's series "is so hard to describe." In the world of the novels, "people's souls are animals." There is a church that is trying to separate the souls from the animals. Susannah then stopped and made a brilliant suggestion, the kind my high school students love: Go see the movie. The first book of the trilogy is The Golden Compass, which starred Nicole Kidman, came out last year.

The Ambassadors

R Train Somewhere in Manhattan
David is a director and is rereading The Ambassadors, by Henry James, for some ideas on a screenplay he is writing. "Usually," he says, as do many of the people I seem to catch on the subway, "I don't read on the train." My first reaction was to suggest that he try something else besides Henry James, but I try not to appear rude during interviews. And he has read novel, which revisits James' main focus--Old World Europe versus the New World U.S.--a number of times. SO he likes the book. Maybe, as David says, he just doesn't read on the subway.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Multi-State Work Book Vol. 1

4 Train headed uptown between Fulton Street and Union Square
Jason is studying for the bar on the subway. At this point in the process, the New York Law School graduate is studying property. He has three weeks left until the test. "I need a change of scenery," he says. "White noise. Starbucks." Good luck, Jason. Good luck.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

White Teeth

A Train Manhattan bound between Nostrand and High Street/Brooklyn Bridge
Kylie was reading White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, and I asked her why I knew no men who had raves for the novel and its writer, only women. She didn't know. As a matter of fact, the person who recommended the novel to her--which she had laying around for a year, as she tends to buy more books than she can read at once--was a man. He told Kylie that Smith's newest book, On Beauty, is the best book he's ever read. Just goes to show, probably, that I should get out more. White Teeth is set in England, for those who haven't read it (male and female). It involves two families, one that is half Jamaican and British, and the other Bengali. I have seen the word multi-culturalism connected with this novel. The book has a light tone, says Kylie, who works for a non-profit responsible for the Penny Harvest, which has school children collecting thousands of dollars in pennies. But while White Teeth's writing isn't heavy, she says, the subject matter most certainly is. Now, for full disclosure: I had never met Kylie, but my students raised over $70 for the Penny Harvest this year and won the school pizza party, which for 14 year olds is very significant.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

One Taste

Downtown 4 Train between 14th Street and Fulton Street
I thought One Taste would be a culinary book. I need to look at subtitles. One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality, by Ken Wilber. Wilber is one of the foremost philosophers in the United States, an author of 18 books, explains Travis, who performs the heroic job of tech support for an anti-spam company. He also manages a dojo. One Taste is a journal he wrote for a year, reflecting on his work. Integral Spirituality, Travis says--and I fear I will flub this up--is that "everyone is right. No one is smart enough to be wrong 100 percent of the time." Wilber, says Travis, who is on vacation with his wife from San Francisco, tries to find the commonalities in all believe systems. I wonder if the IRT is just that link.

Many Lives, Many Masters

Downtown 4 Train between 86th and 42nd
Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives, by Brian L. Weiss is a book that should be definitely judged by its cover, in that the full title, complete with subtitle tells it all. According to Susan, who works in communications in a financial institution, the book is about a psychotherapist who was forced to try using hypnosis to get in touch with a client's past lives when nothing else would work. This book, Susan tells us, is about that patient and those past lives.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Naked and The Subterraneans

Downtown 3 Train at Chambers Street
It was tempting to include Alison and Sarah in the same blog entry, as they were sitting next to each other, reading on the train, sisters on vacation from Maryland. So I did. Alison, a student at Smith off on summer vacation, was reading Naked, by David Sedaris. Now, I might be the last person in New York who hasn't read the memoir, and I had to ask her tell me what it's about, which she never got around to. "A friend gave it to me, and besides, it's my only book I brought [on her vacation]. It's about his childhood in North Carolina." Well, okay, I learned that. "I really like it. It's funny." Sarah, a student at Carleton College in Minnesota, was reading Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans, another book that, at least in college, everyone around me had read but that I failed to read. "This is a story about a writer who has an affair with a Black woman." She said it asks the questions "Does love matter?" and "How am I going to make a living?" Fine questions not only for college, but for the 3 train, especially going downtown.

The Celestine Prophecy

6 train headed downtown at 86th Street
Jessica, a store manager, was coy about the book she was reading, The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield. Or rather, she accused me of coyness. I asked her what the book was about and she said, "Oh, I think you know." I admitted that I knew it was a book about spirituality, but that was all I knew. She said it was a work of fiction, which I did not know, and that it was about a group of people searching for a manuscript. She had tried a couple times to read it and couldn't, but had heard it was a good book, so this time she is plowing ahead.

The Spiral Staircase

4 Train Uptown between 42nd Street and 59th Street
Yesterday, a young man--maybe mid-20s--sat across the train from me reading The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of the Darkness, by Karen Armstrong. He was the only one reading on the train besides me. He read with his head phones in his ears, presumably listening to music. There were four other people on the train who had headphones in, connected to MP3 players or what have you stationed in pockets. There is no judgment here. I am often one of the headphone people, preferring to zone out and not concentrate on text, or to block out the noise of other people's radios or conversations. There is also the rush-hour headphone wearing, when there isn't enough space to take out a book. People shove their way onto the car, bodies pinned against bodies. Listening to the iPod replaces the book as an activity, but perhaps more importantly, the space in your head where you listen to music is the only real space you can carve out for yourself; headphones are yet another place New Yorkers claim space when there is very little to be had. But back to our young man in his mid-20s, he worked the bonus train activity of listening to music and reading, something that is good for providing white noise enough to concentrate in an otherwise noisy train--an irony because there was relatively few late morning riders going uptown on the 4. His book, The Spiral Staircase, is a memoir. Armstrong is a noted writer on New Yorker's favorite subject for train reading--God--having written 21 books on a host of world religions. This book is about her own journey, which would seem to be relevant phrase. In 1969, Armstrong chose to leave the Catholic Church for a secular life. It is my self-imposed rule that I will not ask people to take out their headphones to talk to me about their books. There is some kind of fugue state I know I can get into with a good book and music without words--Debussy or perhaps Johnny Hodges. If there is a place where the words on the page truly make up the entire universe and there is nothing that interferes, the place is on an empty 4 train going up down with a set of headphones and a good book.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Hobbit

Queens bound G train in Brooklyn
Although I've seen the movies, I avoided The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. I tried to read it as a kid, and couldn't get hooked, so I put it down. I went on to read other things as I did read a lot as a child--the reverse situation from Daniel, who was about halfway through. "I heard it was a great book, so I'm reading it." Daniel will be a sophomore at Stuyvesant High School in September. Neither he, nor his little brother, who was sitting next to him on the train, like to read. He prefers history. "I'm not really a book fan. I started reading this summer. It seems like a good thing to do." He said he struggles in English, he said. The problem is, he just doesn't understand what the books are about in his English class. Last year, in 9th grade, his class read Great Expectations and Catcher in the Rye. He said he really didn't understand either of those novels.

Fool Stop Trippin'

Outward-bound E Train Making Local Stops at Steinway Street in Queens
My new favorite book title is Fool Stop Trippin', a novel by Tina Brooks McKinney. Bashiekh, a security guard, recommended it. Said he's read it twice. He reads all books twice, in in case he misses something the first time. This novel is set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I asked him if the book is about survival and he said yes. I learned that Fool Stop Trippin' is the third in McKinney's Drama trilogy, which includes All That Drama and Lawd, Mo' Drama. One thing I liked about Bashiekh is that when he heard me interview Debra, who was sitting next to him--she was reading New Moon--he pulled his book out. First time, I think, someone actually wanted to get himself on Underground Reads. Thanks, Bashiekh.

New Moon

Outward-bound E Train Making Local Stops at 36th Street in Queens
Anne Rice's books are not the only vampire series. Debra, a graduate student at John Jay College, was reading the second in Stephanie Meyers' Twisted Light series called New Moon. The difference between the Rice books, she says--and she has read all of those--is that Meyers' novels are funnier, lighter, perhaps written for a slightly younger crowd. I hope Debra didn't might if I asked her if she was a student and whether or not she was in high school or college. I really couldn't tell. New Moon is about a girl whose boyfriend is a vampire, as is his whole family. The boyfriend dumps her because he realizes he poses a threat to her safety.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Chasing Harry Winston and The Elegant Universe

Six Train Going Uptown at Bleecker Street
Love brought together the "chick lit" novel Chasing Harry Winston, by Lauren Weisberger, and the pop-science book The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene. Or at least that's how things appeared on the 6 train, as Lillian read the Weisberger novel and John read the science book. Lillian identified herself as a chick lit fan. John just started his book. They reminded me of the New York Times television commercial where the guy says that his wife reads the Sunday Arts and Leisure section and he likes to "check out the Magazine." But I didn't say anything like that to them at all.

Cry ,The Beloved Country

The A Train crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan
In the case of Cry, The Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, the beloved country is South Africa. "Somebody told me it's a good book on South African history," said Mekaelia. The novel is about a South African pastor, his search for his son, and the racial tensions in Apartheid-era South Africa. "I like it. It's different. The prose is poetic." Mekaelia, who works for a non-profit that helps college student get internships, reads a lot, on the train and off. "I don't like TV." She says she's never on the train without something to read.

Under The Mistletoe

Manhattan-bound A Train in Brooklyn
Meagan pronounced Under The Mistletoe, by Mary Balogh, historical fiction, and she wasn't kidding. The collection of stories takes place in Regency, England. That's Jane Austen's milieu. Meagan, who said she is a "coordinator," had only started the book and was reading a story about a woman whose husband was away for a year and then returns for--you guessed it--Christmas. Meagan saw the book "on the sales rack" and bought it. She doesn't read much on the train because she doesn't take the train that much. She usually drives.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To

Manhattan-bound 2 Train in Brooklyn
After school lets out, I intend to travel on trains all over New York to find out what people are reading on the subways. Until then, the 2, 4, 5, Franklin Avenue Shuttle, C, and A trains will be what I frequent, with occasional forays onto the F and 6 trains. And until I start traveling to other lines, I might continue to encounter people reading religious texts--or maybe all of New York does. On Thursday, I met Lucy, a secretary, who was reading Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To: Divine Answers to Life's Most Difficult Problems by Anthony Destefano. She was a bit sheepish, or at least reticent, to answer questions, but she did tell me a bit. "So far, it's about how you should believe in God"--about, she said, why one should be saying prayers. The book was a gift from her mother in law. Lucy would recommend the book ,"but not just for Christians. [It's] for anybody."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Bluest Eye

Manhattan-bound 2 Train in Brooklyn
Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors, and Ayana gets to take a whole class on her work when she returns to Dartmouth College in the fall. She has the syllabus already and was getting prepared by reading The Bluest Eye. "It's one of my favorites," she said. Indeed it is her third time reading the novel, about a little girl's struggle for identity, told from multiple perspectives and about multiple themes, such as race and child molestation. In fact, said Ayana, it is the "layers" that make her like the novel so much.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Academy X

Waiting for the F Train at Jay Street-Borough Hall
Academy X, by Andrew Tees, is about an upper class New York private school. John said he just started the book. He was so into the book, in fact, that rather than saying more, and what he did for a living, he told me "that's enough" and returned to reading. Fair enough. However, I wish John had told me more, because after I got home last night, I went back and read the 2006 New York Times book review, which got me intrigued. Maybe I want to read this book. It's about a high school English teacher, the Times says, "torn between idealism and cynicism." I'm a high school English teacher that fits that description! John, please, I need to know: Is this my beach read for the summer? If only "that" wasn't "enough."


Waiting for the F Train at Jay Street-Borough Hall
Susan, a photo editor, was not sure that Nathaniel Philbrick didn't have to fictionalize parts of the story in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, an historical narrative that Amazon says is part of the genre called Popular History. Still, Susan didn't mind. "The story is quite different than what we were taught." She added that she didn't feel "narrative liberties changes the course of the history. That's just life--all of life is like that." I couldn't agree more.

Autobiography of a Yogi

Waiting for the F Train at Jay Street-Borough Hall
Like so many interviews I have conducted this week, Eve, a waitress, was reading a book about spirituality, Autobiography of a Yogi, a well read and well translated book from 1946 written by Paramahansa Yogananda. "It was given to me by a friend years ago. I just pulled it out. You know how that goes." Eve has only read a few chapters, and she was at a place where Yogananda is looking for a guru. He was born "in this direction," she said, "being a yogi, a monk."

It's Never Too Late

Manhattan bound A Train between Nostrand and Hoyt-Schermerhorn
Ekene was very helpful in explaining the book she was reading, It's Never Too Late, Zachery Tims autobiography. Like many people I've encountered on the subway, she was reading an inspirational religious book. Tims, she reported, is a minister who was in gangs and was addicted to drugs. He managed to get himself out, she said, and now presides over a well-known Baptist congregation in Florida. "I am a Christian myself and this is mostly the kinds of books I read," said Ekene, who is an elementary school teacher in a private school. She said she was browsing Barnes and Noble when she came across this book. "It's excellent."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tender is the Night

Uptown 6 Train, between Brooklyn Bridge and Bleecker
I had very little time to talk to a young woman in a striped shirt about Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald--so little that I didn't get to ask her name or take a picture of her book. She wanted to read about the French Riviera, and someone told her that Tender is the Night is the "go to book" for the French Riviera. I loved everything Fitzgerald wrote when I was a kid and always thought of him for his dreamy writing rather than for anything topical, although I guess The Great Gatsby is thought by some to be the "go to book" for the Jazz Age. The young woman likened Tender to Joan Dideon's Play It Like It Lays. It's "character development," she said. The melancholy main character.

PS I Love You

Uptown 5 Train, Lower Manhattan
Lydia and I agreed that while neither of us tend to read love stories for the sake of reading love stories, the idea behind PS I love You, by Cecelia Ahern was pretty original. If you've seen the movie with Hilary Swank, you know what it's about, but neither Lydia nor I have seen the movie. She's waiting to read the book first because she believes the movie will spoil the book: "It's about a lady who loses her husband at a young age. Her friends are going on with their lives, but she's depressed. She's about 25." Lydia says that the husband, who knew he would die of a brain tumor, left scores of notes for his wife around the house that she would then find after he died. The notes told her how to "move on," how to get a job, even how to go on a vacation. It's a good book, said Lydia, who usually reads "action" books and biographies and is a customer service representative at JFK for the Port Authority.

The Reason for God

Manhattan Bound A Train between Nostrand and Hoyt-Schermerhorn
We live in a city of religion, judging from what people read on the train. The Koran. The Bible. The Talmud. The Book of the Dead. And then there are the books we don't know about, books without screaming book jackets (or book jackets that have been removed). Kayle, who said she is "a stay at home mom," had just started reading The Reason for God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism when I spoke with her Wednesday, June 11. "He is a Christian," she said of Timothy Keller. The book addresses the issue of whether or not Christianity is the true belief, and, as the title indicates, is addressed to skeptics. Vying for exclusivity--to be the one, true religion--is not such a bad thing, according to the book. She's only read a few chapters but finds the book "very enlightening." Me, I'd like to moderate a debate on the A train between all of the one, true religions. I bet it would take from Inwood to Far Rockaway. Afterwards, we could all go swimming.

Turkish Reflections

Franklin Avenue Shuttle between Fulton and Botanic Garden
Virginia is going to Turkey. And Bulgaria. And Georgia. All around the Black Sea, in fact. So she went to the library and withdrew Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place, by writer Mary Lee Settle, an author of which Virginia had heard about before she read the book. Her tour operator, she said, recommended the Turkish Reflections. "It's travel writing, history, observations." Virginia is one lucky woman. The Black Sea coast is beautiful, both with typical beach attributes but also with beautiful ruins, lush forests, and friendly people. I got off the train, Tuesday evening, June 10, dripping with sweat from this early summer heat wave, walked up the stairs to Eastern Parkway, went and purchased some stewed chicken at Golden Crust on Franklin, and fantasized about the cool climes of the Sanfranbolu coast, looking at the Black Sea from a hilltop filled with all those wonderful 17th century Turkish homes.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Linden Hills

Manhattan Bound 2 Train, between Winthrop and Franklin
Gabby, a high school English teacher, was reading her book club book, Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills, in the cool subway after a day of teaching in 100 degree heat. Although she would be reading anyway, she loves her book club, made of friends and former coworkers, called "Lady Literati." The novel, which Gabby says is based on Dante's Inferno, is about an all-black suburb, Linden Hills. "I'm still trying to figure it out. It's showing people's folly, avarice, and greed."

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Secret Life of Lobsters

Queens-bound A Train at Hoyt-Schermerhorn
Linnea gave me one subway stop to talk to her about her book, The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fisherman and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustaceans, by Trevor Corson (thankfully, I looked up the full title on Amazon rather than copying it down in my notebook). Linnea is a journalist and was fascinated by this journalistic narrative about how lobster fisherman and scientists clashed over how to save the lobster population of Maine. She liked the book so much that she had read half the book on the very day I spoke with her. She told me so, then exited the train.

Interview With a Vampire

Uptown 5 Train in Manhattan
Jessica made me think of something I hadn't thought of before: That the book she was reading, Interview With a Vampire, by Anne Rice, is a classic. And surely it must be. Rice's tetralogy (or quartet, as Durrell might write) has spawned countless editions and films, influenced teenagers who wear black lipstick, and spawned narrated bus tours in New Orleans (which I have taken). Does such fanfare make a novel a classic? Would a university professor teach the book in a class of 20th Century American classics (the book was first published in 1976)? Perhaps there is something called a subway classic, and if so, Interview With a Vampire must be considered as one. The story, Jessica reminded me, revolves around a guy who interviews people about what they do and he interviews a vampire. Jessica, who is in marketing and event planning, was told by her boss to read the book. "She said it drags a bit in places but so far, I like it."

Born Dying

Manhattan Bound A Train between Nostrand and Hoyt-Schermerhorn
Donna said that she just started reading Born Dying, by Harold L. Turley II. "It's basically kids trying to make a living any way they can on the street." The story is set in Harlem. I mentioned to Donna, a bus driver, that a lot of my high school students read books about violence in the streets. I wondered what she thought. "I'm not out in the streets so [by reading Born Dying and books like it] you get to know about the streets." She thinks the book probably exaggerates street violence.

No Thank You

Uptown 6 Train
Yesterday, I had my first -- I don't even know what to call it--rejection? I approached a young woman in a car with only two other people on it, two middle-aged men arguing about the economy. She was a dark-haired white woman reading a hard-cover book; I could not see the title. She is the 23rd train passenger I have approached. I asked her, as I do, if I could ask her about her book because I write a blog about the books people read on the subway, and she said "No. Thank You." Because I have not been denied an interview before, I didn't hear her very well, and I kept going with my next question, "So what book are you reading." She said, "I said, 'No thank you.'" I apologized and walked away, feeling flustered and nervous. I did a quick checklist: Was my breath bad? Was it the fact I did not shave that morning? Had she reached a really good part of her book? Did her mother tell her not to talk to strange men on the train? There will be no answer. The odds are very good, as subway travel dictates, that I will not see her again.

Creating Character Emotions

Manhattan Bound A Train, just before Jay Borough Hall.
Anna was reading Creating Character Emotions by writer Ann Hood. I recognized Hood's name, and asked Anna if she was a writer, and she quickly shook her head no. She was reading it for the psychology, and I asked her if she was a psychologist, and she quickly shook her head again, no. Anna, who comes from Peru, works in an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. She finds the book interesting--she was browsing at Barnes and Noble when she found Hood's book. She says she's learning "lots of things I did not know."

Mastering the Opening

Queens Bound F Train in Manhattan
I have been remiss in not posting an entry about Naf, who was reading a chess book on the train last weekend, Mastering the Opening, by Byron Jacobs. Naf "works downtown...in investment banking" and says his book is "something to read in the subway." Then he laughs. He asks me if I play chess, and when I mumble yes--because I can play chess even if I don't play chess--he asks me about my favorite opening; his book, as the title indicates, is about openings in chess, the first move a player makes. For those who know chess, this is a key move. For others, like myself, it's the only move that isn't usually followed by checkmate. Naf doesn't refer to himself as some kind of master chess player, but has played and admired the players in Washington Square Park in the Village. "Sometimes in the Park, they play for money. Most of the time, they win, or they would not play for money."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The New York Trilogy

Manhattan Bound 5 Train, Nevins St. stop
Josh was reading a book packed like a modern noir classic: The New York Trilogy (detective novels for intellectuals), written by Paul Auster, illustrated by Art Spiegelman, with an introduction by Luc Sante. He saw it in a book store and told his girlfriend about it. She happens to work for Penguin, who publishes this "Classic Deluxe Edition." I confessed to Josh that while I loved all three books when I read them 20 years ago, I had a harder time remembering the plot than I did the joyful perplexity of following his characters through the novels. "I don't know how to describe it (the first of the trilogy, City of Glass). "It's one man losing himself in someone else. He's someone else trying to be someone else. Josh is in his first year studying physical therapy at NYU. Part of his training is to work with severely injured patients at SUNY Downstate hospital in Brooklyn. He just finished Candide, also a "Classic Deluxe Edition," which was illustrated with stick figures.

Big Brain

On the Outbound R Train towards Bay Ridge
Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence, by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, looks like a big read, a thick popular science book, a science book for the rest of us. "It caught my eye." She was browsing at St. Marks Bookshop in the East Village. "I like non-fiction," said Stephanie, who when questioned about the book showed no hesitation about jumping right in explain what the book is about. We learn about a group of South Africans who had much bigger brains than we do now. Lynch and Granger, said Stephanie, who is waiting to study at the Aveda Institute, investigate the Boskops, who 10,000 years ago were human-like with bigger brains.

The Last Lecture

On the Outbound R Train towards Bay Ridge
The Last Lecture, says Romina, is a true story about a dying professor giving his last lecture. "My friend gave it to me. I think Oprah recommended it." A friend gave it to her for her graduation from NYU, where she recently got a masters in Speech Pathology. "It's like he's giving his last advice. It's inspirational"

Killing Johnny Fry

Manhattan Bound 5 Train, Last Car, Winthrop
Marc began reading Walter Mosley with Devil In a Blue Dress, the noir-ish pot boiler featuring the likable Easy Rawlins. He read the last Rawlins mystery, Blond Faith, the 10th, which he says--teasingly--might be the end of Rawlins. Marc, who is an elementary school paraprofessional for PS 315 near Brooklyn College, says he thinks Killing Johnny Fry is about a guy whose girlfriend cheated on him. But he just began reading the book. He doesn't know yet.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Zen in the Art of Archery

Uptown 4 Train at 59th Street Station
Dave is a writer at an ad agency and his Creative Director gave him a copy of Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. He told Dave that it would be a good book to learn how to reach a goal. I told him about a book I read in college, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He had never heard of it.Zen in the Art of Archery "is confusing," he said. "I'm a Christian and this is not stuff I am used to reading." I was about to ask him to explain, but we had reached his stop.

The Ghost Brigades

Uptown F Train at Broadway-Lafayette
Walking up to people on the subway and asking them a question throws the interviewer into a void of possibility. There is the fear that the person sitting or standing there will respond by clobbering the questioner. Or simply refuse to answer the question. The space in between riders feels sometimes like a holy separation--it's New Yorker's space, as we used to say in California, and crossing the unspoken barriers into that space feels risky. My biggest fear, however? That the person will turn out to be reading an interesting book and have a lot to say about it. Which is exactly what happened with Hatim, who was reading the mass market paperback The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi. Hatim is working towards his doctorate in Media and Communications. He was reading the novel because he studies "popular narratives about technology and politics." How did this novel fit into this kind of investigation? We'll never know because he had to get off the train at 14th Street.

An Obedient Father

Waiting for the Manhattan Bound A Train at the Nostrand Station, upper level
Nikhil is an English professor in Manhattan and looked very suspicious of the question about his book. He did not offer much. The book was titled An Obedient Father, by Indian author Akhil Sharma, who I learned from both Wikipedia and Amazon is an investment banker as well as a novelist. Sharma is a friend of Nikhil, he said, in answer to why he was reading the novel. He called it a good book.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Undomestic Goddess

Manhattan bound 2 Train, Winthrop to Grand Army Plaza
Jackie felt caught with "trash." As soon as I asked her if we could discuss her book, she started laughing. She was reading The Undomestic Goddess, by Sophie Kinsella. "It's an escape," she called her experience of reading the book, which was recommended by a friend. "It's about a woman who quits her job as a lawyer a job as a house keeper, even though she can't cook and clean."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Church

Manhattan bound 2 train between Franklin Street and Grand Army Plaza.
Like many people who talk about the books they're reading on the train, Louise reacted to the question "Can I ask you about the book you're reading" with a wary smile. She was reading Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Church by Scott Hahn. "I'm of the Catholic religion," she told me. She didn't need reasons to believe but she was reading the book to learn something. She did find it a good and interesting book. "It's not necessarily for people of the Catholic faith." She got it from the library, she said, when she wanted "Something to give me hope for the world. I was looking at all the books and this is what I came up with, and I am a Catholic."

8789 Words of Wisdom

Manhattan Bound 2 Train between Winthrop and President Street in Brooklyn
8789 Words of Wisdom
by Barbara Ann Kipfer

Jalika says that 8789 Words of Wisdom is about advice, about anything in live. She graduated high school last year and says that her mentor in high school gave her this book on graduation day.