what new yorkers are reading on the subway

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."