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.