Jilly: Great Escapes for Stressed Commuters

Great EscapesWhich authors or books would you recommend to take a jaded commuter a world away from their boring, uncomfortable, routine journey?

I noticed a new Thing at my local tube station this week – somebody has started a book exchange. Inside the station, just before the ticket gate, there’s a bookcase, about three-quarters full. It seems to run on an honor system and I guess the idea is that you take a book to amuse you during your journey and leave one in exchange.

For those of you who’ve never been to London, the tube (subway) here has been running since 1863, and while for many commuters it’s the most efficient way to get to and from central London (passengers take more than four million journeys per day), nobody would call it the most pleasant. In rush hour it’s hot, sweaty, smelly, and crowded with stressed, cranky workers.

For the curious, click here for a great article from The Independent full of fabulous facts about the first 150 years of the Tube. Possibly my favorite, in a grim kind of way, are the ‘Nature’ snippets:

  • It has been estimated that around half a million mice are living around the Underground network; and
  • The mosquitoes that live in the tube tunnels have evolved into a unique species known for its voracious biting, and named culex pipiens molestus. Click here for a BBC Earth article about research into its evolutionary history.

As you may imagine, traveling the tube in rush hour is not the time to see the British at our courteous best. I love the idea of offering commuters something better than playing with their phone or snarling at their neighbors – a surprise, an escape, a hit of happy that would carry over into positive interactions with their fellow wage-slaves when they get to work.

I had a look at the titles on offer in the book exchange and found myself profoundly uninspired, though I decided that the next time I go into town, I’ll spend my forty-ish minute journey reading something from the shelf, even (especially?) if it doesn’t immediately float my boat.

I also spent a happy hour wondering what I would add to the collection to brighten the journey of some lucky North Londoner.

Here are my top three choices, with reasons:

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell
Late to the party as usual, I read this recently and absolutely loved it. The story of two sixteen year-old misfits living in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1980s. They meet on Eleanor’s first day at a new school, and their daily journey together on a school bus full of bullies and cliques is gradually transformed from a test of survival, through a tentative friendship, to a beautiful love story.

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, by David Nobbs
A brilliant, hilarious, subversive, quintessentially English novel, first in a trilogy published in the 1970s, about a middle-aged middle manager who’s driven to desperate behavior by the pointlessness of his suburban life, his daily commute, and marketing job. He daydreams, Walter Mitty style, but also acts on his fantasies. Eventually he fakes his own death, precipitating a fabulous chain of unintended consequences. I’m pleased to confirm that the trilogy is currently available as an e-book in all the usual places, and in audiobook format at the end of this month. The story was also made into a highly successful TV series, written by the author and based on the book, but somewhat lighter in tone.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by Eric Newby
Described by the Daily Telegraph as one of the best 20 travel books of all time. A beautifully written autobiographical tale, first published in 1958, describing the author’s hatred of his soul-sucking job at a London couture fashion house, and his impulsive decision to give up the rag trade and go adventuring in the Nuristan mountains of Afghanistan. The first two chapters, entitled “Life of a Salesman” and “Death of a Salesman,” never fail to put a smile on my face.

Do you have any tips and tricks for emerging from the daily commute in an uplifted frame of mind?

Better still, do you have any titles to add to my Great Escapes library?

8 thoughts on “Jilly: Great Escapes for Stressed Commuters

  1. Those all sound great! I have a couple of aunts who live in Omaha, so the first sounds particularly interesting, from the setting point of view.

    I get sick on the bus or train when I read, so this isn’t going to be an option for me, unless I used audio books, which is something I could do in this century (-:.

    If the commute is short, I would recommend a collection of short stories, such as any of James Thurber’s collections. A Thurber Carnival would be good — they often contain stories about his travels abroad. Erma Bombeck’s collections also remind me of summer and suburbia, and may make a person grateful for having a job that’s recognized as such by greater society.

    For a longer commute, in the hot sticky summer, with evil mosquitos (! on your mosquitos! There’s a story waiting to be told!), maybe How Stella Got Her Groove Back? It’s pure escapist fantasy. The heroine goes on vacation, finds a younger man to cheer herself up, and gets to buy him a lot of clothes and dress him up as a Ken doll.

    • I think you’d really enjoy Eleanor and Park, Micki, and I’d love to get your daughter’s take on it. I’d do a Good Book Squee about it, except there have been so many already. Although it’s technically YA, told from the alternating POV of the two sixteen year-old main characters, with cartoon books and music and mix tapes and great 1980s detail, there’s an adult underlying story told from a teenage perspective. Best analogy I can think of is To Kill A Mockingbird – we were force-fed it at school, but I had a completely different reaction to it when I read it years later. And though there are Important Social Issues at the heart of Eleanor and Park, the story speaks for itself without theme-mongering.

      James Thurber – yes! I haven’t read Erma Bombeck. I know she’s famous, and I like the idea of finding humor in the everyday. I’ll put her on my list!

  2. Like Michaeline, I don’t really do well reading on the train/bus, especially when wedged in the crush of humanity, but if I could, I’d go for something on the lighter side – fast paced with a bit of humor.

    Since I just finished binge-reading several of her books, I’d add something by Tawna Fenske. Her Front and Center series (Marine for Hire, Best Man for Hire, Protector for Hire, or Fiance for Hire) would fit the bill. Making Waves and Frisky Business are slightly longer reads, but would be good choices as well.

    • Reading in a car doesn’t agree with me, but somehow on trains, buses and planes I seem to be fine. When I had a day job that involved braving the rush hour tube every day, my life was transformed by the Kindle. A whole library in my bag, and I could read and turn the page one-handed in the smallest space.

      Tawna Fenske sounds fun. Putting her on my list right now and when I’m done, I’ll use them to pep up the book exchange. Thanks!

  3. Love, love, loved Eleanor and Park! Don’t have much of a commute, and what there is requires me to pay attention to the traffic I’m maneuvering through. I have, on occasion, listened to audio books in 15 minute snippets, though.

    • Glad you loved Eleanor and Park too. I thought it was fabulous. Have you read any of Rainbow Rowell’s other books? I haven’t yet, would appreciate recommendations if you have.

      A 15-minute commute? That’s enough to turn most Londoners green with envy. It’s about 45 minutes from my house to the center of town (tube zone 1), and I live in zone 3 – imagine how much reading time the folks who travel to/from zone 9 get!!

  4. I Jilly! I have almost an hour commute to my daytime job. It depends on the time of day how long it becomes. Because I drive my own vehicle, I’m unable to read, but I do sometimes listen to books on Audible. Other times I brainstorm about my Work In Progress. So I’m talking to myself most of my commute. It really seems to help me get things in Order with my writing. Thanks for posting this!

    • Hi Janice!
      Do you brainstorm out loud? When I go to visit my mum, that involves about three hours each way of motorway driving, which usually works really well for brainstorming problems with my WIP. I don’t talk out loud or record my thoughts, just mull them over.

      I’ve never tried an audiobook, though if I had to drive on a regular basis I probably would. Justine swears by them. In principle I don’t like the idea of another voice intruding between my brain and the story, but thought I might give it a try on my journey to/from RWA in California next month.

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