Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Catching up

The Subway Chronicles
Edited by Jacquelin Cangro

The Chronicles and I got off on the wrong foot when the editor, in her introduction, referred several times to "euphemisms" for the New York City subway when I think she meant "metaphors." As far as I know, the subway doesn't require a euphemism. It's not like it's death.

But some of the essays -- all of them about the New York subway, with cameos by the Paris Metro and Moscow's subway -- made up for the intro. Favorites are by Francine Prose ("A Breakup Story"), Robert Lanham ("Straphanger Doppelganger"), Calvin Trillin ("What's the Good Word?"), Colson Whitehead ("Subway) and Jonathan Lethem ("Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn). Whitehead and Lethem's pieces were exceprts from other works, though, so I'm not sure they count.

Others were tedious, like one that retraced the author's travels as a child. I read about how he could sit up front by an open window in some trains, and in other trains the window didn't open, but up to four people could sit by it and watch, and so that made it still a good train. And there were different ways to get to Coney Island. That one might have worked better as a shorter piece.

It's hot or miss, but the book provides several perspectives: short-term and longtime New York transplants, young people who grew up in New York and never left (or not for long), and older people who remember a fairly young subway system.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Marisha Pessl

This starts out smart in sort of the same way that Mean Girls was smart, only smarter. And then it gets smarter still -- with a bit of a mystery where these seemingly quirky facts come together as something more sinister.

Pessl has does a lot of clever things. For instance, her narrator is a highly intelligent senior in high school who cites sources term paper style throughout the novel. She manages to keep clever from becoming cloying, even though this is clearly a Big Trendy Book.

It's hard to get into the plot without giving too much of the mystery away, but there's a professor father and his daughter who travel around the country as he goes from guest teaching post to guest teaching post and obscure universities. There's a teacher and the popular crowd, known as "the bluebloods" whom she's close to.

And anyway, it's great fun to read.

No comments: