I’ve been trying to master the art of reading during rush hour, one hand on a subway pole, a paperback in the other. It isn't easy. The train bumps and squeals. Someone slides in a bit too close to you. Your bag keeps slipping off your shoulder. How are you supposed to keep your attention off the woman talking loudly to her child, or the smell of Chinese food emanating from the backpack of the guy next to you? And that kid crying two seats over! You’re counting down the seconds until you reach your stop. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of them in 40 minutes.
For someone who got scolded a lot throughout her childhood for walking around with her nose in a book, I have an extraordinarily hard time focusing on what I’m reading while cramped into a subway compartment (I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising). I’ve realized I need books that I can easily jump in and out of: rush hour is definitely not the time to tackle the critical successes and Man Booker nominees sitting on my nightstand. The solution: an engrossing page-turner, which can make a miserable subway commute totally bearable for a good couple of days.
Once you hit your stride on these books, you'll be able to escape the rush hour madness... at least figuratively.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Part travelogue, part retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula , this eerie novel is bound to send shivers up your spine. In fact, you might even be grateful to find yourself in a crowd. When her father vanishes, the 16-year-old unnamed narrator of the novel sets out on a haunting adventure to find him, led by his early research on Vlad the Impaler. This book is well-researched and filled with historical facts — and the prose is beautiful and captivating. Few times have I lost myself so completely in a book as I did in The Historian .
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
An early mystery novel, but don’t let the 19th century prose faze you. This book has it all: suspense, intrigue, romance, and a mysterious woman in white who isn’t what she seems.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Vida Winter, a wildly successful but notoriously reclusive author, summons amateur writer Margaret Lea to her estate in order to share her life story. This haunting novel has enough twists and turns to make you dizzy — and an ending you won’t see coming.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
One of my favorite books by Spanish author Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind is a bibliophile’s dream suspense novel. Young Daniel Sempere adopts a book by Julián Carax, a seemingly unknown writer, at the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books. But Carax is not as anonymous as he seems — Daniel soon discovers that someone is out to destroy every single thing that the author has ever written. Set in post-war Barcelona, The Shadow of the Wind examines the unbounded power of literature and storytelling. A well-written and extremely satisfying read.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I first read Rebecca for high school English and was determined not to like it. I thought the red cover looked trashy and I was sure it would be a bland imitation of Jane Eyre. But I was wrong: this novel can absolutely stand on its own two feet. “Last night, I dreamed I was at Manderley again,” it begins, as the haunting world of Manderely absorbs you from the get-go. The subway train will feel far away as du Maurier unravels the mysterious circumstances surrounding Rebecca’s death.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
In this dystopian world, children are cloned from people at the fringes of society, and brought up in Hailsham boarding school. But though these children are created for the sole purpose of serving as organ donors for “normals,” they have their own dreams and ambitions — and experience pain, romance, and betrayal in a world that refuses to see them as human.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie’s widely read novel stands on a tower of accolades. It features the indomitable Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to the United States for college. Adichie’s keen observations about race in America will keep you on your toes. Smart and searing, this book is also funny and endlessly entertaining — I hope you’re not shy about laughing out loud on the subway.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
This beautiful collection of short stories has been raved about extensively: it was number one on the New York Times Book Review list of "100 Best Books of 2008" and won Lahiri the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. These stories all have great momentum, especially the novella at the end, which tells the story of young lovers Hema and Kaushik. This book will engross you completely — but hopefully you’ll still catch your stop.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
An insightful exploration of the ways in which family expectations can totally mess us up, this beautiful little novel will blow you away. How much do we really know about the people we grow up with? Only as they try to unravel the circumstances of Lydia’s death do the members of the Lee family begin to see one another as they truly are. (If you wait until it’s a little sunnier out, you can hide your tears behind your sunglasses.)
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
Forman’s book is another tearjerker — and I read it in one sitting. Talented cellist Mia is in a car crash with her family. She finds herself standing outside her body at the site of the accident, then at the hospital as all her loved ones mourn for her parents and brother, and ask her to hold on to her life. In this heartbreaking novel, Mia has to decide whether life is still worth living when she’s lost the people she loves most. A thoughtful, engrossing book that will keep your mind occupied and your heart engaged.
Paper Towns by John Green
I chose Paper Towns because I think everyone should read it before the movie comes out, but honestly, any John Green novel will take the edge off a bad subway experience. To Quentin Jacobsen, Margo Roth Spiegelman is an enigma — and in trying to figure her out, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery. But Green subverts the whole manic pixie dream girl thing when Quentin realizes that Margo is not quite the girl on the pedestal he’s had a crush on for years. She is her own person and must find her own way. A fun and thoughtful novel.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
This book is one of my recent favorites, though I truly recommend any of Rowell’s other books. An introvert with paralyzing social anxiety, Cath deals with the jarring move to college by writing Simon Snow (think Harry Potter) fanfiction in her room. But life has other plans in store for her in this unique and touching coming-of-age story.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox hates Seattle. She grows more and more eccentric as her unhappiness threatens to take her over. One day, Bernadette vanishes and it’s up to her daughter Bee to try to find her. In piecing together the mysteries of Bernadette’s disappearance, Bee begins to see her mom as the complicated but genius woman that she is. This book is laugh-out-loud funny and is bound to put you in a good mood even after a long day at the office.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
There’s no one quite like Alice Hoffman, and her latest novel is a critical darling. The love story of Coralie and Eddy, set against the backdrop of 20th century Brooklyn, is equal parts poignant and outlandish. It will hold your attention up until the very last page.
Image: Jens Schott Knudsen/Flickr; GIphy