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Tales Of City Transit To Read While You Wait For The Bus

Who needs destinations? This summer, we're focusing on the journey. All these books — some old, some new — will transport you: by train,plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocket ship, time machine and even the odd giant peach. Bon voyage! (Taxes and fees not included).

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Book Your Trip: City Transit


by Geoff Ryman

In 1996, with the interwebs becoming all the rage, Geoff Ryman decided to publish his new novel online first — a novelty at the time. I remained stubbornly old school and read 253 in its analog form, but I was delighted to find its website still available. The book follows a group of people on a 7 1/2-minute London Tube ride — 252 passengers and the driver. Ryman devotes one chapter to each of their stories, each told with 253 words divided into three sections: "Outward appearance," "Inside information" and "What he is doing or thinking." That may sound short, but the characters are deftly presented with economical grace and a real sense of zeitgeist. Online, the narrative uses hyperlinks to bring characters together in an interwoven fashion. (The printed version does this with an index.) Gimmicky? Perhaps. Funny, sharp and sad? Yes. Entertaining? Definitely.

-- Mary Glendinning, NPR Library staff

Maybelle The Cable Car

by Virginia Lee Burton

Maybelle the cable car has been carrying people up and down San Francisco's steep hills since the city was young. Always the first car out every morning and the last one home at night, she loves her work and her passengers. But San Francisco is growing and leaving its old cable cars behind. Maybelle is not as fast as Big Bill the bus and, unless the passengers stand up for her, Bill and his pals at City Hall are going to replace her all together. Virginia Lee Burton, famous for The Little House, creates in Maybelle another quaint, hardworking heroine in danger of being swallowed up by a booming city. Readers will cheer when her old-fashioned three-brake system (illustrated with loving detail by Burton in a spread perfect for tiny gear heads) bests Bill the bus and proves that streetcars will always have a place in San Francisco. (For ages 5 to 8)

-- Margaret H. Willison, book critic

Butter Chicken In Ludhiana

by Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra published this book in the mid-1990s just as India was embarking on a set of economic reforms. Re-reading it earlier this year, I was struck by how much of it not only still rings true but is eerily prescient. In it, Mishra traveled mostly by bus across the country's small towns: the Mandis, the Kottayams and the Pushkars; towns that many Indians in larger cities saw as insignificant little dots on the map. What he discovered was that these towns were shedding their long-held inferiority complexes just as India was flexing its own newly discovered self-confidence on the global stage. The characters Mishra describes (an aspiring model, a political thug, the oily businessman, the self-important officials, the bibliophile and others) provide a slice of India that's as relevant today as it was when the book was first written.

-- Krishnadev Calamur, editor, NPR News

Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!

by Mo Willems

In 2003, a hero for our time drove (or dreamed about driving) onto the scene — Pigeon! Snarky and excitable, with big dreams and an even bigger ego, Pigeon's first test was to try to get readers to let him drive the bus. Ha! We readers were much too smart to be tricked by a fast-talking bird, plus, you know, the driver warned us. But Pigeon certainly gave the project his all, trying good manners ("Please? I'll be careful."), imagination ("Hey, I've got an idea. Let's play 'Drive the Bus'! I'll go first!"), bribery, drama and finally a raging tantrum. But we stood firm. And Pigeon, well, he didn't let disappointment keep him down — because now he dreams about driving a tractor-trailer. Just know that any trip you take with Pigeon is sure to be a laugh riot, and remember: Do not let him drive the bus. Or the car. Or the plane ... (For ages 2 to 6)

-- Mara Alpert, children's librarian, Los Angeles Public Library

Foreign Gods, Inc.

by Okey Ndibe

It doesn't take Ike Uzondu long to realize that the United States isn't always the land of opportunity. A Nigerian living in America, Ike has driven a cab for over a decade — he graduated from Amherst as a star student in economics but can't find a job in his field because of his accent. Broke and increasingly desperate, he decides to travel back to his home country to steal the statue of a god, hoping to sell it in the States and never sit behind the steering wheel of a taxi again. Okey Ndibe's novel is dramatic and wonderfully detailed, and his prose is absolutely beautiful — he's a deeply generous writer with an excellent ear for dialogue.

-- Michael Schaub, book critic

Ghost World

by Daniel Clowes

Not many people find city buses romantic, but cartoonist Daniel Clowes' coming-of-age tale features a true Magic Bus. First, it serves as a potent symbol of stasis by not existing at all, as its route has been canceled. Teenage protagonist Enid likes to make fun of a guy who always waits at the stop, seeing him as willfully embracing paralysis (and just plain weird). For Enid, a recent high school graduate desperate to escape the predictable futures that seem to be her only options, there's nothing more pathetic than waiting for a dead bus. But when the bus begins running again, it proves to be her passage to salvation. At the book's end she finally catches the mysterious bus and is carried off to the one place she desperately wants to go: an uncertain horizon. Besides being a tour de force of character and plot, Clowes' early-'90s serial comic is a perfect encapsulation of the malaise of that time.

-- Etelka Lehoczky, comics critic

Count On The Subway

by Paul Dubois Jacobs and Jennifer Swender

A journey on a subway is always an adventure (especially here in Los Angeles, but I digress), and this trip across the New York City underground is no exception. C'mon, guys, it's a train! And trains are cool! A charmingly retro mother and daughter grab their MetroCard and count their way through staircases, turnstiles, musicians, riders sitting down and riders standing up. You don't have to be in New York to enjoy this ride, but it's a great way to get young children ready for their first subway experience and to add new life to all the different modes of transportation you may encounter during your summer travels. (For ages 2 to 5)

-- Mara Alpert, children's librarian, Los Angeles Public Library


by Khaled Alkhamissi

Years before Cairo's Tahrir Square demonstrations began in 2011, writer Khaled Alkhamissi set out to document how average Egyptians felt about their country's state of affairs. He focused his research on one particular Egyptian Everyman — the Cairo cabbie — and spent a year commuting in taxi back seats, listening. This collection of 58 fictional conversations was informed by that research and touches on everything from seat belt regulations and government corruption to Egyptian cinema and consumer culture. Alkhamissi's cabbies bemoan the challenge of making their livings as taxi drivers — one keeps falling asleep at the wheel because he won't stop driving until he earns enough money to pay his monthly car installment — and many express anger at government corruption and frustration with the Egyptian people for their inaction. The result is an eye-opening snapshot — or, several, really — of Egypt before the Arab Spring.

-- Nicole Cohen, NPR Books staff

When We Were Orphans

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Some novels are too ambitious for their own good. Other novels wear their ambition like a crown. When We Were Orphans is one that carries that crown with pride. Christopher Banks, whom we meet as a young man in 1930s England, aspires to be a detective. But, forgetful and unreliable, he seems to come upon his discoveries by chance. In one memorable scene, Christopher shares a conversation with his friend Sarah in the street after they've both escaped a dreadful party. "My mother and I," she says, "we used to spend a lot of time on buses. Just for the pleasure of it." After Christopher admits to his fear of riding the bus alone, they agree to take a ride. "I'll show you how you ride on a London bus," Sarah tells him. Over the span of 50 years or so, the novel unfolds brilliantly, leading Christopher to China and to some interesting findings, including the truth behind the kidnapping of his late parents.

-- Juan Vidal, book critic

From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

by E.L. Konigsburg

For kids? Not exactly. Konigsburg's novel is written by octogenarian Mrs. Frankweiler herself as a letter to her lawyer, putting a self-aware spin on the proceedings, even as its dialogue settles into the particular cadences of childhood. Preternaturally precocious siblings Claudia and Jamie have a decidedly grown-up take on running away from home: Claudia votes for style, and is enchanted by their commuter train from Connecticut. When her brother demands thrift, they have to trudge all the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an impressive trip, they decide later. Besides bringing the Met to life, the story highlights the almost fantastical feeling of travel to children and the grown-up freedom it brings; after all, the reasons they agree to go home are the discovery of an important secret — and a ride in a Rolls-Royce. Perfect to read with the kids (or before a trip to the museum). (For ages 8 to 12)

-- Genevieve Valentine, author, most recently of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club


by Benjamin Law

Journalist Benjamin Law was curious about how his Asian-Australian upbringing had affected expression of his sexual identity, so he set off to explore what it means to be gay in a handful of other countries. From Indonesia to India, Myanmar to Malaysia, Law's occasionally awkward, nice-kid approach makes him an engaging and sympathetic guide along the proud highs and haunting lows of this observational, occasionally touristy taxi-powered road trip. His stories, dotted with self-deprecation, range from the surreal, slick abundance of Bali's resorts to bittersweet Thai beauty pageants. But it's not all smooth going, and his frustration becomes palpable when facing evangelical bigots or observing the wrenching emotional toll on same-sex couples in China's officially invisible homosexual community. Law avoids easy conclusions, instead collecting anecdotes and cataloging his candid reactions for a book that's brash, occasionally eyebrow-raising, and ultimately thought-provoking.

-- Genevieve Valentine, author, most recently of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club