By April 24, 2012 1 Comments Read More →

This Commute Is Not Recommended: Booklisters Review Their Trips to Work

We review a lot of books, audiobooks, and databases—but if you think that’s all we review, think again. As proven by these evaluations of our trips to work, once the book-critical part of the brain has been activated, it’s impossible to turn it off.

Bookman versus the Train Weasels

For a commute with such a provocative title, this 45-minute ride proves a terrible letdown. The set-up is promising: Bookman takes his seat on the Metra North Line and immediately does a slow burn when a swarm of train weasels—lawyers all, suits freshly pressed, exuding the smell of money—take their seats and begin chatting about their Spring Break trips to Cancun (“much better than Boca”) or, even worse, recite the shot-by-shot details of their golf jaunts to Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes, or—God help us!—St. Andrews (Bookman is a closet golfer but can only dream of such excursions). We’re ready for Bookman to transform into a Superhero and lay waste to the throng of weasels—head-butting one with the power of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, grabbing another by his silk tie and swinging it as if it were a one-iron—but what does our hero do instead? Nothing. Worse than nothing, really. He puts on his headphones and sits back to listen to Saul Bellow’s The Victim. Now the story-within-a-story gambit is iffy at the best of times, but when we’re waiting for some head-banging, and what we get is another whole plot about another wimpy editor who can’t rouse himself to action—well, that’s just not fair. And, if anything, the return trip is even more disappointing. You would think that, fuelled by a Dewars on the rocks guzzled from a go-cup, Bookman might have risen to the challenge at last, but no, once a victim always a victim. —Bill Ott, Publisher

Express Bus from Uptown to River North

The 144 bus, which likes to keep riders guessing as to when its next journey will depart, delivers a ride that will leave many wondering why they bothered waiting in the first place. The cast of characters is predictable, including that couple who commutes together, several tech guys already displaying their laminates, and a guy whose elbow keeps crossing onto his fellow commuter’s side of the seat. The familiar setting along Chicago’s lakefront provides scenic interest but—on this day, anyway—very little drama to enhance what is essentially a story about a guy going to work. Subplots communicated via overheard cell-phone conversations will make riders prick up their ears but ultimately fail to coalesce into anything resembling a coherent narrative. But where this ride really lets us down is in its wildly uneven pacing. While the early part of the commute consists of stomach-lurching sprints from stop to stop, once the bus finally does run express it slows to a crawl down traffic-choked Lake Shore Drive. A CTA bus is not a chauffered Town Car, it must be said, and many riders may lack a viable alternative—still, purchase only as demand warrants. —Keir Graff, Booklist Online Editor

This Is Not the Movie Speed 

The 148 Clarendon/Michigan Express bus has two stories to tell, the less significant being the boring drag of how it transports well-dressed and bejeweled Ravenswoodites to Chicago’s tony Magnificent Mile, speeding past everything below Irving Park via Lake Shore Drive. But the 148’s tour-de-force occurs when it takes twentysomething Annie—sometimes with coffee, usually reading a book, every now and again feeding candy to a frog on her handheld device—from her quiet non-neighborhood to her 9-to-5 (8-to-4, really; traffic’s lighter) at a humble, off-Michigan review journal. Though a younger, plumper Sandra Bullock might double for our heroine, the 148 is no Speed: action junkies will yawn. Annie walks a block, Annie sees the same (mean) corgi pee,  Annie rides the bus with her genteel co-riders, Annie walks a block, Annie’s at work (reverse, repeat). Deviations from the cozily predictable plotline surprise and educate, however, like Annie’s one-time Brown Line neighbor who snorts a white substance—cocaine?—during rush hour, then announces that it’s actually heroin. Huh! Recommend this to riders whose tastes trend toward navel-gazing, character-driven internal dramas. “What to make for dinner? What to make of this handsome stranger?” Annie wonders. —Anne Bostrom, Editorial Assistant

Oh Eisenhower! One Woman’s Journey to Work and Back

Told in two mirrored sections, this commute quickly disintegrates thanks to uneven pacing. In Part 1, the main character starts out fine, but quickly discovers that everyone is working against her—mostly fellow commuters trying to nudge their way in at the last possible second. What could be exciting suspense just turns out to be repetitive nonsense. It doesn’t help that the protagonist is a drama queen and acts as though every person who cuts her off must be purposely trying to keep her from getting to work on time. She also has an overdeveloped sense of judgment that’s never quite explained. Part 2 is no better, albeit with a touch of mystery—will it take 25 minutes or a full hour, and will our intrepid heroine make it to the preschool on time? Again, due to an incredible amount of lag time, the suspense never quite takes hold and just becomes a bore. Far too many superfluous characters and the need for some serious editing for length makes this commute not recommended. —Rebecca Vnuk, Reference and Collection Management Editor

  80 Miles a Day

First, some background: in the early years, Wilkens, a long-time employee of the American Library Association, commuted via a quick trip on what she anachronistically calls the “Howard El” (known now as the Red Line) or short rides on either of two seedy bus routes, the 22 and 36. Occasionally, she even rode a bike from her high-rise apartment downtown. Once her first child arrived, however, the suburbs called her name, she answered—and so began the author’s life as what she calls “a real commuter.” Living a 30-minute drive from the nearest train station, she decided it was simply easier to make the hour-and-a-half drive to work . . . in rush hour . . . twice a day. She followed that routine for the better part of two decades, noting that Howard Stern’s move to satellite radio was just about the only thing that kept her sane. Then, to her utter delight, a suburban bus company began offering a bus route that travels, via an express lane on the expressway, from her town’s village hall to the corner by her office. Now Wilkens reads, catches up with her favorite shows (yes, there’s wi-fi on that bus!), or even just sleeps—and she finds it glorious! A must for any southwest suburban Chicagoland commuter. —Mary Frances Wilkens, Sales and Marketing Director

The Obstacle Course

The commuter’s trusty and dusty 13-year-old Corolla lurches in and out of the pothole at the foot of the alley in her working-class Northwest Side Chicago neighborhood, the first peril on the road to work. Next are stop-sign intersections where most morning drivers do little more than lift their foot from the gas pedal as they roll through. It’s a flat place, so one can see for miles, but it’s also a grid of maddening one-ways, and, now that it’s spring, streets closings due to endless construction projects. Forced detours might prove interesting, but, alas, they’re  high-blood-pressure hazards, impeding progress and increasing stress. At traffic lights, one might become intrigued with the attire, gait, and aura of pedestrians, or with one’s fellow drivers who are listening to loud, thumping music, and/or texting, smoking, eating, drinking, spitting, putting on make-up, arguing, littering, or slipping into a catatonic state. Alarmingly, one sees drivers engaged in these same activities while driving on the dreaded, take-your-life-your-hands Kennedy Expressway, a place where boredom, angst, and outright terror converge. Recommended only for masochists, and those who find that surviving the hell of a Chicago rush hour behind the wheel makes the rest of the day seem pretty darn sweet. —Donna Seaman, Senior Editor

East from Texas

Albeit brief, this 25-minute bus ride packs more into three miles than any car idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic could manage in one hundred. Starting in a neighborhood so far west most people think it’s in Texas, riders travel due east through colorful neighborhoods that serve up char-dogs, jibaritos, pierogis, pollos vivos, molecular gastronomy, and deep dish. As proof, each passenger boards with his inimitable smell, so that when the quotidian exodus spills out at the Chicago Blue Line and a new hoard of riders smashes on, our commuter almost misses the bacon-and-egg breath of the husky man whose armpit surrounded her nose for the past several blocks. This daily to-and-fro is sometimes interrupted by unexpected turns—south, to avoid the screaming police cars pursuing a stab-wound victim’s perp; off, after an eager commuter careens into the vehicle’s rear; and nowhere, when an all-too-vocal, none-too-wise vagrant criticizes the driver’s maneuvering. In the end, it’s a ride to work like any other, made unique only by its cast of characters united in their singular journey. —Katharine Fronk, Marketing Manager

Brown Line to Red Line

This commute starts out well enough with frequent, reliable arrivals and an easy, comfortable pace. It opens on a wide, breezy platform with beautiful early morning views. It’s a pleasant beginning, but short-lived. After the transfer, the commute plunges quickly into the gritty, dark, and unpredictable world of subway travel. The transition into the underground is almost comically Dickensian, underscored by the literal difference of light and dark, clean and filthy between the lines. The contrast between Red and Brown comes not only in the atmosphere and light quality, but the characters of the riders. Whereas the beginning of the commute is populated by pleasant train-goers quietly reading and respecting personal space, the end is frequently full of grumpy commuters glaring up from their Kindles and scowling at overlarge bags or last, desperate squeezes into the car. But, for all the discomfort, this commute reaches a tidy conclusion in the most important way: quickly. —Sarah Hunter, Editorial Assistant

Crossing the Cheddar Curtain

This story of a former flatlander who escaped to the north and now tackles a long and treacherous commute begins at 6:15 a.m. on an Amtrak train from Brew Town to the City of Big Shoulders. Our heroine, an AV review editor, is at a loss: she has forgotten her headphones. Seeking refuge from yapping cell phone users who manage to find someone to call even at this early hour, she takes a seat in the quiet car, where the only sound is the clicking of her keyboard as she edits the latest batch of reviews. The train rumbles out of the city, making a quick stop at the airport before heading south where it arrives at Union Station at the much friendlier hour of 8 a.m. The commute continues with a bus ride and then a short walk to the office. Though far too long, this commute will appeal to readers interested in relocating to an area where “eat cheese or die” is a familiar motto. —Sue Ellen Beauregard, Audio Editor



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

1 Comment on "This Commute Is Not Recommended: Booklisters Review Their Trips to Work"

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  1.' GraceAnne says:

    These are very, very good and very, very funny.
    GraceAnne, who now works out of her home office aerie, and commutes downstairs to the kitchen for lunch and tea breaks.

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