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Stranger on a Train

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  608 ratings  ·  72 reviews
Using two cross-country trips on Amtrak as her narrative vehicles, British writer Jenny Diski connects the humming rails, taking her into the heart of America with the track-like scars leading back to her own past. As in the highly acclaimed Skating to Antarctica, Diski has created a seamless and seemingly effortless amalgam of reflections and revelation in a unique combin ...more
Paperback, 280 pages
Published 2004 by Virago Press (first published 2002)
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Average rating 3.87  · 
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Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a laidback travel memoir about two long train journeys Diski took across America (in the late 1990s or early 2000s, I think). It also incorporates memories from her troubled adolescence – she started smoking at 14 and was in and out of mental hospitals at 15 – in which she loved nothing more than to read while riding the London Underground’s Circle line all day long.

I’d previously read and enjoyed Diski’s Skating to Antarctica, and in both travel books she perfects the art of observation
Martin Budd
Jan 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
What an amazing work, I thought this would be a travel book in the same style as Paul Theroux or similar, it is, but it is also so much more than that. Like "Catcher in the Rye" Jenny's dialogue confirms to you that there are people who really do think like you do, who experience life as you do,that what goes on behind the eyes really can be very profound indeed.The book overflows with her warmth and humanity,but there is a good sharp bite with some of her observations giving a real depth to her ...more
May 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites
One of my favourite books.
Feb 18, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
to read and re-read and re-read, especially while travelling. most recently, i re-read this on the beach in miami, eavesdropping on americans. it was a chilly day (by floridian standards), but i was comfortingly wrapped in towels and diski's prose: acerbic, remote, kind and quite funny. her eye for detail is impressive.
Davida Chazan
How wonderful is this book? Diski's travel across the USA and her experiences with being a smoker were just perfect - and made even more fun to read since I read it on a train myself. Highly recommended!
Sep 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
Jenny Diski endeavours to circumnavigate the United States …by train. She’s not really intent on doing anything more than watch the scenery whip past and smoke. She finds a special place in the smoking car with it’s cracked linoleum floor, institutional gray walls and hard plastic chairs. There, along with the outcast, nicotine hungry pariahs she can unrepentantly smoke in peace.

People seem to have other ideas and their lives and attendant stories reach out to her. Diski does a fair bit of lite
Jun 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: travel
Diski is a very self-absorbed writer but her reflections on her life and her interactions (and worries about her interactions) with others are well worth reading, often chiming with and elucidating one's own feelings. Her reserve breaks down when she combines the anonimity of train travel in a foreign country with the shared sin of being a smoker amongst (when she can manage it) other smokers. She builds a handsome collection of personal vignettes from her fellow travellers, usually provoking th ...more
Joey Gan
Aug 26, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I thought this was a great way to explore the least explored. Despite the less-than-encouraging connotations associated with train travel in the US, Jenny still managed a trip that informed her more than the bitter hearsay. Curiosity is all you need to take on the road to make the journey a little more worth remembering!
Apr 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Amazing insight into the USA and mental health great read
Sep 20, 2013 rated it it was ok
I am struggling a bit with this review, as this book was very different from my expectation. Sometimes that is a good thing... but not this time.

I usually find winners of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award excellent. This book won in 2003. For me however this is not a travel book. In this book travel is the least important element. America is just a setting, only what is seen out the train window when the author breaks eye contact with her fellow passengers, or sits alone in reflection. This book
May 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Less about the landscape and more about the interesting mix of people Diski meets on her train journeys. Her insights and observations are so astute and she also reveals details about her own troubled early years.
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Sep 16, 2015 marked it as did-not-finish
Love the cover and the title but not the narrator, 100 pages in and still not on the train. I had chosen this for book speed dating so will abandon for other reads.
Mar 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An amazing book by an amazing writer...RIP Jenny Diski.
Jul 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Not sure I wd always get along with her, but her experiences, the stories she (involuntarily) collects and her reflections are so brilliant. Also the realisation normal, story-less, people don't exist. I'll definitely check her other stuff. (will post quotations in a remote future)
Sep 16, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This travelog/memoir, by a writer for whom travel, ideally, is "to be in or move through empty spaces in circumstances where nothing much will happen," was a lot more successful than you might think. Diski begins the book by describing how, when she was thirteen and unhappy, she would spend the days she wasn't in school riding the Circle Line underground train, smoking and reading an armful of library books. The two American train journeys she describes in this book are similarly circuitous and ...more
Margaret Sullivan
Apr 04, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2014
What a disappointment. I love the idea of this book--traveling around more or less the circumference of the continental U.S. by train, and writing about it. I would like to WRITE that book (maybe--I might be too much of an introvert). But I would settle for reading it. Unfortunately, this was not really what I was looking for. The writing is lovely and deep and interesting, but the author is way too neurotic to write the book I was looking for, unfortunately. There were interesting parts, when D ...more
Zora O'Neill
Oct 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
There is nothing quite as illuminating as travel literature about your own country. Diski is British, and she makes strange gaffes like calling the city "St. Paul's-Minneapolis," but has an overall sympathetic ear for Americans. I found it a little bit slow to start, but once I relaxed into it, it was perfect. The meat of it is really a catalog of every strange person and their strange stories, as encountered on Amtrak, especially in the smoking sections (when such a thing still existed--this wa ...more
Jul 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
I'm not sure what is it about it, but I just love travel writing. I have a romanticised notion of train travel and this book fitted perfectly with that. The passengers she met along the way we're so open and their simple stories universal and moving. I do wonder if it would be like that now, more than a decade later. I'd like to think so.
Gunnar Andersson
Aug 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Nothing happens yet you want to read more, that is a good author! Weird people jump in and out from the story but it's not individual story's that makes the book interesting, it's the general mentality of the people that is depicted, a side of the US Hollywood rarely speak of.
Katrine Solvaag
Mar 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Somehow the book managed first to intrigue me, and then during the last third completely inthrall me with its perceptions.
Oct 04, 2019 rated it it was ok
Well, I knew what I was getting into when I chose to read this book as the cover description was crystal clear. I decided to hop on the train anyway and go for it. I wouldn't say it was a waste of time. It was nonetheless not your typical travel story. What I find interesting is how train travel sparked memories for the author. Diski weaves into her U.S. train escapades various tales of her childhood, drug use, and psychiatric hospitalization. At times it was interesting, yet at times those trai ...more
Dec 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir
Aside from the obvious health downsides, I've always thought it would be pleasant to smoke. You always have an excuse to leave a gathering and get outside; and it gives you something to do with your hands. But, though Diski's memoir is, in part, a paean to smoking, it makes smoking seem very inconvenient. Diski is traveling by train in the US in the early 00s and constantly struggles to find a place she can smoke: the one thought in her mind is where she will be legally allowed to smoke and how ...more
Jun 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Made me think that most of the travel lit I've read is by men. So I'm literally taking a note to change that - I found more in common with Diski than I have with Theroux or MacFarlane. JD's travels are a conduit for her treaties on the grand themes - friendship, desire, death, depression. I found myself constantly folding page corners to revisit little nuggets of perfectly crafted wisdom.

'My problem, if that is how it should be termed, and it probably should, is that I am never lonely on my own,
Suzi Minor
Aug 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Reading this book felt like a long train ride going nowhere, a passenger on an inescapable journey through pages of monotonous ramblings. Just like the writer anxiously awaits her next smoke break or anticipation for the next station; traveling with her through the pages, I found myself eagerly seeking the end of the book for my departure. I appreciate her availability to let the reader in to her inquisitive and sometimes paranoid thoughts, however the effort it took to find any real sense of st ...more
S.M. Jenkin
May 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
I don't know if it was because I read this late at night, or if it were the writing but this had a dream like quality to it.
Her feet really do not hit the ground in this fascinating circular journey around the USA. I felt like I was sneaking into the back seat with the naughty kids.
A fascinating insight into her life. I will read her other work. The anecdote about her reading novels on the circle line made me think of a similar incident in 'off the rails, memoirs of a train addict' by Lisa St Au
Patrick King
Aug 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
The comforting (and discomfiting) same-ness of America, the real-life stock characters of America, the beauty and grandeur and just plain weirdness of America. Though she name checks DeToqueville, this is something entirely different: an examination of the effect of America and Americans on the self. She brings a lot of her self into the narrative and it’s really what ties it all together. The text is full of digressions and it gives a strong authorial voice. I think that ultimately the book fal ...more
William Goodhart
Oct 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This won't be a long review, but I do want to tell people that this is an extraordinary memoir of two journeys through America, and the thoughts and feelings of Ms Diski throughout are very cogent and I felt compelling; hers is not an ordinary life, but we shouldn't feel that our lives are just ordinary either. I was intrigued by her subtitle: "Daydreaming and smoking around America with interruptions."

Marvelous reading!
Matt Walker
May 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essays, travel
Liked this a lot, despite references to:

1) a baseball player named Willie May
2) an entertainer named Sammy Davies, Jr.
3) a town in Minnesota called St. Paul's
4) a river in North Dakota called the Mississippi
5) an NYC landmark called Madison Square Gardens
6) a neighborhood called Hell's the Bronx
Carl Halpin
Jan 21, 2020 rated it liked it
An interesting insight into the life of a smoker and the strangers that people meet when having a smoko. Having two parents who smoked her ability to talk with random people over a smoke, never to see them again reminded me of many roadhouse stops on family holidays. I wonder how this journey would happen in 2020.
Feb 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed the time spent with the author. Some like to be surrounded by friends, but she enjoyed the feeling of being a stranger. About halfway through I looked her up on the internet and learned she died of lung cancer at age 68. Put a sad tint on the rest of the book.
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College Students! : Stranger on a Train by Jenny Diski 1 10 Jun 04, 2015 02:23PM  

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Jenny Diski was a British writer. Diski was a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction articles, reviews and books. She was awarded the 2003 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking around America With Interruptions.

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