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book review: m train

mtrain

I read Patti Smith’s “M Train” after it was mentioned approvingly by my friend Irene, but I knew basically nothing about it before I started. As I read it, I never knew what was coming next, other than each chapter made the ones before it even deeper and more meaningful. Even the cover image took on multiple meanings from the first chapter to the last.

“M Train” is a very thoughtful and moving series of sketches on memory, travel (physical and mental), coffee, people, culture, reading, writing, photography, dreams, and time. The primary timeframe covers roughly two years, before and after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but this is a memoir told in non-linear threads and retrospective fragments, almost “unstuck in time”, tied by themes that are sometimes only clear in retrospect. In space, it journeys through Pennsylvania, Detroit, Tokyo, Surinam and French Guiana, Paris, Tangier, Spain, Mexico, Berlin, Iceland, and London.

It also provided me a reading list, from the many authors she mentions who are important to her: Isabelle Eberhardt, Mohammed Mrabet, Jean Genet, Max Sebald, Dinah Mulock, Haruki Murakami, Anna Kavan, Paul Bowles, just to start.

This is the first book that ever made me read each chapter at least twice, and go back to reread from the start every few chapters. It is so well-written — sometimes melancholy, often humorous, always well observed, self-aware, and honest — and full of meaning and interlocking thematic callbacks, I wanted to stay immersed in her words at every step. And even then, at the very end the smallest revelation made me reassess the opening pages, and eagerly reread the whole book again with an even deeper level of understanding.

To my mind, the unspoken but ever-present core of the memoir is loss — what you lose and what you retain after loss. For Patti Smith, her many losses include a black coat, a child’s toy, a spouse, a favorite book, a literary hero, parents, a coffee shop, a house, an envelope of treasured photographs, a beloved brother, a “regular” table, a neighborhood, a rare opportunity, a tree, a boat, and a camera.

But loss is not an end. Loss is not all there is to life, but life will always include loss, so we need to learn how to lose. Not with denial, not with avoidance, nor despair. As Smith recalls all she’s loved and lost, she makes connections, appreciates the experiences, mourns deeply, cherishes memories and keepsakes, and begins to build the future after loss. Continue to “do” and make and create and live, even knowing that loss will follow.

Describing Haruki Murakami’s book “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles”, Patti Smith says it is the kind of masterpiece

“where the writer seems to infuse living energy into words as the reader is spun, wrung, and hung out to dry. Devastating books. I finished it and was immediately obliged to reread it. I did not wish to exit its atmosphere.”

That’s how I feel about M Train.

M Train, by Patti Smith. Published by Alfred A. Knopf (2015).

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