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M Train


M Train

Patti Smith is an artist always in movement. She routinely references books as if they are companions in her life; from Murakami’s THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE to Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, she strikes up book recommendations as if she is talking about an old friend. She is always in search of where she can get a cup of black coffee --- whether it be corner delis or hotel cafés in Japan. And she is always happy to be moving on to a new adventure in a new city on the whim of a letter in the mail.

Kerouac would be proud. Even as Smith sits in Greenwich Village in the local Ino Café, the ceiling fans still spinning at the end of November, you can feel her movement. It isn’t easy writing about nothing, she thinks, referencing a dream. Blending the reality of her world with the dreamer status helps her latest book lift from the mundane to something surreal. She speaks to the dream as if it were real, only ending the conversation when the reality of her café closing causes her to recall her beginning on Bleecker Street 40 years ago --- and even here, she moves seamlessly between the present and the past.

"M TRAIN is not a memoir in the traditional sense. Rather, it combines all forms of art --- including photography, prose and poetry --- making for a beautiful read."

That is the essence of M TRAIN. It is a life in and out of cafés. In and out of books. In and out of cities. In and out of the past within a few sentences. An endless travelogue of coffee and literature, art and photography. It stirs movement in the reader with the spirit of novels like Kerouac’s THE DHARMA BURNS and Steinbeck’s TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY IN SEARCH OF AMERICA.

Smith begins with her trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in South America, accompanied by musician Fred “Sonic” Smith. She takes us to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul; her small house on the Jersey Shore during Hurricane Sandy; and Sylvia Plath’s grave on more than one occasion, as well as those of Rimbaud, Mishima and Genet. Remarkably, none of this is pretentious. Smith never talks about her music career and rarely speaks of accolades she has received. The true accomplishments in her life are an afterthought as she opts to give us insight into her travel adventures and daily life.

The book is concerned with an ironic present, small moments, intimate times and, interestingly enough, the mundane. During Sandy, she sits reading with the aid of a battery-powered lantern as the wind and rain pound the area. Even better, in an oddly beautiful and nostalgic scene, she and Fred take up fixing an old wooden boat during summer nights as Detroit Tigers games play on the radio. It’s a strangely simple piece of time that feels larger than it is, but thanks to Smith’s prose, it’s never boring. Her day is best spent getting coffee, watching obscure detective shows and writing in cafés. At 63, Smith writes and lives her life as if she were still 25, with lots of energy and artistic passion.

M TRAIN is not a memoir in the traditional sense. Rather, it combines all forms of art --- including photography, prose and poetry --- making for a beautiful read. The book radiates with the energy of youth but is also travel-worn and nostalgic like an old friend. Keep up with it if you can.

Reviewed by Stephen Febick on October 23, 2015

M Train
by Patti Smith

  • Publication Date: August 23, 2016
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 110191016X
  • ISBN-13: 9781101910160