You all know I read a lot of memoirs. A good memoir for me takes a slice of the writer’s life and illuminates a deeper and more universal meaning. A good memoir is honest and vulnerable, seeking to understand, to share experience. A good memoir says “Come sit with me, let me tell you what happened, where I’ve been, what I’ve learned. Let me show you something about yourself you might recognize."
M Train is a good memoir.
Patti Smith, whose book jacket blurb describes her as “one of the most remarkable multi platform artists working today,” puts her soul on the page in this book, a book she calls “the roadmap of her life.” Told through the lens of various coffee shops all over the world where Smith has spent hours and hours sipping coffee, reading, and writing, reading M Train is akin to being on a deep reflective journey with her.
So the “M” - is it for Memory? Meaning?
Perhaps it’s for Michigan, where Smith met her beloved husband Fred, and where she lived with him so happily. “Michigan,” she writes. "Those were mystical times. An era of small pleasures. When a pear appeared on the branch of a tree and fell before my feet and sustained me."
Maybe it’s for Musing, which she does so well on the nature of life, of work, of memoir itself. “Is the reader familiar with me? Does the reader wish to be? I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions."
It could be for Meditation, which this book invites the reader to do with its stream of consciousness-like structure and its laconic, dreamy prose. “I dreamed of opening a place (a cafe) of my own. I thought about it so much I could almost enter it...I imagined threadbare Persian rugs on wide-planked floors, two long wood tables with benches, a few smaller tables, and an over for baking bread. No music no menus. Just silence black coffee olive oil fresh mint brown bread."
Perhaps the M stands for Mourning, which she so clearly still does for her husband Fred, though he has been dead for decades. “I barely read on the plane. Instead I watched the movie Master and Commander. Captain Jack Aubrey reminded me so much of Fred that I watched it twice. Midflight I began to weep. Just come back, I was thinking. You’ve been gone long enough. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes."
Though Smith takes us all over the world as we travel with her through her past, it is this elegiac quality of this book that most appeals to me. In her mid-60’s now, Smith looks at life through a lens that’s becoming quite familiar to me, seeing all that’s been gained but also longing for that which is lost and never to return.
“We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow."
M Train is a beautiful book in every sense, including the physical, making me feel sorry for those readers who chose a digital edition. It’s sepia toned cover photo of the author in her favorite cafe protects a rich brown cover. The pages are thick and glossy, and include the author’s signature Polaroid images. It’s comfortably hefty, and provides the tactile reader with a very satisfactory reading experience.
Sometimes a book touches us in ways we would never have imagined. I bought this one on something of a whim, but it proved a worthwhile purchase and is a welcome addition to my memoir library.