Book Review: M Train

It would be easy to dismiss the book “M Train” by Patti Smith as the ramblings of a sad older woman. It’s true that this memoir rambles – oh, how it rambles – and I believe it’s true that she was sad. Her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, died of a heart attack when he was 45, and her brother died shortly afterward. Her children are now adults and her relationship with them appears strained. She lives alone in a crowded apartment in New York City.

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However, it’s the rambling itself that really makes M Train great. She writes about her daily routine of drinking coffee at “her” table at her favourite café (the now closed Cafe ‘ino), about the process of writing, about her life with Fred and the adventures they went on, about the various speaking and singing engagements she has… the book is all over the place. This is not a linear “I did this and then I did that and then this happened” type of book.

It’s not so easy writing about nothing.

M Train, Patti Smith

This is a book that makes you think. She casually drops little nuggets of wisdom here and there, little passages that smack you in the face with their insightfulness, in between obsessions like conveying little stones from place “A” to the grave of writer “B” to honour their memory. She’s an odd lady.

I’m not sure if I should give spoiler alerts for a memoir. I guess most people don’t know her life story, and neither did I. I can’t say I “know” her now but I certainly know more about her than I did before. I only knew her as the singer of “Because the Night” (cowritten with Bruce Springsteen) and a vague notion that she and Robert Mapplethorpe dated way back when.

The book is sprinkled with copies of her Polaroid photos. She used an ancient film camera with honest-to-god bellows, and Polaroid film. She seemed happy with most of her photos, and that’s what really matters.

The bartender refilled my glass. The tequila was light, like flower juice. I closed my eyes and saw a green train with an M in a circle; a faded green like the back of a praying mantis.

M Train, Patti Smith

If you look at this book as a whole, you can see a progression, of a solitary hermit slowly emerging and engaging with the wider world again. It’s inspiring and beautiful.

I honestly don’t know why I chose to read this book, but I’m glad I did. It’s a book I will probably read again and get more out of. Recommended.

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