Patti Smith’s M Train serves up savory craft & a side of divinity.

Patti Smith M Train

[Smith with her Polaroid camera at cafe Ino, NYC.]

M Train is a portrait of the artist in real time. Patti Smith rambles around New York City, travels overseas to attend a meeting of an strange society devoted to continental drift that suddenly disbands; she writes and muses in a beloved café near her East Village townhouse that one day simply closes. She impulsively buys a Far Rockaway beach shack that Hurricane Sandy promptly submerges. We see her consume much coffee and the stray meal—vegetarian snacks, really, they seem to keep her going. She tends her cats, falls into bed with her clothes on, somehow loses a beloved coat, leaves a special camera on a park bench. Spacey? Truly. Yet paradoxically mindful. She’s always reading, writing, drawing—and charmingly caught up in TV detective series. Her book’s title may refer to memory, where Smith spends many waking hours. Her past and ongoing lives feel deeply processed. A stoic romantic, her globetrotting habits include tending dead poets’ graves.

For all this detail, she leaves out a lot. Her focus may be the key to M Train. And you always know where she is in time and space or flashback—reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (reviewed)—despite scant connective tissue. She never plods in what’s basically a chronologically intercut with penumbras of backstory. There’s almost nothing on her poetry and music careers; Smith’s past lives emerge as resonant memories during her peripatetic foreground narrative. This is a widow’s story. A message from someone in her late sixties living with loss. Her husband, guitarist Fred Sonic Smith, vanished at age 45, slain by a heart attack; her beloved brother who managed her tours fell to a stroke soon after. Smith’s laconic artistry can be seen in her placement of Fred’s spare scenes. No deathbed stuff, however. And her two adult children don’t appear in this slice of life. If sadness suffuses M Train, the book isn’t glum. Shining through is Smith’s sense, lifelong and apparently innate, of divinity.

She masterfully crafts a persona even as her self-presentation appears incidental and even accidental. But make no mistake. She’s “just herself” in the same way her haunting black-and-white Polaroids that illustrate M Train are just snapshots. Sometimes humanly cranky, as when someone takes her favorite café seat, Smith mostly seems contemplative in her solitude. She warns at the outset M Train is a story about “nothing,” but it’s hardly that. While this quiet memoir is inseparable from her attainment and celebrity, it stands alone. From shards of her history and sketches of her daily life, Smith has fashioned literature. I admired Just Kids, her portrait of coming of age with her friend the late Robert Mapplethorpe, but I found M Train moving and exciting.

Other great reads of 2015

susan griffin2

[Susan Griffin.]

• Susan Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones: The Hidden Life of War (discussed) is a mesmerizing mosaic of different but reappearing elements, including: snippets on cell biology and missile technology; WWII’s savage war on civilians; the secrets people carry about emotional and other abuse; and the Nazis, especially Heinrich Himmler, chief architect of the Holocaust, and his strict, self-denying childhood.

The long essay “Our Secret,” a chapter in A Chorus of Stones, is increasingly read and assigned to students. It is an astonishing meditation on the soul-destroying price of conforming to false selves that have been brutalized by others, mentally or physically or both, or by themselves in committing acts of violence and emotional cruelty.

An extended inquiry into secret suffering, A Chorus of Stones shows how private woe can spread and erupt in the mass violence of war. Griffin offers a profound vision of human pain in this brilliant, inspired masterpiece.

Odd Woman and City

• Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City (reviewed). In August I fell under the spell of Gornick’s new memoir, really a long essay. I immediately read it again, something I haven’t yet done with Patti Smith’s, which it resembles. Gornick’s is about friendship, especially in New York City, walking in the city, and encounters with strangers in the city.

Her stories are interesting, as is her brutally honest truth-speaking voice and the funny anecdotes she tells on herself. She’s aware that, well, she’s odd. The latter is literally a reference to her feminism—she takes the term from George Gissing about feminists of an earlier era—but it alludes as well to her feeling of being broken. Like all writers (and people) she generalizes from her personal truths. This is why we read her but it’s also sometimes why I want to argue with her about her conclusions. As if she’s a friend.

• David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I listened to a good chunk of this essay collection as an audio book while driving from Ohio to Virginia and back last winter, and then I bought the book and read it. Sedaris is a superb reader of his own work, as everyone knows, which can make reading essays in the wake of that a slight letdown at first. But he’s funny, so funny, a master of persona and phrasing.

Sedaris’s prose is somehow both elegant and colloquial. He deploys his foibles with wry discernment and without self hatred. His long essay on trying to quit smoking while on an extended stay in Japan was amusing and also inspiring to me as a writer, since one could see him working his life for material almost as it happened. His best essays, however, are those about his early life and those that focus on the oddballs who roll into his orbit. After this collection I read Me Talk Pretty One Day and found it likewise entertaining and poignant.

Natalie Kusz Road Song

• Natalie Kusz’s Road Song: A Memoir depicts her loving, eccentric family, their life in Alaska, and the accident that maimed her face. One of the things that sets Road Song apart is that the latter, a truly horrific event early in the story, is just one of the book’s compelling threads, an important one but not its focus. The title tells you that, in large part, this is a book about a joyous family.

What Kusz focuses on is always different and unexpected—there are so many surprises in this book. For instance, the nature of her adolescent rebellion and her family’s response. Her muscular prose, her reflective bent, and her interest in other people and in deeper meanings lend her memoir profundity. Yet it is lighthearted for a tale of so much struggle, truly loving and life-affirming. A strong, unusual memoir.

• Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy (review and interview) features pervasive exaggeration, deft timing, absurd queries, addled answers, and wry follow-up essays. This sustained comedic performance also glimmers with wisdom.

Borrowing a structure, that of the advice columnist—many now call this the “hermit crab” method, after Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell it Slant—within Moore’s mega hermit crab are baby ones: essays presented as lists; as a Googlemaps essay; and as jottings on a cocktail napkin. The book’s structure is a clever container for well-crafted concise essays. I may not be as objective as some, because I know Dinty, but I was charmed and inspired by Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy. Charmed by its lighthearted spirit and inspired by how he used his writing practice and his sensibility to craft art in prose.

Macdonald w Mabel-her blog

[Then: Macdonald with Mabel, ca. 2008.]

• Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (reviewed) depicts her getting a goshawk to train, a challenge despite Macdonald’s birdy girlhood and prior falconry experience; this occurs as a way of coping with her father’s death, and we get glimpses of him and more of her grief and disordered state; a strong third element is her explication of novelist T.H. White’s own harrowing attempt to train a goshawk and her insights into White’s deeply damaged psyche.

Macdonald’s braiding of her story refreshes, and her sentences and diction utterly delight. Here’s a morning in a few deft strokes:

Last night the forecast was bad. A storm surge threatened to inundate East Anglia. All night I kept waking, listening to the rain, fearing for the caravans along the coast, their frail silver backs against the rain and rising seas. But the storm surge held back at the brink, and the morning dawned blue and shiny as a puddle.

• Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange consists of fine, diverse short stories set in Appalachia. Their timeline extends from the Civil War to today. Several portray rural America’s meth problem in chilling detail.

Patti Smith, at ease

[Patti Smith, at ease.]


  • shirleyhs says:

    I rely on you to do the best memoir reading of the year, Richard. Loss and grief appear to be compelling themes in many if not all of these books. They are all on my list! Thank you.

    • Richard says:

      Yes, but Road Song is a real upper, Shirley. And M Train seems a portrait of being an adult of a certain age. There’s hardly even one sigh in Patti Smith.

      Actually I was feeling good about having so much comedy on the list with David Sedaris and Dinty Moore. But loss and grief do pretty much define the memoir genre . . .

      Happy New Year and best wishes.

  • I’ve been on a Gornick kick since I read The Odd Woman in the City. I’ve finished all her memoirs, and now I’m moving on to her fiction. Loved Dinty’s book of essays and intend to read the rest of your picks. Thanks again, Richard. Happy New Year!

  • Dear Richard, Of the books you’ve just reviewed (and this one I remember reading your review of before), I think “H Is for Hawk” is the one for me. What always amazes me about your reading lists and essays is the sheer number of books you manage to read and review well. Keep them coming, I might eventually manage to read half of what you do!

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      Thanks so much, Victoria. I thought I’d had a bad reading year until I reviewed by log, an Excel spreadsheet. But a falloff last year was the number and quality of novels read . . .

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