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Patti Smith in her cherished New York City, 1970s. Photo take from The Examiner website.

I don’t often post my Goodreads reviews here. But if I find a work of creative nonfiction to be exceptional, I want to bring more attention to it.

I finished Patti Smith’s M Train yesterday and am still processing what I’ve read. I know it’s a book I’ll be going back to as a model of beautifully written, touching essay.

As I note: “I was reading more than words; it seemed that I was enveloping myself in a piece of performance art. I wasn’t just reading words to process a story.”

For all you creative nonfiction writers, I do recommend you read M Train. 

My review:

M TrainM Train by Patti Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I want to dream like Patti Smith.

Throughout her memoir, M Train, she writes of her dreams—vivid, touching, and full of meaning. A cowboy is a recurring dream character, and he serves as a sort of mentor, helping Patti to see what she should do.

The dreams alone testify to Patti’s creativity, not to mention her music, her photography, and her writing.

I’m a fast reader, but this was not a book I could blow through. M Train forced me to slow down, to truly savor each word. The story was not going to be apparent on first glance. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still trying to determine the story.

It’s a story without a narrative. Each chapter reads like an essay. Some through lines exist to ground the reader, such as her beloved Café Ino and her beloved Fred. Fred, her husband, died some years before but unlike a more traditional memoir, dates and the passage of time is fuzzy. I don’t know how long they were married or when he died. I don’t know how old she was when he died or how old their children were. But I don’t need to. The lack of details lets me focus on Patti’s grief. I read reviews of M Train before I started it, and I was led to believe that the book focused more in-depth on Patti’s losses, such as Fred and one month later, her brother. But Fred gets only rare mentions. We get a brief, fleeting glimpse of him and then he’s gone until the next time. But that light touch is beautiful. A writer should always leave readers wanting more, not less.

The book has nineteen chapters, some of which are stronger than others. I marked several that read like perfect essays: steady themes, ends that circles back to beginnings, lyrical writing, brilliant observations. Others are not so strong and I found myself drifting. At times, her detailed descriptions of her travels get a little long. And one thing I noticed that became almost comical as I made my way through the book: Patti’s obsession with describing what she’s eating. In one 12-page chapter, she eats a falafel, bean soup, corn muffin, marinated beans, dark bread dipped in olive oil, and powdered doughnuts.

I like this woman. She likes coffee and cafés. She likes to travel and take photographs. I love that she loves to sit at home, or in a hotel room, and watch television. Television is not too “lowbrow” for her: she can’t get enough of TV detective shows. This made me feel better about my dependency at times on TV.

This was not a quick read. It took me several weeks to finish the book. M Train demanded a certain level of reverence, which I rarely find in a book. It demanded that I read it in complete silence (so reading at home was rarely an option). I first opened it while in a coffee shop, which felt like the perfect setting. At that moment I had time enough to read one chapter, and that, too, felt like the appropriate amount to read in one sitting. So I continued to take the book to coffee shops, reading one chapter at a time. I was reading more than words; it seemed that I was enveloping myself in a piece of performance art. I wasn’t just reading words to process a story. The book truly felt like art, more so than any other book I’ve read.

So what is this book about? Now that I’ve thought about this, I can answer that question. It’s a book about endings. It’s about aging (“Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell.”). It’s about lost things: objects, dreams, people, cafés. It’s about solitude. It’s about navigating a world that you know, but also it’s a world you don’t know because so much has changed. It’s dark, meditative, quiet, soulful. Read it, contemplate what Patti has to say, enjoy it, underline passages, return to it again and again—that’s what I plan to do.

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