M Train by Patti Smith
As a bookseller, not a week goes by where I am not asked the question, ‘What is your favourite book?’ Invariably, my answer is Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids.
Just Kids is Smith’s deeply affecting love letter to Robert Mapplethorpe, set against the backdrop of bohemian ’60s and ’70s New York City. It is the intimate and honest story of their lives together as roommates, soulmates, friends, lovers and muses. Smith’s uniquely lyrical prose makes Just Kids a joy to come back to again and again. Needless to say, when the publication of M Train was announced as a sequel to Just Kids I was more than somewhat excited.
For fans and newcomers alike, M Train does not disappoint. Shifting between dreams and reality, past and present, it is a journey through the most significant turning points in Smith’s life, stopping by eighteen ‘stations’. We learn about Smith’s all consuming creative drive, and her passion for and joy in the craft of writing. These journeys take the reader across the world, from meetings in Berlin of a secret arctic explorers’ society – to which Smith belongs – to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico, and a pilgrimage to Japan to trace the footsteps of legendary Japanese filmmakers that have inspired her. Interlaced among these stories are deeply personal reflections and often heartbreaking memories of life in Michigan with her late husband, guitarist Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith.
While some readers may find the lack of narrative thread a weakness, I find it to be the beauty of the book. The meandering, journal-like style between these stories mirrors the motions of train travel – hopping on and off at stations, and changing trains. It is also Smith’s ruminations on everyday pleasures that make M Train such a delight: her attachment to a familiar coat; the morning ritual of black coffee and brown bread with olive oil at the same table of a beloved West Village cafe; and her addiction to gritty UK detective dramas, which on one occasion resulted in an unplanned stopover and stay in a London hotel purely to indulge in watching these shows uninterrupted. These details, while ordinary, are intimate and Smith’s delivery is elegant.
When accepting the National Book Award for Just Kids, Patti Smith implored, ‘Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.’ Hear, hear! Thank you Ms Smith, your books are certainly deserving of that description.
Danielle Mirabella is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.