"Style is what happens when your phrasing hardens."
- Ornette Coleman, jazz legend


Patti Smith: M Train

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 04, 2015
Category: Memoir

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Patti Smith has just published her second memoir, “M Train.”

I was an early fan of her first memoir, Just Kids, which went on to win the National Book Award and which will soon get a new, larger audience as a Showtime TV series.

I wish I could say I was as enthusiastic about “M Train.”

I wish I even knew what to say about it.

The New York Times knows. Here’s the start of the rave review from the generally dependable Michiko Kakutani:

Patti Smith’s achingly beautiful new book, “M Train,” is a kaleidoscopic ballad about the losses dealt out by time and chance and circumstance. Losing her husband, the guitarist Fred (Sonic) Smith, to heart failure in 1994 at the age of 45. Losing her brother, Todd, a month later to a stroke. Losing her early New York friend and roommate, Robert Mapplethorpe, to AIDS in 1989. Her book is about moving from a time when her children were little and “the things I touched were living” (“my husband’s fingers, a dandelion, a skinned knee”) to a time when she increasingly began to capture and memorialize moments from her life in photos and words — to create, as an artist, talismanic souvenirs of the past. Of which this book is one.

What’s in the book? In a Style piece in the Times, Penelope Green gives you a blitz tour of the topics:

She naps; she makes lists; she binge-watches detective series… her cat throws up on her pillow…. Her shoelaces come undone and trail in rain puddles. Her socks get tangled in her jeans, and escape at inopportune moments. Walking through Washington Square, a lone sock breaks free from her pants (stuck there from the night before), and a giggling teenager returns it to her. Small losses echo the larger ones.

If you’re a fan, stop right here. Buy the book. Savor it. Ignore what follows. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the audio book, read by the author, click here.]

What’s my problem with “M Train?” Coffee. The publisher’s description acknowledges that coffee is a topic — “’M Train’ is a meditation on travel, detective shows, literature, and coffee” — it just doesn’t indicate the weight of each topic. In my reading, the ultimate topic is coffee. Patti Smith drinks coffee. Gallons of it. Really, it seems like all she does.

How many times does Patti Smith drink coffee in these 253 pages?

I counted: 45 times.

Some coffee company should sponsor this book. Her kidneys should get an award. Her editor? Oh, but this book probably wasn’t edited — the author is an icon, a poet, and if you read between the lines of Penelope Green’s piece, you cross her at your peril.

Were there passages in “M Train” that moved me?

Yes. I sat for a while with this sentence: “In time we often become one with those we once failed to understand.”

And after the deaths of her husband and brother, she writes that she “spent hours in Fred’s favorite chair, dreading my own imagination. I rose and performed small tasks with the mute concentration of one imprisoned in ice.” If you’ve ever had a harsh, sudden shock, you know she’s described the aftermath with a diamond-cutter’s precision.

But far more often, she’s jetting off to pay homage to some dead idol. Or giving us a laundry list of her reading. Or, mostly, rattling around in her empty home, delivering monologues inspired by what I’d call extreme loneliness and isolation.

She sees herself as a survivor, acknowledging her losses but refusing to surrender. As well she might. But if you didn’t know the legend of Patti Smith, you might well think she’s a ditz.

“I’d like to write a book that everybody loves,” she says.

I wish she had.

Though reluctant to [leave Berlin to] go home I packed my things and flew to London to make my connection. My flight back to New York was delayed, which I took as a sign. I stood before the departure board and a further delay was posted. Impulsively I rebooked my ticket, took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, and from there I took a cab to Covent Garden and checked into a small favored hotel to watch detective shows.

My room was bright and cozy with a small terrace overlooking the London rooftops. I ordered tea and opened my journal, then immediately closed it. I am not here to work, I told myself, but to watch ITV3 mystery dramas, one after another late into the night. I had done this a few years before in the same hotel while ill; delirious nights dominated by a procession of clinically depressed, bad-tempered, heavy-drinking, opera-loving detective inspectors.

I settled in, giving myself over to the likes of Morse, Lewis, Frost, Wycliffe, and Whitechapel – detective inspectors whose moodiness and obsessive natures mirrored my own. When they had a chop, I ordered same from room service. If they had a drink, I consulted the minibar. I adopted their manner whether entirely engrossed or dispassionately disconnected.

In between shows were upcoming scenes from the highly anticipated Cracker marathon, to be aired on ITV3 the following Tuesday. Though Cracker wasn’t the standard detective show it stands among my favorites. Robbie Coltrane portrays Fitz, the foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, and brilliantly erratic, overweight criminal psychologist. The show was discontinued some time ago, akin to the character’s hard luck, and as it’s rarely aired, the opportunity of 24 hours of Cracker was pretty tempting. I deliberated on staying a few more days, but how crazy would that be? No crazier than coming here in the first place, my conscience pipes.

During a break between Detective Frost and Whitechapel, I decided to have a farewell glass of port in the honesty bar adjacent to the library. Standing by the elevator I suddenly felt a presence beside me. We turned at the same moment and stared at one another. I was stunned to find Robbie Coltrane, as if I’d willed him, some days ahead of the Cracker marathon.

I’ve been waiting for you all week, I said impetuously.

Here I am, he laughed.

I was so taken aback that I failed to join him in the elevator and promptly returned to my room, which seemed subtly yet utterly transformed, as if I had been drawn into the parallel quarters of a proper tea-drinking genie.

Can you imagine the odds of such an encounter? I say to my floral bedspread.

Short takes

Ingredients for a ‘One Night Only’ Book Group: a hot novel (‘Married Sex’), the author (me), wine (white)

Jean Hanff Korelitz writes novels and runs BOOKTHEWRITER, which represents more than 100 NYC-based authors who are available to visit book groups in and around the city. She also organizes BOOKTHEWRITER’s Pop-Up Book Groups, which exist for a single night for people who just happen to want to kick a particular book around with a particular writer — in this case, me. On Thursday, October 29, from 7:30 to 9:30, in a chic Manhattan living room with a great view, we’ll be chatting about “Married Sex,” the novel and the novel concept. Considering the topic, wine will be served. I’ll spare you background on my book, on the reasonable assumption you’ve heard plenty, if not too much. Here’s the information/reservation form.

Ella Woodward got sick. Then she ate herself well.

Ella Woodward was your basic 19-year-old English girl — “a sugar monster, and I mean a total addict.” But in 2011, she was diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome: “I literally couldn’t walk down the street, I slept for 16 hours a day, had never ending heart palpitations, was in chronic pain, had unbearable stomach issues, constant headaches and the list goes on.” Not the kind of affliction you want when you’re a university student who’s just starting to work as a model. She dared to take a vacation; she came home in a wheelchair. She went to the Web — and returned a gluten-free vegan. She started a food blog; 18 months later, it had 5 million hits. In her book, “Deliciously Ella: 100+ Easy, Healthy, and Delicious Plant-Based, Gluten-Free Recipes,” she counts “goodness, not calories.” If smoothies, mango-and-sesame quinoa, and sweet potato and carrot mash appeal to you, here’s your cookbook. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

“Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury”

I haven’t seen most of my college friends in 47 years. When I think of them, I see them as they were — as we were — in 1968. Elise Rosenhaupt and her boyfriend Tom: off they go, bright and shining, headed for New Mexico. So when Elise recently sent me her new book, “Climbing Back: A Family’s Journey through Brain Injury,” the title was like a blow to my brain. It begins like this: “The last time I saw our son before his injury, my husband and I were walking toward Harvard Square.” And you sink with her: getting the news that Martin, a Harvard sophomore, had been struck by a car that launched him 100 feet in the air. He’d landed on his head. He was in Neurological Intensive Care at Massachusetts General Hospital.

There are many books that chronicle disaster and recovery. This one’s not like them. There are doctors and nurses, of course, and friends in the waiting room, and Harvard faculty showing up unexpectedly, but Elise Rosenhaupt has worked as a poetry editor, and she knows when to weave in the story of her marriage, her family, her parents and their brain disorders. The prose is taut: “There is nothing in my world but wanting Martin to live.” And you think, this is how recovery is done when it’s done right, when you marvel at the frailty of our bodies and the resilience of our spirits. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Elaine Kaufman: “Yeah, I’m an icon…”

One night I was to have dinner at Elio’s with a famous painter who was, in her mid-40s, 8 months pregnant. When I made the reservation, I told Elio that the painter had to be seated promptly. This didn’t happen. After 40 minutes, we walked a few blocks north. Elaine knew without asking that something had gone wrong elsewhere, gave us a great table, stopped by to chat. That’s my Elaine’s story: a tough-talking mountain of a woman who could be kindness incarnate to anyone who created. Okay, you have to create at a high level. You had to be known. Pass those tests, and you weren’t in a restaurant — you were in the club. In the 134 pages of “Elaine’s: The Rise of One of New York’s Most Legendary Restaurants from Those Who Were There,” Amy Phillips Penn collects stories from the regulars and shows them at play, often loaded, in photos by Jessica Burstein. It’s not being there. But it doesn’t suck. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]