M train

by Patti Smith

Hardcover, 2015




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.


M Train begins in the tiny Greenwich Village café where Smith goes every morning for black coffee, ruminates on the world as it is and the world as it was, and writes in her notebook. Through prose that shifts fluidly between dreams and reality, past and present, and across a landscape of creative aspirations and inspirations, we travel to Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul in Mexico; to a meeting of an Arctic explorer's society in Berlin; to a ramshackle seaside bungalow in New York's Far Rockaway that Smith acquires just before Hurricane Sandy hits; and to the graves of Genet, Plath, Rimbaud and Mishima. Woven throughout are reflections on the writer's craft and on artistic creation. Here, too, are singular memories of Smith's life in Michigan and the irremediable loss of her husband, Fred Sonic Smith. Braiding despair with hope and consolation, illustrated with her signature Polaroids, M Train is a meditation on travel, detective shows, literature and coffee. It is a powerful, deeply moving book by one of the most remarkable artists at work today.… (more)

Media reviews

M Train might be taken as a most roundabout and leisurely way of answering the question “How have you been?” The answer comes in the form of fragments of waking fantasy, literary commentaries, extended reminiscences, evocations of lost objects, travel notations, tallies of places and names and flavors (“Lists. Small anchors in the swirl of transmitted waves, reverie, and saxophone solos”). By turns it is daybook, dreambook, commonplace book. Under all lies a grief that is never allowed to overwhelm the writing but is, it would seem, its groundwater. She allows herself to begin anywhere and break off anywhere, thus realizing the secret yearning of almost anyone who sits down to write a book: that it might be possible for the thing simply to create itself out of necessity, to emerge as if by a natural process of unfolding.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ianthes
Just stunningly beautiful. Undoubtedly one of the best books I've read in a long, long time.
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
Thirty-five years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Patti Smith by chance at CBGBs, the legendary punk rock venue in New York. My then girlfriend (now wife) and I were visiting America for the first time, about to embark on a year’s postgraduate study in California, and had managed to obtain tickets for a gig (any gig!) at the iconic venue. At this remove of time I can’t even recall who was playing, although I do remember that the concert was pretty ropy. None of that mattered, of course, as we were simply starstruck by the surroundings and enjoying what amounted to a pilgrimage. We ventured to the bar and found ourselves standing next to Patti Smith and, emboldened by the adrenalin surge prompted by the occasion, plucked up the courage to talk to her. We had a pleasant conversation, and she seemed intrigued by the books poking from our respective pockets. So much so, in fact, that she asked us to meet her the following day at one of her favourite cafés. As our time in New York was very short, every moment had been strictly accounted for in advance, but our schedules went straight out of the window and we agreed in a nanosecond.

Cafés, or at least regular doses of strong coffee, clearly play a huge part in Patti Smith’s life, and form the unifying theme of this volume of memoirs. Indeed, T. S. Eliot’s line, ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ might have proved a worthy epigraph. She describes her travels around the world, both with her late husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (who died in 1994), and later on her own, and wherever she goes, she finds a café to use as a refuge. Her displeasure when someone else ‘steals’ her customary seat at one of her regular haunts is something that many of us can recognise and empathise with.

Her prose style is frequently beautiful and moving – somehow rather at odds with the ferocity of her early stage persona. I remember being both exhilarated but also almost frightened while watching her performances from the 1970s, when she would shout and rage at the audience. While the strength of character and self-assurance (I know, I know, a dirty word!) that underpinned those performances clearly remains, age appears to have mellowed her, and there is a contemplative tranquillity about many of these pieces.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
M train, Patti Smith; Author and Narrator
Be prepared for an intense read. I listened to this audio in its entirety, but I must admit, I wanted to quit many times. The author narrates her own book, and her style is a monotone that drones on and on, without any modulation. It feels sad from beginning to end as she takes the reader on her journey following no timeline and no pattern, but randomly jumping from topic to topic, year to year, memory to memory. She examines her dreams, revisits excursions to many places and countries in order to photograph, write poetry, lecture, make music, and write. It reads a bit like a travelogue sometimes, albeit one that contains famous names. There is, midst the gloom of her memories, a sardonic moment and a touch of humor now and again.

In spite of the solemnity of the memoir and lamenting nature of the narration, the straightforward, conversational nature of the reading made me stay on long after I thought I would. I simply felt that the author was speaking directly to me, confiding in me, unleashing her tormented soul, relieving her emotional angst upon my shoulders, so how could I abandon her? I felt like I had been invited to read her diary. Obviously, somehow, in spite of her lack of emotion in the reading, she filled her story with it in the telling, and I connected completely with her, in the end.

It felt almost like a lamentation about the losses she experienced in her life, many of which seemed untimely and unfair. She had a house in New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy hit, a house that by all rights should have been destroyed but stood alone among her neighbors intact, still however, in need of its original list of necessary repairs. The coffee shop she invested in and loved died a premature death. Two loves of her life, her husband and her brother, left her in the prime of their lives. When she visited the home of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the trip was marred by her severe migraine. The organization she gave speeches for in Iceland that concerned itself with Arctic expeditions, closed its doors.

All of the mundane happenings of life somehow took on a larger than life meaning for her. She agonized over the ways that travel changed, down to resenting the seat belt requirements on airlines or kiosks used for boarding passes. She traveled to Vera Cruz hoping to get a superb cup of coffee, a drink she adored. She collected odd little pieces of memorabilia that meant so much to her, and yet she often lost the things that meant most to her. She had a compulsion to make lists to keep organized and functioning, but somehow, she was forgetful too and was always leaving something important behind and wondering if it was a message or sign of some kind. She missed her mother and her father. She reminisced about the time she played chess with Bobby Fischer.

So you see, while it was intensely interesting because of the subjects she introduced, it was rambling and somber as well. Most of the time, she seemed to be looking backward, morosely, at the lost loves of her life, without the opposite effort of looking forward, somewhat with joy. She is, and was obviously, a free spirit who missed her husband her other family members. She dwelled upon the illnesses that afflicted them, and even memorialized her own serious childhood illness. At the end, there was the barest hint that she would continue to investigate and participate in new projects, in spite of the heavy cloak of grief that seemed to travel along with her.

So, what is the M train? Is it a train with no fixed destination, traveling down the road of life showing us all the random events we will all someday face, sooner or later? Is it the embodiment of the capriciousness of life? Somehow, in spite of the monotone, in spite of the sorrow and solemnity inhabiting the pages of her memoir, it grabbed my heartstrings and made me think about my own life and lost loves.
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LibraryThing member janeajones
I loved M Train; not quite as much as I loved Just Kids, but almost. Although Smith is my contemporary, I never really hooked into her music or performances -- she peaked in the punk-rock scene when I was going to graduate school, having babies, and into folk-rock. She's a wildly restless, wildly adventurous romantic soul with deep connections to the Beat world of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. We do share enthusiasms for William Blake, Frida Kahlo, Bertolt Brecht, and favorite children's books like Daddy Long Legs and Anne of Green Gables.

M Train is a journey into the head of Patti Smith -- her memories, her obsessions, her present as a poet/artist in her late 60s. The picture on the cover of the book was taken by a casual acquaintance, passer-by, with Smith at her corner table of the Cafe 'Ino, on the day the cafe was closing. It is iconic of the voice of the book -- the watch-cap, the cup of black coffee, the Polaroid camera, the deeply ruminative gaze.

She invites us on her trip to Devil's Island to gather stones for Genet, to Reykjavik for a meeting of the exclusive Continental Drift Club honoring Alfred Wegener, on her drives through Detroit with her husband Fred, to the Dorotheenstadt Cemetary where Brecht is buried, to her cottage in Far Rockaway dubbed "My Alamo" which survived Hurricane Sandy.

She pushes her way through a persistent malaise with work, black coffee, beloved detective shows, and travel. Always in the background is an apparition of a philosophic cowpoke prodding her thoughts. The book is dedicated "for Sam." One cannot help but reference her onetime lover and collaborator, Sam Shepard.

M Train is the memoir of a purposeful, persistent wanderer through life. I admire both the writing and the writer.
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LibraryThing member mjlivi
You know how they say other people's dreams are boring? Nobody told Patti Smith. Smith recounts what feels like dozens of her dreams in this relatively slim volume - some of which spark interesting reflections and reminiscence, but most of which just struck me as pretty dull. Dreams aside, there are lots of nice moments in this book - ruminations on creativity, loss and love - but there were also long passages devoted to tv show The Killing (and not even the good, Swedish version!) and to Smith's approach to breakfast. I haven't read Just Kids, but I really found M Train a struggle - she's a wonderful writer on a paragraph by paragraph level, but I just couldn't really engage with most of this.… (more)
LibraryThing member MaowangVater
Smith latest memoir surrealistically drifts between dreams, coffee shops, and travels to travels to Europe, Mexico, and Japan, making pilgrimages to the graves of Jean Genet, Sylvia Plath, Arthur Rimbaud, and Yukio Mishima, and to meeting of the Continental Drift Club honoring the memory of arctic explorer Alfred Wegener. Along the way she records her thoughts and impressions on grief and hope, detective shows on television, coffee and cafés, Frida Kahlo, Haruki Murakami, Mikhail Bulgakov, books and reading, television detective shows, art, her homes and hunts, Hurricane Sandy and its impact on Far Rockaway. The title comes from her vision coming after a visit to the home of Kahalo and Diego Rivera and a shot of tequila. “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.”

For me it was the image of a train of memories and the memoir as striking as Charles Demuth’s painting “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold,” itself based on William Carlos Williams’s poem "The Great Figure." A work of imaginative writing reflecting on the world around the author which she turns into art and all encompassing; it contains her world awaking and dreaming, full of other people and their productions: art, coffee, conversation, science, and memories.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Dreamy and impressionistic, Ms. Smith's ramblings form a backdrop for a rich, poignant set of revelations about her life and her husband. She visits her cafes and her graves, and she watches procedural detective shows on TV - these power the action, but her mind wanders and wonders in response. Transcendent.
LibraryThing member bibleblaster
This will not be everyone's cup of tea (or coffee, which is a central feature in many of Smith's experiences here), and may puzzle readers who are looking for a straightforward follow-up to "Just Kids." That said, she calls this "a roadmap to my life," and I enjoyed all the stops along the way. There is a poetic, dreamlike (more than "like," as there are many dream descriptions) quality here, mixed expertly with the details of everyday life and existence. You will find out a lot about what writers, music, TV shows Smith loves, and she manages to weave these names (and their importance in her life) into the narrative without sounding (to me) the least bit pretentious, and even addresses the "name-dropping" directly:

"They float through these pages often without explanation. Writers and their process. Writers and their books. I cannot assume the reader will be familiar with them all, but in the end is the reader familiar with me? Does the reader wish to be so? I can only hope, as I offer my world on a platter filled with allusions."

One thing that I never doubted: this is an authentic voice of a deeply felt existence; an honest to goodness struggle with loss and memory and loneliness and love. Thanks for the map, Patti.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
The word "iconoclast" gets used a lot, usually to describe some business type who does things just a little differently. Fuck that noise. Patti Smith is a true iconoclast. She drifts through life, trusting that the universe does everything for a reason, and endeavoring to find that reason when she lands somewhere. When she invests her money in a Rockaway Beach coffee house, and then buys a ramshackle abode nearby, and essentially loses both (the house sort of survives) to Hurricane Sandy within mere weeks, she sees it as something which forces healthy reinvention. When a cab driver takes off leaving her luggage sitting at a hotel, she figures she has too much stuff anyway. When she loses a beloved coat given to her by a dear friend, she knows the coat needed to wrap around someone else. She misses her dead husband and brother in the most honest, quiet and heartbreaking way, but knows both move through life with her.

Patti's existence casually careens between the magical and the mundane and through it all she is completely calm. She is overcome by stomach flu and ends up sleeping it off in Frida Kahlo's bed. She creates a memorial tribute to Rimbaud, lays it at his grave, and returns to her room to watch her beloved reruns of Law & Order SVU. (She really likes television crime dramas a lot, and they are discussed at length, and it is not at all boring somehow.)

I guess the point is that she is who she is. She talks about Genet, and Kurosawa in the same way she talks about Law & Order and Prime Suspect. She talks about her telepathic emotional connection to a 16th century Japanese writer the same way she talks about her connection to Lenny Kaye. She eats happily at a noted Japanese restaurant, and just as happily she munches brown toast and olive oil just about everywhere. She loves peanut butter, sardines, and fine sake and great coffee. She is not name-dropping to impress anyone. She loves what she loves, she doesn't question why or worry about what anyone else might think about her choices. She is just utterly unselfconscious. And utterly amazing. And, perhaps most importantly, she writes as if touched by the divine. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book.
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LibraryThing member Estramir
This is not your regular memoir. It is comprised of a meandering collection of dreams, stories, memories both mundane and divine. But somehow after reading it I feel that I have been invited into the private and unique world of Patti Smith. It's quite a privilege! Nothing is resolved but much is revealed. The writing ranges from the straight forward to the poetically intense and a gentle sadness permeates every mention of Fred's name. A must read for admirers of this wonderful writer.… (more)
LibraryThing member MSarki
Wish she hadn't included a damaging spoiler for the now-defunct hit detective show The Killing as I am only into the beginning of the second season. But other than that lame and selfish act the book was a rather fine read. Smith is most definitely into talismans, as am I to a degree, but she places far more significant spiritual value to her artifacts than I do. I simply keep around me the things that turn me on. She also performs her version of a litany for important activities such as visiting an author's grave site, washing the stone, clearing the weeds, lighting a candle, and reciting a few chosen words to mark the occasion of her visit. It seems memory plays a large part also in her daily activities, and any time she can conjure her dead husband, icon, or this spectre of a cowboy most likely named Sam Shepard, she does. She obviously really likes visiting with these people and writing about it. Patti Smith also has an infinity for The Beats, who I personally abhor and cannot express how much they disgust me with their awful poetry and theatrical recitations suggesting they occupy some higher standing than the rest of us. But Patti must be forgiven, and is, as she truly is an artist of the first rank, at least when she adheres to her own originality. And if you've ever seen her when she is moved to express her body, wafting within a song, she is a goddess of dance.… (more)
LibraryThing member mztupelo
I was extremely fortunate to have heard Ms. Smith read from this book in Santa Cruz. I hadn't read the book before attending, and laughed and cried as she read her stories. I will forever think of her in her café, upset that someone is sitting at "her" table. Priceless. She has a wonderful gift of telling a story in an intimate and cherished way. The only thing better than hearing her read from her book, was listening to her sing some of her songs, as illness prevented her from signing copies of her book. I adore her.… (more)
LibraryThing member esther.tp
Awesome, Patti is a devotional fan and observer that sets a beautifuly woven scene across her areas of interest. Loved it.
LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
From the National Book Award–winning author of Just Kids, Smith writes a memoir style book of her artistic life as seen through the cafes and coffee shops she frequented and the homes she lived in during this time in her life. This was a very pleasant and insightful book into the inner life of Smith.
LibraryThing member Ken-Me-Old-Mate
Now read this carefully. This is one of the best books I have read in a very, very long time.

I came to this less than neutral as I have seen her perform and have heard her albums many, many times but none of it ever moved me, ever. So I did not hold out much hope that I’d enjoy or appreciate it. How wrong I was. This is not a book or anything like a book, it is like seeing into someone’s soul. I don’t know what else to say.… (more)
LibraryThing member weeta
love and death and infinity and memory and coffee.
LibraryThing member LovingLit
Well, I squeezed a last book in for the year. It was one of those that I couldn't stop reading, so in less than two days, it was done. Coincidentally, I finished it on Patti Smith's birthday, which is today. HAPPY BIRTHDAY PATTI SMITH! (my gift to you is to rave about your book)

All my books this month have been introspective (The Outsider by Colin Wilson, A Field Guide to Melancholy by Jacky Bowring and The Snow Geese by William Fiennes) and this one tied all that existentialism and self exploration together with art (ie music, poetry, literature, photography). Patti Smith appears to have an exceedingly rich inner life, and it made me think about all the thoughts that I have that I just let go. What might happen if I held on to them and captured them? Could I make more of them by just doing that? And what about if I wrote them down, and agonised over getting the perfect wording for them like she is able to? (Scary thought.) But the reminder to pay more attention to my thoughts about details will stick with me. I got a lot of comfort knowing that other people think so deeply about things, and that not only is this ok, but that it is what makes people who they are. Also, being pensive isn't always a bad thing. I think of it as a by-product of being a thinker.

This book may turn people off because of its wanderings from the past to the present to the dreamscapes of the author's mind, but I got on the treadmill and let it take me wherever it went. And it went to very cool places, so please read it.
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LibraryThing member CherylGrimm
It’s not so easy writing about nothing
~ Patti Smith

There’s a cowpoke haunting both her sleep and daydreams. Antagonizing her creative flow, egging her on. He meanders throughout the book, just inside wakefulness.
With husband Fred Smith, she tours the places written of by her literary heroes, bringing them tokens, photos, words and making her own collection of same. Rustic roads, dilapidated structures, foreign languages, unorthodox modes of travel, mostly foot, and danger, they sought on. After his death, she continued and does still. Her quirky desire to find locations mentioned in books, fictitious or not. To visit them, meditate there, photograph and write of them. A writer’s chair, an abandoned well, cafe.
These are the snippets, journal entries brought forth with black coffee, brown bread & olive oil in Cafe ‘Ino and the numerous cafes of her travels. Dreams and travels. Observations and ruminations.
Holed up in hotels as she is called upon to do readings, talks, she caters to her fixation with detective shows, pantomiming along with them. “When they had a chop, I ordered same from room service. If they had a drink, I consulted the mini bar.”
Memories of times with Fred are entwined. (Would have enjoyed the tv show she & Fred conceived “Drunk in the Afternoon” had it ever came to be. He gabfesting with fellow drinkers, she expounding on literary prisoners while drinking coffee.)
Her search for the purported perfect cup of coffee trained her to Mexico, sidelined with a visit to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. A nod to William Burroughs, who tipped her the brew, reminded me of d.a. levy’s own search for such the elixir. I, too, have searched. Paying 20+ a pound, gifted more, to enjoy the perfect balance. Remembering the Jamaican Blue Mountain I drank every morning in Ocho Rios and never since, no matter how badly claimed the beans were. Alas. That was my epitome, my Holy Grail of coffee.
A brilliant, often woeful look into the daily life of one of my heroes. I feel like, were I to happen upon her somewhere, we could share a hot, black cup of coffee and need not say a word.

“I didn’t seek to frame these moments. They passed without souvenir,” ... “What I have lost and cannot find I remember."
~ Patti Smith
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LibraryThing member JaneReading
I loved "Just Kids" and didn't know what to expect with this newest but was intrigued by the title and eager to read it. Every minute reading it was transformative - she drops in on her memories and looks at them with her enormous human heart and mind fully engaged and probing. I felt like she shared her soul - whatever that is, but in her case it's fascinating, reflective, thoughtful, and brilliant - and gave us her most profound and deeply honest self. I guess the short way to try to describe this reading experience is to say I felt like I was walking around inside her head and it was a darn interesting place to be. The biggest aha! moment for me was grasping her masterful perspective on time - memory, present, and the way we move through our public and private lives, connected to our past and still fully present in the moment. While she bares her soul, shows us her heart, and lets us into her space for a while, she expresses her sadness and loss eloquently, but never for one second does she feel sorry for herself or indulge in whining or self-deception. This is someone so aware of herself, so brilliant, interesting, and highly evolved, that she has much to tell us and I can't wait for the next one - I hope there's lots more from this genius and important artist. This was a remarkable reading experience!… (more)
LibraryThing member Charrlygirl
Patti Smith wrote a book about nothing and I am less than enchanted.

I admit to knowing hardly anything about Patti Smith. She has always been a fascinating figure to me, so when I saw this audio book available at my local library, I put a hold on it, because I wanted to learn more about her and her life. Unfortunately, I didn't learn as much as I thought.

I discovered her love for her husband, Fred, and that she lost him while he was still relatively young. I learned that she has two children. I also learned that she is incredibly well read and has traveled all over the world. She loves coffee, cafes and the ocean. There, everything I learned is right here in these few sentences-but I wanted MORE.

This was well written and I did enjoy Patti reading it to me herself. However, I'm disappointed that I didn't learn more about her musical career, her writing or much of anything else. For this reason, I rated this audio 3 stars.

I will most likely try something else, probably Just Kids, and see what I can learn from that.

Recommended for readers that already know and like Patti Smith. Not so much for people that do not.
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LibraryThing member bonniemarjorie
‘I’m sure I could write endlessly about nothing. If only I had nothing to say.’

Patti Smith carries us through her esoteric stories of the past and present in this short story/essay collection. M Train reads like an internal journey, a solo exploration. She recalls cafes visited all around the world, writing or simply sitting and reminiscing while drinking an insane amount of coffee that makes my own addiction to caffeine seem laughable. While Smith seems completely content with her own company and the adventures she undertakes alone, there’s still an underlying sadness when recollecting the loved ones she’s lost and the memories that still haunt her.

-What are you writing?
I looked up at her, somewhat surprised. I had absolutely no idea.

Ultimately, this accurately sums up this non-linear story collection. Random, non-cohesive thoughts that bounce around her lifetime from past to present with no indication of time. It is possible for randomness to possess interest and there is no doubt that Patti Smith has led a most interesting life, such as the descriptions of her trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in northwest French Guiana to visit the remains of a French penal colony where criminals were kept. Of all the places in the world to visit though, only Patti Smith would decide to visit an old abandoned prison at the end of the world. Nevertheless, it was interesting, but while it was all very informative and her writing is forever fluid, none of it ever felt as if it had much substance. Her descriptions of her trip to Germany to attend a conference with the Continental Drift Club, of which she is a member strangely enough, were fascinating but then she goes on to describe how on her return trip home she decided to stay in London to binge-watch some crime shows on the BBC. Fascinating and then… not.

Just Kids was stunning and poignant and her writing transported the reader back to a long past period of time. While her writing is still top-notch and her talent is undeniable, M Train was simply too meandering and tangential for my liking. The triviality of these stories are clearly meaningful to her since our experiences in life are what make us who we are today, but the importance is easily lost when not experienced firsthand but only recapped from memory.

‘I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realize, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology.’
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LibraryThing member Cail_Judy
I read this book in fits-and-starts over the last four months. Smith was a ready companion, with a philosophical musing and sublime adventure to share whenever I was ready. I wanted to savour M Train - felt wrong to rush through it.

Smith invites the reader into her world in a way that is intimate, humorous and challenging. She isn't shy about dropping obscure author names or books - there is a wealth of material explore based on her casually looking at her bookshelf, discussing Japanese authors whose gravesites she visits and poets who have clung to her throughout her life. She also drinks a lot of coffee. Like, an incredible amount of coffee.

(Thank you to my sister who surprised me with this book in the mail.)
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LibraryThing member 23points
I think this just wasn't the book I wanted Patti to write, although this book was good. I was most engaged when she spoke about her relationship with Fred and her life in Detroit and mourning for Fred. I want that book. Part of that desire is what was going through my life when I read this book, of course. The reader projects so much onto the book.

I also read this as an audiobook, and I think because of the kind of meditative and diary sensibility it would have been better as a paper book.
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