M Train by Patti Smith

mtrainpattismithPart memoir, part elegy, part reverie. M Train, by Patti Smith, is a captivating look at a working artist’s inspiration, fodder, obsessions, and processes.

I’d known of Patti Smith for a long time (if only mostly because she wrote Because the Night, a staple song I’ve seen Springsteen perform often over the years).  A seed of interest bloomed in my brain after listening to her fascinating interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

What struck me was the way Smith spoke: she’s an original thinker, unburdened by clichés, erudite without pretension, and wholly generous in spirit. This too, encapsulates M Train.

Cafés are Patti’s “portal” to writing — a place where she communes with her art, her obsessions, and those she’s lost over brown toast, olive oil, and copious cups of coffee. Patti almost opened her own café once: she went so far as to put down a security deposit and renovate only to abandon her dream to follow a boy (Fred “Sonic” Smith) to Michigan.

Given to quests and ritual, Patti plucks stones from a notorious penal colony in northwest French Guiana to present to poet Jean Genet who “aspired” to be incarcerated there only to “fail” when the prison closed. She visits the graves of Japanese authors; she photographs Sylvia Plath’s grave several times. She buys a dilapidated bungalow sight unseen in Rockaway Beach months before Hurricane Sandy annihilated the coast. (Her tiny bungalow survives, requiring major repairs.)

This book is fascinating and layered. It’s more melancholy stream-of-consciousness than memoir, a fever dream chronicling an artistic funk at age 66.

Some passages are dense with oblique references to writers I’ve never heard of, much less read. Almost ethereally ruminative,  I found some of the imagery difficult to penetrate, but with Patti, I sense that doesn’t matter: you absorb what you can, obsess on it for a bit, and move on to a new fascination. After all, as she says, “All doors are open to the believer.”

December, 2015

Favorite passages from M Train by Patti Smith

Love the turn of of phrase here:

Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not a depression, more like a fascination for melancholia, which I turn in my hand as if it were a small planet, streaked in shadow, impossibly blue.

On Smith’s father’s “mathematical curiosity” — his own system for handicapping race horses. It’s the image of the book that I love. (His personal obsession and treasure wrapped in jeweller’s cloth.)

A journal wrapped in jeweller’s cloth, noting wins and losses from imaginary bets, kept in the left-hand drawer. He never spoke about his system but he laboured over it religiously. He was neither a betting manor had the resources to bet. He was a factory man with a mathematical curiosity, handicapping heaven, searching for patterns, and a portal of probability opening up onto the meaning of life.

The found compass:

If I got lost along the way I had a compass that I had found embedded in a pile of wet leaves I was kicking my way through. The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was west but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.

Leaves are vowels:

A sudden gust of wind shakes the branches of trees scattering a swirl of leaves that shimmer eerily in the bright filtered light. Leaves as vowels, whispers of words like a breath of net. Leaves are vowels. I sweep them up trying to find the combinations I am looking for.

A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence

ajestofgodRachel Cameron is a spinster. She’s only 34-years old, but the school teacher from the fictional town of Manawaka, Manitoba, is almost as childlike as her grade twos.

She’s virginal and anxiety-laden. Her inner monologue is a cacophony of second guesses.  She agonizes over what others might think of her; she analyzes exchanges with her overbearing, manipulative mother. Her first instinct is to apologize to anyone for anything — to her mother, school principal Siddley, her friend Calla, and summer fling Nick — but she’s not without some self-awareness:

Something must be the matter with my way of viewing things. I have no middle view. Either I fix on a detail and see it as though it were magnified — a leaf with all its veins perceived, the fine hairs on the back of a man’s hands — or else the world recedes and becomes blurred, artificial, indefinite, an abstract painting of a word.

Along comes Nick Kazlik, a grade 11 teacher home for the summer holidays to spend time with his aging parents on their dairy farm. Nick is Rachel’s key to a delayed, condensed, and frenzied adolescence on her way to adulthood.

A slang-slinging smooth talker, Nick’s only interested in one thing. Rachel — despite the potential for a pregnancy that would induce apoplectic levels of shame for her and her mother in their backward little prairie town — can’t resist his Slavic charms.

Laurence does a great job depicting sexual politics in early 1960s rural Canada, a place where women were in charge of acquiring birth control because (according to men) “it’s better like that” and “fixing themselves” after sex despite zero access to contraceptives.

Rachel can’t win. Everyone in town knows she’s unmarried. Asking her long-time family doctor for birth control would annihilate her reputation; it’s out of the question. Having the baby would induce immutable shame for Rachel, her mother, and especially the child, who as a bastard would be marked in Manawaka, doomed by whispered innuendo its entire life.

Manawaka is a place where an unwanted pregnancy means considering ways to flee the problem (leaving town, abortion, suicide).  It’s a place where men say things like:

Sh, sh, darling. It’s all right. I won’t go off in you.

Only to be quickly followed by:

“Oh hell, darling,” he says, “I meant to get out before that happened, but I –“

You can’t help but root for Rachel who finally  wrests control of her life from her mother — a cloying, pill-dependent, weak-hearted guilt machine — by leaving Manawaka behind for an adult life on the coast infused with possibility, a place where:

Anything may happen, where I’m going.

Such a beautiful and stark novel, much like the prairie on which it’s set.

— December, 2015

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

thestoneangelA fitting alternate title for The Stone Angel might have been Pride and Prejudice, but of course, by the time Margaret Laurence’s magnificent novel came out in 1964, that title was already long taken.

I’d read and loved this book as required reading in high school. Over two decades later, I’d long forgotten the beautiful prose and central plot. With several (excellent) fantasy novels in my recent reading, I longed for something closer to home. The Stone Angel, grounded in simple dirt and sweat, heavy with imagery and metaphors only a harsh prairie climate can offer, delivers — over 50 years post-publication.

The stone angel — the massive, expensive, sightless marble statue in the Manawaka cemetery — is monument to “her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one,” says Hagar Shipley, reflecting on her life at age 90, referencing her mother in the opening lines of the book.

Pitted from snow and wind and eventually toppled by random vandals — the stone angel symbolizes Hagar: her inability to love, and her tenuous grip on a civilized and respectable life.

Satin and silver and true, everlasting happiness are forever out of Hagar’s grasp — not derailed by coarse, underachieving men — but by Hagar herself. A woman who realizes all too late in life — at the very last second in fact — that she is incapable of humility, she’s forever finding fault, hung up on superficial flaws of character,  behaviour, and appearance.

Hagar is blind to that which should bring her happiness — her children, her husband Bram Shipley — the handsome man who blows his nose with his fingers, his massive winter coat pockets bursting with “scraps of frayed binder twine, a bag of sticky peppermints bearded with bits of fluff. Never of course, a handkerchief.”

Always worried about appearances, Hagar cannot relax enough to love her husband, her children, or herself. There is always the fear that others may observe and find her wanting:

I would have wished it. This knowing comes upon me so forcefully, so shatteringly, and with such a bitterness as I have never felt before. I must have always have wanted that — simply to rejoice. How is it I never could? I know. I know. Or have I always known, in some far crevice of my heart, some care too deeply buried, too concealed? Every good joy I might have held, in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning, of walking the earth, all were forced to a standstill by brake of proper appearances — oh proper to whom? When did I ever speak the heart’s truth?

Hagar, (Hebrew for “flight” or “stranger”) is drought in human form. Devoid of love, warmth, acceptance, humility, and forgiveness, those around her wither and die like tall grass under a relentless prairie sun:

Pride was my wilderness and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains with me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched.

This book is about expectations dashed, about self-imposed shame, and the realization that you can’t take it all back. When it comes to human feelings, there is no do-over.  “Nothing can take away those years” and the damage they’ve wrought.

The prose is exceptionally beautiful. Despite the heavy themes, this book holds hope as heady as the smell of fresh cut grass and blooming lilac bushes in a Manitoba June. The Stone Angel is worth your time.

December, 2015

Favorite passages from The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

On Regina Weese:

…for she was a flimsy, gutless creature, bland as egg custard, caring with martyred devotion for an ungrateful fox-voiced mother year in and year out.

On peonies:

In summer the cemetery was rich and thick as syrup with the funeral-parlour perfume of the planted peonies, dark crimson and wallpaper pink, the pompous blossoms hanging leadenly, too heavy for their light stems, bowed down with the weight of themselves and the weight of the rain, infested with upstart ants that sauntered through the plush petals as though to the manner born.

On lilacs:

The lilacs grew with no care given them, and in the early summer they hung like bunches of mild mauve grapes from branches with leaves like dark green hearts, and the scent of them was so bold and sweet you could smell nothing else, a seasonal mercy.

I read The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence over the holidays. Over 50 years post-publication, it’s still a fantastic read.

The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

kingdomofgodscover.jpg Can a brutal, elitist, entrenched ruling race change for the good? Read The Kingdom of Gods — the third instalment in N.K. Jemisin’s excellent Inheritance Trilogy and find out.

Book three follows Sieh, eldest godling of Nahadoth, Itempas, and Enefa. Sieh, the god of childhood — mischief-making eternal boy extraordinaire — is aging, and no one knows why. Does his shocking transformation signal the end, or a new beginning?

The Kingdom of Gods explores antithetical pairs: love and loneliness, loyalty and betrayal,  vengeance and mercy, and honesty and corruption. What I loved about this book is that it shows us that we don’t have to repeat the negative patterns and cycles entrenched in our so-called natures. Once you comprehend your true nature you can use that strength to evolve, to create a new, positive cycle. Yes, sometimes it takes surrender, self-sacrifice, and relinquishing control, but nothing worth having is ever easy.

The Kingdom of Gods shows us we can embrace differences like race and gender provided you transcend mere tolerance and acceptance to get to mutual respect.  After all, as Sieh says, “Life is never only one thing.”

All these weighty themes and a magical realm not unlike our own? Fascinating, complex, wonderfully flawed characters? A delightful, loyal sun-pet given to endearing tantrums worn about the neck of a godling?  Yes, please. This is a meaty and satisfying read that deserves your time.

I read this book back to back, twice.

— November and December, 2015

Cycles, patterns, repetition

The Goddess of Earth looked at me then, and suddenly I understood. Sieh, Deka, and I; Nahadoth, Yeine, and Itempas. Nature is cycles, patterns, repetition. Whether by chance or some unknowable design, Deka and I had begun Sieh’s transition to adulthood — and perhaps, when the chrysalis of his mortal life had finally split to reveal the new being, he would not have transformed alone.

The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

Such a beautiful line: “…and perhaps, when the chrysalis of his mortal life had finally split to reveal the new being, he would not have transformed alone.

Sieh describes Nsana

Hi did nothing like mortals if he could help it. So he had chosen skin like fine fabric, unbleached damask in swirling raised patterns, with hair like the darkest of red wine frozen in midsplash. His irises were the banded amber of polished, petrified wood — beautiful, but unnerving, like the eyes of a serpent.

The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

The description is so vivid here, I can imagine Nsana standing before me.