Book Review: M Train by Patti Smith–like listening to an old friend

 

Punk-rock legend Patti Smith

Patti Smith (photo: MPR/Nate Ryan)

Reading Patti Smith is like listening to an old friend–but an old friend who is better read, better traveled and better experienced than you. And certainly wiser. And though she states several times at the beginning of M Train she has nothing to write about, her sense of nothing is quite different than mine.

As a means of remembering and reminiscing about her deceased husband–Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994–M Train begins by documenting a trip to French Guiana that the two of them took with the express purpose of gathering pebbles at an abandoned jail in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. It is a trip filled with obstacles and difficulties, but the three pebbles she has gathered are for placing on Jean Genet’s grave– the type of gesture of reverence and respect that Smith repeats throughout her account. And though her remembered moments with her husband anchor the memoir, more of it chronicles her life that continues on afterwards.

And what we find in that chronicle is an extraordinarily interested human being. (And generally, those who are most interested in the world around them are usually the most interesting themselves!) Smith is a voracious reader and much of her writing deals with what she is reading and the directions it sends her. (Here is a list of books–from Rimbaud to Susan Sontag–that Patti Smith once recommended.) The writer Maria Popova, in her wonderful blog BrainPickings, also has amassed a list of Smith’s literary references from M Train alone.

Her relationship with books goes well beyond the printed page. She engages with the authors and the characters and the places. (In actuality, she knew a good number of writers: Burroughs, Bowles, Ginsberg.) When she first reads Murakami, she reads nothing else, going from one novel to the next (though not in chronological order.) When she reads his The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, she immediately rereads it, fixating on a specific fountain that appears in the novel.

For Smith, the writers and artists who create the things she loves are very real–and she feels very close to them and their spirits. Thus, she visits Frieda Kahlo’s bedroom and Sylvia Plath’s grave, photographs Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Beckett’s spectacles, Tolstoy’s bear. In Japan she makes pilgrimages to the graves of her most beloved writers and honors them reverently.  To her, the spirit of these creative individuals remains. Like her husband, they too are dead, but still inform her world.

And while she is an extraordinary reader and traveler, she is also very much an ordinary person: addicted to detective shows (The Killing, Law and Order, and the gamut of BBC detectives), sits on her front stoop to smoke a cigarette, feeds her cats, and hangs out in a favorite coffee shop. (A hilarious scene occurs when a woman takes her regular table while she’s in the bathroom and Smith fantasizes how the woman’s murdered body would be positioned in various detective shows.)

It is this ordinariness that is the most charming. We easily forget that she is more than an artist–is in some senses a celebrity. But one never meets the celebrity; instead we meet a woman who is at times gregarious and at other times meditative, who lives simply and cherishes the little moments of our lives, and who is still capable of being overpowered by  a book she has read or awed by a celebrity she has met. (She tells an amusing tale of running into the British actor, Robbie Coltrane, who starred in the rarely televised detective series Cracker.)

She reads with an artist’s eye and a writer’s ear; yet she writes like an old lost friend. And that is what has made both of her memoirs —Just Kids and M Train–such a joy to read.

Below is a lovely (6 minute) video of Patti Smith “giving advice to the young.” It is a good example of her wisdom, her kindness, and her hope.

 

Truth, Fiction, and Bigger Truth

A few days ago I received a message from my friend Gerry Bracken who started off with the words “I rarely read fiction, but I picked up a copy…” And he recommended a detective novel based in L.A. to where I was then flying.

Maria Popova's Brain Pickings

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

Yesterday, I was browsing through Maria Popova’s blog, “brain pickings,” and I clicked on her bookshelf. (http://bookpickings.brainpickings.org/) Her site routinely discusses books, authors, and readers. And the titles she list are predominantly non-fiction: titles that I jot down and often pick up at the library.

And then last night, I read the ExPlore twitter posting (also managed by Maria Popova). It listed Bill Gates’ reading list for the Summer of 2013. The list is daunting, fascinating and wide-ranging, but except for a single novel, it was all non-fiction. (Click here to see list.)

What is with this reluctance to read fiction? Are we wasting our time? Or more importantly, am I wasting my time.

There once was a time, when the reading of fiction–particular of novels–was considered by many as a harmless past-time for idle girls and not the pursuit of serious, intelligent people. But that was 200 years ago. In the interim, fiction has taken on a bit more gravitas, a bit more legitimacy.

At times, however, I feel haunted by that ancient attitude. And at other times, I feel deliciously guilty for sinking into a novel. Shouldn’t I be learning something? Shouldn’t I be boning up on something? Refining what I know? Discovering new ideas?

Well, I don’t know.

A while back, I ghostwrote a book on the history of Ireland. I researched assiduously, read primary and secondary sources, talked and listened to people and their stories, pored over all the news reports, particularly those on the current events that were unfolding before my eyes.

books.transatlantic_1

Colum McCann’s true fiction TransAtlantic

But I know I never got near the truth that I got in reading Colum MCCann’s novel Trans Atlantic. The section(s) on George Mitchell and the Irish peace negotiations, for instance, was better history than I could have ever gleaned in a biography or history book. There was life in those pages, in the account of Mitchell’s days in Belfast, on his dealings with the myriad politicians and organizations, in his observations of the ordinary people and the details around him. Did everything happen the way McCann described it? Probably not. Was it true? I believe very much so. A bigger truth than the historians can share.

I have learned much from fiction–I have learned about people: people in drastic circumstances, in simple ordinariness, in great passion, and in wrenching heartbreak. I have learned about pride and hubris, of great loyalty and great betrayal, of sacrifice and of love. I have met more people in the pages that I have read than I ever could have in the life that I led.

And, in a way, after all, that is what we’re here for–to learn about the wide variety of fellow human beings who share our moment in time and space.

I need to turn my back on this guilt about reading fiction.

Book Review: The Twenty-Four Hour Mind by Rosalind D. Cartwright

The Twenty-Four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

illustration 2013 jpbohannon

My reading list these days is erratic and wide. I am picking up things that pique my interest without any plan, without any connection to what I previously had been reading. But that’s okay for these summer days.

A colleague had forwarded an article from Maria Popova’s brain pickings blog. It was a review of Rosalind D. Cartwright’s book on the role of sleeping and bookdreaming in our lives. The review (like nearly everything on “brain pickings”) was intriguing and interesting. So of course, I had to find it in our library.

Cartwright is one of the preeminent scientists studying sleep–a relatively new area in scientific research. Her thesis is that sleep is essential to our health, particularly to our emotional health, and that the modern penchant (and desire) for sleeping less is damaging both physically and psychically.

Indeed, the mind does not sleep when we sleep–it goes into over-drive, cataloging memories, cementing new knowledge, mapping neural pathways. Cartwright states:

We can now begin to answer the question, “Where do we go when we got to sleep?” Clearly we do not sink into a void, but instead into a mental workshop where emotionally important information is kept active until it is saved in neural networks. When the highly activated REM sleep comes along, perceptual dreams reveal the matching of new information to old… . Through the night, from REM to REM, new information is integrated, drawing together more and more remote associations.

She continues that there is short-term functionality to these rhythms– “down-regulation of negative mood” –and long-term functionality. The long-term benefits, she lists as “continuously test[ing] and modify[ing] those non-conscious habitual schemas that make up our self-system and influence our behavior choices, based on our emotional evaluation of whether the new experience supports or challenges our present self-definition.”

This is a lot of responsibility thrown onto a good night sleep, and Cartwright’s argument is that we, as modern human beings, are sabotaging that essential need.

Aside from emotional turmoil–and Cartwright’s expertise is on sleep disorders, particular sleepwalking–Cartwright points out physical dangers as well. Those with long-term insomnia are more prone to obesity and diabetes. A famous study by the American Cancer Society was done over a 10-year period and found a puzzling pattern. Those who slept less than six hours a night AND those who slept more than nine hours a night had a higher mortality rate for their age. The conclusion is that we humans are built to sleep about 1/3 of our 24 hour cycles, that magic 7 to 9 hour range.

“We speak prose while awake and poetry when asleep.”

"The Dream," 1932 Pablo Picasso

“The Dream,” 1932 Pablo Picasso

Yet, for Cartwright’s thesis, it is not merely sleep that is essential to human health, but dreaming as well. In her profession, Cartwright is known as “the Queen of Dreams,” and dream-research is what she is interested in and battles for. Here is how Cartwright explains the symbiotic functioning of the waking and dreaming life.

“…[T]he mind is continuously active, although in different modes of expression, during the two major alterating states of waking and sleep. … In waking, there is a wider lens open to receive and respond more to the external world, while in sleep we are mostly confined to a narrower base of internal information both new and old.”

It is this “internal” information that sets us dreaming, that allows us to fit old information with new information, to anticipate new situations and reconcile old. Cartwright firmly believes that our emotions are greatly tied to the functioning of our dreaming, and of our sleeping.

While Cartwright acknowledges the contributions of Freud to dream-analysis and the understanding of the unconscious, she moves decidedly apart from him. (The technological abilities for brain-image mapping, sleep studies, etc. give her a great advantage.) The Freudian concept of the preconscious, unconscious and conscious mind is much too simplistic for what Cartwright sees happening. Here is her take on dreaming:

“So in good sleepers, the mind is continuously active, reviewing experience from yesterday, sorting which new information is relevant and important to save due to its emotional saliency. Dreams are not without sense, nor are they best understood to be expressions of infantile wishes. They are the result of the interconnectedness of new experience with that already stored in memory networks. But memory is never a precise duplicate of the original; instead, it is a contining act of creation. Dream images are the product of that creation. They are formed by pattern recognition between some current emotionally valued experience matching the condensed representation of similarly toned memories. Networks of these become our familiar style of thinking, which gives our behavior continuity and us a coherent sense of who we are. Thus, dream dimensions are elements of the schemas, and both represent accumulated experience and serve to filter and evaluate the new day’s input.”

It all is a lot to digest. But it is something to sleep upon.