M Train Reading Journal Questions

Respond to the 17 prompt sets below as you read and reread this book. Each prompt set (may be several questions or just one) deserves a full reflection, that is, at least a paragraph, and perhaps much more.  Use brief quotations and concrete details, but also make connections to your own experience, or to other works. Feel free to include images.

Once you have collected all 17 responses, revise and edit them carefully.  You may find that some of your ideas have evolved, also. What you will have created is an amazing and rich document.  You will turn this in as an assignment, and you will “mine” it for a discussion posting, as well.  It will provide you with the substance from which to build your third essay.

Journal Questions:

1. Introduction (untitled)

In what ways does the opening piece on the dream suggest a way to read or to frame this work? How does this opening meet (or fail to meet) your expectations for a “biographical” work or a memoir?Speculate: Who is the cowpoke? What could he represent? What is the significance of this little story? How would you write your life story?

2. Café ‘Ino

What important themes and story lines (one might call these narrative threads) are laid down in this first chapter? How do they twine together?

3. Changing Channels

Explore Smith’s complex relationship to writing. Describe her process. Why is Smith interested in the Continental Drift Club? What is the significance of memory or remembrance for Smith?

4. Animal Crackers

How do angels and detectives function for the author in this chapter? Explore the debate over history in the CDC. How does the past stir up controversy? What do detectives and poets have in common? Investigate the writer’s use of detail. What kinds of details are important? Can you imagine what kinds of details are omitted and why?

Seeing through Smith’s eyes, what is your impression of Berlin and London? French Guiana? There are many ways and reasons to travel. What is travelling to this writer?

5. The Flea Draws Blood

Research 5 or 6 of the writers, important figures, and books in Smith’s life. Who was Fred Sonic Smith?


Why is the author drawn to Jean Genet? Find out more about her major influences.

Who was William Burroughs and why is he—no longer living—important to Smith in this book?

Who was William Blake? Why is William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea significant?

Are Burroughs and Blake in some way connected for Smith?

How do you imagine Sebald’s novel relates to Blake and Burroughs in the writer’s quest for inspiration or poetic dialogue?

Reread p 67-68. Why do you suppose Smith includes the polaroid of Tolstoy’s stuffed bear at the end of this chapter?

6. Hill of Beans

Diagram this chapter. Write out its storyline, including places, people (living, dead, or imaginary), and allusions to other works (including songs). Feel free to be artistic.Why gather this “nothingness” under the heading, “Hill of Beans”? What does the phrase come to mean? Quote any significant lines in the chapter that clue us in to its meaning? Is there a something in the nothing, a purpose to the mounting of detail, a secret order to the mind’s wandering?

7. Clock with No Hands

Explore the significance of this symbol in itself and its significance to Smith’s life with Fred and their unrealized dreams.How does time seem to function in this memoir? What might be the relationship between dreaming and remembering? 

8. Wheel of FortuneIn this chapter, Smith remembers her first trip to Casa Azul as a young woman fascinated with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Then she revisits the museum. How are these two journeys similar and how are they significantly different. What are the parallels? What might be the significance of her vision of the M Train at the end?

9. How I Lost the Wind-Up Bird

Explore the memory of Fred, the Nawader, the lightning strike, and the great willow of Saint Clair Shores. Why does this memory appear in this section, while Smith is visiting Rockaway? Why is she bewitched by the Bungalow? What is the dream?

Explore the lost objects (book, stone) and the mugging. Are these signs? Of what?

Why do you think she calls her new home her “Alamo”?

10. Her name Was Sandy

Why are storms important to Smith in this book? How does Hurricane Sandy figure as a character in this tale? Is a storm like any other figure?

11. Vecchia Zimarra

Examine the reflection on sacrifice and lost things in this chapter. Why are coats meaningful? What is the “dead speak” coat?

12. Mu

Is there a deeper subconscious order at play? What motivates Smith to travel—again—to Japan? What directs her path? How is the dream she has in this chapter significant? Examine the writer’s practice (173-4). What do you learn about writing here?

How does Fred continue to inspire? What do you make of “The dead regard us with curiosity” (186)? Death, dead figures, dead loved ones—how do they function in the story?

Finally, why does Smith love Sylvia Plath? What is the connection?

13. Tempest of Air Demons

Analyze this passage:

I have lived in my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler lone gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty… We want things we cannot have…” (208-9)

14.  A Dream of Alfred Wegener

How are we “released from the tyranny of so-called time” (215)? Explore this as a central and complex theme in the book.

15. How Lindon Kills the Thing She Loves

Explore this passage in light of Smith’s identification with Lindon:

What do we do with those that can be accessed and dismissed by a channel changer, that we love no less than a nineteenth-century poet or an admired stranger or a character from the pen of Emily Bronte? What do we do when one of them comingles with our own sense of self, only to be transferred into a finite space within an on-demand portal” (239)

16. Valley of the Lost

How are the central ideas of time/temporality, dreams, and lost things woven together with Smith’s unique experience of joy? How is she weaving her themes together in this second to last chapter—nearly the last station on this journey?

17. The Hour of Noon

High Noon? Some things are not lost but sacrificed.

Analyze: I was my own lucky hand of solitaire. The desert landscape unchanging: a long, unwinding scroll that I would one day amuse myself by filling. I’m going to remember everything and then I’m going to write it all down. An aria to a coat. A requiem for a café. That’s what I was thinking, in my dream, looking down at my hands. (253)

M Train begins and ends in dreamscapes. What is life? What is living and dreaming? Reflect on the end of the work, the last station on the M line.


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