If you read the jacket cover of Glaciers, a little blue book by Portland writer Alexis Smith, here’s what you find: This is a story about Isabel, a twenty-something thrift-store shopper who lives alone in a small apartment with a cat. She works in the Portland library, where she repairs damaged books and falls in love with a co-worker, a returned soldier. And she’s haunted by the life of discarded things, like old postcards and photographs that end up at thrift stores.
In short, it is the perfect book. Which is why I avoided reading it.
As a Portland writer with a longtime love of libraries and thrift stores, and a penchant for beautifully-made books, I knew that under no circumstances could I read this novel. It hit too close to home, and I was bound to be disappointed. In short, it is the perfect book. Which is why I avoided reading it.
But then I read reviews comparing Glaciers to one of my favorite novels: Paul Harding’s Tinkers, another book I had shied away from at first. Maybe this was the same situation, I said to myself— a novel that seems too good to be true, but ends up being both good and true in entirely unexpected ways.
So I gave Glaciers a chance, and you should, too. Written in brief snapshot-like chapters, the novel relies on imagery to make subtle connections between frames. It goes much deeper than its size, its subject matter, or even its reviews would have you think. Ultimately, Glaciers is about life and death, loneliness and hope, and the effort to believe our lives have meaning beyond their brief borders. Though on the surface the story may be small, it has a big shadow—the war with Iraq, global warming, urban decay—and manages to speak to the anxiety and grief of the early 21st century in the U.S. in a personal way.
Other reviews have likened Glaciers to Tinkers because of structure, but the narrative here is not fractured like Harding’s novel. It alternates unambiguously between accounts, drawing clear lines between Isabel’s childhood memories and the present day, when she is struggling to come to terms with a dying world.
Somewhere, I can’t remember where, I read that Glaciers began as a series of poems. You can read it in one afternoon. (A March afternoon, say, with a cat and a cup of tea).Like a book of good poems, it is deceptively light. You can read it in one afternoon. (A March afternoon, say, with a cat and a cup of tea). But as with poems, its effect goes deeper. In its imagery and lyric connections, in its landscape and characters—and especially with its ending—this is a book that will stay with you for a long time.
Alexis Smith is a talented writer, who also happens to be a very kind person and a mother. For this series on the art of writing, parenting, and balance, I asked Alexis to share her perspective. Here’s what she had to say:
Q+A with Author Alexis Smith
I think “Work-life balance” is shorthand for saying that we aren’t fulfilled in our jobs, we feel worn down by chores, and/or we don’t feel supported by our partners, at home or in our creative pursuits.“Work-life balance” is such a tricky concept. When I hear women (it’s almost always women) talk about trying to achieve this fabled state of being, I think it’s shorthand for saying that we aren’t fulfilled in our jobs, we feel worn down by chores, and/or we don’t feel supported by our partners, at home or in our creative pursuits. Complicated situations with lots of practical, financial and emotional parts. It’s the complicated nature of our lives that makes me think that “balance” is an unhelpful way to think about it.
Balance, in my experience, is momentary, fleeting, practically accidental, and entirely unsustainable. As a single mom, if I measured my success or happiness by those few moments when everything in my life seemed to be in perfect proportion, I would feel like a total failure most of the time.
My son was an infant and a toddler when I was working on Glaciers, and right up to a couple of months before publication, I was a bookseller working crazy retail hours, co-parenting with an ex who was also working crazy retail hours. I honestly don’t know how we managed–we were in survival mode–and I struggled with this hope for balance. I thought that there must be a formula for achieving this state of ease and that I just needed to find it. The problem with thinking like this is that the variables are always changing. To stay sane, I need to be willing to move–both literally and metaphorically
It took me a long time to realize that the only thing I can always expect, as a parent and a human being, is change, and that to stay sane, I need to be willing to move–both literally and metaphorically. I think calling it the “work-life dance” would be more accurate–surely someone has called it that before? I’m sure it’s not an original thought. But that’s how I would prefer to think about it. Sometimes it’s a sweet, slow waltz. Sometimes it’s a mosh pit. Part of the work of life, for me, is letting go of expectations and being willing to change my rhythm as needed.