glaciersAll this month I’ve been looking at books written by women with a particular eye to their gender dynamics. A lot has been said about the progress the Western world has made in leveling things up, but there are all sorts of other angles that we could consider, not least: isn’t it sometimes the case that difference is a very good thing? There seems to be a lot less hassle with the terms yin and yang than with the terms masculine and feminine, and this surely must be because they are understood to be complementary. What it boils down to, I think, is the way any culture looks at its binary oppositions. Binary oppositions are an inevitable way of structuring our thought and our experience – from good and bad to night and day, from black and white to high and low, these contrasts are written into the very fabric of the world. The issues arise when one term is understood to be less valuable, or less meaningful, or even negligible in respect to the other. This is why for me, a balance of power is not about everything being the same; it’s about valuing all aspects of our experience and understanding how necessary they are to each other. When we treat the so-called ‘feminine’ qualities with the same respect and significance that we attribute to the ‘masculine’ ones, then we’ll be looking at a more equal society.

So what has any of this to do with a book? Well, Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith is a very quiet, gentle and charming novella. It doesn’t have a big, flashy plot, and there are no sensational issues raised. It’s the kind of book that might be easily overlooked in the bestseller-led market of shouty books trying to grab a slice of audience attention. But it’s the kind of book I think we’d be much poorer without.

The story concerns a day in the life of Isabel, living and working in Portland, Oregon, but brought up in Alaska, an experience that scores deep tramlines through her memory still. She’s a young librarian with a thing for vintage clothing, old postcards and the general ephemera of the past. They are self-aware choices that are less about lifestyle than her general tenderness:

She abandoned writing for library science in college, at the urging of her grandmother, who claimed there was no market for being in love with words. Isabel chose her area of speciality, preservation and conservation, as a minor rebellion and as a matter of course: salvaging the mistreated came naturally to her, though it might not be the most marketable skill she could acquire.’

The narrative clings tight to Isabel’s inner life as she moves through her day, and clusters around the little thing she has for a co-worker at the library, Spoke, whose previous job was as a soldier. There’s a definite spark between them, but neither has had the courage to pursue it. However, Isabel’s been invited to a party that evening, and as she buys a dress from her favourite secondhand store she’s hoping to invite Spoke to join her. The day doesn’t work out at all how she plans, but the outcome feels like life; uncertain, a little perplexing, basically okay.

Like the postcards Isabel collects, this is painted in sepia tints. It’s a very ordinary tale about ordinary people, but the lovely smoothness of the prose, the gentle hippy-ness of the perspective, the restraint of the characters combine together to make something subtle and special. The characters are flawed: they have trouble risking themselves, and the narrative is coloured by this intrinsic caution, and the past overtakes them and draws them back in ways they neither understand nor master. But to me, that felt like life, like the way we live it, rather than the way we prefer to tell it. And when I look at the supermarket shelves sometimes, it seems that’s an evening up that the book world might benefit from, if we can get quiet and calm enough to pay attention to the understated.

28 thoughts on “Glaciers

  1. I think there is a lot to be said for the understated. Quiet introspective stories are very appealing–sort of a slice of real life. I think you are right that stories like this are often overlooked and undervalued, which is such a pity–as if the ordinariness of a woman’s life is less important or noteworthy than some other story. You know I was thinking as I was reading your post–and the yin and yang and feminine and masculine–how much do you think book design has to do with these vale judgements readers/critics make? Probably a lot, really.

    • You know, I do think that cover design is hugely gendered in the UK. Even literary novels suffer from the curse of the headless woman on the front of them. And like it or not, it does matter to a lot of people what you’re seen holding in your hands on public transport! I love novels that are actually like real life. I mean, I enjoy a good thriller or more sensationalised story from time to time. But really our lives contain very little that is truly sensational and yet they matter dreadfully to us, even in their quietness and subtlety. I really like it when a book takes some small crinkle in everyday living and makes me realise why it can have such a disproportionate impact. That strikes me as very much part of the artist’s job.

  2. Oh, it sounds lovely. Quiet beautiful books are favourites of mine. You point out the problem with the valuing of opposites, which, though improved, is still far from equal. I’d just add that I think that yin and yang or masculine and feminine also suffer from defining everything as opposites and forgetting the sliding continuum, and so shoving people and things at one end or the other when they don’t fit. And that creates misery.

    • Lilian, this is so true – the sliding scale is much closer to the truth of all these judgements and categories, and as ever it’s black and white thinking that causes the problems. You are so right that being shoe-horned into a role or position that isn’t accurate is a very painful experience.

  3. “This is why for me, a balance of power is not about everything being the same; it’s about valuing all aspects of our experience and understanding how necessary they are to each other. When we treat the so-called ‘feminine’ qualities with the same respect and significance that we attribute to the ‘masculine’ ones, then we’ll be looking at a more equal society.”

    Say it sister! 🙂

    The book sounds so quiet and lovely. I will definitely keep my eye out for it.

  4. This is going straight onto the Summer Reading list; it sounds exactly my sort of book. I’m interested in what you say about binary opposites and the notion of complementarity. In language it is generally accepted that binary systems either work in a rule of one to one or that of one to ten. So, for example, the division between present and past tense is pretty much one to one, but that between positive and negative is more likely to ascribe to the one to ten ratio. Perhaps part of the problem where gender issues are concerned is that some people treat a one to one relationship as if it were a one to ten.

    • What a fascinating thought! You are onto something there, I think. What does this stem from, a sort of strange power of exaggeration, I wonder? Well thank you for bringing this notion into the discussion – I found it full of interest.

  5. “When we treat the so-called ‘feminine’ qualities with the same respect and significance that we attribute to the ‘masculine’ ones, then we’ll be looking at a more equal society.” I agree entirely, well said.
    I enjoyed the review. Another book to add to my To Be Read list.

  6. I think this is a book I would love.
    I was wondering, when you read like this, having a topic in mind – gender dynamics in your case – don’t you feel it distorts the books. I used to read like this sometimes – other topics – and starts to look as if all the books had been written with this in mind, although it might have been a minor theme for the author. Can you shake it off again?

    • Ahh, well the normal academic approach is to single out one strand of the text in order to look at it more closely. In my mind, that’s a magnification that could be repeated many times in a good, rich novel. I do think you need to keep a good grasp on perspective, and use the strand to organise the reading, rather than dominate it. But sometimes it can be a good way to get into a difficult book (not that that was the case here!). All that being said, I remember when I was writing my thesis, it was inevitable that I’d see identity issues everywhere! It was more that everything happening in my life seemed coloured by my reading, but I daresay all my readiing was lop-sided too! I’d love to know what you make of this, and yes, I do think it’s the sort of book you’d like.

    • It’s a lovely book, Nicola. I’d love to know what you make of it if you do read it. I think the grandmother is right, that there’s rarely money in words, but there’s incredible richness of life, love and meaning in them, which I’d probably count as more valuable.

  7. Postcard collecting in the early 21st century, like playing croquet at the end of the 20th, is enjoying a revival. I’m never sure how to feel when it turns out I’ve been in the vanguard of such a movement.
    Probably time to take the grandmother’s comment to heart.

  8. Ahh quiet reads are probably my favouritest kind of books. There’s something about building a story out of the everyday occurrences that just awes me.

    I also so absolutely love what you say about the validity of all experiences… when I think of myself, and my female friends it occurs to me that for almost all of us the measure of our success is almost always in terms of what would be defined as masculine attributes.

    • Juhi, that’s what strikes me a lot too, the continual preference for strength, extroversion, competitiveness, power, and so on. It’s a courageous move for a book to eschew those interests at the moment and do something different, and I love it when books are courageous!

  9. Been lurking on your blog for a bit. I’ve seen this title pop up on several blogs so far, though this is the first review I’ve read of it. Reading the description of the book, the protagonist seems like a hipster stereotype – she lives in Portland, Oregon, likes vintage dresses and gets to work as a preservation / conservation librarian. (As a librarian myself, I always wonder how these young librarian characters land the preservation / conservation jobs. They are usually highly coveted positions occupied by ancient librarians who practically have to die in their traces for there to be a vacancy.) Anyway, I guess I would worry that the novella would strike me as very ‘precious’.

    • Hello Christy and thank you for commenting! Of course this is the good thing about reading books from another country – I had no idea that such a stereotype existed. If that doesn’t appeal from the outset, then you’re probably quite right to leave this book aside. There’s always SO much to read it’s quite a relief sometimes to be able to say no.

  10. Pingback: Alexis M. Smith: Glaciers (2012) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  11. Pingback: Tales from the Reading Room

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