There’s something so special, so magical about a good novella. Even the word “novella” makes me happy. If I weren’t so hyperaware of what it means to grow up with a weird name, I might even consider naming a child “Novella.” Isn’t it pretty, in a strange way? She could be called “Ella,” or even “Nova” (baby, you’re a star!). But I don’t have any kids, and I’m not planning to have any in the near future (if ever), so that’s a moot point.
What’s not a moot point is how much I enjoyed Alexis Smith’s debut novella, Glaciers. (Much as I liked it, you have my word that I’ll never name a child “Glacier.” Pook’s honor).
Author: Alexis Smith
Publisher: Tin House Books
Pub Date: January 17, 2012 (my birthday!)
Hardcover: 112 pages
Is There a Pooka In This Book?: No.
Pooka Rating: 3.99 out of 5 Nibbles
Glaciers is a glimpse into the life of twenty-eight-year-old Isabel (also known as “Belly”). The book spans one day in her life, real-time, but the reader also gets to learn about her childhood. I think she’s beautiful because despite having lived through her parents’ divorce, and losing her home in subsequent move from Alaska to Portland, she’s still a hopeless romantic. Cynicism’s just not in her nature.
We learn that she’s a collector of vintage items – dresses, hand towels, and all manner of bric-a-brac – with a special fondness for ephemera and the written word. When she’s not saving dresses from a lifetime of obscurity in the back of an old lady’s closet somewhere, she’s saving books. She works at the library in the preservation & conservation department. Her love of all things damaged also extends to people: she’s nursing a quiet but powerful crush on a male coworker named “Spoke,” who served in the military in Iraq.
Nothing spectacular happens in the course of the novel(la); it’s all pretty ordinary. The focus is on finding the extraordinary and the beautiful in everyday, worn-down things. There’s no major conflict here, only conflicting emotions: the bittersweet nature of longing and the haunting quality of regret. And ,the question of whether people will recognize the beauty in her.
What Made the Book Totally Worth Eating:
1. Isabel’s favorite postcard.
She finds it in a junk store. It was mailed from Amsterdam to Portland in 1965. The message is short, and sweet, and it causes her to think, “It’s a strange product of infatuation… to want to tell someone about mundane things. The awareness of another person suddenly sharpens your senses, so that the little things come into focus and the world seems more beautiful and complicated” (72).
It’s basically a text message, before cellphones and modern technology. I just finished an epistolary novel, Letters from Skye, and though I loved it and thought the letters were gorgeous and intimate, personal, poetic, and well-wrought, it didn’t make me wish I wrote letters. This postcard makes me wish I sent postcards. If ever I end up traveling, this is what all of my notes home will look like.
2. The physical description of the natural world.
Smith’s got a knack for pointing out just what it is that makes the world pretty: “In the spring and summer: leafy, undulating green… breeze-born seeds whirling by like tiny white galaxies. And in the early glorious days of fall, … chill mist in the mornings, bright sunshine and haloes of gold and amber for every tree” (13). Pookas are very in-tune with nature and we can tell when an author’s feelin’ it, too. Smith feels it – and as a result, I felt Smith’s prose.
I’m not usually a sucker for a military men – on the whole, they’re too clean-shaven, composed, and All-American for me. But Spoke is different. He’s the tech guy at the library, and his work in Iraq dealt with fixing machines – “armored vehicles and tanks, mostly, but also radios, flashlights, and the personal electronic devices of his friends” (55). He tinkers. He fixes things. He’s good with his hands. He also reads sci-fi, drinks black coffee out of a mason jar, is tall and bearded with glasses, and he wears a dusty blue sweater with blown-out elbows like it’s a uniform. He’s good with kids and loved his grandad more than anyone else in the world. He’s only ever really felt at home at his grandparents’ farm, working with the animals, the tractors, and tending to the trees out in the orchard. He’s kind of a hottie. Which is totally unrealistic. Working in a library, as I do, I can tell you that you’d never meet a guy like this there. We’ve got three guys, total, in the whole building. Two are over the age of sixty (one of these men is the janitor named “Dick”), and the other wears a fedora. Enough said.
4. Spoke’s grandparents.
They’re a beautiful example of lifelong, enduring love. His grandfather was “silent and stoic in a typically Midwestern way, but gentle and devoted to his wife. [Spoke] remembers sitting at the kitchen table, eating a big slice of cake, his grandmother singing “O Day of Rest and Gladness” as she washed dishes. His grandfather came in for lunch, wrapped his arms around her waist, and kissed her, once, right behind the ear… There was something secret between them… Something that connected the two of them in a way no one else could ever understand” (139). Spoke’s treatment of his grandad when his grandmother dies is another tender, quiet, beautiful thing.
6. The way dreams bleed into real life.
Isabel has a recurring dream, where she shops for the perfect dress in a thrift store. On the morning that her story begins, the sound of the birds cawing outside her window makes its way into her sleep-filled brain. “The crows… flew into the thrift shop. A whole murder of them landing on the clothes, making a racket in the fluttering dresses” (21). This image comes back to her throughout the day, causing her to wonder such things as, “What would a group of dresses be called, if they were living things?” Her answer: “a choir. A choir of dresses” (77). How supremely girly and wonderful!
What I Spit Back Out:
1. Everything about it was so, totally hipster.
Smith romanticizes the current hipster trends in a big way: Portland, bicycles, vintage clothes, etc., which can be kind of obnoxious if you harp on it too much. That being said… there’s way too much hipster hatred in the world. I know it’s cool to hate, but isn’t it cooler to acknowledge that things can be popular/trendy and still be good?
There’s nothing objectively awful about the Pacific Northwest, self-powered travel, or secondhand goods. In fact, there’s plenty that’s objectively good: riding bikes helps to conserve the earth’s natural resources, and buying used clothing is cheap! As a recent-ish college grad with student loans coming out of her ears, I know that’s nothing to scoff at! I’ve gotten some of my best skirts & blazers at Savers for less than $5 a pop. I’m tempted to say I’m not a hipster (I’m always running far too late to make travel by bicycle prudent, I enjoy a good bacon cheeseburger, and I listen to the radio), but then I feel a little ashamed for being so quick to opt out of the label. Admitting to being a hipster’s become almost as courageous an act as admitting to being a feminist. (The latter, I will admit to being. Unabashedly, and without reservations).
2. Isabel loves theater people.
I do not.
In the best of times, I have mixed feelings. In the worst, I’m confused as to why everyone’s putting on a fake British accent and feel like I have to go find someplace quiet to be alone. So, while Isabel and I were much the same when it came to a lot of things – we both love shopping, work in a library, like bearded men, and “tend to say things twice to animals” (22) – we differed on this point.
Oh, well. Feeling like soul-twins was good while it lasted!
In closing, I think it’s only fitting that I leave you with a postcard.
Pooka Rating: 3.99 out of 5 Nibbles