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Beckoning with dream.

Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack

By Mary Cappello

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016, 408 pp., $29.00, hardcover

If you come to Mary Cappello's fifth book of nonfiction, Life Breaks In, expecting an account of a struggle with depression, you will be-depending on your attitude toward books of that nature--either disappointed or relieved. Cappello's quirky, playful, thought-provoking book is not about mood "disorders" but rather about how a mood--any mood--comes to pass. She examines the origin of mood and the contemporary homogenization of mood by medication, and in the process provides some intriguing examples of the "mood worlds" that can sustain those living under the domination of others' moods--chiefly, those of one's parents.

Cappello explores how the parental mood shapes one's relationship to the world, observing that, in her own 1950s childhood, although her mother's moods dominated the household, they were thought of simply as "emotions." Her father was the only one entitled to a mood--which Cappello, citing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Edition, defines as "a pervasive and sustained emotion that colors the perception of the world." The father's moods were forces to be reckoned with, usually bad and to be feared. They shaped, to some extent, the writer Cappello would become. "The [child] of a violent man," she has spent a lifetime exploring how that early immersion in turbulence has affected her choices in adulthood.

Four sections, entitled "Elements," "Charts," "Rooms," and "Vibes," divide the book into topic-driven essays. Life Breaks In takes its title from a passage in Virginia Woolf's diary: "What happens is, as usual, that I'm going to write about the soul, & life breaks in." Cappello's endeavors to write about mood are equally inextricable from life's distractions--because mood obviously does not exist apart from life. Mood emerges from the feelings evoked by a particular time and place. Sometimes the feelings don't jibe with what is happening. Therein lies one of mood's many mysteries. Mood accompanies one like an imaginary friend. It can be conjured from the air, from sound, from scent, from observation. Rooms and enclosures, too, are incubators of mood.

Proust had his madeleines. Cappello has her music, or more precisely, her mother's music. Vic Damone would signal that all was right with the world, because her mother played his records only when she was in a good mood. She particularly loved "On the Street Where You Live"--a song that identifies the source of mood as a particular place, a particular "you." This music is her mother's private joy, witnessed by her daughter. Though the conjured mood is "gay," in the old sense of the word, it's notable for what it doesn't contain-namely, the father. For Cappello, hearing this particular tune still conjures a mood, now informed by her adult understanding of her mother's essential loneliness in that marriage.

Cappello writes, "Moods don't follow a chartable path or career. We can't grant them seven stages or twelve steps"--and yet to be under the influence of a persistent mood can make one wish for a support group of the most aggressive kind. The mood surely will pass, but when, and how, and why, is ineffable. One might as well look for pictures in clouds, or meanings in--what?

For Cappello, one place is in old View-Master reels. Spinning off from an observation about the sensations conjured by looking at a depiction of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Cappello tracks down the long-dead mixed media artist who created this childhood relic, and discovers a miraculous purveyor of mood in the person of Florence Thomas. Thomas's life was odd, mysterious, circumscribed by her unusual art in which miniature clay figures acted out stories colored by a distinctive light and shadow. She was not only a conjuror of mood, but a witch capable of transforming time and place, for "rather than assail[ing] us with information, [she] beckons us with dream." Cappello envisions Thomas living
   in a metropolis inside small rooms ... a person
   who experiences the bustle as an expanse.
   Unjostled by crowds, she floats. The only
   thing she lets distract her from the
   concentrated work of affixing blindfolds to
   Snow White's Seven Dwarfs is the call of her
   calico cat to play or stroke, or the need to eat.


"View-Masters," writes Cappello, "might just be a means of gaining access to moods otherwise unallowed. No one ever said, though I suspect it's true, that they might be fundamentally anti-social." She speculates that
   Maybe the whole point of feelings and moods
   is to test the limits of our imaginations,
   requiring a moment-to-moment recreation of
   images that gambol and lurch, elegant as
   monsters caught inside the scrim of a
   shadow-puppet board.


When Cappello visits the L.C. Bates Museum in Maine, she marvels at the dioramas of taxidermied animals, an experience that leads her to muse on her adult fear of animals:
   My father didn't allow my brothers and me to
   have pets--there were to be no creatures that
   might avert his gaze, nothing that required
   care beyond a modicum of watching and
   watering ... Like an animal, my father had a
   good deal of bristle about him. Mood-wise,
   he was bristly. Crude ... [perhaps] working
   out the terms of his own animalistic rage in
   his Sunday afternoons with Wild Kingdom  ...
   trying to learn how to live with the animal
   within.


She avoided his favorite television program because it invariably ended with an evisceration. In the dead animals at the museum, however, she senses "the presence of a vision and the touches of a hand ... someone had created habitat dioramas unlike any I had ever seen; this someone had captured a species of beauty."

As with the View-Master reels, the discovery of these paintings and tableaux leads her to investigate their source: "[i]n these rooms I felt that defining moment of a mood: mood as a baseline state of being that moves persistently and with radiant evanescence--even if the mood be dark-from nothing to something to nothing again." The two men responsible for founding the museum-the preacher, farmer, and teacher George W. Hinckley, and the artist and taxidermist Charles Daniel Hubbard--were close friends. Their Good Will-Hinkley Home for disadvantaged children in Hinckley, Maine, became a celebration of the power of art and education to transform lives. The Home, ancillary to the museum, feels to Cappello "like a form of fairy-land headed by gnomes." The evocative photographs of the dioramas included in this chapter support Cappello's claim that "the L.C. Bates Museum harbors mood rooms of magical proportions."

Cappello's writing about the exhibit tugs us back to Vic Damone's "recreation of images" through music, and music's ability to create a "mood room"--at the same time that it pulls us forward into the paintings of Charles Burchfield, whose unpeopled landscapes inspire Cappello to muse on painting as an embodiment, as well as a creator, of mood. Everything about a painting, from subject matter to color to vantage point, works to create a mood in the viewer. Burchfield's somber paintings of factories and rail yards depict a world in which anxiety has been given free reign, creating a sympathetic mood in the viewer that, in turn, influences her actual experience in the world as she takes in the paintings. "Our lives are sediment: every locus of our present being [is] just one shelf inside a layer of otherwise invisible shelves nestled like Chinese boxes," Cappello writes. "By now it should be clear that our moods depend on what we were encouraged to make or discouraged from making as children as well as on what we allow or disallow ourselves to make as adults." Burchfield-a father of five--may have created his unpeopled landscapes to assemble for himself a private mental space--a mood. This seems especially the case when one moves away from his urban scenes, painted on commission, and into the quiet pastoral landscapes he preferred.

Finally, Cappello moves on to a book that has worked its mood magic on several generations of dreamers: Goodnight, Moon (1947). Anyone who has relied on the gradual dimming of light in Clement Hurd's illustrations and the hypnotic repetition of Margaret Wise Brown's language to settle a restless child will understand how the visual and the auditory combine to create a mood. But Cappello asks, "Would all those folks who lulled their children to sleep with Goodnight Moon rest easy if they knew the little prayer was birthed by a lesbian consciousness?" She is particularly interested in Brown's Noisy Book series, with the sly (and for the time, surely strange) inclusion in The Winter Noisy Book (1947) of "two daddies" relaxing before a fire with drinks after work. In another story, someone wakes in the night, listening to the stillness of the house and trying to name the sound of that stillness. "Brown has gifted me the finest definition of a mood, and one defying explanation. Mood: it was the sound of a person about to think," writes Cappello.

"All along, I've been pursuing the idea that mood is equivalent to how voices hold us," she says. Mood is the interplay of silence and sound, light and shadow: the sun tracking along a wall, a breeze blowing a curtain, a voice calling from another room. Not to explain mood but to capture its essence is the ambition of this book, and Cappello realizes her aim with her usual mix of intellectual rigor and imaginative leaping across the borders of disparate moments. Even the notes at the back of Life Breaks In are engrossing. The reader can track Cappello's thought process as she moves from Robert Walser to Michel Foucault to Margaret Wise Brown, from Gilles Deleuze to Julie Kristeva to Peggy Lee, all in the interest of lassoing that ineffable thing called mood and harnessing it to the effect produced by reading her book. By the time she asserts, "All writing, when it comes right down to it, is nothing more and nothing less than the patient recreation of a voice-filled room," the reader is ready to turn back to the first page and listen again to the mood she has conjured.

Charlotte Holmes's new book is The Grass Labyrinth (2106), a collection of linked short stories. She teaches and directs the Creative Writing Program at Penn State.
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Title Annotation:Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack
Author:Holmes, Charlotte
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2017
Words:1708
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