Life Breaks In

“Are we sometimes not astonished by the beautiful futility of encountering some sudden fugitive moment that renders us so vulnerable to ‘unanticipated forms’: of perhaps an inner light or an inner dark? Here, with Mary Cappello’s ravishing prose, lies a vibrating scalpel that intricately parts the belly of little swirling vertigos that we have no name for but know so deeply.”

The Brothers Quay


Some books start at point A, take you by the hand, and carefully walk you to point B, and on and on.

This is not one of those books. This book is about mood, and how it works in and with us as complicated, imperfectly self-knowing beings existing in a world that impinges and infringes on us, but also regularly suffuses us with beauty and joy and wonder. You don’t write that book as a linear progression — you write it as a living, breathing, richly associative, and, crucially, active, investigation. Or at least you do if you’re as smart and inventive as Mary Cappello.

What is a mood? How do we think about and understand and describe moods and their endless shadings? What do they do to and for us, and how can we actively generate or alter them? These are all questions Cappello takes up as she explores mood in all its manifestations: we travel with her from the childhood tables of “arts and crafts” to mood rooms and reading rooms, forgotten natural history museums and 3-D View-Master fairytale tableaux; from the shifting palette of clouds and weather to the music that defines us and the voices that carry us. The result is a book as brilliantly unclassifiable as mood itself, blue and green and bright and beautiful, funny and sympathetic, as powerfully investigative as it is richly contemplative.

“I’m one of those people who mistrusts a really good mood,” Cappello writes early on. If that made you nod in recognition, well, maybe you’re one of Mary Cappello’s people; you owe it to yourself to crack Life Breaks In and see for sure.

With a portfolio by Rosamond Purcell
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-35606-8
ISBN-10: 0-226-35606-X

The University of Chicago Press

Advance praise for Life Breaks In

A Notable Book of 2016, Seminary Co-op 57th Street Books, Hyde Park

PopSugar calls Life Breaks In “one of ten books to keep you centered after the election”

Brit + Co includes it among “the three new books to set your imagination ablaze”


“In these captivating essays, which meld memoir, philosophical meditations, and reports from excursions, far, deeply interior and wide, Cappello explores the abstract, amorphous notion of mood…Cappello’s fresh inquisitiveness and surprising trains of thought may well remind readers of the ruminative writings of Adam Phillips or Alain de Botton.

An illuminating celebration of enveloping moments of being.”

“I’m tempted to begin by comparing Mary Cappello to other contemporary literary nonfiction writers who meld memory and lyric impression with intellectual passion. Writers who come to mind — Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, bell hooks — certainly share borderlines and affinities, but none of their works really resemble the books that come of Cappello’s singular voice and lens. Cappello’s compositions are at once sonic memoir, embodied criticism, and narrative cultural observation, drawing the attentive reader into what we might call the queer corporeal idea… Cappello’s new book, Life Breaks In, is at once rhapsodic, sensate, and intellectually captivating… Reading Life Breaks In is, indeed, a kind of listening. It is time spent in a language-made listening room, a stroll into shifting human emotive time, a resounding of memory, imagination, story, and thought.”
Los Angeles Review of Books

“The infinite play of non-knowledge, of knowing that she doesn’t know, continues to write with her and for her, with a suspenseful, tumultuous virtuosity…I’m convinced that Montaigne would have liked it very much.”
— Molly McQuade, The Yale Review

Life Breaks In makes me think of the workings of big minds like Anne Carson’s, Carole Maso’s, or Susan Howe’s (e.g. My Emily Dickinson), all relentlessly curious and similarly fearless, all four writers irrepressible masters at their craft, creating full-immersion experiences for any reader willing to go on the journey. The pleasures for me were both aesthetic, in how original and fine the writing, and esoteric, in how much I learned. Mary Cappello is a brilliant and exuberant original.”
— Catherine Reid, author of Falling into Place

“Mary Cappello’s imagination is an idea accelerator dedicated to the continual astonishment called our world. It exhibits a fierce curiosity about everything, a will to cheer before the surprising juxtaposition, the sudden linkage, the creation of genre fusion that includes (but is hardly limited to) meticulously researched and wide-ranging cultural history, theory, esoterica, song lyrics, and personal recollections. The result is splendidly associative, revealing, humorous, poignant, eccentric, nuanced, and nothing if not beautifully self-aware. In Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, Cappello informs us “Kenneth Goldsmith calls Facebook status lines ‘mood blasts.'” Every paragraph of Life Breaks In is a Think Blast, and great pleasure to follow into its marvels.”
— Lance Olsen, author of [[ there.]]

“Trained as a poet, writing in the in-between state genre known as literary nonfiction, Mary Cappello has called the essay, after Gertrude Stein, ‘a kind of writing that doesn’t aim.’ Mary’s essays tune us in to a vibrational register, to the timbre or power to touch us shared alike by things, words, places, persons, and narratives. Cappello’s language grazes the circumstances of ongoing life: it echoes and echo-locates in the midst of surroundings. Just like mood, but a mood that (following Montaigne) puts our thought “in apprenticeship and on trial,” these essays refuse to be contained.”
— Jonathan Skinner, University of Warwick

Life Breaks In encourages the reader to look, feel, and think more deeply, to linger and look again. Cappello’s book is unpredictable. There’s no sense of having read this before, or of being lulled by the reinforcement of long-held beliefs; this is – as its title would suggest – a disruptive work. Cappello’s voice and approach are original and – again – in no way oriented toward ‘cure.’ This is indeed a book for the adventurous reader. Cappello’s warmth and wry humor make the challenge approachable and inspire confidence that the payoff will more than equal the effort. At heart, Life Breaks In is not solely about mood. Cappello’s book is, most deeply, a meditation on what it is to be alive in the world.”
— Dawn Raffel, author of The Secret Life of Objects