Friday, February 15, 2008

Sailing the Inland Sea: A book review and personal essay on my shopping habits

Susan Neville, Sailing the Inland Sea: On Writing, Literature, and Land (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 220 pages

Although I tend not to be an impulsive shopper, I sometimes deviate when it comes to books. A few weeks ago I was talking to the proprietor of our local bookstore when I noticed this book sitting on a table. The cover grabbed my attention. The photograph had to be taken a day before the moon was full, right as the sun set (of the day after the full moon, right before sunrise). With the sun in the background, providing the reddish tint to the waters, the nearly full moon can be seen above the horizon. The swamp doesn’t look to be a place of sailing, but it did look inviting for a canoe. I imaged a large bass lurking around one of the stumps in the pond… I was in the process of purchasing another book when I picked this book up and asked the proprietor if he had read it. He hadn’t, but he had met the author at a bookseller’s convention and he was impressed with her presentation and had picked up a half dozen signed copies of her book. Like a bass lurking around a log, I took the bait and he sold his first copy…

I should note that there were two other reasons I purchased this book. First of all, I figured it was time for me to delve a bit more into Midwestern literature, as so much of my reading over the past decade has either been Western or Southern. The second reason (and if you’ve read my blog for long, you’ll know this) is that I am interested in the role “place” plays in our lives and stories and even in our philosophies and theologies. Books like of Craig Child’s The Secret Knowledge of Water, Richard Francaviglia, Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin, and Belden Lane’s Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality along with other writers like Terry Tempest Williams, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard have helped me see the importance place plays in the way we see and interpret our world. This book promised to be of a similar nature…

Sailing the Inland Sea is a collection of essays in which Neville explores the meaning of place and geography as she interacts with writers from the Midwest as well as other authors from around the world. In doing so, she also explores writing techniques. Some of these essays are brilliant. In “Sacred Space in Ordinary Time,” she begins a Sunday looking for sacred places, starting her journey at a shopping mall. Another powerful essay “Where’s Iago,” discusses the way a story needs an Iago (a character from Shakespeare’s Othello) to serve as a catalysis and to move the story along. Iago has a long and noble and sinister history, tracing his roots back to the snake in the Garden of Eden (page 126). As in many of her essays, she weaves in different threads including a discussion of evil, the philosophy of Nietzsche and theology of Neibuhr, the wisdom of Vonnegut and a novel by Tayeb Salih, a Sudanese author (his book, Season of Migration to the North is now on my reading list). A third essay that I particularly liked was “The Gift of Fire,” when she discusses her work patients in a mental institution and the linkage between mental illness and creativity.

Water is a constant metaphor used throughout these essays. She humorously quips, when told to gather a particular yacht club for a river trip, that “There is something incredibly midwestern-populist about calling the place a Yacht Club.” (23) She constantly refers to rivers and lakes and even to seas that no longer exist. She notes that Indianapolis native Vonnegut was fond of saying his hometown is the largest city in the world without a navigable body of water. The sailing aspect from her title comes through in her technique of weaving a variety of themes together. Like a sailboat running against the wind, her essays tack back and forth, always moving toward a particular destination but never in a straight line. (See her discussion on this on page 102).

Although Neville must mention a hundred authors in her essays (maybe even mentioning too many authors), the late Kurt Vonnegut comes up most frequently. Not only are they both from Indianapolis, their grandfathers worked together. Vonnegut’s was an architect who built many of the stately homes in the city, and Neville’s grandfather was a cabinetmaker whose craft can be seen in these homes.

Sailing the Inland Sea didn't provide the background into Midwestern literature, as I hoped it might when I purchased the book. But that’s not its purpose. It does, however, provide insight into the role place plays into stories but more importantly, the essays serve as a wonderfully creative “writing guide.” I enjoyed these essays and recommend them to you.

Let me leave you with one finally bit of insight from the book. When writing about the lack of cars in New Harmony, she notes that it’s “because it’s hard, as it should be, to find your way to harmony, new or otherwise.” (93) Although I ain' t no Baptist, in Baptist tradition I think that deserves an Amen!

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. That sounds like an interesting book, Sage, but then any book you review does!

    Thanks for the visit; I'd love to see photos of your grandmother's quilts~!

  2. I too sometimes judge a book by its cover. It certainly can't hurt to have a cover that attracts your attention.

  3. Uh...that book cover wouldn't have attracted my attention. It needs something like Fabio hanging out there in the wetlands. :-) Thanks also for reminding me to get back to reading The Secret Knowledge of Water.

  4. I too can be an impulse buyer of books - just goes to show how important a good cover - and a good blurb on the back - can be!

  5. Kenju--I'll do a quilt post soon--it'll be an easy one that won't require much writing...

    Ed, judging a book by it's cover can have many meanings :)

    Murf, you've been reading that book for at least two years!

    Diane, yes, the back blurb is probably the most important, but since I always have several books going a a time, if it doesn't grab me, I don't read it. btw, I'll listening to Hiassen's "Double Whammy" on m ipod now.

  6. I am an impulsive book buyer as well. Perhaps we need self help group. Michele sent me.

  7. Although I try not to judge a book by its cover, I can't help it at times. (The picture on this book is beautiful, btw.)

    Sounds like a fascinating little book and I like the quote at the end of this post. Thanks for your reviews, Sage.

    I'm almost done with The Kite Runner. I hope Amir finds Hassan's son and brings him back to the US for a better life, but somehow I don't think that's going to happen.

  8. You know what aggravates me? When a book is re-released with a new cover and I don't realize I've already read it. Sometimes that happens in the space of a year! Michele sent me back this morning.

  9. I'm still reading Einstein! I'm about halfway through it. Maybe in another week...

    Have a great weekend :)

  10. I find myself attracted to covers and titles--then I look at the book

    I noticed books with song title from the Stones, and found Ian Rankin, before he was popular here. Think you might like Inspector Rebus's complexity--though not American--Scottish

    I put you on the 3WW blogroll. You might not always participate but always belong :)

  11. Sage - I'm jealous - I've read all his books, and now must wait for new ones!

  12. Not so much into books but went crazy with music CD purchases today...

    The Very Best Of The Eagles

    Happy Days '50's and '60's

    Anne Murray - Country Croonin'

    Anne Murray - All of Me (which includes fav song, "Could I Have This Dance"

    Well, there you have it; I turned your book post into a music post! {grin}

  13. I reckon you got yourself a good book there Sage. I have always had an interest in the places - writers I admire, hail from - Jane Austen, Gertrude Stein, Wilde, Ted Huges to name a few. And if I couldn't visit their homes I visited their graves.
    Michele sends her best.

  14. Hi Sage. I cna be a bit of an impulse book buyer myself. It sounds like you found an interesting one there!

    Thanks for popping by and commenting on my blog. My criticism is not of men per se but of society and the preconceived notions we hold of what a 'woman' should be and how she should act.

    I agree that things are improving. Even today compared to 10-15 years ago things are a little better on the whole. I can remmeber being interviewed for a management position after university and being asked if I intended to get married and have children, while my male counterparts were not quizzed on this aspect. That is pretty much unthinkable these days.

    BTW - I love the pic at the top of your blog :)

  15. That cover is indeed the kind which says pick me up. However, your obeservation of the photo is very interesting.

    I like water as a metaphor in writing. This seems to be a book worthing looking at.

    BTW, I have done a lot of book buying just by looking at the covers.

    Two weeks now, my reading has taken a beating. Somehow I am unable to read. Kind of apathetic.

  16. I'm a Baptist, and I'll second that amen! Good stuff!

  17. I would appreciate more visual materials, to make your blog more attractive, but your writing style really compensates it. But there is always place for improvement