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Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays

4.11  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,792 Ratings  ·  291 Reviews
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism
Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize

A frank and fascinating exploration of race and racial identity

Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays begins with a series of lynchings and ends with a series of apologies. Eula Biss explores race in America and her response to the topic is informed by the experien
Paperback, 230 pages
Published February 3rd 2009 by Graywolf Press
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Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster WallaceNaked by David SedarisSex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck KlostermanMe Talk Pretty One Day by David SedarisBird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Best Book of Essays
36th out of 101 books — 97 voters
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster WallaceI Feel Bad about My Neck by Nora EphronSlouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan DidionTeaching a Stone to Talk by Annie DillardThe White Album by Joan Didion
Beyond David Sedaris: Essay Collections
12th out of 125 books — 31 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Apr 03, 2013 Eric rated it liked it
Shelves: essays, americans
She admits to tracing Didion’s sentences as Didion admitted to tracing Hemingway’s – much of this is Didionish, personal-historical, my neurosis intersects the vastness – but three of the essays, "Time and Distance Overcome," “Is this Kansas,” and “No Man’s Land,” are distinctive and strong. You can read them on her site and you should. I liked the shoutouts to Marilynne Robinson and the fighting abolitionists of the Middle Border. The blurbs oversell her; if Biss tells you a “story of our count ...more
Nov 19, 2010 Garrett rated it liked it
Essays were extremely well-written, thought provoking, the book went by like a breeze... but Biss unfortunately seems to have predetermined those who it is worth examining and who not. The "white trash" she comes across in Mexico are an embarrassment to her, so she makes no attempt to get to know them. At one point she acknowledges her holier-than-thou attitude, and exclaims that she shouldn't think of herself as better educated, more cultured, etc., than most whites-but she continues to do just ...more
Martha Silano
Nov 01, 2011 Martha Silano rated it it was amazing
This is the best book of essays I've read in over thirty years--since I read Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album. Biss is a master of language--her sentences skip along--but they are also PACKED with insights about America's continuing struggle with racism, especially with regard to brown and black Americans. Biss writes about what she witnesses, connecting the dots between historical and newsworthy occurrences and her own eyes and experience. Case in point: the frat boy ...more
Feb 08, 2009 Rae rated it it was amazing
For months, I've been looking forward to canceling my plans and staying home with this book the minute it came out - and I found it even more enthralling, truthful, and well-crafted than expected. Eula Biss is so open with her reader, and so open and flexible in her voice - I just can't get enough of her work. Like The Balloonists, this essay collection seems to me like it's working to carve out a new idea about the kinds of books we can write - the essays hold together not just because of the a ...more
Mar 05, 2013 Roxane rated it really liked it
This is a very readable, elegant book of essays. Smart, engaging, well-researched and the writing interrogates race and class in America within the context of privilege and whiteness. Nearly all of her observations are stunning and so beautifully phrased. I really enjoyed this book and learned a great deal, found a great deal to work with and think about. One thing tweaked me a bit. Biss discusses her whiteness quite a lot, as if we might have... forgotten it between or within essays? I realize ...more
Ellen Keim
Feb 10, 2015 Ellen Keim rated it really liked it
I would say that the central theme that runs through these essays is more about identity than about race, although racism is certainly a big part of most of the essays. The author pulls together a lot of research and events from her own life to illustrate the fluidity of identity, but not just racial identity. Even so, her topics are diverse enough that I didn't feel like she was saying the same thing over and over.

Although there are many references to her own experiences, the author manages to
Katy Benway
Feb 20, 2013 Katy Benway rated it it was amazing
I discovered this book in the "Ethnic Studies" section of Powell's Books in Portland. Intrigued by a book of nonfiction "American Essays" about race and written by a white woman, I browsed only to discover my hometown, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, mentioned on page 5. It went home with me, needless to say.

Eula Biss didn't disappoint. Weaving together personal and public encounters with racism, fear, prejudice, as well as hope, Biss is honest. She acknowledges white guilt, her guilt, and is, in writing th
Dec 22, 2015 Nicola rated it it was amazing
I found lots to love, consider and explore in this book. A white author who expounds and so carefully considers race is a difficult find, and Biss uncovers contrasts that both acknowledge and defy whiteness as a default. She deals with themes of race, age, cultural experience, ignorance and fear. These essays are sometimes personal, other times academic, often intentionally provocative, and they all reflect the ways we define and divide ourselves up. A great mind is at work here, I can't wait to ...more
Dec 28, 2014 E.B. rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ladies, fgla-books
The award for My Current Number One Nonfiction Writer Crush goes to Eula Biss. She is so damn talented and brilliant and her writing is down to earth and honest and really fucking SMART. Her research makes my brain explode. This was by far the best book I read in 2014. And maybe even ever. Marry me, Eula.
Nov 16, 2014 Ben rated it it was amazing
Using the personal as a filter for seeking an understanding greater than our own lives.

More -
Oct 21, 2009 Stop added it
Read an excerpt from No Man's Land at Stop Smiling Online

From the essay "Black News" in Notes From No Man's Land:

When I was not the only white person at the events I covered for the [San Diego Voice and Viewpoint:], the other white person was usually a politician. Once I arrived at a speech by a candidate for state assembly, Vince Hall, and sat down at a table next to an elderly man who looked at me, looked at my camera, looked at Vince Hall, and asked me, with a tilt of his head, “You related t
Mar 05, 2013 Amanda rated it really liked it
Shelves: race
This book helped me understand how essays work. How meandering and studying and processing could work. How writing works as a reflection of living.

There is so much to say. But this book took me a long time to read because I was busy, so I don't have good recall.

There were some essays that were paragraphs jumping from one spot to the next. From one place to another. I want to explore this.

It started off talking about telephone pole lynchings. It talked about black dolls and barbies, teaching a
Feb 18, 2013 SJ rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I chose to read this book because it was selected as the campus-wide "Common Book" for new students at my University. I'm not a new student though, so I didn't really get to benefit from all the in-class discussions that went along with it, and I think I would have really liked to participate in those discussions. Because I can see how this is a good book to talk about, how it would undoubtedly spark vibrant conversations, maybe even arguments, but since I was reading it by myself I didn't have ...more
Jan 25, 2013 Tom rated it it was amazing
I'm in awe of this collection. If you're at all interested in race, you have to read this book. I didn't actually know that was the main thread tying these pieces together when I bought the book, although it basically says so on the back cover, which I guess I didn't read. Anyway, this is accessible, engrossing stuff, and all the more impressive because it doesn't get repetitive, which I think is really difficult to pull off with this kind of collection. That it doesn't cover the same ground ove ...more
Roy Kesey
Dec 13, 2013 Roy Kesey rated it it was amazing
One of my favorite kinds of book--essays afraid of neither micro nor macro--and a wonderful example of it. Hard clear elegant thinking about race, and geography, and fate. I'd argue here and there with her conclusions, and there is a bit of repetition amongst the essays that isn't necessary when they're all read in one go, but overall I really enjoyed its precise thoughtful pummeling--the book has such a terrific eye for the statistic that will crack the sternum.

Some favored bits:

Oreo Fun Barbi
Apr 12, 2012 Parvoneh rated it it was amazing
At first I wasn't sure what to do with this book. "Ok, Eula, I know. I know and struggle with how sticky our world is. Why is it so hard? What do we do?" After some time I quit asking "What do we do?" and just went along with her for a while. She's never explicit--she talks about race, family, neighborhoods, violence, so many tough things--while switching between anecdotes, theory, and statistics in ways that hint at answers, but might not even aim for that. She muses on questions. And by the en ...more
Heather Shaw
Mar 19, 2009 Heather Shaw rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essay
Eula Biss is a teacher, and this essay is about teaching. In the Reconstruction South. In inner-cities. It says the things that teachers think, and don’t say. It says that teachers say without thinking. Eula Biss herself thinks about what to call things and where they came from, and then she says it loud and clear. Teachers, parents, citizens, do not miss this essay from her book Notes From No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press).

Biss’s essays have appeared in Harper’s and the Believer.
Jan 01, 2015 Heidi rated it it was amazing
I can't tell whether to give more credit to Biss or to her editor, but this set of essays is some of the best crafted language I have ever read. Biss trusts her audience to fill in crucial gaps themselves so that she can leave poignant moments poignant, and not overplay or bog them down by spoon-feeding her meaning to the reader. Her exploration of race as the recipient of white privilege is magnificent.
Jul 22, 2015 Katie rated it really liked it
I loved the writing. I felt I was in the company of a very smart woman - her knowledge of history, her search for herself and where she fits in, her musings on how we all fit in together and the meaning of race. Some of the essays read like poetry, in their prose and structure - "All Apologies" is particularly poetic. I look forward to reading more as she continues to search. She never comes across as preachy though at the end of an essay I feel like I am left with more questions than answers, l ...more
Dec 28, 2014 G rated it it was amazing
Sharp and well observed on a number of subjects, most particularly race in America.
This book is so amazing. I really wish I had someone to talk about this book. I just spent all my time reading it wondering how someone could see the world so clearly and then, even more amazing, could write about it with clarity.

Eula Biss has a mind that takes an ordinary object and then looks at it so closely that she can see new things in what we take for granted. Just reading her essay about telephone poles blew me away. And by the time I got to her last essay, "All Apologies", I was ready t
Aug 04, 2011 mim rated it really liked it
This is an excellent and disturbing book of essays. It's puts ones face into realities about race in America. If you've thought these thoughts yourself, it's still disturbing to have them put into print. If you haven't thought about these things, you might not want to believe them. It took only one day to read this book. I couldn't put it down. I was able to picture the locations she writes about as I've lived in them or visited them, and the book she references are familiar to me, either have r ...more
Jan 25, 2016 Beth rated it it was amazing
This National Book Critics Circle Award winner should possibly be required reading (or at least a few of the essays should be) as a sort of primer on race relations, poverty, and to some degree gender. The essays are beautifully written--many are braided essays of two ideas that initially seem unconnected but that ultimately make a larger point. Though it is difficult to select my favorite essays here, the ones that I felt compelled to read multiple times were her re-writing of Joan Didion's "Go ...more
Finley Macdonald
Aug 24, 2014 Finley Macdonald rated it it was amazing
Eula Biss has a way of entering a topic by a side road--telephone poles, The Little House on the Prairie, or Babylon--and cutting a dilatory track, ferreting out sensitive pockets on the way through. Touching down in New York, Iowa, and California, she regularly locates a nerve end,an injustice, not moralizing, just picking up and examining the articles of her experience, interpreting them, stringing them by fragments until a pattern forms. In that way, her essays remind me a bit of Paul Valery' ...more
Jesse Dwyer
Feb 23, 2014 Jesse Dwyer rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Michael Dolkey
Feb 11, 2014 Michael Dolkey rated it really liked it
I agree with what most of you are saying. This book is a very good read. Biss gives tons of insight on America's racial disputes. For me it was an eye opener because I never thought of some of the things she talked about in the book. For example, the stereotyping and segregation of every culture in America. She gives a small but good example of two restaurants that sell the same food but use different wordplay in their signs. One said "Home Cooking" and one said "Soul Food" and both sold biscuit ...more
Patrick McCoy
Oct 22, 2015 Patrick McCoy rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays, criticism
I first became aware of Eula Biss, and Notes From No Man's Land (2009) through the essay from which this collection is named, which originally appeared in The Best Non-Required Reading series. This collection was a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is divided into several sections. The first serves as a sort of introduction is called Before and contains a single essay, "Time and Distance Overcome," which is something like a prose poem. This is followed by a section of essay by ...more
May 17, 2015 N rated it liked it
Like Biss's _On Immunity_, this essay collection is full of careful sentences, interesting research, and self-awareness. Writing about race is risky, but overall Biss handles it with both deliberation and honesty. Essays I will return to are "Time and Distance Overcome," "Relations," "No Man's Land," and "All Apologies."

The notes at the end of the book were a fascinating addition. They served as both a researcher's end notes and an essayist's extra ruminations that she couldn't/wouldn't fit int
Apr 19, 2014 Nina rated it really liked it
My quick review (because I think I will write something more):
I appreciate this book, for its history, writing, truths about race in the USA. I am frustrated by these things also. On the back cover of the book, Sherman Alexie describes his experience in reading it, "I fought with this book. I shouted, 'Amen!' I cursed at it for being so wildly wrong and right. It's so smart, combative, surprising, and sometimes shocking that it kept me twisting and turning in my seat like I was on some kind of s
Jul 21, 2015 Kristen rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, essays
Thought provoking articles on race in America. Eula Biss has a clear and easy way of relating larger global issues with the struggles we all face as a part of a family, community and ultimately members of the human race.
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  • On Looking: Essays
  • Loitering: New & Collected Essays
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Eula Biss holds a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University, where she teaches nonfiction writing, and she is a founding editor of Essay Press, a new press dedicated to innovative nonfiction. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction and the ...more
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“Our willingness to believe the news is, in many cases, not entirely innocent.” 13 likes
“I felt sick with hatred then for my own people. If you had asked me why I hated them, I might have said that I hated them for being so loud and for being so drunk. But now I believe I hated them for suddenly being my people, not just other people. In the United States, it is very easy for me to forget that the people around me are my people. It is easy, with all our divisions, to think of myself as an outsider in my own country. I have been taught, and I have learned well, I realize now, to think of myself as distinctly different from other white folks - more educated, more articulate, less crude. But in Mexico these distinctions became as meaningless to me as they should have always been.” 10 likes
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