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Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays

4.11 of 5 stars 4.11  ·  rating details  ·  1,062 ratings  ·  233 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...more
Paperback, 230 pages
Published February 3rd 2009 by Graywolf Press
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Community Reviews

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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
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
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
I loved this book--probably a 4.25-4.5 in the Goodreads rating system of my dreams. These essays vary in style in structure (some more lyric essay experimental, some straightforward personal essays, and at least one that's non-personal/informative)but the unity comes in the subject matter, which deals almost unfailingly with race. She manages to do this without the book feeling redundant, covering race, as she experienced and observed it across the country from east coast to west to mid-west (an...more
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
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
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...more
Katy Benway
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...more
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
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
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...more
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
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....more
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
Finley Macdonald
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
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Michael Dolkey
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
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...more
Brilliant, brilliant book. You may not agree with every view she has but you will grow and change from the mere ideas. Beautifully written!
Travis D
Eula Biss is a phenomenal writer. In Notes from No Man's Land she gives detailed accounts of her life's journey and how racism has been a part of it. Her investigative research of racism ties in very well with her personal experiences and as a result the readers become very interested in the book. I feel that Biss is trying to show readers that although racism may not be as severe as it used to be it still very much exists in society today.

I strongly recommend reading this Notes from No Man's La...more
Essays suffused with confusion and anger.

Biss does a good job of taking injustices playing out on the national or international scale and bringing them back to a very personal level.

That said, I personally liked the two essays without a distinct narrative arc the best - the ones on telephone poles and on apologies. Their economy of language and concise paragraphs really distilled the emotional and logical content, while letting the message build more like a poem than a traditional essay.

Murray Koonnala
I am almost done with the book and it's really good. Eula Biss's style of writing is very descriptive. My favorite part of this book of essays is the part when she talks about the telephone and goes into lynching. Both parts were interesting, for different reasons. Obviously the lynching part holds no humor, however the part before when she writes about the start of the telephone, and her memories about watching telephone poles on the side of the road while in the car is a clever combination of...more
Angie Taylor
I found this book extremely interesting, and one I would have never known about if it weren't required reading for school, but one I really enjoyed.

This book is comprised of different essays that represent different aspects of American culture, identity, and history. Although each essay is colored with the authors individual opinions, I found the ideas presented very accessible.

It was interesting to see how much race played a factor into how one views there individual identity within American c...more
Greg Brown
I kinda seesawed on this one, largely depending on how fractured her storytelling was. The best essays cover race in a deeply personal yet informed way, but without a strong subject to animate an essay, she kinda lapses back into pointillist storytelling that tries to coax deeper meaning out of a mishmash of anecdotes. There's (rightly) a backlash against the myth of a singular MFA style, but goddamn, Biss doesn't help matters by going into classic University of Iowa lyrical-realist style at eve...more
Amber Hinton
I really enjoyed reading this book. I am really getting into reading these essays. I love how she drives you through all the places that she has lived and the experiences that she has had in each place. I really enjoyed how she went in detail and researched the telephones, telephones, and lynchings. I felt extremely connected to the "All Apologies" essay. I was very happy to read this book, it was like I couldn't put it down. I honestly wish that there was more to read of it. She Eula Biss has a...more
Zou Yunfan
Overall, this is a pretty good book to read. “Notes from No Man’s Land” talks about the problem that have been trouble America for over centuries—racism. In this book, Biss moves from place to place and she shares her experience about the difference between different city and people. Her different experience also has given her a new perspective on life. After reading it, you can see those social issues from a new point of view, and it remained us again that we shouldn’t forget what happened in t...more
Bliss takes a look at the hidden history of racism in not only American history but also how Americans are looked at through other counties eyes. Bliss takes something as simple as a telephone pole and ties the history of the telephone pole to that of racism and violence. I will never look at a telephone pole the same way again. I believe that she also tries to find a place to belong in this world as every person does. The book makes you see that everyone wants to be accepted no mater the race,...more
Amanda Wigand
I truely enjoyed this book of essays. As most people are saying, it was an easy read, and enjoyable also. I love how Biss talks about all of her experiences with other people and the observations that she makes of people similar to her. One part the does bother me is that she does all sorts of research on people that are different from her, but not on the ones similar to her (aka other white people). Yes, they are mostlikely from similar backgrounds, however everyone has a story and a reason for...more
Garnet Bruell
"Perhaps I will tell them that your race is like your name -it is a given, and you must define your own name so that it does not define you."

This is a tremendously accessible series of essays that hooked me from the very first, "Time and Distance Overcome," juxtaposing the history of the telephone and the accompanying poles with instances of lynchings.

Biss moves the reader through the various places she's lived - the northeast, New York City, the southwest, iowa City, and finally Chicago - each...more
In this compilation of essays Biss creates great impact through her use of research and personal experiences as a means of discussing the issue of identity. The overall format of the book is interesting as every essay is focused on a different location or issue which allows a reader to absorb a greater breadth of knowledge while also keeping them wanting more. In the very first essay, "Time and Distance Overcome," her lyrical repetition proved to make the message immediately memorable and in my...more
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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.” 7 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.” 4 likes
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