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The Balloonists

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  568 ratings  ·  53 reviews
Poetry. "Eula Biss writes in spare brushstrokes that evoke an emotional universe, by turns funny, scary, dreamlike, haunting. These prose poems are shards of gleaming observation, fragments of intimacy and illusion. Here we find our families and ourselves, our words and our silences"-Martin Espada. "With deceptively quiet, unflinching compassion, Eula Biss records the perc ...more
Paperback, 72 pages
Published February 11th 2002 by Hanging Loose Press (first published February 1st 2002)
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Average rating 4.17  · 
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 ·  568 ratings  ·  53 reviews

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Mar 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, nonfiction
This is a bad complaint, maybe a refusal to meet the book on its own terms or to get my head around the goals of the lyric essay but I wish this were longer. The 2-6 sentence vignettes have a satisfying autonomy--a polaroid quality, ephemeral but firmly framed/bound--and work together often by counterpoint in the time of their perspective and subject to form a picture of Biss's childhood home and parents both as individuals and as a fracturing couple. The black box, balloonist material masks, fo ...more
Nov 19, 2008 rated it it was amazing
"Women now face the task not only of finding a form that can express what they have lived, but of finding a way to tell new stories about what they can live. Carolyn Heilbrun suggests that the story of a revolutionary marriage has yet to be written. She writes that, "new definitions and a new reality about marriage must be not only lived but narrated." And must they be lived before they are narrated?" (p. 65)

The writing that is most valuable to me right now is the writing that carves out new spa
Sep 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Read this in the bathtub today. A moving meditation on how our relationships are and are not shaped by the relationships of our parents. Will the balloon make it all the way around the world? Are we using the tools properly? Will the kite fly away? A lot of metaphors that sometimes got jumbled up together, but I think that was the point.
Mallory DeVries
Dec 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Mallory by: Katie Hassman
Because I've read so little poetry, I was unsure how to rate this or how it compares to similar works, but I enjoyed it. She describes the struggles of breaking free from the stories of our parents. The words are haunting and tug at your heart strings. A verse that really stood out to me:

My mother was in the bathtub crying and I was standing outside the door waiting, just in case she decided to slip her head under and keep it there. The other kids were upstairs. The problem was about money, of c
Mar 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
Unlike her second book (which I read first), this book is much more interpretive. The stylization of the words leaves the reader open to a world beyond the words. You read it in small snippits and understand in pieces. How you put it together is up to you. I'm sure no two people would take the same message from the book, but each is valuable to themselves and to others if it's shared. I wish I could talk to others about their ideas of this book, because I know it can be more than how i see it. ...more
Mar 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: memoir
I loved loved loved this small book of creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry. What should I call it. I think Eula Biss is a one of a kind magician. I've read two of her books and one essay from another. I think her recent book about immunization won a National Book Award. If it didn't, it should have. She is the bravest, most honest, most complicated white writers dealing with privilege and racism and love and family that I know who's writing today. ...more
Jun 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
It strange to read about your own life. In this case, it was a voyeuristic thrill but also a shock of clarity that smashed through years of foggy, incomplete understandings of my parents divorce.
Jul 24, 2014 rated it liked it
Interesting collection of interlinked microfiction (I keep seeing these referred to as prose poetry but that strikes me as not completely correct - it's more like vignettes). ...more
Oct 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
A short book of prose poems. Small snippet narratives that revolve around the narrator's questions of relationships - her relationship with her father, mother, and a lover. She gives us moments that are poignant and yet unsentimental, and as a whole the pieces all work together -- you get a strong picture of the doubts that plague her surrounding marriage and family and relationships. I really liked this. ...more
Nov 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed
This book had some incredible thoughts about family, relationships, and the different ways in which memory is translated by each unique individual experience.

For instance, one may remember a story about a relative while another only remembers being gleeful about a siblings punishment.

This volume was definitely an interesting concept, beginning with a small, black box.
Nov 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I first read this book in college. It is, perhaps, the single most influential book in my writing life. It is the book that showed me what creative nonfiction can really be. I returned to it recently, an old friend, and I am happy to say that it is just as wonderful as it was the first time I picked it up.
Sep 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: constant
Biss writes with careful frenzied attention to tenderness and fragility. Juxtaposing the story of her parents and of her own relationship, it is a non-direct avowal to the stories we find ourselves in relation to our histories. I think this is a magnificent story, a poem in itself.
Ranjani Sundar
Apr 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Bliss uses montages of memory strung together by the parallels between her parents' lives and her life in order to weave a coherent nonfiction narrative. A good read for anyone looking for an interesting take on emotions, plane crashes, and the struggle in relationships. ...more
Nov 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Devastatingly beautiful and easily consumable. I gave this to a close friend upon her engagement (similar to how she gifted me Biss' On Immunity upon the birth of my daughter—still too cutting for me to make it all the way through). ...more
Feb 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the mysterious weaving of the details of the “story”. Well written. Wished there had been a bit more information divulged about the “characters”.
John LaPine
Mar 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
poetic/essayistic tale of romance, allegedly composed from journals with large chunks deleted. intriguing and lovely
Aug 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Eula Biss runs a red thread through all her work. It's nuanced and startling and the last lines are pitch perfect. Her essay 'White Debt' in The New York Times: also very good. ...more
Camila 카밀라
Apr 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Read part of it and still very beautiful
Alexander Wolff
Oct 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Masterfully crafted. However, I find the book to fall "flat." The slick style of writing, however, did not detract from my enjoyment of Biss' work. ...more
Jul 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
He grew up on short streets that ended in yield signs or dead ends. Lighters were fascinating. Sometimes his older brother burned things in the backyard.


In his room the shades are pulled down so that the windows glow pearly like projections on blank screens. The springs of a folded bed, the sharp cymbals of his drum set, the mallets and bars of the vibraphone all make a sharp nest around his bed. His blankets smell of dust and sweat. There is a mat of sheet music, books, and underwear on the
Peter Rock
Aug 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Wow. This is the best book I've read in a long time. Takes me back a little to Maggie Nelson's BLUETS for its fearless use of fragments and its expressionistic way in combining them, allowing energies to accrete. Very startling and confident piece of work. Brilliant intuitions.

Is it about her parents' divorce? About the possibility of marriage? About relationships between people in general? About black boxes left behind after crashes? Here she gathers evidence from all directions and just lets i
Feb 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
This book was engrossing and I read it quickly, so I must have enjoyed it more than I am willing to admit. And then there is the part of me that is tempted by the vignette form of the book. It is a collection of mostly beautiful little tiny described images, moments, plus research on airline crashes. The book's purported theme is an exploration of male/female relationships—how do women write about loving men—"now"—as opposed to the previous generation of women (the narrator's mother) who were co ...more
Robin Martin
Jan 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Dog eared pages. Full of sensory observations, beautifully rendered.
Page 29: "When he was eight he kept a diary pressed under his mattress. He carefully wrote believable details in it each day. Details like, 'Mom made cookies,' 'The dog next door bit the boy that lives there,' 'I fell off my bike." What he wrote had the same texture as his life, but it was never true. That way, if someone came into the room, lifted the mattress, and opened the book, they still wouldn't know anything about him.
Apr 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
I admire what this book is attempting, in lyric essay form -- this pieced together family history, alongside a narrative of the speaker's life and relationships -- all accomplished without sentimentality while dealing directly with sentiment. And how hard to write about one's parents, I would think, and one's parents' relationship. The writing is good, though the parts that were most like poems -- just an image on its own, for example -- didn't always work for me. Sometimes the metaphors felt to ...more
Feb 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I am not exactly sure what to say about Eula Biss’ collection of prose poems, except that I find myself totally taken with them. I am not sure how Biss expresses so much in a few lines of factual statements, but I crave more, to learn how to accomplish this. A memoir of family and childhood, Biss shifts viewpoints and time to analyze these themes. There is a sense of collage here, pieces of memory and thought pasted together into a picture of human relationships.

"Stories are only true if we bel
Jen Hirt
Jul 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Just 72 pages, but each passage drills down pretty deep in a blurry mix of prose poem and essay and who knows what else. Air disasters and their black boxes (which are orange), plus relationships and the signs of failure, plus archery-sharp insights out of cold hard quantifiable research. For example, Biss explains a real-life thing, parental alienation syndrome, and how there is an "adjustment scale." She writes, "But there has been no measure of the disillusionment with the standard story. The ...more
Feb 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: poets, latchkey kids
Say a book of poetry falls open. On one page is a three line poem, on the other a poem that stretches down to the bottom. You'll go for the short one, right? That's why I like Bliss's The Balloonists - it's broken into bite-sized chunks.

These prose-poems are easy to read, and the subject matter gets me right here[taps heart], as I too have parents with problems, and I too have wondered at lonesome blinking yellow traffic lights.
Jun 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
An experimental memoir collaged together in sound bites similar to the way memories rise in our thoughts. This is a young author's first book driven by the singular thought, "Are we going to keep living the same stories our parents lived?" Biss skillfully weaves together her personal relationship with her parents' failed marriage, providing us with details from daily life that are more vivid than film. She gets into your heart through theme, rhythm and pattern. ...more
Nicole Hardina
Sep 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Anyone with a rich inner life will know the feeling of things being inarticulably connected. Biss finds the connections, seemingly without reaching for them, and sings them into clarity.

"Small things. One of the boards of my windowsill is not painted on the end. A bolt is missing from the railing, and my eyes keep going back to the place where it belongs. My mother wrote about the hole where the doorknob had been. 'Ordinary pain.'"

There's nothing ordinary about this work.
Oct 09, 2015 rated it liked it
I so enjoyed and admired Biss’s two most recent works of non-fiction, On Immunity and Notes from No-Man’s Land, and this is her debut book. I guess it’s classified as poetry? Published in 2002, it’s a sort of fragmentary, lyrical (semi?-) autobiographical exploration of her parents’ marriage and divorce. It certainly doesn’t have the power and coherence of her more mature writing, but worth checking out (it took me less than two hours to read) if you’re a Eula Biss fan.
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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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