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Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  3,398 ratings  ·  434 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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Sep 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
A series of succinct essays about whiteness, Notes from No Man’s Land offers a forceful critique of American racism. In neat prose Biss overviews the history of social oppression in the United States and considers how her own identities impact her outlook; she also envisions what a reckoning with white supremacy’s legacy might look like for the nation. Whether the writer’s deconstructing elite representations of New York or assessing the toxic culture of privilege that pervades predominantly whi ...more
Julie Ehlers
Jun 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
I’m going to begin this review by telling a boring but hopefully illustrative story. I’ll try to keep it brief.

A couple of months ago I was in a park in the Rittenhouse Square area of Philadelphia at around 9 a.m. on a weekday. By this time everyone else was at work and the park was fairly deserted and peaceful. After I finished my coffee, I still had some time to kill before I had to be somewhere else, so I decided to go across the street to a large chain bookstore on the square. I wasn’t reall
Mar 20, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: americans, essays
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
Eula Biss is odd... and super smart. and interesting. Reading her essays and her take on cultures and how we view race was surreal and intoxicating. The word oblong keeps floating in my head to describe the effect of Biss. She sees things in different ways that at first seem bizarre, but as she writes become obvious points as she examines both race and white privilege juxtaposed over her background and life experiences and the social cultures of various places she has lived. It’s a very interest ...more
Feb 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
My skin is white, but I still have the ravaged blood of Africa in me.

The more I read essay collections produced by Graywolf, the more impressed I am. There is something deeply personal and yet alluringly informational about the personal essay form; maybe it's in the brusque style, or in the compendious structure. I enjoyed Eula Biss's absolutist style and provocative non-censorship of her personal feelings, but what I really admired was the look at consciousness, the same thing I loved in So
Mar 05, 2013 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
Originally published in the United States by Graywolf Press in 2009, this powerful essay collection about how identity is bound up with race and place has recently been made available in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions, who previously published Eula Biss’s On Immunity, a wide-ranging study of vaccination practices.

Although Biss is white, she considers herself to have had ‘mixed’ influences in her life. For instance, her mother converted to the West African Yoruba religion and had a black boyfrie
Nov 16, 2010 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 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 14, 2013 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
Dan Phillips
Apr 27, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2013
Race in America is undoubtedly an important subject, and Eula Biss -- a white essayist raised in a multi-racial household -- comes at it from a unique perspective. She taught English at a Harlem school, wrote for a black newspaper in San Diego, and, as of the writing of this collection, currently resides in Rogers Park, Chicago's most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood. In short, this book had the potential to be very interesting, as Biss travels literally from coast to coast, observin ...more
Sep 25, 2013 rated it did not like it
Themes of escape, isolation, prejudice, and the search-for-self penetrate this book. Which I could enjoy if executed in a different style, but I did not enjoy this book whatsoever. I think that Eula Biss sounds extremely pretentious, presumptuous, naive, and at times careless throughout the entirety of her book.The embarrassing irony of this book is that if it were written by a man I do not believe it would have been published. As a female and as a mid-westerner - one who is not ignorant to the ...more
Apr 13, 2014 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.
Jul 27, 2014 added it
Using the personal as a filter for understanding that which is greater than our own lives.
The essays in this collection follow a chronological path through Biss's young adulthood, from her early twenties to (it seems) her early thirties. Some of the essays she began working on while still temporally close to the experiences, if not still in fact in the middle of them. Although she later revised many times, the anger and confusion of her younger self will out in these pieces--the "impudence," as she herself defines it in her end notes. When I was reading these, I had a hard time with ...more
Nov 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Notes from No Man's Land is incredible. I read it in pretty much two big sittings, and I did the same with another book of hers "On Immunity." Her depth of feeling and personal interrogation are matched only by the thoroughness of her research and an open-mindedness toward that research. What I mean is, it doesn't feel to me like she is trying to assert some sort of pre-formed agenda. She seems to be honestly searching for the truth, and her place or role in the story of that truth. The associat ...more
Mar 05, 2013 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 10, 2015 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
Jul 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Read this for my Baldwin class. I don't agree with all of Biss' assertions, and I'm not sure she has the right to make some of them, but the exploration is provoking, which I think is the point. The metaphor of a treacherous "no man's land" where the very ground beneath you is deceptively unstable is a very apt way to describe this text, a fact that makes it clear the provocation is intentional. Her argument that guilt is the racial heritage of white Americans is certainly offensive to some, but ...more
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
MaCashen Nyberg
Sep 03, 2014 rated it did not like it
This book left me all but completely aggravated. There were times when I wanted to track down Biss and punch her in the face. Honestly, to me this book seemed like a white woman complaining about her whiteness and almost refusing to approach any situation in a non-white fashion. This book upset me so much and I was so happy to be done with it when I finished. This book could have been better titled "Eula Biss and Her White Guilt". It would have given the reader a much better idea of what the ess ...more
Nov 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: essayist-project
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
Sep 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Incredible. Knew nothing of this book or writer going into it. Did not expect to be blown away. But now I think Eula is one of my favorite writers. This was beautiful and heartbreaking and so good.
Mar 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A collection of excellent essays about the complicated identity of the author and of the meaning of race in the United States. Biss covers territory from the use of the newly erected telephone poles for lynching to gentrification to Laura Ingalls Wilder's interrogation of the pioneer's relations with the indigenous people they stole the land from.

A few years ago, my family was able to rent an apartment in an all-white neighborhood in the Bronx. The landlady explained we were "her kind of people"
Aug 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Surprising good read that makes you think about race and geography.
McKenzie Watson-Fore
Jan 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Another book that I devoured.
I first encountered Eula Biss when my roommate told me that she was a white woman who wrote about being a white woman who lives in a Black neighborhood. Shortly after that I listened to her appearance on the podcast “On Being” with Krista Tippett. Then I found her essay “No Man’s Land” published as ‘the Long Read’ on The Believer, and her book went on my to-read list. I checked with every bookstore I could think of, but nowhere had a copy, so she stayed on the to-re
Luke Hillier
Sep 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I was first made aware of this book and Biss herself when after an acquaintance from college shared a condensed version of "No Man's Land" that had been published somewhere online. I can't remember the last time I'd been so captivated by something I'd found via Facebook, and when I reached the end (a feat that demonstrated my fascination, given how long the piece was) and saw that it was a part of a book of essays, I knew I had to pick it up. This is so rarely the case, but I am thrilled to say ...more
Apr 12, 2012 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
Oct 21, 2009 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
Cindy Leighton
Oh. my. Eula Bliss is my new favorite essayist- right up there with Gloria, Ta-Nehisi, James Baldwin...she's that good. Consider me a new fan of Graywolf Press also- a small, independent press in Minneapolis.
Bliss is so bright and insightful, yet so very approachable and readable as it feels like she is simply having a conversation with you. This collection of essays focuses on race and identity in America (and yes she's white and she has valuable insights). Guess what if you have me for anthro
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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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