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Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays Paperback – February 3, 2009
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From School Library Journal
Adult/High School—Expository writing should always be this compelling, provocative, and intelligent. Biss explores race in America through multiple lenses, examining common issues through uncommon situations and events. She flawlessly weaves present-day experiences with historical research to create 13 essays that combine narrative appeal with fascinating facts. In "Time and Distance Overcome," the telephone pole is used to juxtapose lynching with technological intrusions and advancements. "Back to Buxton" examines the successes, sorrows, and current implications of a racially integrated mining camp in the early 1900s. The book closes with "All Apologies," which explores both the significance and opposing insignificance of national and personal statements of apology. Biss has a talent for pointing out hypocrisy without accusations. Her ability to expose seemingly subtle inequities and injustices forces readers to analyze their own actions, decisions, and relationships. Teens will find this collection both accessible and challenging, and English and social-studies teachers will find multiple ways to use these essays to enhance instruction. Whether students examine the author's craft or analyze historical and social relationships, many will take pleasure in seeing the world through a unique and refreshing perspective.—Lynn Rashid, Marriotts Ridge High School, Marriottsville, MD
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"Two of the qualities that make Eula Biss’s essays in Notes from No Man’s Land compelling and beautiful are precision and independence―independence from orthodoxies of the right and left and the conventions of literary essays and their displays of sensibility and sensitivity. And whatever topic she takes up she dissects and analyzes with startling insight that comes from deep reading and original thinking. She’s important to this moment, important to opening up what essays can be, important for setting a standard of integrity and insight, and she’s also a joy to read."―Rebecca Solnit
“Biss is telling us the story of our country--one we never saw coming.”―The Chicago Tribune
“Eula Biss' Notes From No Man's Land is the most accomplished book of essays anyone has written or published so far in the 21st century. . . . Notes From No Man's Land is the kind of book that rewards and even demands multiple readings. It provokes, troubles, charms, challenges, and occasionally hectors the reader, and it raises more questions than it answers. It is strident and brave in its unwillingness to offer comfort, and, unlike all but a handful of the best books I have ever read, it is unimpeachably great.”―Salon
“[Notes From No Man's Land] is a beautiful exercise in consciousness; in bringing both intelligence and experience to bear on a subject that has implications for the way one behaves in the world.”―Los Angeles Times
“Biss' pairings of ideas, like those of most original thinkers, have the knack of seeming brilliant and obvious at the same time . . . forceful, beautiuful essays.”―NPR
“Biss's examination of America's complicated racial heritage offers penetrating insight.”―Time Out New York
“Powerful essays on the nature of identity, national and racial and personal. . . . Containing the music and force of [Biss's] singular thought.”―Orion Magazine
“[A] wondrous book. Biss muses on the conquest and subjugation that underpins the American dream, offers anecdotes from her own life, and commentary both general and specific, sometimes intimate. She begins in one place and confidently leads somewhere unexpected. She picks and worries at the idea of race in America ― incarceration, education, social welfare. . . . Lyrical she may be, but she is also exhilaratingly bold.”―The Spectator (UK)
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Eula Biss successfully uses her odd ball juxtapositions in many essays, which all focus on class and race inequalities. She also takes great pains to let readers know that she, despite being a privileged, highly educated and successful white woman, is not like most of her race, who largely come across as unsympathetic and callous towards poor minorities.
The author is well-meaning, imaginative and her message resonates with me, since I'm a member of the black race that she so fiercely champions (she also goes to bat for other minorities). But, Biss begins to sound tiresome as she struggles with her white identity and a good many other issues over which she had, and has no control.
For instance, in "All Apologies," she writes: "The year I turned thirty, I wrote to the friend who taught me the first rule of catch and apologized for being young once. My friend did not respond." I read that and wondered if the friend found her apology as annoying as I did.
In a 10 page essay called `Land Mines,' she comes down hard on anything to do with the NYC public schools (except the kids), including most teachers: "Many of the teachers I worked with tended to regard the parents of their students with either pity or contempt. These parents, I was reminded on many occasions, were neglectful, or addicted, or abusive, or simply ignorant."
Later, in `Notes,' she says: "If this essay (Land Mines) fails to dwell on the love and integrity with which most teachers approach their work, that is only because this strikes me as already obvious." If you interpret `Land Mines' as evidence of bias and callousness in the school system (and I assume she wants us to believe all her essays are evidential), then it is not at all obvious.
I thought she tucked the `Land Mine' note onto the end of the book, because she is a well-meaning person. But Biss is also a writer. To have implied that she was feeling any love from her colleagues, while struggling as a new teacher, would not have neatly fit into her theme of how poor, minority children get shafted. By Terry Baker Mulligan, author of "Sugar Hill Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem."