Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss

By Lizzie Skurnick

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Lizzie Skurnick discusses criticism finalist Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays (Graywolf)

What do a gentrifying lakeside Chicago neighborhood, the invention of telephone poles, NAFTA, and race-based adoption have in common? In Eula Biss’s book of essays, Notes from No Man’s Land, it’s the formation of America—but a vision of America antic, new and varied, and as far from a melting pot as Lake Michigan.

Essayist Eula Biss began her career as a poet, and Notes bears that lyric stamp, her deft prose taking on heavy-duty subjects in forms that camouflage their weight. In the essay “Time and Distance Overcome,” Biss weaves the creation of the network of telephone poles with the history of lynching. Another subtle contrast comes in “Is This Kansas,” in which Biss recounts her time among the rowdy students of Iowa City and the treatment of New Orleans residents during Katrina. The most obscure pairing is the book's most affecting. In “No Man's Land,” Biss mixes fragments of the pioneer story of Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder with Biss’s experience as a new resident in the gentrifying Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Able to draw insight from items as mundane as the bottle of Tide left on the sidewalk as a boy submits to a pat-down, Biss leaves us realizing our country remains gripped by the same myths, fears and enthusiasms since we've settled the prairie, only in modern, seemingly unremarkable forms.

By approaching her subjects sideways, Biss avoids sounding dry or clumsily political. But she also makes an implicit point—the story of our country is not straightforward, but one of unexpected siblings and strange adoptions, a story of change, adaptation, and surprising ancestry. In “Time and Distance Overcome,” Biss writes, “When I was young, I believed the arc and swoop of telephone wires was beautiful. Now, I tell my sister, those poles, these wires, do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.” After reading Notes from No Man’s Land, readers will have a hard time seeing America the same way, too.

Click here to see Eula Biss read from Notes from No Man's Land (courtesy Book TV).

Click here to read an excerpt from Notes from No Man's Land.

The NBCC awards ceremony is free and open to the public, as are the readings by NBCC finalists on Wednesday, March 10. To purchase tickets to the reception following the awards ceremony, click here.