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Personal Yet Dazzlingly Eclectic 'Notes' On Race

Eula Biss, author of <em>Notes from No Man's Land,</em> won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.
Eula Biss, author of Notes from No Man's Land, won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize.

In 2002, Eula Biss published a slim book of prose poetry, The Balloonists. Arresting and singular, its flat, affectless recounting of seemingly disparate events could have been mind-numbing but for the author's dazzlingly intuitive leaps, in which these odd juxtapositions lead to startling illumination. Biss brings that same alchemy to Notes from No Man's Land, a collection of essays that examines race across North America, from the media's view of Katrina victims, to the curiosity of American emigres flocking to Mexico City, to the fate of a Chicago neighborhood teetering on the edge of gentrification.

Biss' pairings of ideas, like those of most original thinkers, have the knack of seeming brilliant and obvious at the same time. The book's first essay, "Time and Distance Overcome," intersperses brief fragments on the creation of our country's network of telephone poles with the history of another American innovation: lynching (read the essay).

"Relations" weaves the story of Biss' extended mixed-race family with that of the case of the white Long Island woman mistakenly impregnated with the embryo of a black couple.

And "No Man's Land," one of the most affecting and original essays published in this decade, uses the childhood pioneer story of Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder to examine Biss' unreasoning fear of her new black neighbors after moving to the Rogers Park section of Chicago.

By sneaking up, crabwise, to her explosive subjects, Biss avoids sounding academic or polemical. This is particularly evident in "Is This Kansas," which compares the treatment of Katrina victims to that of her former Iowa City frat-boy neighbors in the wake of a tornado that decimated Iowa City. In "Letter to Mexico," Biss looks at the reverse-NAFTA tide of American expatriates living it up in Mexico City.

Without a hint of self-indulgence, Biss is repeatedly able to use her own experience to make astonishing assertions. In "No Man's Land," she tells us that the children of Rogers Park who frequently ask her for money are, in fact, levying "a kind of tax on my presence here. A tax that, although I resent it, is more than fair." In this sense, Notes From No Man's Land is, as Biss writes, a book about absolution. But these forceful, beautiful essays don't simply want us to move on. They want us to move forward together.

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Lizzie Skurnick
Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.