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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Eula Biss's No Man's Land: American Essays

Last week I had the pleasure of picking up a book I could not put down, Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays. It is not surprising Biss's book won a National Book Critic's Circle Award in 2010; it is more than deserving of all kinds of praise and publicity. NPR calls it "personal yet dazzlingly eclectic," then goes on to say "Biss' pairings of ideas, like those of most original thinkers, have the knack of seeming brilliant and obvious at the same time." I heartily concur.

The book begins with the reminder that when telephones were first invented, people didn't actually want to use them. Despite this reluctance (and occasional outright distain), telephone poles began going up everywhere. And, what most history books don't tell you (which places us squarely in Biss territory)  is that the erection of all these  telephone poles allowed a new place to lynch black Americans.  This pairing of a new communication invention with a uniquely American practice is exactly what Biss is best at: her forte among fortes is to make these brilliant couplings between events--for instance, Katrina and its aftermath vs. the aftermath of a small but significant tornado in Iowa City, Iowa. 

She even has an essay about Laura Ingalls Wilder, which alone would incline this reader to grant Biss's book 5 stars. 

The legacy of race in America is examined under a scope by a poet with an ear for the lyric quality of words; these essays are a delight to read because they please the brain, the heart, and the ear. 

 If you enjoy books that get to the heart of race relations (and racial misconceptions) in America today, this is the book for you.

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