Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss

notes from no man's landI am terribly grateful that I got to read this book with a class to help me along. That is, the same class that read Bernard Cooper’s wonderful Maps to Anywhere, about which likewise. I was once in a book club, not for very long, which I wished would go much more deeply and intellectually into very serious books. My father said back then, “it sounds like what you really want is a graduate school classroom.” I see now that he was right. This is “just” an undergraduate class, but a good one.

Notes from No Man’s Land is an essay collection that I think is most obviously about race in the United States, but it is about much more than that, too. The writer is a white woman (albeit one from a remarkably diverse family, not at all a white family), and in writing about race she takes on the voice of “the other,” always a nearly impossible thing to do sensitively, smartly and with authority, but she does it.

Like Maps to Anywhere, this is also a masterpiece of organization; we could pick apart the ordering and titling of Biss’s essays in several ways and still not be through with all she’s done here. The first and last (or next-to-last, depending on interpretation) essays are fragmented contemplations of apparently disparate subjects, that wrap this collection up intelligently. If I had to choose one word to characterize Biss, the writer, as I’ve come to know her on these pages, I would choose “smart.”

The language is poetry, too. Every word choice was considered and weighed. The connecting images are so many and complex that I can hardly begin to see how many levels this book might be read upon. Oh, and she works heavily with a sense of place: what else could I ask for? I will share a few lines, several pages apart:

I fell asleep to the distant sound of drums, which I was not always entirely sure was the distant sound of drums. Rain, blood in the body, explosions in the quarry, and frogs are all drums.

I know now that I left home and I left the drums but I didn’t leave home and I didn’t leave the drums. Sewer plates, jackhammers, subway trains, cars on the bridge, and basketballs are all drums.

And just as a sample (not to bore you), I’ll share a little of the analysis I wrote for class of Biss’s opening essay, “Time and Distance Overcome.”

I appreciated both the braided form, and all the white space.

There are three sections separated by a centered line. The longest single paragraph is about half a page long (wraps pages 5-6, about the sabotage against telephone poles that took place in Sioux Falls, SD and Oshkosh, WI). Mostly the paragraphs are just a few sentences long; five contain just one sentence each. These short, punctuated passages feel almost staccato, almost list-like. This works well for the subject matter, which begins benignly but quickly turns dark.

Biss begins with Bell’s invention of the telephone, and the reader has one expectation for the meaning of “time and distance overcome,” the title which tops this first page, where the telephone is introduced. The first section of the essay moves smoothly from telephones to telephone poles, and the resistance early telephone poles encountered. After that first break, though, the lynchings begin coming fast and thick, in short sentences that echo the choppy effect of Biss’s short, double-returned paragraphs. The first lines of this second section read:

“In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the hanged man was riddled with bullets. In Danville, Illinois…”

This jarring delivery emphasizes the nasty jolt of the sentences’ content. Likewise, the direct leap into the new subject – no transition – increases the reader’s shock. Lynchings are shocking: this is appropriate. The short sentences and feeling of litany continues, from lynchings through race riots and from the South to the North, making clear a general rather than geographically specific trend.

The final, shortest section, at just half a page, mirrors the work of Notes from No Man’s Land as a whole. That is, it turns back around to an earlier time, Biss’s childhood, family history, and innocent view of telephone poles; there are no lynchings in this section, but there is reference: “Nothing is innocent.” Then there are the telephone poles in Nebraska that, after a heavy rain, grew small leafy branches. This image prefaces “All Apologies,” the concluding essay of the book which echoes this one in form, and concerns itself with regret, apology, the duality of responsibility/guilt, and what is owed. There is a small measure of hope in those green branches.

The most obvious thread or theme that holds this essay together is the telephone pole; the reader is prompted by the cover image. But the less obvious, more sinister themes are those that hold the book together: race relations, the complexities of varied perspectives. “The world was not waiting for the telephone.” “Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us.” “But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”

I think Biss’s opening essay shapes in miniature the work of her entire book; presages the final essay, which so nicely wraps up by recalling the opening; and uses form to emphasize subject matter. It’s an extraordinary essay in these layers of function, and I’m so glad to have her “Notes” to shed some light into her process.

I am impressed throughout with what Biss is confident enough to leave out, or point obliquely towards. I think it must take a lot of courage and self-trust (or is it trust in her reader?) to leave such subtlety on the page and not direct my gaze. “You can get it or not, all the same to me,” she seems to be saying.

This is the kind of work I very much want to study, forever.


Rating: 10 circles.

guest review: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Pops

between the worldPops sent me this guest review on March 4, 2016.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ second book, Between the World & Me forcefully rises to the high standard suggested by Toni Morrison’s full-throated endorsement on the cover. As she says, he fills

the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died… The language… like Coates’ journey, is visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive.

And all this in a mere 152 pages.

Published by chance in the heat of a rising Black Lives Matter! movement, he writes of his own 15-year journey, as the painfully concerned father of a son, himself a fully engaged son of 60’s Black Panther activists, the thankful student of a grandmother with instincts of a genius, and as a “damaged” black man and budding intellectual, forced to survive the trials of Baltimore’s mean streets. By writing so artfully and from the heart, as he relentlessly probes his world, Coates provides an indispensably human extension to essential history & analysis begun by Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) and Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow.)

Written as a letter to his 15yr old son, his tone is direct but his narrative voice is not simple or simplistic, as he avoids established and inflammatory rhetoric. Instead, he employs the unusual device of creating metaphorical coding for concepts he develops with challenging and sometimes changing meanings. These multiple and interlocking codes begin with the title itself, taken from Richard Wright’s poem of the same name. The World is Coates’ evolving perception of a life entirely outside his own, defined by a concept of Race that is itself parsed and examined in some detail. Coates’ book describes his life’s quest to understand all the implications of that vast space between the World and his own experience.

Wright’s work is quoted at the book’s start with only the first stanza, but a full reading of the poem reveals the raw visceral meaning: for Wright, that space perniciously encompasses the breadth of Jim Crow experience, evoked in verse as a quiet forest, the scene of a most hideous lynching, which rises to threaten the observer’s own Body (which is yet another code Coates uses.) Both title and poetic source are well chosen for Coates’ book.

The World apart from Coates’ own experience is constructed by Dreamers, who are “White – or believe themselves to be white,” as America’s vaunted, inclusive melting pot is exposed to be a muddy “anything but Black” with no cultural identity of its own that is not associated with power.

Race is a convenient contrivance enabled by this insidious fallacy about whiteness, in one of the most demographically and culturally diverse nations in the world. It is a frame that is based in the power relationship of oppression. The Dream is the ideology of that World apart, evoking prosperity, security, possibility – promoted by images that are everywhere around him: TV programming, advertising, schools, churches; the Dream does not appear on the Streets in his Baltimore neighborhood. This entire construct serves to threaten his Body in every moment, as it has for centuries, as the Streets’ death rate rises, infecting his mind and very existence.

The Mecca is the promise he does find – in knowledge, in books, in a vibrant and diverse Black culture, in his father’s radical heritage, in Malcolm X – fully bursting to fruition with Howard University in D.C. (a many-branched family tradition.) His exploration is unbridled, the evolution of his thought continuous and insightful, always delving deeper. A studied understanding of the 1960s overlays his parents’ own experience, becoming almost contemporary for him. (Here, the recent Black Panther documentary is also relevant.) He examines the history of slavery and its neverending web of consequences.

Coates’ concept of community expands steadily as he observes Howard’s international palette of “black.” In one extreme, he is dismayed to find gay & lesbian culture is an accepted part of this Mecca, so far from his Streets. His young family moves to New York City and he is staggered by the spectrum of cultures, from opulent Dreamer Broadway to Harlem, yet some black faces pretend to jump the gap. He takes his son on visits to Civil War battlefields as he seeks to understand. He spins out of his urban northeast orbit with a visit to Paris, and his mental landscape shudders again; yet still there is that space “between the world and me.”

The book begins and ends with the Black Body metaphor, which includes a complex relationship with his father and reoccurs throughout as his existential fear jumps between himself, his son, his friends and his people. When an affluent Howard acquaintance is later murdered by a black cop, the fear is crystallized and colors his perception.

Some years later, his visit with the friend’s mother is compelling and unwinds into a staggering 3-page finish for the book. Above all, with the death of her son in spite of her life’s efforts and “success” at providing him every opportunity, she wishes only that the entire Dream that produced his death fail in some “national doom.” Coates reflects on his culture’s age-old hope that the Dreamer plague would somehow be punished, an idea encouraged from Marcus Garvey to Malcom X. But his outlook has become too expansive; “I left the Mecca knowing that this is all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sewn, we would reap it right with them.”

His maturing eye spans a wide view of Dreamer destruction, now-unbridled:

[progress] freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors rising with the seas.

So what of the future? For a capsulized message to his son, one may well look earlier in Coates’ story, to this statement of purpose directed to his son:

The [Dreamers] who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and wonderful world.

Between the World and Me – and Coates’ singular literary voice – are indispensible for those interested in the ever-unfolding lineage of African-American commentary and literature. He does not provide answers; he challenges us with new ways of seeing our heritage with eyes wide open, even as his own exploration continues. He is only now 40 years old and there is no sign his seeking is complete, so we may expect more from him.


Pops’s rating: 9 revelations.

I don’t know about you, but I want to read it now.

Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America by Kali Nicole Gross

In this shrewd historical study, a salacious murder trial in 1887 Philadelphia offers insights on criminal justice, violence, race and gender.

hannah mary tabbs

When Kali Nicole Gross (Colored Amazons) came across the case of an unusual 1887 Philadelphia murder, she found a story with many layers. In Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America, she explores the intricacies of that case and its implications on criminal justice, a culture of violence and conceptions of race and gender.

Hannah Mary Tabbs was an unusual post-Reconstruction black woman–she unabashedly pursued sex outside of marriage and used violence and physical threats to make a reputation for herself in her black community in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. In the white community, meanwhile, she upheld the idea of womanly virtue and subservience to her white employers. Gross argues that this manipulative, variable representation of herself allowed Tabbs to almost get away with a serious crime. Tabbs had a lover whose headless, limbless torso turned up on the edge of a pond outside of town. The man convicted for that murder was, Gross contends, a patsy. The skin tones of the various players in this love triangle appear to have played as large a role as their guilt or innocence.

In prose that demonstrates careful research and offers a realistic reconstruction of the crime, Gross comments on social standards for morality and relationships between races and genders. The case of the disembodied torso is not only a sensational piece of true crime, but an opportunity to reflect on these continuing complexities.


This review originally ran in the February 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 assumptions.

The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth by Karen Branan

A journalist’s research uncovers her own family history and connections to a horrifying hate crime.

family tree

In researching her family history in the little town of Hamilton, Ga., investigative journalist Karen Branan was surprised to find connections to a 1912 lynching. A nephew of her great-grandfather, the sheriff, was murdered. Days later, a local mob killed three black men and a black woman. Branan digs deeper, expecting to find her forebears innocent of violence. The evidence is far more complex in The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth.

In a town where nearly everyone has been related by blood or marriage for generations, Branan’s family variously turned a blind eye to the murders, or directly participated. She finds herself related not only to the white mob, but to at least one of the black victims as well. Every new piece of information complicates the story and startles her further, until she has to address her most basic understanding of the world. “I began this journey believing myself to be an unflinching investigative reporter and a nonracist,” Branan writes, but must confront a bias in favor of her own family. Admirably, she examines herself and the preconceptions she brings, even to the pursuit of racial justice.

The Family Tree offers an in-depth study of the history of Southern race relations, particularly in Georgia. The narrative of the lynching is told thrillingly, the background more dryly, but it is Branan’s personal perspective and soul-searching that makes this history insightful, relevant and memorable.


This review originally ran in the January 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 liaisons.

Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation by Robert J. Norrell

History and literary criticism enrich the first biography of Alex Haley, author of Roots and Malcolm X’s Autobiography.

alex haley

Alex Haley wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to him), and Roots, the story of his family from Africa through slavery and the Civil War. Separately, these books had a profound impact on how the United States viewed race relations and its own history. Together, their influence could hardly be overstated, and that is what Robert J. Norrell argues in Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, the first biography of Haley and a study of his two seminal works and the controversies they fostered.

Norrell covers Haley’s forebears and Tennessee childhood, his three marriages and a writing career growing from the Coast Guard (where ghost-writing personal letters led to public relations assignments) to magazine work, which led to his interviewing Malcolm X for Reader’s Digest and Playboy. The process for Malcolm’s Autobiography (1965) was dynamic, as Haley walked the fine line between Malcolm’s voice and Haley’s more moderate political position, and as Malcolm’s views on race relations evolved. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots (1976) was even harder won, as Haley drew a short book contract out over more than 11 years of research and travel. The effect of the book, and its accompanying television miniseries, was astounding. And yet the rest of his life and work would be shadowed by accusations of copyright infringements and invention in what Haley called a work of nonfiction.

With sensitivity and careful study, Norrell examines Haley’s embattled life and extraordinary achievements. His final conclusion about this “likeable narcissist” is that despite Haley’s imperfections, his influence was prodigious and deserves our respect and continued study today.


This review originally ran in the December 18, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 pieces of gossip.

guest review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, from Pops

More than three years ago, I listened to the audio version of this book, and reviewed it here. At that time, Pops commented:

You make a most important point – that this is essential American history, of which most white Americans are sadly unaware. Jim Crow discouraged personal initiative and disrupted families & communities – a loss for the South. The challenge for black Americans to recreate their lives in “foreign” parts of the country, and the consequences for those regions, is an important part of our collective & continuing history.

He has now gotten around to reading The Warmth of Other Suns himself, and posted a longer comment to that original review. I thought it deserved its own post here so that more readers would have a chance at his thoughts.

warmth

I finally picked this one up, overcame the weighty intimidation of 600 pages and fully appreciated what Wilkerson created. I will simply add to your good observations.

Like you, I enjoyed her written voice and how she allows herself to be part of the story. Her own family story, and its part in her motivation for writing, is important and contributes to the warmth of her people stories. She writes with open sympathy, if not empathy, for the migrants, and full appreciation for the courage & fortitude revealed in their experiences; and I found that appropriate. Just one example, from her earliest pages describing the magnitude of the migrants’ decisions: “it was the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.”

I am struck by the breadth of her story, much attributable to how she weaves in anecdote & nuance in the course of her narrative. Whole books can be written of the wide ranging cultural contributions in literature, music, sports (maybe even “root doctors” in medicine?) – from the early stages of slavery forward, but released in a torrent once the migration began escaping Jim Crow. She mentions this in passing, but we learn more as she accumulates anecdotes & chapter heading quotes.

The racism implicit in mainstream history & sociology accounts is due full treatment elsewhere, but she obliquely makes the point well with examples of contemporary “professional” accounts, including some that are uncomfortably recent.

And I’m glad she also observes the way the migrants changed the cities, not just the reverse; this is not a Black History Month episode – it’s an essential part of American history that has been ignored and misunderstood at our loss. Her treatment of the Jim Crow regime is a good example, as she describes the deliberate way it was constructed, one little ordinance or ambiguous social convention at a time, enforced by law but often also arbitrarily, in the shadows, hidden under literal cloaks as well as cloaks of darkness. The not-knowing was part of the terror; her analogy to the spread of Nazism is worthy. She describes the terrible impact on individuals, both physical & mental; but also the deep & insidious cultural impacts, including the scars on a white culture so pitifully dependent on the master/slave mentality.

Hers is a wonderful contribution to our history, and will no doubt guide my further reading as it has yours.

Thoughtful as ever. Thanks, Pops. For those that missed it, this is an exhortation to go get Wilkerson’s excellent book today! (My final editorial addition: I really do recommend the audio version.)

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble

A young American Indian woman’s existential questionings and daily life on an Oklahoma farm will appeal to fans of historical fiction and personal narrative.

maud's line

Early in the 20th century, the U.S. government assigned plots of land to the American Indians displaced by Oklahoma’s statehood. Maud Nail’s day-to-day life on her family’s allotment is consumed by guns, dirt and chickens. She cares for her men–a dangerous, unruly father, aptly named Mustard, and a sensitive, thin-skinned brother named Lovely–as well as the extended family whose allotments neighbor hers. They recently survived the flood of 1926-27 that covered Oklahoma and much of the Midwest, but the difficulties don’t stop there. Margaret Verble’s first novel, Maud’s Line, details the year in which Maud makes several large choices that will affect the rest of her life.

A peddler in a brilliantly blue covered wagon first captures Maud’s eye with his good looks and his books. He gives her a copy of The Great Gatsby, and she can’t stop thinking about those bobbed haircuts and dresses above the knee. Though she loves her family, Maud desperately wishes she could move on, live in a different world. But as she begins to be caught up in a nascent love affair, her family’s troubles demand her attention. Two men from the family that has long feuded with hers are murdered, and Mustard has to leave town in a hurry. Lovely falls ill, and then, more troubling still, seems to be losing his mind. And Maud’s occasional, erstwhile boyfriend then makes a claim on her, just as she is struggling with the biggest dilemma of all.

Maud’s Line is filled with evocative glimpses of violence, viscera, yearning and the brusque but communal caring of family. In her unadorned writing style, below the violence and hardship on the surface of Maud’s life, Verble crafts a story filled with nuance and quiet conflict. She exhibits a talent for characterization: each individual is carefully and distinctly fashioned, so that Lovely’s girlfriend and the members of Maud’s extended family, for example, shine brightly in even the briefest of appearances. Maud herself is finely wrought, caught between the values she’s been raised with–and the people she loves–and a hope for a different life, one with electricity and hygiene in place of dust and blood. One of the greatest strengths of Verble’s novel, set on her own family’s land allotment, is the delicate interior conflicts produced by Maud’s deceptively simple life. Propelled by its own momentum, Maud’s Line pulls the reader along until, amid daily privations and small tragedies, Maud has the chance for the first time to choose for herself what her future will hold.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 guns.
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