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State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America Hardcover – September 16, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Without leaving home or spending a cent on gas, readers of this book can enjoy a scenic view of the entire U.S. that is as familiar as it is disorienting. Weiland, deputy editor of the Paris Review, and Wilsey, editor-at-large for McSweeney's, have gathered a group of 50 disparate voices to explore not just their experience in America, but the way each state was presented in the American Guide series of the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, in which the Works Project Administration (WPA), as part of F.D.R's New Deal, put more than 6000 American writers to work creating a portrait of this country. The editors wanted to make a book inspired by the ideals behind the WPA Guides but they also wanted something more personal, more eccentric, and more partial. Obvious heavy-hitters—Dave Eggars (Illinois), Rick Moody (Connecticut), Jhumpa Lahiri (Rhode Island), Barry Hannah (Mississippi), William T. Vollmann (California)—are included, as well as some wonderful surprises. Alison Bechdel's illustrated story about her life after moving to Vermont brilliantly combines personal history with historical fact, as does Charles Bock's essay on growing up and working in his parent's Las Vegas pawnshop. Mohammed Naseehu Ali's tale of life in Michigan, after moving there from Ghana as a teen, illuminates what the unconditionally generous Michigan nature shares with the traditions of his own Hausa-Islamic culture. And Franzen's imaginary interview with the state of New York is perhaps the high point among this collection of beguiling summations of something all the writers share: a love-hate relationship with how their chosen state has changed and evolved during the course of their lives. (Sept.)
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“[State by State] is a funny, moving, rousing collection, greater than the sum of its excellent parts, a convention of literary superdelegates, each one boisterously nominating his or her piece of the Republic.” (New York Times Book Review)

“This fascinating collection, inspired by guides in the 1930s and 1940s, includes original essays on each of the states by some of the country’s finest (mostly younger) writers.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

“Self-consciously modeled after state guides sponsored by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, this ambitious effort features a terrific roster of writers.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Fascinating.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

“Odds are, reading STATE BY STATE, that you’ll fall for every state a little, even if they remain tremendously hard to explain.” (Los Angeles Times)

“This eclectic collection of essays describing the ordinary people and places within our 50 states is as essential as the Rand McNally atlas. Alternately brash and bashful...each literary foray in State by State is well worth the trip. Grade: A.” (Entertainment Weekly)

“An enjoyable journey: 50 essays, cartoons and mini-plays, plus an afterward about Washington, DC and a fascinating appendix…all in all, it makes one yearn for a driver’s license and a stretch of open highway.” (New York Post)

“Ideal nightstand reading and a welcome reminder of the pluribus behind the unum.” (

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco; 5th Printing edition (September 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061470902
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061470905
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #609,572 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Chris Swanson VINE VOICE on October 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is not a bad book by any means. It's got some decent photos, and some of the essays I've read (not all. I've only focused on the states I've lived in or visited for any length of time, plus Michigan), are very well written.

Here's the problem, though. When I read them, I keep "hearing" them in what I can only describe as an "NPR voice". Now I like NPR, and I'm as liberal as liberal gets, but frankly some of these essays annoy me. They seem to only want to focus on the negatives (California), come off as somewhat smug (Arizona), or focus on what I can best describe as "quaint native culture" (Alaska).

There's this vaguely irritating trend where the authors always seem to feel the need to remind us that Europeans weren't here first. There also seems to be a constant lament about how horrible it is that we've lost touch with nature and destroyed the natural world, etc, etc. None of this is exactly bad, per se, but it's brought up constantly and gets old.

As for the presentation... the book feels like a textbook, and I don't mean that in some abstract way. I mean that when you touch the non-dust-cover-having cover, it physically feels like a textbook. More to the point, it seems almost like it's trying to mimic the look and feel of a book from the 1950's or 1960's. This isn't bad, but it is rather odd.

Overall this book is not what I'd expected or hoped for. It's a perfectly ok book in some ways, but gets annoying after a while. Probably best read in small doses, if at all. I will say the demographic information at the end of the book is quite spiffy, and what keeps this from being two stars.
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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful By sb-lynn TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey commissioned a group of (very) different writers to write an essay on each of the 50 states. Some of these writers are well-known award winners, others are less familiar. They are reporters, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers and even a musician. Some are natives or long time residents of their states, and others are more recent transplants. Some were even sent to the state just to get a sense of the place from a writer's eyes. .

This book is a follow-up of sorts, to the WPA Federal Writers Project of the 1930's, which similarly hired a group of writers to write state guides, "to describe American to Americans." Each guide was more than 500 pages.

We all know a lot has happened since the 1930's, and our country has become a lot more homogenized. We all listen to the same music on our XM radios, and we can shop at the same big box stores, or snack at the same fast food restaurants.

But each state is still unique, and these essays attempt to show us how. Some of the writers talk about the history, others the landscape, and others describe the personalities of people who inhabit particular places. Some talk about the myths and the positive things that would appeal to the local Chamber of Commerce, and others are more gloomy and talk about the problems. And many of these essays contain all of these things.

This is a strange book to review, because each story is so different, both in style (different writers) and obviously in substance. For that reason, readers will enjoy reading some of these essays, and not care for others. But this is a unique and timely book, and a wonderful way to "see" each state.
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34 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Oksol VINE VOICE on September 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I've hitchhiked cross-country three times; I've lived and worked in 13 states, and have visited them all with only one or two exceptions. My favorite reading when flying is a collection of essays - for obvious reasons. State-By-State is exactly the kind of book I would pick up in paperback at the airport. [I have a hard cover copy.]

I ordered this sight unseen and I was not disappointed. It is very enjoyable reading. To get a sense of whether the various authors hit the target set by the editors, I first read those essays of states where I had spent the most time. Except for the essay on South Dakota (essayist: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh) I was very impressed. I thought the following were particularly excellent: North Dakota, South Carolina, California, and Iowa. In fact, every essay was superb, except Saïd''s. I have no idea why the editors accepted his self-centered, smug out-of-town review. I particularly admired the ability of William T. Vollmann (CA) to cover so much territory in so few pages (his was one of the longer essays at 13 pages) and let me re-live my halcyon days in paradise.

It was probably only me, but I did not recognize the names of any of the authors, except for one (Randall Kenan, NC). It appeared most of the essayists were new authors, and I did not recognize any of their novels. That may not be surprising because with a math and science background, I only began a serious reading program in 2002 and have not gotten more recent than the 1920's with some exceptions (Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway, being the most notable). If not a novelist, the essayists were more than likely to be on staff or contributors to the New York Times or The New Yorker.
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