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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars But where I come from....
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...
Published on September 27, 2008 by sb-lynn

versus
54 of 60 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If NPR wrote a book...
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...
Published on October 1, 2008 by Chris Swanson


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54 of 60 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If NPR wrote a book..., October 1, 2008
This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
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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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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars But where I come from...., September 27, 2008
By 
sb-lynn (Santa Barbara, California United States) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
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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. As Matt Weiland told the writers:

"To everyone we said: Tell us a story about your state, the more personal the better, something that captures the essence of the place. Not the kind of story one hears in a musty lecture hall or one reads in the dusty pages of an encyclopedia. The kind of story the enlisted soldier tells his boot-camp bunkmate about back home. The kind of story wistful and wise, that begins, 'Well, I don't know about you, but where I come from...."

And they did.
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32 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Skip Saïd''s essay., September 25, 2008
This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
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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. Even when I learned one (Tony Horwitz) had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (1995), I did not recognize any of his books.

The editors did include 30 tables of demographic data, everything from cigarette consumption to breastfeeding rate to suicide rate at the end of the book. The book would not have been diminished had these tables not been included. Somehow the tables seemed to make the book appear more like a reference book. Perhaps it was the glaring, bold font.

Examples of how the essayists got it exactly right (for the most part):

Cristina Henriquez (TX) noted that Texans make a note of whether one is born a Texan or if one is transplanted. Henriquez got that exactly right. Christina came from Iowa.

Anthony Bourdain (NJ) reminds us how the state has become a "punchline" but at the same time, when he travels in the US, he notes that every state now looks exactly like New Jersey (malls, franchise eateries, Victoria Secret superstores, and Home Depots). Touché.

Jonathan Franzen (NY) reminded me again why so many people have a negative view of the Big Apple and New Yorkers in general (it's likely most people are not aware there is more to New York than the city). The author simply transcribed an interview with the governor's and mayor's straphangers and, to some extent, the main men themselves. I think Franzen took the money and ran, providing us a glimpse of "a New York minute."

Jack Hitt (SC) explains the difference between Charleston and the rest of the state. Superb. This is perhaps the best of the best essays for hitting the editors' mark. New Yorkers have nothing over the Charlestonians when it comes to snobbery, according to Hitt. For proof he notes: the residents say "the two rivers that shape the peninsula of downtown Charleston - the Ashley and the Cooper - come together to form the Atlantic Ocean."

Louise Erdrich (ND) notes that the density of her home state and mine is between nine and ten people per square mile, and most of them live in three "big" cities. If you avoid these population centers, she says, you can travel in a blissful abeyance of humankind. You can help me out by doing a word search for me, but I believe Louise is the only essayist to use the word "blissful" when writing about his/her particular state.

If you have not lived in or experienced the majority of American states, you might not enjoy this book. If you think you know the American states, pick this up at the airport bookstore on your next trip. If it's a business trip to a state you've not been before, this might give you some cocktail chatter for the icebreaker.

Just skip Saïd''s essay on South Dakota. Go straight to South Carolina.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Negative Image of the States, March 5, 2012
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Disappointing! As an interested European having worked in- and visited many of the United States States after reading the first 3 chapters covering Alaska, Alabama and Arizona the american dream and optimism was washed down the drain. Sure there can be found negative aspects in every state, but reducing Alabama to racial problems only, describing Arizona as polluted and inhabited by people with no responsibility- Alaska to fishing and minors driving -
how the hell do you want to bring foreign people to your (still) wonderful country with wonderful people?
This book has to be re-written. From my experience I could cover and describe a positive Arizona, California, N.-& S. Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and possible Hawaii (visiting next fall)-
frickwhp@hispeed.ch
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars pleasure to the arm chair traveler, October 4, 2008
By 
A Reader "snailgate" (Newark, DE United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
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As I suspect most will when they first pick up this book, I turned to the state I know best. There I found no reference to anything I remember about the state where I grew up. It was much more interesting. I grew up in Jackson County Missouri. All of the "Missouri" chapter is about the changes in St. Louis during the last 20 years or so invigorated by a growing community of refugees from Bosnia. The editor/publisher of a Bosnian language newspaper said "St. Louis, after New York City, was like being let out of prison" He reflects on his experience as a visitor in Hannibal, comparing the presence everywhere of Mark Twain in a town where he and his brother went broke as newspaper producers and had to leave in order to survive. This chapter gave me a glimpse of a new Missouri.

The book is organized alphabetically for each state plus an afterword for the District of Columbia. (What! no Puerto Rico, no American Samoa?) There is a series of ranking tables at the back with lots of interesting information. Check out table 23 which justifies the insulting story of why the Toothbrush is not called a Teethbrush--it was invented in West Virginia. Each chapter is written by a different author, with a different point of view. The unifiying theme I found was an effort to convey the flavor and character of the state.

Louisiana explores ghosts stirred up by Hurricane Katrina. Iowa informs of the relationships between Mexican immigrants from a land where corn was god to Iowa where it is an industry. South Carolina tells me about the gentry of Charleston. "Merrily wallowed in being dismissed as Whiskeypalians. . . . the annual Rockville regatta--a boat race so notorious for its decadent onshore parties that the one sure mark of being a naive outsider was showing up with a sailboat." New York is fictional interview by a journalist with the persona of New York. The interviewer has to filter through a publicist, attorney, historian, geologist before finally entering the presence of the actual New York, a celebrity who vaguely recalls the past and knows money really makes the world go round.

All in all, this book has no connection to the guidebooks from AAA. It reminded me more of travel observations of Alexis Tocqueville in early America.

This book reveals and informs of a special America people today. Tremendous variety, boundless hope for the future, a love of a past enriched by scoundrels and nobility.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's a mixed bag, January 19, 2009
By 
Wayne Engle "Wayne Engle" (Madison, IN United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
In a book that is a collection of essays like this one, I suppose it is inevitable that the quality -- and the appeal of various chapters to various tastes -- will be uneven. That's true of this book.

Some of the 50 writers appear to have a genuine affection for "their" states. To others, including some who confess to being neither natives nor residents, their essay seems like a grim duty to be gotten over as soon as possible.

For instance, Daphne Beal and Alexandra Fuller give us memorable pictures of Wisconsin and Wyoming, respectively. Beal, a native, presents a fond but realistic look at her state, Germans, Poles, beer, cheese, Milwaukee, and all. Fuller displays a unique, wry wit in discussing Wyoming, full of quirky but decent "cowboys."

On the other hand, Susan Choi, a Hoosier, spends most of her time talking about her father, a Korean-American, and precious little on the residents of Indiana as a whole. And she uses that awful word, "Indianans", to describe us! Shame, shame! We're HOOSIERS, darn it! But she gives some pretty good descriptions of various parts of our (more varied than most people think) state.

Mainers get a good portrait from Heidi Julavits -- humorous looks at a flinty New England people who really DON'T waste words. Just like their stereotype. Eh-yep.

Dagoberto Gilb spends his entire allotted space on Iowa talking about the Mexicans who have moved there in recent years -- both legal and illegal. Mildly interesting -- but what about the other 90-plus percent of Iowans?

California hardly gets a fair hearing from William T. Vollmann, either. He talks much about how the nasty old white people have despoiled the state's beaches, forests, mountains, take your pick. When he announces that his favorite city in the whole, big wide country is San Francisco, you know where his basic sympathies lie. The goings-on in an S & M club and dungeon have little to do with the state or its people, but we get a full, bated-breath description of them from Vollmann. Thanks so much for sharing that with us, Bill.

Connecticut appears as a once-WASP state in transition in Rick Moody's essay. He's a native, and he gives us a vivid mind's eye view of the state while skilfully weaving his own story into and through it.

Finally, there is my choice for the worst essay in the book: That of David Rakoff on Utah. I don't know what Rakoff has against the Mormon church, whose people founded the state, but the essay is mainly concerned with blatantly and unapologetically slamming the LDS in any way possible. A number of "While I was there I was told" allegations against the Mormons are made, most of them nonsense, some downright scurrilous. Rakoff's aim seems to be to make Utah appear a desert wasteland, populated mostly by religious fanatics.

In my opinion, a number of the writers spend far too much time bemoaning the "plight of the black man" and how the whites "stole the Indians' land." Show me a huge, diverse nation that was founded without some groups succeeding and others falling behind, and I'll show you a fairy tale.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent Collection of Essays about Our Great Country, September 29, 2008
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This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
This book is a compilation of essays; one written directly for each state in the United States. Each is written by a different author that has a connection directly to the state that the author is writing about, which authenticates the essays as truly wonderful works about the states they know, and in most case, love.

Some of the essays are long, while some are fairly short. Some cover large geographical areas and some cover minute portions of the state. And each has a particular slant about the state that is unique to each essay. From covering life along the Merritt Parkway as a youth in Connecticut to living in the desert in Arizona, each essay presents a look into the wonders of the state that you won't find in any other form of travel writing.

Having lived in a number of states, and having traveled to all of them rather extensively, I can attest to the creativity and unique look that each essay provides at each of the states. In many cases, I was getting nostalgic and reliving the memories I had of a particular state. I was reminded of why each state is different, but also so similar.

While you may not like every essay, and I am sure each person will find a few to love and a few to hate, varying by the individual reader, this book is a great look at the United States. If, like me, you like short stories and essays, this will be a book you will treasure. I highly recommend this book to all, as it is a wonderful way to learn about the country without leaving the comfort of your home.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, but Uneven, Insights into What Makes Each State Different, September 29, 2008
By 
D. Summerfield (Missoula, Montana) - See all my reviews
This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
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Inspired by the 1930s WPA American Guide Series which produced 500-page guides to each of the 48 states, this one-volume edition of essays on each of the fifty states is by turns charming and frustrating. It is charming in its individual approach to each state's description. Dozens of our best journalists and writers have been tasked with the job of producing an informative, but personal essay about their individual state.

It is frustrating because the essays vary widely in length, scope of information and content. Obviously these writers were simply told, "Give us your impressions of your home state."

Some, like Jayne Anne Phillips writing about her native West Virginia, give us a highly personal family background about her hometown and about some of the history of the state's major industries (coal and logging), which is rich in detail and leaves the reader feeling slightly sad about the seemingly pre-destined fate of West Virginia to always be an outsider looking in. Others, like Sarah Vowell's brief, almost flippant, three-and-a-half-page montage on Montana, read like reporter's notes which haven't been polished.

However, despite its uneven tone, this book is a fascinating glimpse into the hearts and minds of some very articulate and witty Americans writing about a very personal subject.

It reminds me very much of sitting around a campfire with a bunch of strangers, all relaxed after a good meal, and listening as they toss stories back and forth about where they come from. Of course you are not going to get the names of the principle rivers and largest cities in each state, but you might get a scintillating glimpse into what makes these people tick, and why they are so proud to be from their home state.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good , entertaining but not what I expected, October 3, 2008
This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
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I should have read more details?? This is not what 3 of us thought it would be
a fact/photo/informational book but rather it is an anecdotal writing about life
or a slice of life from each state.While the stories can be entertaining and interesting it is not what we expected .I do think those who want to get a few facts(each state has a 1 page facts list) and 1 author picked photo from each state(and the photos usually are NOT of the state but
of many different things)and a short story may love this work, This is a book that is a slice of Americana written from 50 individual viewpoints and styles. Pics range from salmon hanging on hooks for Alaska to boys standing in front of a sign "Welcome to New York from the 60's.Only 50 pics on about 10 pages however.
No real history or geography or photos that show the states etc.
But it was my fault ,I think,for not reading description thoroughly enough.
So, it is a literary piece rather than an historical or solely educational book.
I personally, would not buy it, but I do think many will who like short stories and Americana will enjoy reading this.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Holly Moly WOW, September 27, 2008
By 
M. Silva (Portland, OR) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Hardcover)
An absolutely fabulous collection of essays with some huge names. I have never seen an anthology of new work with such an impressive roll call. And the writing backs up the names. With the exception of one or two bad essays---most notably Will Blythe's self-indulgent essay on New Hampshire---this book contains one amazing essay after another. A great and cheap way to take a tour around this varied country. Highly recommended to everyone.
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State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America by Matt Weiland (Hardcover - September 16, 2008)
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