Sunday, November 16, 2014


I can only imagine the instructions from the editors (Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey) of State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America to their contributors: “Yeah, sure, do what you want!” And that is what they got, a lovely, often lively, compilation of essays (in many forms, including traditional, graphic, faux interview) that delve, at least in part and often selectively, into the cultures of states that comprise this wonderful country. Of course, they are a far cry from the books that inspired the effort (and I have read many of the WPA volumes), but there also remains a spirit there too, to open doors to the familiar to them to let outsiders get a peek within. Although there is a little criticism, what mostly shines through is a love of place, especially in essays from writers who spent significant or emotional periods in the states in question. Essentially most of them are impressionistic vignettes struggling to provide a mere taste of some corner of a larger whole. A common theme is memoir, and the best selections intertwine memory with history, geography, and culture. Even better are the narratives delivered with humor and wit, as many certainly are. Surely many are skewed snapshots of personal experiences, reflecting their own interests or backgrounds, but overall in most cases there is warmth, a fondness for the areas described (even if done by mere tourists), lives led---a stretch of road, a slice of nature, a remembrance of family or childhood. Common themes emerge, such as community resistance to outsiders (an insularity of sorts) that seems to eventually collapse and grudginlgy allow newcomers, opportunity (especially for immigrants), the importance of sports (recognized if not always loved), and weirdness as well. Some authors I hadn’t read before and I now am determined to try and have added to my to-read list (such as Joshua Ferris). Others are familiar and favorites. . .Erdrich, Horwitz, Lahiri, Vowell. Some excelled in focusing on the newcomer looking in and hoping to stake their claim or who were well treated: Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Dagoberto Gilb, Ha Jin. I loved the essays by Susan Choi, Paul Greenberg, Barry Hannah, John Hodgman, Heidi Julavits, Rick Moody, Tara Smith and others. Alison Bechdel’s graphic essay on Vermont was good. Of course, I enjoyed essays on the states that meant most to me---Florida, South Carolina, Hawaii. Really, for such a wide representation, you’d think I wouldn’t have liked as many as I did, but I enjoyed nearly all of them, which speaks well either of the choices the editors made or guidance they gave. I suspect many will just read the entries for which they are personally attached, but that would be a shame, because the others might induce people to spend time visiting other parts of the country, homogenized as it has become, to search out a taste of difference that still lurks.

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