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Book review: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America

We don’t do many book reviews here at FGI, but this one caught my eye and I wanted to let you know about it. State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America caught my eye for 2 reasons: 1) it looks to be the direct descendant of the amazing [w:American Guide Series] published under the auspices of the [w:Federal Writers’ Project] (FWP) during the great depression (in other words, govt documents yo!); and 2) the chapter on Oregon was written by Joe Sacco. Now I don’t claim to be an expert on the graphic novel, but Joe Sacco wrote Palestine, a truly moving graphic journalistic account of Palestine in the early 1990’s (BitTorrent of Palestine). I’ve been interested in this genre of journalism since reading Art Speigelman’s Maus — others that I’ve come across are The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (another govt doc!) and Pyongyang: a journey in North Korea.

I guess this isn’t really a book review since I haven’t actually read it; rather this is a book shelf recommendation 😉 . I’m sure that all 50 writers are amazing, but the following especially caught my eye: California by William T. Vollmann; Illinois by Dave Eggers; Massachusetts by John Hodgman; North Dakota by Louise Erdrich; Tennessee by Ann Patchett; Vermont by Alison Bechdel. I’m going to grab State by State off our stacks now. I hope you will too!

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. [Review from Publishers Weekly]