Panorama Americana

Photo courtesy HarperCollins

Ashley Goetz

Photo courtesy HarperCollins

âÄúState by StateâÄù Author: Various Publisher: Harper Collins Pages: 564 Price: $29.95 Reading of âÄúState by StateâÄù When: Oct. 1 6:30 âÄì 9 p.m. Where: Pohland Hall 300 Nicolett Mall WeâÄôre America. We have our idols. WeâÄôve got talent. WeâÄôre beautiful. An actress starring in âÄúUgly Betty âÄù and âÄúThe Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants âÄù was even named after us. Despite all those heralds, Matt Weiland, editor of âÄúState by State: A Panoramic Portrait of AmericaâÄù points out that âÄúAmerica and the lives lived here remain strangely and surprisingly undescribed.âÄù That lack of description, along with nostalgia developed from a few years abroad and in absence of our wealth of apple pie, inspired Weiland and his buddy Sean Wilsey to convince some of the best writers and renaissance men/women in the country to contribute a chapter about their state of residence. The idea might sound a bit campy, and the cover featuring an eagle with a banner that says âÄúTake pride in your countryâÄù coupled with a garish novelty map of the states on the bookâÄôs lining make it seem even worse. But âÄúState by StateâÄù is no cup of sweet tea patriotism nor is it an ironic low-culture fest like VH1âÄôs âÄúBest Week Ever.âÄù The content of the chapters ranges from sincere accounts of history and geography to pop culture referencing, and includes all of the marital conflict and bathroom cabinet drugs in between. Just the dirty-corner-covered-in-Pine-Sol scent that America exudes. Plenty of up-and-coming authors grace the pages, like bored existentialist writer Benjamin Kunkel , who describes the MidwestâÄôs square states as being divided like the flavors in a carton of Neapolitan ice cream. Corporate malcontent Joshua Ferris writes about tossing mullet fish in Florida, and Jhumpa Lahiri writes a slow-paced depiction of her days hanging out in a library in Rhode Island. Disappointingly, Philip Connors portrays Minnesota as a farm state full of phony nice people and landscapes of corn and soybeans that make up a âÄúrigid, right-angled geometry.âÄù Alison Bechdel , who contributed a graphic novel-style chapter about Vermont, briefly described that she left Minneapolis because it âÄúseemed to combine the most unsavory aspects of both urban and provincial life.âÄù She illustrated that notion with a picture of someone in snow gear stamping out a crack vial in front of a sign for a churchâÄôs hot dish supper. Ouch. While many writers opted to give rich details about the environment and landmarks of their states, chef/travel journalist/ perpetual drinker/smoker Anthony BourdainâÄôs chapter about New Jersey is a chronicle of days he spent riding around in cars with friends, listening to King Crimson on acid and lighting fireworks in peopleâÄôs basements. At the end, when he wakes up in a foreign city during a book tour, he points out something almost no one in the book wants to admit: âÄúMall after mall separated only by a strip mall or mini-mall, stretching out to the horizon âĦ I could have been anywhere. I could have been in New Jersey.âÄù Ah, the monotony. One of the most creative chapters is Johnathon FranzenâÄôs mock interview with New York State. After being shuffled away by a bored publicist, manipulated by a historian with a shiny info packet, and interrogated by a lawyer, Franzen finally has a short word or two with New York herself, which reads deliciously like a Kate Moss admirer trying to bring up her most deviant and enthralling days. Each writer also submitted a photo that would represent each state, ranging from stalks of corn to old broken-down pubs (yep, thatâÄôs the photo for Minnesota). At the end is a list of stats for which states rank the highest in certain demographics. Who knew that New Hampshire has the most roller coasters per capita and that West Virginia boasts the highest number of toothless individuals? Part of the inspiration for the format of âÄúState by StateâÄù was the Works Progress Administration State Guides commissioned during the New Deal, which employed some of the best creative minds to photograph and compile information about our states. When making their own version, the editors requested only that the writers start their stories as if they were beginning a conversation with âÄúWell, I donâÄôt know about you, but where I come from âĦ. âÄù The result is just what they wanted: âÄúA road trip in book form.âÄù ItâÄôs more entertaining and slightly less manic than KerouacâÄôs.