State by State
Chances are, you’ll pick up this book of essays about all 50 fiefdoms in our great land, flip to the one canvassing your home state and vehemently disagree with the entry found there. Then you’ll select another essay about a state you don’t know much about, and you’ll think, “How funny, insightful and true.” This will say as much about you as it will the book, which is to say that all of the essays here blend the universal with the particular. And we all have particular feelings about where we grew up.
Which is what makes this book such a great read. I’ll cop to first reading the Massachusetts essay by comedian, author and TV-commercial-personality John Hodgman and appreciating it for its history and recognizing in it a truth about what it’s like to be an expat Masshole. Dave Eggers’s Illinois essay, though, left me wanting more. Concerned largely with Illinois’s preoccupation with firsts, Eggers joshingly attributes virtually any and all of America’s greatness to Illinoisans.
So many great authors contribute to the book—Ha Jin (Georgia), Barry Hannah (Mississippi), Jhumpa Lahiri (Rhode Island)—it’s hard to imagine how such a project couldn’t succeed. Of course, there are obstacles: Everyone thinks chain stores and condo developers are laying waste to their late, great homeland. But aside from some mournful repetition of that old saw, the premise of the book triumphs over its drawbacks, largely because so many gifted writers are discussing what’s nearest to them—home.
Hannah’s entry on Mississippi and Heidi Julavits’s on Maine stand out as exemplary salvos, tossing their personal experiences at the received wisdom about both states, finding that some of it holds up while much of it falls apart. And of course, what emerges is a much richer portrait.
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