If things had gone the other way in the presidential election, who’d be buying a book urging us to take pride in our country? Luckily, Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey had the good sense to bet on Obama and a boom in patriotism among bookish folk. Their apple pie anthology, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Ecco, $29.95), feels just right: Matching 50 writers (most of them young and hip) with 50 states (yes, even the reddest of them) in an attempt to get at the multiplicity of the nation in all its rich peculiarity suddenly seems not only clever but good—a sign of progress, a ray of hope. (No surprise to find that it was inspired by the WPA state guidebooks written in the 1930s for the Federal Writers’ Project.)
Which is not to say that there’s anything reverent or preachy or post-ironic about State by State. Consider this snippet from Heidi Julavits’ contribution: “In Maine … 2005 was business as usual—just a lot of fat people hanging out in the rain with their cats, drinking coffee brandy and trying, without cheating, to kill a bear.” Or David Rakoff’s visit to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (it’s in Utah, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake): “Cue the screeching brakes of dashed expectations.” Or the tables at the back of the book ranking the 50 states by rate of toothlessness, obesity, divorce, suicide and voter participation; by the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and oil; by the number of roller coasters and classic movie theaters and drive-ins.
O.K., it’s not always a pretty picture, but just now it looks beautiful.
STEVE LOWE AND ALAN McArthur are Brits with attitude who published a few years back an alphabetized rant, an “encyclopedia” of all the crap in modern life they just couldn’t stand. Enough people found it funny to make it a best seller in Britain, which naturally called forth a second volume. And now, with the help of former Daily Show writer Brendan Hay, they’ve brought their noisy dissatisfaction across the Atlantic, retaining the catchy title—Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit? (Grand Central, $22.99)—and hoping to give their riffs an American accent. It doesn’t work. The new book feels dated and awkward, the outrage stale and—is it just me?—misdirected. They hate Sophia Coppola and think Lost in Translation is “a pseudo-profound confection … the cinematic equivalent of unflavored rice-cake.” O.K., but that was five years ago. They’re annoyed by the “double whammy” of doctors “talking in slow patronizing tones while also being utterly useless in the actual ‘helping people’ department.” Really? They think Prince Andrew shouldn’t charter helicopters and then stick the British taxpayer with the bill. Prince who? They call Donald Trump’s hair “stupid” and make fun of GoTrump.com, his now defunct travel Web site, and call him “Big Don.” Do they believe their pet name is an improvement on “The Donald”? I don’t.
IF YOU CAN’T TAKE modern life, why not escape to the future? Robert Zubrin’s How to Live on Mars (Three Rivers Press, $16.95) is exactly what it sounds like: a comprehensive guide to survival on the Red Planet. Written from the perspective of a pioneer born in New Plymouth, Mars, in 2071, it blends science (with the hard parts helpfully flagged), fiction (far-fetched) and just the kind of crackpot humor you’d expect from an aerospace engineer who’s president of the Mars Society (an organization dedicated to promoting the planet’s exploration and settlement). Mr. Zubrin has even imagined Martian pickup lines to help new arrivals hook up: “Did I get on the wrong ship? I thought I was going to Mars, but this must be heaven.”
Looks like things are going to be more like they used to be than they ever were before.