Ecco £16.99 (pp) £15.29 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey

In the depths of the last great depression Washington came to the assistance of struggling authors, funding the Federal Writers Project. Its greatest legacy was the 500-page-a-volume, 50 volumes, state by state, WPA guide to America. Almost 80 years later and here we are again. A new democratic President faces a global economic meltdown and intractable security problems. This time around we have a smaller, leaner literary response to this American moment; just one volume, a private sector publisher and 50 writers on the 50 states. But it is a bold and ambitious response by editors Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey.

I started, because it seemed to make sense, at the beginning of the alphabet with George Packer's family memoir of Alabama. To my pleasure I discovered the lost history of the state's liberalism and populism, alongside Packer's own faltering but beautifully rendered education in the personal politics of race.

The piece sets the tone for almost the whole book – a mix of memoir that holds you and history you didn't know, an open and self-reflective attitude to race and fantastically good writing.

Alaska was calling next, and I would get to Paul Greenberg's account of the salmon industry amongst the Inuit, but for then it was a journey too far and I reverted to the geography of America I have come to know best – the geography of the presidential election. So it was straight to the big four. Jonathan Franzen's interview with New York State herself, by way of her PA, lawyers and geologists, was wry and cutting and wistful. California got the almost hallucinatory epic treatment from William T. Voleman.

Joshua Ferris told a sweet tale of growing up amongst the human debris that washed dishes in Florida diners. Cristina Henriquez gently probes the Texan stereotype to find its deep Latino connections. The tone and technique of this collection are brilliantly varied. Swinging through states solid for Obama there were smartly observed graphics from Joe Sacco on rainy Oregon and Alison Bechtel on kooky Vermont. Dave Eggers playfully, teasingly, makes the case for Illinois as the centre with the swing and bravado of old-time Midwestern boosterists. Phillip Connors quietly but devastatingly demolishes the myths of "Minnesota Nice" while Antony Bourdain serves up his usual big slice of unabashed life in suburban New Jersey; and all point to the range of perspectives that the editors found – those who stayed, those who left, those who are drawn back, and those that never going back.

In the current spirit of bipartisanship, the blue states have got no monopoly on good writing. Joshua Clarke's Louisiana story is poignant and scary and finds him searching for souls with real life Ghostbusters in the flooded lower ninth of New Orleans where many generations of spirits have been dislodged from the swamp. Ken Brockemeir's tale of the bumper sticker war in Arkansas was just hilarious.

Does anything consistent emerge from this raging cacophony of voices? In part what one would expect: that America is both vast and unbelievably diverse in every way and as the pieces by a Ghanaian on Michigan, a Chinese American on Georgia and on Bosnians in Missouri show – the mix isn't finished yet. Yet perhaps the most persistent image in the collection is the spectre of a homogenised landscape, the endless suburbs, strip developments and Wal-Marts and box stores. More darkly, one finds in many pieces, the recognition that corporate America is as rapacious in tearing up the domestic environment as it is the rest of the world; nowhere clearer than in than Jayne Anne Phillips mournful essay on West Virginia where the mining industry is steadily blasting the top of every last mountain in pursuit of coal.

At a micro level the same raging process of economic transformation that reaches every corner of this country is the background to Charles Bock's bitter sweet recollections of growing up Jewish in Nevada, where his folks ran a pawn shop in the shadow of the Golden Nugget in the old downtown, a shadow that eventually killed it. And there's no escape: Benjamin Kunkel's Colorado ends with the mournful reflection that the combination of romantic individualism and unlimited mobility of life in the mountains is utterly unsustainable.

If the new American administration is serious about its cultural diplomacy and it use of soft power, it might want to let the rest of the world in on what America looks like from the inside. From the pages of this book it looks funnier, quirkier, smarter, more fragile but more thoughtful and generous-hearted than most of the world has imagined it recently. The state department could do a lot worse than issue every embassy with a box or two of State to State.

David Goldblatt's history of football, 'The Ball is Round', is published by Penguin

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week