I probably should have bundled this review together with my post about the Venetian Empire because today’s book was also written by the indomitable Jan Morris. The reason I didn’t is twofold: first off, I want to keep the posts about Italy separate from other things because the whole Italian-reading period in my life coincided with the writing of a novel. The second reason is that I forgot that today’s book was next in the queue.
The book in question is Manhattan ’45, and, like the Venetian book, the one I read was a Folio Society edition, one that, with the day-glo pink highlights and evocative period photographs was ver inviting to read from a visual standpoint. The prose, as seems to be the norm when it comes to Morris is also welcoming and colloquial – Morris is clearly a popular writer as opposed to a stuffy historian.
Equally clear is the affection that Morris has for this particular subject. WWII was ending, the world could move on to other things… and it was a time of joy and expectation in the densely packed metropolis. One could quite easily have thought that New York was the center of the world immediately after the war, and one would quite likely have been right. It’s a great subject to write about, if a slightly obvious one. Still, Morris got there first, so everyone else will always be the imitators.
It’s a great book to learn about the city as it was precisely at that time… and perhaps therein lies its weakness. Though charming, the snapshot of a city, no matter how quirky, isn’t memorable in the way the hundreds-of-years-long exploits of an empire and its charismatic leaders can be. This one is a book to dip into when you want to be transported elsewhere, but not one that you’ll remember details of later. It’s like looking at pictures of the British countryside. You can’t relive the sensation unless you’re actually interacting with it right now.
The true downside? It’s nearly impossible to share. You can’t sit at a party and tell a pretty girl (or boy) something you gleaned here. “There used to be a Clarke’s on Third Avenue in the shadow of the El Train” just doesn’t evoke the same feeling that reading about the underworld beneath the tracks does.
Either way, I enjoyed reading it, and dipping back into it to write this review, so I’m happy I purchased it. But if I had to choose a Morris, I’d go with Venice every day.