Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review of the Day: Locations



I do not much like the songs of Edith Piaf, the boulevards of Baron Haussman, the furniture of Louis XIV, the sound of Gertrude Stein, the vainglory of Napoleon or the conceit of Charles de Gaulle. I distrust, at one level, people who turn ideas into movements; at another, ideas themselves too pressingly articulated.
So begins Jan Morris's explanation of the "insular prejudices" that limit her visits to Paris. It is an example of what makes her travel writing so very, very good -- an extraordinary gift of analysis and observation and a willingness to express blunt opinions.

Locations is a collection of previously published magazine pieces Morris wrote mostly in the 1980s. They are profiles of cities or other areas that highlight the character of the place as experienced by Morris. They are not travel guides, but ruminations on what makes the place itself, which is why they are entertaining and worthwhile even a few decades after they were written.

Morris is best known for her encyclopedic history, The World of Venice. Her clear eye and deft wit let her put a finger on exactly what makes a place tick. She does love a list, which can start to seem a little lazy and irritatingly rhythmic, but so often one of her lists can make a reader laugh with delight for bringing together all the incongruous parts that illuminate the whole. Take, for instance, her observations of life in a Texas border town along the Rio Grande:
The very presence of that southern bank, looking so often enough so much the same as the northern one, seems to speak of looser morals, freer ways, more bribable officials, less dependable mail deliveries, dirtier streets, better food, hotter sex, more desperate poverty, more horrible prisons, and an altogether better chance of adventure.

It is writing like this that inspires travel, which is why Morris's essays will never go out of date.


OTHER REVIEWS

If you would like your review of this or any other Jan Morris book listed her, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.


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