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Book Review

‘Unruly Places’ by Alastair Bonnett

When I was young, I excitedly tore the maps out of new issues of National Geographic before even looking at the contents; loved drawing maps of imaginary countries on hexagonal graph paper for Dungeons & Dragons (but couldn’t sustain further interest in the game); and deeply admired Alberto Manguel’s “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places.”

Not surprisingly, readers who are mapophiles, like me, will find much to appreciate in “Unruly Places,” a catalog of uncategorizable places around the globe. What makes the book more than just a gathering of novelties, though, is the humanity of its author, Alastair Bonnett.

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As he takes us on this eccentric tour, Bonnett continually reinforces the message that, as he puts it, “[p]eople’s most fundamental ideas . . . are fashioned within and through their relationship to place.” Though Bonnett’s enthusiasm can lead at times to overblown rhetoric, the book is nevertheless fascinating.

The spots described here are organized into discrete categories, with chapter titles like “Lost Spaces,’' “Dead Cities,’’ Floating Islands,’’ and “Ephemeral Places.’’ This is unfortunate. The book often seems as if it would have been better arranged alphabetically; while the places in each grouping have something to do with each other, they aren’t markedly different enough to make sorting necessary.

Nevertheless, the categories do provide guideposts of a kind. In “Lost Spaces,” the locations Bonnett addresses range from more conventional geographical places like Leningrad, whose name and identity have changed radically, making the city’s original name a distant phantom; to the once-holy Mecca, now a sea of parking lots and new buildings, thoroughly remodeled; to Time Landscape, a small grassy territory in the West Village originally planned as a natural sculpture.

In “Hidden Geographies,” we find out about places concealed beneath, or parallel to, human activity, such as The Labyrinth, a subterranean city in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, or a huge community, with its own stores and a post office, located in a cemetery in Manila. And on we go in other chapters, traveling through outrageous locations such as Mount Athos, a Greek island dominated by monasteries, where women are not allowed; or The World, a huge ship on which people may take up long-term residence; or Hog’s Back Lay-By, a spot in the English countryside reserved for (largely) legally sanctioned public sex.

Throughout, Bonnett writes with an easy, amiable tone about these locations; the entries would probably be best taken in small batches, or at the rate of one a day. Taken in larger doses, their novelty might wear off.

Bonnett is careful to point out the social resonance of each place he describes, such as Pripyat, a village deserted after the famous act of government deception following the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, or FARC-Controlled Colombia, ruled by rebels against the Colombian government.

This vigilance is what keeps the book from being merely a guidebook to various outlandish locales; Bonnett seems to want to communicate that human intervention, either through physical occupation or through mapmaking (which can’t always be effectively done, as in the case of the book’s first entry, about Sandy Island, which appeared on maps for centuries but seems to have vanished entirely) is what has made these places so strange.

Bonnett has very much personalized this book; at times he pushes himself too aggressively into it. His autobiographical insertions, as when he tells about forming a magazine about what he calls psychogeography, which covers “urban exploration as a kind of geographical version of surrealist automatic writing,” give him credibility as an author.

However, he at times grows too fervent, as when he ends an entry on Kijong-dong, an entirely fake, empty city in North Korea, with the statement, “It is another fake, a nostalgic ruin of the future that pretends, like
Kijong-dong, to want to lure us in but actually doesn’t want anyone anywhere near.’’

Apart from moments like this, which sidle toward political frothing, this book is a comforting read, much like dipping into a highly intelligent travel magazine, a book that teases the imagination while remaining firmly rooted in the factual.

Max Winter, author, most recently, of a book of poems, “Walking Among Them,” can be reached at maxw28@yahoo.com.
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