Some of their names, such as Biafra or New Brunswick, will be relatively familiar. Others, such as Labuan, Tannu Tuva and Inini, are far less recognizable. But all of these lost nations have fascinating stories to tell, whether they were as short-lived as Eastern Karelia, which lasted only a few weeks during the Soviet–Finnish War of 1922, or as long-lasting as the Orange Free State, a Boer Republic that celebrated fifty years as an independent state in the late 1800s. Their broad spectrum reflects the entire history of the 19th and 20th centuries, with its ideologies, imperialism, waves of immigration and conflicts both major and minor.
Atlas Obscura, the website, has been aggregating an online database of unusual and interesting places around the world for the past several years. Atlas Obscura, the company, has been expanding at a rapid pace these past few years, hiring former Slate editor David Plotz as their CEO in 2014. One result of said expansion has now come to fruition in the form of Atlas Obscura, the book, out this week from Workman Publishing. Written by co-founders Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras and associate editor Ella Morton, Atlas Obscura is basically a curated subset of the online Atlas Obscura experience.
Like the Atlas of Cursed Places (reviewed here), Atlas Obscura is not an atlas per se. There are maps, but they exist to locate the subjects of the essays that make up this book. Those subjects—those weird and wonderful places—also appear on the website, but the essays are different; in the sample I compared, the book’s version is considerably briefer and more dense. This is to be expected: when you have fewer than 500 pages to work with, you have to make some zero-sum editorial decisions. Fewer, more fulsome pieces, or more pieces of shorter length. Atlas Obscura has opted for the latter, with pieces that are frustratingly, tantalizingly brief, each followed by a little information on how to get there (or, in some cases, whether you can get there). Even then only a fraction of the places that appear online appear between the book’s covers.
But browsing a website is not the same experience as reading a book. No one would try to go through the entire Atlas Obscura database; the book allows for a big-picture look at the sort of thing found there. A curated subset, as I said above. A taster’s menu. The book also rewards serendipity and pleasant surprises: whether you’re reading from beginning to end (as I did for this review), looking for specific continents, regions or countries, or flipping through pages at random, you’re bound to encounter an entry you hadn’t expected to come across. If there’s value in a hard-copy (or electronic: Kindle, iBooks) version of something freely available online in expanded form, it’s here. And let me be clear: that’s not nothing.
I received an electronic advance review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.
The first thing to keep in mind about Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places (Black Dog & Leventhal, October 2015) is that it’s not an atlas. Rather, it’s a collection of brief essays about a series of unique places around the world. In that I suspect it’s much like Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands or Aude de Tocqueville’s Atlas of Lost Cities (English translation forthcoming next year). All of these books shared a publisher in France; all of them appear to have been conceived under the influence of Calvino.
The Atlas of Cursed Places’s essays are about places in the world that are, for one reason or another, particularly horrible, by dint of their history or geography. There are navigational hazards and environmental disasters, and sites of old horrors that were entirely human-made. Ghost towns, war zones, slums and mausoleums. Animal infestations. Each are engrossing, but the essays barely get started on their subjects: turn the page expecting more and you find yourself already on the next one. Each essay is an act of cruelty (very meta given the subject matter), whetting readers’ appetites but denying us the feast.
In the end this is an exercise in curation: the choices are fascinating, but the essays are affective rather than substantive. In that sense this book is an even lighter read than Alastair Bonnet’s Unruly Places (which seems to have much less Calvino in its book DNA).
(While not an atlas proper, this book does have a lot of maps illustrating each essay. But their effect is disorienting: each cursed place is indicated by a star on an old and out-of-date map, usually a plate from a century-old atlas.)
I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.
Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places (first published in the U.K. as Off the Map) is a light, entertaining exploration of some of the world’s more unusual places. Bonnett, a social geography professor at Newcastle University, has written 47 short essays about locations that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t make any sense: the exceptions, the asterisks, the ink blots (in at least one case literally) on the map.
These range from the deeply frivolous to the profoundly injust: from bits and pieces of New York City transformed into environmental time capsules and art projects to places meaningful to the author; from rendition sites and pirate bases to Bedouin settlements in the Israeli Negev desert; from destroyed landscapes to Potemkin cities. The places often feel almost science-fictional; and in fact several of them evoked settings in existing science fiction works, like Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and Maureen McHugh’s Nekropolis.
All in all, a pleasant diversion for the geographically minded, though I did have one quibble: the book calling latitude and longitude “Google Earth coordinates,” as though degrees are as proprietary as the KML format.