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Originally published Sunday, July 20, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘Unruly Places’: the weird charm of geographical oddities

British professor of social geography Alistair Bonnett’s new book “Unruly Places,” a compendium of geographical oddities, will delight geography nerds with its tales of fluid political boundaries, secret cities and disappearing islands.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies’

by Alastair Bonnett

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 253 pp., $25

If ever a book was written for geography nerds, “Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies” is it.

British author Alastair Bonnett gives our obsession a more dignified name than we’re used to (“psychogeography,” “topophilia”). But make no mistake: If you’re someone who can happily while away the hours leafing through old atlases or scrolling through Google Maps, this is the book for you.

In 47 pithy essays, Bonnett, a professor of social geography at Newcastle University, serves up geographical oddities, anomalies and specters for his readers’ delectation. Categories include “No Man’s Lands,” “Spaces of Exception” and “Enclaves and Breakaway Nations.” Among his subjects are cemetery cities in Cairo and Manila, a desert where the Aral Sea used to be and a floating pumice island “nearly the size of Belgium” in the Pacific Ocean.

Speaking of Belgium, what’s the story behind the towns of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog, near the Dutch-Belgian border? They’re a mixed-up jumble of snippets of Holland and Belgium so tiny that the border often runs through individual houses. When either country revises its tax code, homeowners have been known to change nationality by relocating their front doors so as to take advantage of it.

This border confusion dates back to the 18th century, Bonnett says, when enclaves — pockets of countries nestled inside other countries — were created by “the complexity and fluidity of local aristocratic domains and territorial claims.” (Northern Bangladesh has similar peculiarities, including “seven thousand square meters of India inside a Bangladeshi village, which sits inside an Indian enclave in Bangladesh.”)

Then there are nonexistent places. Sandy Island, “discovered” in 1876, was said to be located 700 miles east of Queensland, Australia — until it was deemed, in 2012, not to exist at all. Islands, Bonnett notes, seem particularly prone to being figments of the imagination: “The 1875 revised Admiralty Pacific chart discarded 123 unreal islands.”

The idea that Sandy Island’s nonexistence was confirmed only two years ago is startling.

Bonnett also focuses on places that are indisputably real but have undergone drastic changes of identity, usually due to political upheaval. Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) may have disappeared from maps, he acknowledges, but it still exists in people’s memories.

In other cases, a place can keep its name while being transformed beyond recognition. Who knew that, in the last 20 years, 95 percent of ancient Mecca has been replaced by modern boulevards, parking lots, hotels and retail centers?

One rationale for the old city’s destruction was provided by a 1994 fatwa decreeing: “It is not permitted to glorify buildings and historical sites. ... Such action would lead to polytheism.”

Still other cities are real but hidden. One reason you may not have heard of Russia’s Zhelezogorsk, producer of weapons-grade plutonium for close to 50 years, was that the authorities kept its existence a secret. “It did not appear on Soviet maps,” Bonnett says.

The book takes a charming turn when Bonnett recalls the secret hideaways of his boyhood: “Given half a chance, children create their own nooks in the leftover places of the adult map.”

Whatever approach he takes to “unruly places” in this wonderful book, he does full justice to their power “to disrupt our expectations and reenchant geography.”

Michael Upchurch is an arts reporter for The Seattle Times.

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