Unruly Places

UnrulyPlacesA little more than a month ago, we started reading books like “Bear Wants More” and “The Giving Tree” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” at our house. We had a baby girl on July 11th, three days after my last post, and since then, I’ve been adjusting to a new schedule and learning how to fit “adult” reading in the mix. Don’t get me wrong, some of these kids books are actually pretty darn good. A friend bought us a collection by Caroline Kennedy, “Poems to Learn by Heart,” and we’re enjoying that. And some of the new books, like “President Taft is Stuck in the Bath,” makes the kid reading not so bad.

But learning how to read with an infant around is a new challenge. I’m tired a lot, there’s been tons of visitors, and I would rather spend time with my daughter. All that means I’m learning how to read again. 

Post baby, the first book I read was “Middlesex.” I loved the book, but haven’t gotten around to writing a post about it yet. It was for our book club, and unfortunately, I missed that discussion and didn’t finish the book until a few days after the meeting. It was a fantastic book about families, cities, sense of self, and relationships, and I devoured it. 

The second book I started was “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.” I tried. Really, I did. I gave this book weeks. And it’s only 250 pages. But I gave up. Into the Did Not Finish (DNF) pile it went. (That’s a SMALL pile at this house, we usually finish what we start.) The weird blend of fiction-style writing about true events didn’t work for me. The author, perhaps too enlightened by her time in India, never set up the story in a way that made me want to know what happened to the individuals she wrote about. Call me cold, but it didn’t do it for me. 

So the next book on the docket was “Unruly Places.” I read a review about the book and thought it would be a great selection. It was. Alastair Bonnett is a geography professor and he’s written a slim book full of stories about places that most of us don’t know exist–or might not even consider as places. The book has one of these lengthy subtitles which is fashionable these days, but indeed it is a good description of the book: “Lost Spaces, Secret Cities and Other Inscrutable Geographies.” In a series of 40+ chapters, Bonnett takes us to many of these places, tickling our imaginations, and challenging our assumptions of what constitutes a place. 

He writes about the pirate town of Hobyo, about Camp Zeist, where the Libyan Pan-Am bombers were tried, and even about a traffic island. In many places, he visits these spots, describing his feelings in each place. In most cases, he offers geographic coordinates so you can follow along with your smart phone. The chapters on “Dead Cities” were fascinating–especially the towns of Wittenoom and Agdam. He writes of disputed borders, of hidden places, and of confounding “places of exception.” 

In the chapter about the Labyrinth underneath Minneapolis-St. Paul, Bonnett writes about the growing trend of urban exploration. He says that urban exploration isn’t thriving “for the sake of art or politics but for the love of discovery.” He notes that urban explorers “collect and collate fragments of information in order to create a sense of possibility and celebrate the fact that the mundane world contains within it, or under it, far more pathways and far more fun that we previously thought.” 

And that’s the point of this book, to help illuminate these pathways and unruly places. Bonnett doesn’t write like a stodgy geography professor; there’s some dry wit accompanying his observations about each place. So the book isn’t academic–it’s purely enjoyable even for someone who doesn’t make maps for a living.

Calling us a “place-making and place-loving species,” Bonnett is a tour guide for the kinds of places that inspire and confound us. The place his book ends with made me chuckle out loud. In the chapters about “Ephemeral Places,” he writes about “Stacey’s Lane,” which is basically the place he and his brother invented and played in as kids. He writes that these “childhood dens are our first places, or at least the first places we actively shape with our imagination, care for, and understand.” At my house, when we were kids, we created forts in our family room. I remember having every blanket, sheet and piece of furniture in the house arranged to create the most incredible fort. I’m not sure what it says about me that that is the first place we created, but it sure was fun to dream up each room and each story for our fort. I loved that he included this “ephemeral place” in his book.

There’s an ongoing conversation in my city and other urban American cities about the kind of place-making that Bonnett writes about. Collectively, we’re exploring vacant places and their original uses and we’re trying to reclaim or repurpose some of them to create new spaces and destinies. City leaders and urbanists are engaged in a conversation about the places around us and what they should be and represent. In many ways, those conversations are healthy. However, sometimes they aren’t, especially when people believe that their idea is the “only” or the “right” idea about what a place should be. For those wedded to their own ideas of what a place must be, maybe this book will challenge you to consider other ideas about what you think you know about place. For anyone else, it’s just going to be a riveting and thought-provoking that will make you consider all places a little differently. 

The book is also perfect for someone who is stuck in their own “unruly place,” as in a home with a five-week old. I’m not traveling anywhere anytime soon, so this book satiated my wanderlust for now. And it reminded me the importance of getting some extra sheets so my daughter can build her own awesome fort in a few years.  

Thanks for reading. 

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