Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives: Stories

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A Year in Reading: Anthony Doerr

In a year in which some remarkable books found me—Anne Carson’s weird, exquisite Autobiography of Red; Brad Watson’s hallucinatory, radioactively-good story collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives; Siddhartha Mukherjee’s massive, massively interesting biography of cancer The Emperor of All Maladies–no book afflicted me with such jealousy as Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will.

What is it?  It’s a blue hardcover containing hand-drawn maps of fifty super-isolated islands, paired with a page of text about each.  It’s also a collection of fifty prose poems.  And a quest for the loneliest places in the world.  And a testament to the transformative power of maps.

You can read it in an hour.  Or a month.  It contains lots of lines like: “Here in Neptunes Bellows, at the gates of hell, in the jaws of the dragon, the waves crash interminably” (128).  Or, “ They soak the rock-hard leather in the sea for four or five days to soften it, fry it on the coals, and force it down their throats” (70).

“It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts,” Schalansky argues in her introduction, “and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrus orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world” (23).

Atlas of Remote Islands is a celebration of what can still be accomplished with imagination, paper and ink.  Holding it, you feel as if you’ve stolen the composition book that dreamy girl in the back row of your high school English class is always scribbling into.  You page through it and think: Oh my God.  She’s a genius.

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