cover image An Atlas of Extinct Countries

An Atlas of Extinct Countries

Gideon Defoe. Europa Editions, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-60945-680-1

Defoe (How Animals Have Sex) brings a light touch to this unique collection of “obituaries of the nations that fell off the map.” Highlighting 48 (often grim) countries that no longer exist, Defoe covers the familiar, such as Yugoslavia, as well as more obscure places such as Franceville (a country from 1889–1890 in modern-day Vanuatu), and catalogues “chancers, racists, racist chancers, conmen, madmen... and a lot of things that you’d file under the umbrella term of ‘general idiocy’.” In 1811, for example, a Massachusetts adventurer tried to establish on three remote islands in the south Atlantic a country with a mission to offer refreshments to passing travelers, thereby creating “a glorified motorway service station, but in the stupidest place possible.” The residents of “The Great Republic of Rough & Ready,” meanwhile, gave up on seceding from California when a neighboring town refused to sell them alcohol. Defoe’s humor doesn’t always fit the material (William Walker’s deliberate contamination of water supplies that caused a cholera epidemic in modern-day Mexico, and a civil war in 19th-century China that killed between 20 million and 100 million, are both relegated to footnotes), but on balance the author’s superior talent for vivid similes and punchy writing do justice to the tales of megalomaniacs and fools. This is perfect for fans of Atlas Obscura. (June)