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Bob Armstrong -- Night Table Recommendations

Wednesday, Sep 14, 2011 at 11:33am

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby (Penguin, 2009)

Let's start off with the obvious. I'm publishing a comic novel this fall (Dadolescence, Turnstone Press) about a pop-culture-obsessed middle-aged man who desperately needs to grow up and find a purpose. How could I not be a Nick Hornby fan? In his latest novel, he focuses on Annie, the wife of Duncan, a typically Hornbyesque music obsessive who treats an obscure 1980s rock album called Juliet with religious devotion. Like the rest of Hornby's books, it's funny, sad, hopeful, and honest.

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The Players, by Margaret Sweatman (Goose Lane Editions, 2009)

As a playwright, I've taken some liberties with Canadian history (plunking a pair of French philosophers into a voyageur's canoe, for example). So I've long admired the historical fiction of Winnipeg's Margaret Sweatman. Her most recent novel is an ambitious reconstruction of the event that gave birth to European influence in western Canada - the voyage of Radisson and Groseilliers and the founding of the Hudson Bay Company. Both carefully researched and wildly imaginative, the novel shows us a prostitute-turned-actress who becomes a mistress of King Charles II and is sent to the wilds of Hudson Bay to observe the goings-on for her master. Sweatman takes us inside the Restoration England that funded the French Canadian traders and founded the famous company, but still gives us an arm's-length, outsider's perspective.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt (Harper Collins, 2011)

I am a sucker for literary westerns. McCarthy, McMurphy, Vanderhaeghe, Stenson - if there are horses in it, count me in. This second novel by Oregon-based expatriate Canadian DeWitt was the discovery of the year for me: a bloody, nightmarish frontier road trip that seems at times like something out of Cormac McCarthy, yet somehow merges laughter and hope with suffering, death and betrayal. In 1850s-era Gold Rush Oregon and California, assassins Charlie and Eli Sisters are on a mission to find and kill a prospector, stopping along the way to drink, grumble, learn about dental hygiene, and encounter a variety of lost souls. It's darkly comic and filled with oddly formal language reminiscent of Charles' Portis's True Grit.

An Empire Wilderness, by Robert Kaplan (Random House, 1999)

I picked up this older book by the prolific, globe-trotting Atlantic magazine journalist this year when I was researching a new novel set partly in the American West. Kaplan spent months crisscrossing the original American Empire - the trans-Mississippi West - to get a glimpse at the future of a country facing growing class boundaries, economic hollowing out and the prospect of worsening droughts and heat waves. His conclusions (two years pre-911 and 12 years before Standard and Poors downgraded U.S. debt) aren't exactly encouraging: "Perhaps only after democracy slips away, silently replaced by the power of corporations and other great concentrations of wealth in a society whose basic instincts are tranquilized by pharmaceuticals, masturbatory gambling, and the voyeurism of coliseum sports, will the true destiny of America reveal itself."

The Canterbury Trail by Angie Abdou (Brindle and Glass, 2011)

I've always loved the mountains. I spent a couple of years editing weekly newspapers in Fernie B.C. and Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, set my first play in a fictionalized Fernie and my first, unpublished, novel in Banff. So when I heard that a Fernie-based up-and-coming writer had published a novel about ski bums and class conflict in a mountain town, I had to read it. The metaphor of mountains as cathedrals and nature-lovers as pilgrims has been around at least since Wordsworth and Co. popularized hiking in Britain's Lake District. Abdou is, therefore, following in a long tradition in The Canterbury Trail. Many of her literary influences actually predate Wordsworth by several hundred years, as she takes readers on a pilgrimage through medieval literature while recounting the story of an unlikely group of skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers on an unlikely quest for fresh powder.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Knopf, 2010)

Both David Bowie and Elvis Costello wrote songs about goon squads in the 1970s, so it's not surprising that this ambitious novel takes place in and around the music scene. What's surprising is that Egan, instead of producing a novel of interest only to pop-culture junkies, has crafted such a moving meditation on time, family, failure and mental illness. The goon squad of the title is time, which has its way with the characters in a series of interconnected episodes that span the decades from the 1970s to a brilliantly believable mid-2020s.

Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon by Michael P. Ghigleri and Thomas S. Myers (Puma Press, 2001)

Let's close with one you probably can't find on the shelves of McNally Robinson, as it's sold mostly at gift shops around the Grand Canyon, where shopkeepers seem to think that a 400-page compendium of falls, drowning, heat exhaustion, hypothermia, suicide, plane crashes and homicides is great for business. Though heavy, it's a great book to haul along on a camping trip in order to entertain your fellow travellers with tidbits such as this: after the release of the movie Thelma and Louise, the Grand Canyon experienced a string of incidents in which drivers attempted to launch themselves and their vehicles off America's most iconic viewpoint.


Bob Armstrong is a playwright, novelist, and freelance writer based in Winnipeg. His first novel, Dadolescence, was published this September by Turnstone Press. His plays include the historical/philosophical comedy Noble Savage, Savage Noble, Fringe Festival hits Haven, Tits on a Bull and You Are Here, and a work in progress called Jesus of St. Vital, which explores the years of Louis Riel?s exile in the United States in the 1870s.

Categories: Reviews, Discussions, Authors, Night Table Recommendations

More articles from books



- Bob Armstrong

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Bill and Julie live in thrifty middle-class wedded bliss with their 12-year-old son Sean. Julie brings home the bacon while Bill keeps house and frets over his never-ending PhD thesis: an anthropological study of the role of men in society. All is relatively well until Julie's ex-fiancé, the dashing and successful Blake Morgan, returns to Winnipeg--with his wife and kids.While Bill takes solace in Blake's premature grey and pot belly, next to Blake's professional success Bill feels emasculated and questions what it means to be a man--especially a domesticated one. Suddenly he starts seeing himself and his neighbours--also stay-at-home dads with successful working wives, as research subjects for his thesis.Having reached a breakthrough in his PhD procrastination, Bill launches into a series of embarrassing, ridiculous, and goofy attempts to finish his "research," prove himself a mature and capable husband and father, and above all, prove his manliness.Rather than look directly in the mirror, Bill creatively tries to save his neighbours Dave and Paul, from self-destructive home-renos and delusional dream careers.

Juliet, Naked

- Nick Hornby

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Now a major motion picture starring Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne!

From the beloved New York Times- bestselling author, a quintessential Nick Hornby tale of music, superfandom, and the truths and lies we tell ourselves about life and love. Now a major motion picture starring Ethan Hawke.

Nick Hornby returns to his roots--music and messy relationships--in this funny and touching novel that thoughtfully and sympathetically looks at how lives can be wasted but how they are never beyond redemption. Annie lives in a dull town on England's bleak east coast and is in a relationship with Duncan that mirrors the place; Tucker, once a brilliant songwriter and performer, has gone into seclusion in rural America--or at least that's what his fans think. Duncan is obsessed with Tucker's work to the point of derangement, and when Annie dares to go public on her dislike of his latest album, there are quite unexpected, life-changing consequences for all three.

Nick Hornby uses this intriguing canvas to explore why it is we so often let the early promise of relationships, ambition, and indeed life, evaporate. And he comes to some surprisingly optimistic conclusions about the struggle to live up to one's promise.

The Players

- Margaret Sweatman

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Two French explorers arrive in Court to charm two ships from the English King. The rest, as they say, is history ... Or perhaps not. Set in the libertine era of Restoration England, The Players embarks on a voyage of discovery with compelling characters, a magical plot, and stunning imagery. A tale of beginnings and of invention, this remarkable novel takes on the 17th century with a contemporary sensibility. Here, the ability to perform -- in Court, on stage, in private quarters, and in the brutal cold of James Bay -- might save your life ... and Lilly Cole must play along with the best of them. Sly, provocative, and ingeniously funny, Sweatman's prose explores the deep well of human motivation, how instinct trumps reason when survival is in question.

An Empire Wilderness

- Robert D Kaplan

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"Full of surprises and unusual revelations . . . an informed and disturbing portrait of the new American badlands."--Chicago Tribune

"[Kaplan is] tireless, curious, and smart. . . . I cannot imagine anyone will concoct a more convincing scenario for the American future." --Thurston Clarke,   The New York Times

With the same prescience and eye for telling detail that distinguished his bestselling Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan now explores his native country, the United States of America. His starting point: the conviction that America is a country not in decline but in transition, slowly but inexorably shedding its identity as a monolithic nation-state and assuming a radically new one.
        Everywhere Kaplan travels--from St. Louis, Missouri, to Portland, Oregon, from the forty-ninth parallel to the banks of the Rio Grande--he finds an America ever more fragmented along lines of race, class, education, and geography. An America whose wealthy communities become wealthier and more fortress-like as they become more closely linked to the world's business capitals than to the desolate ghettoes next door. An America where the political boundaries between the states--and between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico--are becoming increasingly blurred, betokening a vast open zone for trade, commerce, and cultural interaction, the nexus of tomorrow's transnational world. Never nostalgic or falsely optimistic, bracingly unafraid of change and its consequences, Kaplan paints a startling portrait of post-Cold War America--a great nation entering the final, most uncertain phase of its history. Here is travel writing with the force of prophecy.

"Lively . . . Kaplan has a sharp eye for social truth, and his encounters with a chorus of eloquent citizens of the West keeps the narrative humming." --Outside

Canterbury Trail, the

- Angie Abdou

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Winner of the Gold Medal for Western Canadian Fiction at the 2012 Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards It's the last ski weekend of the season and a mishmash of snow-enthusiasts is on its way to a remote backwoods cabin. In an odd pilgrimage through the mountains, the townsfolk of Coalton--from the ski bum to the urbanite--embark on a bizarre adventure that walks the line between comedy and tragedy. As the rednecks mount their sleds and the hippies snowshoe through the cedar forest, we see rivals converge for the weekend. While readers follow the characters on their voyage up and over the mountain, stereotypes of ski-town culture fall away. Loco, the ski bum, is about to start his first real job; Alison, the urbanite, is forced to learn how to wield an avalanche shovel; and Michael, the real estate developer, is high on mushroom tea. In a blend of mordant humour and heartbreak, Angie Abdou chronicles a day in the life of these industrious few as they attempt to conquer the mountain. In an avalanche of action, Angie Abdou explores the way in which people treat their fellow citizens and the landscape they love.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

- Jennifer Egan

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Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, NATIONAL BESTSELLER
National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
A New York Times Book Review Best Book

One of the Best Books of the Year: Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newsday, NPR's On Point, O, the Oprah Magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Slate, Time, The Washington Post, and Village Voice

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.