Calgary: The Unknown City
James Martin
(Arsenal Pulp Press) $14.95

Edmonton: Secrets of the City
Charlene Rooke
(Arsenal Pulp Press) $14.95

I have never been to Edmonton, and have no desire to visit it. I have been to Calgary, and have no desire to revisit it. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these mid-sized Canadian cities, both located in the province of Alberta, in Arsenal Pulp Press' guidebooks Calgary: The Unknown City and Edmonton: Secrets of the City. Arsenal Pulp, based in Vancouver, BC, publishes new fiction, light theory, and hip guidebooks that explore the seedier and more peculiar aspects of obscure cities.

Calgary is written by James Martin, and Edmonton is written by Charlene Rooke. Both writers are devoted to their cities, and they share a nimble sense of humor that's propelled by a chatty prose style. Despite these agreeable qualities, their books don't inspire one to jump into a car and drive up to either the "Stampede City" or the "River City." What's great about Calgary and Edmonton has little to do with their potential utility (the possibility of using them to locate "legends and landmarks"), but concerns the fact that they afford the reader all the pleasures of flânerie (idle urban wandering).

Local author Jonathan Raban (Bad Land, Passage to Juneau) once observed that when Charles Dickens wrote his novels there were roughly two million people in London. This, he felt, was the perfect population for a city in a novel. If you went over that number, you couldn't orchestrate the kind of believable coincidences that make a novel coherent. In this respect, the Seattle area, which has a population of about two million, is a perfect city for a novel. Greater Vancouver, BC, which has a population of about two million, is also perfect for a novel.

Guidebooks also have their limits, especially for the sheer purposes of reading (as opposed to travel planning). The ideal guidebooks for such useless ends should be ones that cover cities with populations between 500,000 and one million. Only then can a guidebook offer a light read, and yet be comprehensive. A guidebook for a medium-sized metropolis can contain the whole city--its artificial lakes, escape routes, haunted buildings, erotic zones--without becoming a daunting tome.

Edmonton and Calgary meet these requirements.

Both of Arsenal's guidebooks have lots of photos, and the text sections are dense without being unreadable. The eye can take in, say, "African Physics," and quickly absorb the small corner of information on that topic, and then glance up to find "Ung Crazy," which is about a "gun shop that was transmogrified into a video shop." Upon buying the shop, writes Martin, "the new owner was left to deal with the towering roadside G-U-N sign. A little elbow grease and some Scrabble-like brainwork later, UNG Video was born."

Either guidebook can easily fit into a small bag or the pocket of a sports jacket, yet they offer plenty of information to find and lose. If one happens to be distracted while reading--a sudden commotion from the next room, a barking madman who has just entered the bus, a sore tooth--it's no matter. Tend to the situation in the real world, and when it is resolved you don't have to return to the same place you left off (which is the problem with novels). Instead you can let your indolent eyes wander until they come across something like this: "This place [Nose Hill] is big, offering sex under stars with little chance of discovery" (Calgary), or this, "College Plaza apartment tower [is where] the spirit of an ancient Native chief confronted a University of Alberta professor"(Edmonton).

In my random readings of both guidebooks, I have discovered several urban marvels, the best of which I will leave you with: "The Gopher Hole Museum [in Calgary has] 67 taxidermied gophers, arranged in hokey tableaus with incongruously morbid punch lines. (Personal fave: Two stuffed gophers engaged in a tug-o-war over a third corpse. One of the gophers is a representative of the radical G.A.G.S. organization--'Gophers Against Getting Stuffed.' The other gopher is 'saying' via cartoon speech balloon, 'This one is needed for the museum')." Arsenal also offers a guidebook to Victoria, BC, but I think that city (population 300,000) is too small for the needs of the drifting reader.