Best Canadian Essays 2023, Edited by Mireille Silcoff

While I’m sure I’m not alone in reading an anthology in an almost random order, I suspect my first choice in this particular collection would not have been high on every reader’s list. Running my eyes over the Table of Contents, I was drawn to the piece by Jane Hu, “Why the Filet-O-Fish Is My Gold Standard for Fast Food.” I suppose it could have been that I hadn’t yet had my lunch, but in truth, I suspect it’s because I too have the occasional hankering for this particular bit of junk-food-to-go. Fish sandwich and a small milk – not even a shake, just white milk – how’s that for a strange kind of order at McDonald’s?

Despite Wu’s deconstruction (and almost desecration) of the sandwich, I hung on her every word, and was surprised more than once at revelations about her relationship with this small (and getting smaller every time, it seems) once-upon-a-time treat. The piece, so full of (as editor Silcoff describes it) “subtle magic” demonstrates on so many levels the power of an essay – even when it’s about something this humble.

But humble topics are not the only subjects treated in these pages. And even those subjects some of us might feel have run their course – memories of miserable childhoods, the pandemic with its many arguments for and against vaccinations, the loneliness of enforced isolation – appear here, but in new guises, offering fresh perspectives.

ME Rogan’s essay brings readers into a family that sounds harsher than boot camp. Yet Rogan is never self-pitying; they just tell it like it was, but all within the context of one day leaving. In Rogan’s case, the leaving involved not only leaving their family, but leaving the country where they were born, neither of which is necessarily an easy thing to do. “I did love my family, but that wasn’t why I stayed. A seven-year-old has nowhere to go.”

As for Covid, it’s discussed in psychological terms. One aspect it explores is whether introverts fared better during the months of isolation. Later in the book readers are also reminded that Covid, like so many illnesses, “…is a disease of the working poor.” This latter statement leads into a remarkable piece on the nature of work, or, as author Stephen Marche calls it, “the cult of hard work.” He notes that, as many of us have experienced, the pandemic may have led us to look at work (especially going to work) in new ways. He asks questions that still have no answers – at least no easy ones: “Can we escape the myths we have built around money and self-worth?”

And truly, such unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions are what I love best about wonderful essays such as these.  Questions regarding identity – whether those related to gender, race, or Indigenousness, Silcoff has selected work by writers such as Michelle Good who aren’t afraid to offer a point of view that may stir dissent. They point to new ways of thinking, often about ‘old’ problems. Sharon Butala’s slant on loneliness in the context of ageing is exactly such a piece, combining thoughts on the value of solitude versus what she sees as sometimes the shame of aloneness, all the while using the device of memory. And though I’ve never exactly dreamed of visiting Afghanistan, Jamaluddin Aram’s piece takes me there, offering that country’s beauty as well as some of its horrors.

See also  Redemption Ground: Essays and Adventures by Lorna Goodison

This anthology takes us to many countries – and I’m not talking only geography. The institution of high school, though hardly The Breakfast Club, takes on a new gravitas. I certainly didn’t have a clue about the sociological history of secondary schools, how their establishment altered the culture. Nor had I ever heard of Leone Ginzburg, an intellect and scholar whose name we all should know. If his accomplishments are the only bit you take away from this book, you will have done well. Though once you become immersed in the piece that mentions him, I doubt that you’ll stop reading, as that essay –one of the timeliest pieces in the book – challenges us by asking “Where Is Intellectual Courage in the Age of Twitter?” And who knows, perhaps by the time you are reading these remarks, Twitter itself will have imploded.

As for how anyone else might choose to read this book – front-to-back or randomly, those decisions are personal. My only suggestion might be to read Silcoff’s Introduction after you’ve read the essays – maybe to see whether or not you agree with some of her comments, or just to know you’ve read these essays with an open mind and unclouded eyes.

About the Author

Mireille Silcoff is the author of four books, including the award-winning story collection Chez L’arabe. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and was a Weekend culture columnist at the National Post for over a decade. Mireille is the founding editor of the literary journal Guilt & Pleasure Quarterly and for many years, ran a raucous discussion salon in Toronto. She is currently finishing her next work, the book-length essay about our souls and our homes, called On Interiors. She lives in Montreal with her two young daughters.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Nov. 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 288 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771965037
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771965033

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