The word “essay” comes from the French verb essayer, which means “to try.” Essays, therefore, should always be considered works in progress. But the 14 pieces in Best Canadian Essays 2009, culled from literary and general-interest magazines as well as online journals, make such equivocation unnecessary. Each essay features highly polished prose that holds the reader’s attention. And though they vary considerably in subject matter and approach, one thing they share is candidness. (Full disclosure: one of the essays is by Q&Q Books for Young People editor Nathan Whitlock.)
In “The New Face of Porn,” Alison Lee asserts that intelligent women can transform pornography into a powerful rebellion against the status quo. Kris Demeanor provides an engaging chronicle of life as a travelling musician in “Get a Real Job.” Jessa Gamble provocatively explains her attraction to dangerous animals in “Where the Muskox Roam” (“My first encounter with a herd of muskoxen was terrifying and bewitching and I’ve been in love with them ever since”).
Each essay is honest, direct, and informative. My personal favourite, because of its frankness and perspicacity, is “Too Poor to Send Flowers,” Kamal Al-Solaylee’s eulogy for Canadian theatre, which he argues is fading in popularity thanks to a short-term fixation on technology and a lack of true theatrical visionaries.
Most of the essays are serious in tone, and two in particular look death straight in the eye. The first of these is Chris Koentges’s deeply moving stream-of-consciousness portrait of his mother, who died of Glioblastoma Multiforme, an “exceedingly malignant” form of cancer. The second is Katherine Ashenburg’s “The New Death Etiquette,” which probes how funereal observances for our loved ones are becoming more modern and personalized.
The individual contributions in Best Canadian Essays 2009 transcend simple reportage and reach the level of art. Each one has something distinctive and informative to say. Take heed.