For many, “essay” is a loaded word, calling up memories of homework and school. This is too bad, as the genre can be thought-provoking, informative, and a source of reading pleasure. The Best Canadian Essays 2010 makes a strong case for dispensing with old prejudices. Besides being well-written, the 16 essays selected here were composed in 2009, the year of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. What were Canada’s magazine writers thinking about as markets around the world faltered and fell?
Anything but finance, it turns out. More surprisingly still, their mood was upbeat. Topics here cover a wide range, including a popular wrinkle cure, the new territory of Nunavut, a centuries-old Christian pilgrimage route in Spain, the future of the gay rights movement, the possibility of an environmental Armageddon, and the chemistry of love. Reading these essays was like engaging in a series of great conversations with bright, articulate friends. No matter how complex the subject matter, the writing remained accessible, probably because the Canadian magazines from which these pieces were culled — Walrus, This Magazine, Chatelaine, and Montreal’s own Maisonneuve, to name a few – are mostly general-interest periodicals.
In “This is your Brain on Love,” one of my favourites, Danielle Groen explores the biochemical underpinnings of lust and love. Apparently this is a booming field of study in universities around the world. Here in Canada, the University of Waterloo runs something called a “relationship research lab,” in which the effects of neurotransmitters and hormones (dopamine, serotonin, estrogen, testosterone and the like) are measured and observed. Brain parts are studied too. The area that lights up when a lover enters the room is “the caudate nucleus, a shrimp-shaped region deep in our brains that evolved more than 65 million years ago.”
We tend to think of love as mysterious and irrational, but researchers are finding just the opposite. Apparently we are as predictable in matters of mating as the common prairie vole, the animal first used in lab studies on love back in 1995.
In “Territory of Unrequited Dreams,” Lisa Gregoire reflects on the first ten years of Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, carved out of the Northwest Territories on April 1, 1999, and home to many of the country’s Inuit. Despite a scarcity of housing, health care professionals, affordable airline tickets and university graduates, Gregoire paints a hopeful portrait, in large part because half the population is under 25. As a local elder points out, the young have dreams.
“Walking the Way” is Timothy Taylor’s poignant and inspiring account of an 800-kilometre trek through northern Spain to the famous cathedral town of Santiago de Compostela. Shaped like a short story, it describes the author’s adventures on this gruelling route — he calculates he took 25,000 steps each day – and how the experience helped him come to terms with life after his mother’s death. With some surprise he notes that nobody he and his walking partner met on “El Camino” (“the way” of his essay’s title) mentioned religion, faith, or metaphysics when asked why they were walking. “Nobody says,” he writes revealingly, that their “mother died three years ago” and they “haven’t been the same since.” Taylor’s eye for detail and sensual descriptions of meals, landscape and fellow travellers made this reader feel that she was walking right beside him.
This is only the second year of The Best Canadian Essays series. It survived the worst of the financial crisis. Let’s hope it continues.
Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal fiction writer and translator.