Reflections of a ‘polarized time’

Best Canadian Essays 2024

edited by Marcello Di Cintio

Windsor: Biblioasis, 2023

$23.95 / 9781771965644

Reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb


The most interesting essay in this collection is the one about garlic. Who cares about garlic, you may wonder. Well, quite a few people, it turns out, as the author of the essay learned to her cost. She’d been using garlic from a jar until someone found her out, shook her head, and got the author, Gabrielle Drolet, to switch to fresh garlic which you mince yourself. No more pre-minced garlic for her.  At least until she developed a nerve disorder and found it hard to do her own mincing.  When she tweeted about that and said pre-minced garlic wasn’t so bad, she was denounced.  Anthony Bourdain would turn over his grave, you’re destroying the environment, you can’t use pre-minced garlic, it’s some sort of sin.

What a world we live in, where a Twitter mob can come after you because of the garlic you use.  As Drolet says, people have become obsessed with the right and wrong ways of doing things, and you mustn’t do things the “wrong” way.  To this Drolet proposes the classical (i.e., old-fashioned) argument that maybe we should live and let live and allow people to do things their own way.

Not, though, before she herself hits back by calling the mincing-garlickers ableist, so she too shares the mindset of denunciation and social justice, at least briefly, and what makes this essay interesting is how much it reflects our polarized time.

But perhaps the best essay in the collection is the one by Hamed Esmaeilion about how his wife and daughter died when Iran shot down a Ukrainian airliner in 2020.  He was always angry at the Iranian regime, he and his wife were part of the opposition, albeit quietly, but now he is very angry.  And yet it is not anger that dominates his essay: the first part of it is an amusing account of how he met his wife, how they learned to date under fundamentalism (pretending they weren’t dating, the intrigue that was involved), how she thought he was too much of a hothead and how, though she too was for human rights, especially women’s rights, she worried that he was a troublemaker.

And then we travel with them to Ontario, where they set up a dental clinic, and seem to have escaped the horrors of their homeland, only for it all to go wrong when his wife flies home for her sister’s wedding.  Then the essay becomes chilling and gripping, but still very personal.

Several of the best essays in the collection are personal, like “Giverny,” Kyo Maclear’s account of how her mother finds peace after divorce through Monet’s water lilies, first the paintings and then the actual locale, in Giverny in France, where Monet lived and cultivated his lilies, during the First World War: while his sons were going off to fight.   In times of stress what we need are water lilies, some escape from the garlic denouncers.

Or in times of stress we need to drive.  When the baby is crying and driving him is all that calms him down, you go out and drive him over and over along the same route.  Why?  Because of love.  Even if you were never a good driver, even if you kept failing your driver’s test, you persevere, you learn, out of love or persistence or experience. It is a touching, heartwarming, uplifting story, this essay by Nicole Boyce called “One Route, Over and Over.”

There’s a sensitive portrayal in “Silkworms” of the author’s dead grandmother who left behind writings about caring for silkworms, celebrating their sacrifice for human beings. One really enjoys the author’s ability to connect with her grandmother, though the essay ends with less of a connection to the author’s own children. Sometimes the essays seem fresh from the wound of personal relationships, like the unresolved conflicts in the “I Love Lucy” essay, which however does end with a touching moment about loving one’s mother despite everything.

The editor of Best Canadian Essays 2024, Marcello Di Cintio, selects an eclectic mix of essays that range from the criticism of racism in Vancouver to criticising criticism of the use of pre-minced garlic. Photo James May

Editor Marcello Di Cintio includes some less personal essays, like one that criticizes racism in Vancouver and others that talk broadly about the “precarity” of life under capitalism or the class privilege in an Ontario prison town. There’s even an oddly impersonal essay about peacocks in Naramata, BC: no people, just peacocks and whether they are good or bad for the town, and then they are gone, and that’s that.

Some of the essays experiment with form: one seems more a short story evoking life in a children’s hospital ward through the eyes of one of the children; another is full of poetry; “I Love Lucy” is cast as a series of episodes from the classic TV show; and there’s a lesbian coming-of-age essay told in the second person.

The essay on movers makes you worry about moving and the one on vasectomy is not perhaps for the squeamish, but mostly what I remember from the group is Esmaeilion’s tale of Iran and the war over garlic.


Sheldon Goldfarb

Sheldon Goldfarb used to teach composition at UBC and is the author of The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC (Heritage House, 2017), reviewed by Herbert Rosengarten. He has been the archivist for the UBC student society (the AMS) for more than twenty years and has also written a murder mystery and two academic books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. His murder mystery, Remember, Remember (Bristol: UKA Press), was nominated for an Arthur Ellis crime writing award in 2005. His latest book, Sherlockian Musings: Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes Stories (London: MX Publishing, 2019), was reviewed in the BC Review by Patrick McDonagh. Originally from Montreal, Sheldon has a history degree from McGill University, a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, and two degrees from the University of British Columbia: a PhD in English and a master’s degree in archival studies. [Editor’s note: Sheldon Goldfarb has recently reviewed books by R. F. Vincent, Nick Marino, Joel Heng Hartse, Sebastien de Castell, Esmeralda Cabral, and Bruce Whiteman & Mireille Silcoff, and he has contributed a comedic poem, “The Ramen,” based on Poe’s “The Raven.”]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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