Susan Olding's latest book is the essay collection Big Reader.
If the pandemic has left you feeling too distracted and foggy to concentrate for long, buy or borrow a book of essays.
Short enough to finish in a sitting, inventive enough to spark your weary brain, intimate enough to dispel some Covid loneliness, an essay is the next best thing to an hour with a smart friend.
The bestselling novel of a decade ago will sometimes seem stale or irrelevant today, but that’s rarely true of an essay. Like your smart friend, the essay has staying power.
Here, then, are eleven stellar essay collections published in Canada over the past decade or so. Most are small press books you might have missed on their first release. Revisit them now—for their continuing relevance, for the comfort or provocation they’ll offer, for the laughter they’ll kindle, for the futures they’ll help us imagine as we slog our way through this third and —let’s hope—final wave of the pandemic.
Reverberations, by Marion Agnew
Anyone who has lost a parent to a lingering illness, anyone who has faced the strains of middle age, anyone who has truly loved a place will recognize themselves in Marion Agnew’s Reverberations. Detailing the author’s attempts to reconcile herself to her brilliant mathematician mother’s encroaching Alzheimer’s, this collection is as strong and luminescent as a vein of quartz and as bracing as the wind off Lake Superior.
How to Fall in Love with Anyone, by Mandy Len Catron
Mandy Len Catron’s “Modern Love” submission to the New York Times became the most popular essay in history of the series, and reading her book, you can see why. Her questions about the role of love in her family’s life will spark discoveries about your own attitudes to romance and companionship. I dare you to try the questionnaire with your beloved. Even if you’ve known each other for decades, I’ll bet you’ll come away with new insights and greater appreciation for this person you may have grown tired of in lockdown.
Where It Hurts, by Sarah de Leeuw
It’s no surprise that geographer Sarah de Leeuw writes with acute insight about place and environmental degradation. But more than that, in these unsentimental and intimate stories of trauma, loss, and marginalization, she maps fragile emotional landscapes. With vivid, unsparing, and perfectly calibrated prose, she takes you to pockets of this country you may never have visited before and makes you see, makes you feel, makes you care.
Alfabet/Alphabet, by Sadiqa de Meijer
Born in Amsterdam to a Dutch-Kenyan-Pakistani-Afghani family, Sadiqa de Meijer came to Canada as a child. These elegant and penetrating essays record her transition from Dutch to English—and sometimes back again. Exploring questions of loss, identity, family, landscape, and translation, de Meijer’s lyric meditations will reawaken you to the music and mystery of language and the resonance of a powerful and distinctive voice.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott
I first encountered Alicia Elliott’s writing in literary journals like The Malahat Review, where I found the title essay of this book, a fierce and powerfully engaged examination of the relationship between colonialism, depression, and the loss of language in Indigenous peoples’ lives. Yet, for all her exacting honesty, Elliott leaves her readers with hope. Warren Cariou says it best: “This book is hard, vital medicine. It is a dance of survival and cultural resurgence.”
Following the River: Traces of Red River Women, by Lorri Neilsen Glenn
Lorri Neilsen Glenn was raised in settler society, heir to every negative stereotype about Indigenous people you can imagine, and mostly ignorant of her Indigenous roots. Following the River — a book length essay composed of lyric and narrative fragments—details her tenacious attempt to uncover the history of her great-grandmother’s life and death and to inscribe the contributions of First Nations women on our collective consciousness.
Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, by Theresa Kishkan
Each essay in this inventive collection centres around a specific period in the author’s life and the tree she associates with that time, from the Garry Oak to the Arbutus. Kishkan’s two great loves, apart from husband and children, are nature and art, and their interconnection or interpenetration is Mnemonic’s great theme. This is a wise and worthy companion to the more scientifically focused books on the forest that have appeared in recent years.
Calm Things, by Shawna Lemay
In part a consideration of the mysterious life of objects, in part a meditation on the art of still life, in part a love song to the author’s husband, visual artist Robert Lemay, this is a book in the tradition of Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne. A writer looks deeply at paintings, and in the exercise of her deep attention, she learns and teaches as much about the art of writing as she does about the art of painting. It is a book about one art form that guides a reader towards a deeper understanding of all art forms.
Everything Rustles, by Jane Silcott
In these intelligent, funny, and fearless stories of midlife, Jane Silcott demonstrates what the genre does best—it models a mind engaged in a genuine search for meaning and invites us to undertake a similar search ourselves. Brimming with insight and observation, speckled with epiphanies, her sentences are so beautifully written they seem to shine. These are essays to treasure and return to again and again.
The Marram Grass, by Anne Simpson
The essays in The Marram Grass juxtapose concrete descriptions of nature against more abstract passages of philosophical speculation. Reading them, you’ll feel invited to participate in a sort of balancing that reinforces the central premise of the book—that metaphor schools us in to hover between apparent binaries, to tolerate ambiguity and the unresolved. Beautifully produced with line drawings by the author, this is a thoughtful and elegant book.
The Art of Leaving, by Ayelet Tsabari
Billed as a memoir, The Art of Leaving is also an exemplary collection of autobiographical essays. Fired by adolescent fury and heartache, these stories of travel and adventure are equally burnished with the wisdom of the now-adult narrator, who recognizes that she must come to terms with her Mizrahi heritage in order to find the happiness she seeks.
A book about memory, loss, and a love of books from one of Canada's finest essayists
Ever since childhood, Susan Olding has been a big reader, never without a book on the go. Not surprising, then, that she turns to the library to read her own life. From the dissolution of her marriage to the forging of a tentative relationship with her new partner's daughter, from discovering Toronto as a young undergrad to, years later, watching her mother slowly go blind: through every experience, Olding crafts exquisite, searingly honest essays about what it means to be human, to be a woman—and to be a reader.
Big Reader is a brilliant, achingly beautiful collection about the slipperiness of memory and identity, the enduring legacy of loss, and the nuanced disappointments and joys of a reading life.
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