In more than fifty pieces, Atwood aims her intellect and humor at the world, and reports back to us on what she finds. This roller-coaster period brought the end of history, a financial crash, the rise of Trump, and a pandemic. From debt to tech, the climate crisis to freedom; from when to dispense advice to the young (answer: only when asked) to how to define granola, we have no better guide to the many and varied mysteries of our universe.
Burning Questions is a canny title for Margaret Atwood’s new book of essays and occasional pieces. It reflects both the urgency of the issues dear to her...and their combustibility, the risk that in writing about them she might get burned ... Atwood...can still rile and inspire ... There aren’t always clear answers in Burning Questions; indeed, Atwood points out that essays are really just 'attempts' at answers ... You will probably be struck by how sensible and moderate Atwood is ... Readers’ enjoyment of Burning Questions may be proportional to the pleasure they take in Atwood’s cozy, twinkling tone. She can’t resist an amusing simile; she’s fond of appearing absent-minded; she’s self-effacing. This can become grating ... There’s sometimes condescension in it; in one essay, she adopts an alien persona to show 'earthlings' how to avoid totalitarianism — not cute ... Nevertheless, the book’s scope and the perspicacity of her writing evince the reading and thinking of a long life well lived. There are some good axioms worth repeating ... She writes about an astonishing array of things ... Range isn’t a problem ... But some pieces feel dashed off. She pads and digresses; what could be a sentence becomes a paragraph. Clumsy coinages feel like placeholder words ... This may be forgivable, or inevitable, given the demands on Atwood’s time ... This word limit permits only an outline of what makes Burning Questions both stimulating and frustrating. It’s certainly a dipper rather than a straight-through read. But it’s a foolish reader who fails to seek the flashes of brilliance and insight that glint amid the more workaday pieces.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to collect their PEN International speeches between hard covers ... The amount these speeches have added to the sum of human dullness is incalculable ... This applies even to those who can clearly write and think, like Margaret Atwood ... In Atwood’s new book...there are so many such speeches, including a PEN talk, that they quickly capsize the boat, threatening to drown even the good material. The heart-sinking opening sentences start early, and they never entirely stop ... I kept reading. Hope springs eternal across a crowded table of contents. And there is some smart material and pawky wit in Burning Questions, even if they huddle, trembling, like ferns behind a waterfall ... In some of the essays here, Atwood recalls the gestation and reception of her best-known novels ... Some of the most memorable things in Burning Questions are simply stray comments that noodle their way into your mind ... Atwood, at 82, hardly seems ossified. She’s radiant on this book’s cover, and the best pieces here cast a certain glow as well. As for the speeches, I suppose during those you can, as at any conference, sneak out to the sidewalk for an illicit vape.
One of the most notable aspects of this collection is how engaged Atwood, now 82, has remained with the pressing issues of the day ... Atwood is clearly undaunted by opprobrium, calling instead for fairness and accountability ... It’s fascinating to read Atwood’s reflections on her own novels and their continued relevance, sometimes three or four decades after the fact, but equally striking to see how many pieces she has included here generously celebrating other writers.