For Margaret Atwood's countless fans, acquiring this long-waited collection is a no-brainer. But even those of us who are late-comers (or no-shows)...

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“Writing with Intent:
Essays, Reviews,

Personal Prose 1983-2005″

by Margaret Atwood

Carroll & Graf, 427 pp., $26

For Margaret Atwood’s countless fans, acquiring this long-waited collection is a no-brainer. But even those of us who are late-comers (or no-shows) to the Atwood Fan Club would do well to become acquainted with “Writing with Intent,” an abundant harvest of fine nonfiction.

It is, first of all, hugely impressive to see so much critical wit accompanied by so little malice. Atwood is, by her own admission, a kind literary critic: “Reviewers are either spankers, dealing out slaps for what they consider poor performance, or strokers, awarders of marshmallows for performances they consider admirable. I’m a stroker.” If Atwood hates a book, she simply doesn’t review it. Would that more writers of her stature took that position instead of using review pages to vent their spleen and show off their own alleged expertise.

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Atwood’s nonfiction accomplishes something else uncommon and difficult: She allows the subject of her essay to remain the star. The talent that’s fueled her own accomplishments (she’s published close to 40 books) and her wide-ranging knowledge are very much in evidence, but Atwood nearly always steps back and keeps the reader trained on the person or place of the title.

An example: Her “Letter to America” certainly reflects Atwood’s feminist intelligence and Canadian roots, but it is foremost a wonderful lesson in the complex, shifting feelings this nation arouses among its own citizens, and others:

“You stood up for freedom, honesty, and justice; you protected the innocent. I believed most of that. I think you did, too. It seemed true at the time. You put God on the money, though, even then. You had a way of thinking that the things of Caesar were the same as the things of God: That gave you self-confidence. You have always wanted to be a city upon a hill, a light to all nations, and for a while you were. Give me your tired, your poor, you sang, and for a while you meant it.”

The breadth of subject matter in the 58-piece collection is a tribute to Atwood’s tireless curiosity; the book maps her sedulous career. Reviews of work by Toni Morrison, John Updike and Antonia Fraser coexist with essays on Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the beloved Anne of Green Gables books; glimpses into Atwood’s own life; and a clever meditation-for-our-times titled “Napoleon’s Two Biggest Mistakes.”

If you only had a minute to learn all about Napoleon, Atwood could provide just the two sentences you’d need:

“Napoleon was a brilliant soldier who rose like a bubble during a time of unrest and bloodletting, won many battles, and was thus able — like Julius Caesar — to grab near-absolute power. He had laudable motives, or so his spin-doctoring went: he wanted peace, justice, and European unity.”