Lots of VERY short but thought-provoking pieces. They are varied, though many involve common Atwood themes (relationships, environmental catastrophe, heaven and hell, women). Some are quite poetic and a few are actual poems; there is an allegorical riddle, or perhaps it's a riddling allegory. There are also a few faux-naive woodcut illustrations.
You could easily read the whole thing in an hour or two, but you'd probably feel sea-sick and you really wouldn't appreciate them. Because they are so brief, you still have the taste of the previous one, and just as you "get" the one you are now reading, it ends. So dip in and out.
This review will echo the bitty nature of the book.
The collection opens with an exploration of memory, and the temptation to edit one's personal history.
A singer describes "my voice attached like an invisible vampire to my throat".
The frustration of endlessly being photographed is explained, though whether by a celebrity or someone in a pre-industrial society is not clear: "No more photos... shadows of myself thrown by light onto pieces of paper... I'm watery, I ripple, from moment to moment I dissolve into my other selves."
The next one is more raw: examining the negative ideas, and fears some people have about orphans, and the nasty things they say and do as a consequence. "It is loss to which everything flows, absence in which everything flowers. It is you, not we, who have always been the children of the gods." Ouch.
There is humour, especially "Resources of the Ikarians". A self-deprecating islander discusses the community's attempts to raise foreign income. "The child sex trade is not for us" (phew), but only because "our children are unattractive and rude"! A parody of Chicken Little's fears about the sky falling is very good, too.
A longer item is actually a poem, and although it starts with a bear rejecting the name applied to his species by humans, it progresses to the unravelling of almost everything - a similar trick to Martin Amis' "Time's Arrow" (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/207770668)
"Three novels I won't write soon" is an intriguing title, and the three plot summaries are good pastiches of Atwood's own themes and styles. The real trick is that one can ALMOST (but only almost) imagine her actually writing them.
The repeating pattern of a children's story is used to great effect in "Take Charge". The nursery/liturgical familiarity contrasts sharply with the more dystopian subject.
Atwood is often portrayed as a feminist writer, and although she clearly has strong views on feminist matters, that label can sound off-putting. One piece here exposes these ideas in a powerful but also funny and sad way: it starts with a (presumably modern) narrator longing for a traditional housewife-cum-mother, but it ends pointedly, "and we can be careless again... and ignore you as we used to".
The item that lends its title to the collection is near the end. It cleverly describes the compulsion to convert the world around into words, whilst staying separate from it.