Title: Tiny Beautiful Things
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Pages: 338 (Paperback)
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday (Vintage)
Pub. Date: 10 July 2012
Review Note: This is a book I purchased on my own. I planned on reading it ahead of the release party hosted by TheRumpus.net on Friday, July 27th in San Francisco.
Before I delve directly into reviewing the book, let me first tell you how I even became aware of “Dear Sugar“, and the author behind it, Cheryl Strayed.
I confess that I had no idea that the Dear Sugar column on TheRumpus.net existed until just before the “outing” of Sugar’s identity this past Valentine’s Day. I was reading a piece that my blog friend, Wallace (she of Unputdownables.net), had written for Book Riot about Sugar announcing her intention to reveal her identity. I dare you to read that post and not immediately look up Dear Sugar on The Rumpus.
The fact that a rather popular advice columnist would even consider “revealing her identity” sounds like a random, but rather ordinary thing. Let’s face it, Dear Abby (who I have read mostly regularly for years) states exactly who she is at the bottom of her columns. Therefore on the surface of things, it could seem odd that there would be such buzz and excitement over this unmasking.
After clicking over to The Rumpus and reading just a few of the columns that Sugar had written, I realized that it was more like Clark Kent deciding to tell the world that he was, in fact, Superman. She was, in a word, incredible. Incredible in her words, her kindness and in her brutally honest prose. She took the “Dear Abby” format, smashed it to pieces and recreated it in amazing essay form. She not only gives advice in her answers, she pulls from her life experiences, both wonderful and terribly difficult, and somehow relates it to what the person is asking of her. Even when the question that is asked of her is simply, “WTF?“.
Of course, I know better now. Especially after reading Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s voice comes through in the Dear Sugar columns in a way that is so clear, it’s as though the words are an actual portrait of Cheryl. Tiny Beautiful Things is a beautiful thing, but what is contained in the pages is not tiny.
The book itself is divided into five sections, each dealing with groups of letters that revolve around certain phases (or slices) of life. The sections begin with short interviews of Cheryl on the given theme of each section, and the correspondences flow from that like water. Some of the letters will no doubt be familiar to Dear Sugar fans (her advice to a writer – “write… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker” is featured of course), while other letters have apparently never appeared online. Because I was sort of late to the proverbial party, most (but not all) of what is in this book was new to me. I am sure that my enjoyment of it was magnified by that, my appreciation of the advice different than that her loyal readers. It’s the small bonus I get in discovering her after most people around me. Her fans know how special this column is…I am still discovering it.
Make no mistake, her style of writing here is not censored in any way. There is a certain amount of what some might find profane language, though it is always used to illustrate the point she is making. The shock value is a tool to shake up the person she is advising in her answer, and not just because she felt like using a word like…well…motherfucker. The advice is always, always, exactly what a person likely needs to hear (or read), and comes across as tough love, with the operative word being “love”.
I found myself touched in reading incredible letters sent to Sugar, crying at some of the answers, and cheering for the person seeking advice to find their way back into the light that they sought. My old habit of reading Dear Abby, coupled with breathtaking writing, made it possible for me to be pulled right into this book. I do have to say, however, that those that are not prone to reading advice-type columns may have a difficult time getting into this kind of format in book form.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. I would recommend this book to anyone who has read Wild, has read advice columns before, or generally appreciates thoughtfully written essays. The language at some points is not for everyone, and some may have a difficult time responding well to that aspect. Personally, the language did not bother me and my rating reflects that. I only mention it because everyone has different thresholds when it comes to profanity. Approach with an open mind, and you won’t regret it.
On twitter: @CherylStrayed
On Facebook: Cheryl Strayed