Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things
Once again, the Book Group has gotten me to read something that I would never have picked up for myself. I had heard great things about Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things from the folks at BookRiot, but I classified the book as "inspirational" and put it on the Nope List. I'm not sure why I have such an aversion to inspirational books. Perhaps it's because so often the inspiration comes from religion or woo or a gluten-free diet and feels like hypocrisy. The Book Group picked Tiny Beautiful Things because it was short. The last two books we've read (Unbroken and Americanah) were up around 500 pages. Another door stop was just too much. So, one member of the group suggested Tiny Beautiful Things and because it was less than 400 pages and because we'd collectively heard good things about it, we picked it for our March book.

I've been putting off reading it until today. (The Book Group meets tomorrow.) I shouldn't have done so. There's so much raw emotion in Tiny Beautiful Things that I think it should be read in small doses so as not to overwhelm. This book has its genesis on The Rumpus. Dear Sugar is the site's advice column. Unlike most advice columnists I know or have heard of, Cheryl Strayed's Sugar offers much of her own life story as advice to the people who write to her. In Tiny Beautiful Things, people seek advice from Sugar about the possibility of leaving spouses, forgiving themselves and others, dealing with grief and anger and jealous, and a raft of other very human problems. Sugar's advice is true in a way I've never seen before in an advice column.

The problems people send to Sugar are real problems—though there are examples in here of people who need to be smacked upside the head to realize that they're being idiots. In one letter to a advice seeker, Sugar writes:
“To be Sugar is at times a haunting thing. It’s fun and it’s funny; it’s intriguing and interesting, but every now and then one of the questions I get seeps its way into my mind in the same way characters or scenes or situations in other sorts of writing I do seep into my my mind and I am haunted by it. I can’t let go.” (22-23*)
I don't know how Strayed copes with all the pain that people bring to her. She offers sympathy and love to these strangers that astonished and moved me. In the foreword by Steven Almond, he writes that Sugar offers her readers "radical empathy" (6).

What separates Sugar from other advice columnists, I think, is her big heart and the fact that Strayed herself has lived such a screwed up life. It gives her an authority that I've never associated with people like Dear Abby, who seem to be dispensing their advice from above the fray of life. In another of her letters, Sugar writes that “[Life is] a roiling stew of fear and need and desire and love and the hunger to be loved” (107). Sugar offers ethical and honest advice and encourages her readers to be ethical and honest themselves, but there is a thread throughout the advice collected here that humans are humans. We screw up and hurt people and ourselves. We make bad decisions. But Sugar repeatedly points out that there's always hope for the future. People can change, forgive themselves, and move forward with their lives.

I confess that I'm curious about Sugar's success rate. Her advice often feels like a refreshing outsider perspective on problems that the people embroiled in the situation can't provide for themselves. I wish that Tiny Beautiful Things had included a few follow-up letters. But then, I wish that I could see follow-up letters from Captain Awkward with their scripts for dealing with this or that situation. (On the flip side, I really don't want to see the follow-up to the advice provided on thatbadadvice.tumblr.com.) Do people really follow the advice given by Sugar and other advice columnists? Can they see their way out of their messy problems and learn from an outsider's perspective? After reading Tiny Beautiful Things, and seeing the generous and often wise advice Sugar gives, I hope so.

All this said, I don't know that I can read another book like Tiny Beautiful Things. I feel wrung out by the experience. I'm not emotionally evolved enough to take that much raw emotion.

* Quotes are from the 2012 trade paperback edition by Vintage.

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