Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed


Title: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: July 10, 2012
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice. 
Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond.  Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.


My Review:

The raves that I heard about this book.  THE RAVES.  Shannon @ River City Reading was the ringleader, but Leah @ Books Speak Volumes was in on it, as well as several other of my book blogger friends...hard to remember them all because THE RAVES all started to smoosh together after a while.  :)  I knew this was a must for Nonfiction November.

Honestly, I was unsure about how I would like this at first.  Excerpts from an advice column?  Can't I get the same thing by perusing Dear Abby?

Answer: no.  Dear Sugar (aka Cheryl Strayed) is not one lick like Dear Abby.

The big difference in Sugar's responses is how she adds (very) personal experience to them.  Most advice columnists give suggestions based on seemingly objective, well-rounded perspectives.  Sugar, however, often gives advice by relating it to specific events in her own past.  This includes her experience with everything from divorce, to child molestation, to affairs, to grieving a loved one, and beyond.  This, paired with her unique tone (best described, I'd say, as "snarky and smart, yet loveable"...she calls everyone "sweet pea," how adorable is that?) gives her columns a flavor the likes of which I've never seen before.  Sugar tells it like it is, moreso than any other advice columnist that I've encountered.

While not every piece in this book will relate to your own life, I'm quite sure that any adult reader will find at least one story here that pulls quite harshly on their heartstrings.  Many of the letter writers are looking for advice on love and marriage, but others are worried about work, friends, children, relationships with their parents, grief after a death, etc.  Every age from high schoolers to 60+ are represented, so you'll find a wide range of perspectives.

While I did fall for this book by the time it was finished, I have to be honest--I was pretty lukewarm about it at first.  I think Sugar's tendency to share so much from her own past was off-putting for me.  I kept thinking, "Is this a tell-all memoir, or an advice column?"  As I mentioned above, many of her personal revelations can be quite shocking, and I think that made me feel like it was teetering beyond what is appropriate in trying to counsel these anonymous letter-writers...it took the focus off of the letter-writer, and put it more on her.  When she gives advice (even without any personal narrative), it is beautiful, eloquent, and tear-inducing, and I often felt that the stories of her past were unnecessary to get her points across.

However, as the book went on, I did become more comfortable with Sugar's level of "oversharing," so to speak.  Her stories illustrate some rather poignant life lessons, and for that, you've got to commend her honesty.  I think once I saw the stories paired with her tone, it all started to flow a bit better, and I fell into the rhythm of her conversations with these help-seekers.

My thoughts on this book are rather complicated, as you may be able to tell (though given the subject matter, I'd say that's rather appropriate).  My overall feeling is that I did enjoy it--Sugar has a way of getting to the heart of the matter that exceeds the abilities of any of her contemporaries, and her advice is truly amazing.  Plus, the book is perfect if you're looking for something that's easy to pick up and put down at will, as each letter is only a few pages in length.  However, sometimes I wished Sugar's guidance was allowed to stand on its own, without the addition of her personal experiences.  I commend her for sharing them, but I didn't always think they were appropriate tools for giving counsel, as they sometimes took the focus away from the contributor's concerns.

I fully expect to be lacerated for this review, but there it is.  :)  I will say that I'm curious about Cheryl Strayed's other work now, though!  And I look forward to getting to know her through her more biographical works.

Have you read Tiny Beautiful Things?  Do you think it's helpful for an advice columnist to add in their personal stories and life lessons, or are they better left at home?

6 comments:

  1. There will be no lacerating! I'm glad you read and (generally) enjoyed it! I think that there are some downsides to taking something that was meant to be read weekly and condensing it into a book where everything is read back to back. I loved it when I first read it, but my obsession didn't come until I started to read everything piece by piece.

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    1. Interesting point! My guess is that the book brought together many of the most heart-wrenching and revealing posts, which may have contributed to my reaction. Piece by piece, it may be less disarming.

  2. I loved this book, but I totally get where you're coming from. Sugar's personal experiences enhanced her advice for me, but I can see that it wouldn't work for everyone.

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    1. Yes, it's definitely an acquired taste I suppose. I kind of feel like a meanie for putting down her personal sharing though! :)

  3. I think you described my feelings about this book beautifully. Sometimes I felt her sharing of personal experiences made me very uncomfortable and sometimes I disagreed with her personal take on a topic, but I loved how much her personality came through and her ability to get to the heart of things.

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    1. Yes! You stated this perfectly. Uncomfortable = yes, but her personality was a shining light throughout the book. And her advice, when you come right down to it, is truly heartfelt and spot-on.

 
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