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Book Review of "tiny beautiful things" by Cheryl Strayed

Updated on September 2, 2016
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Cheryl Strayed is best known for Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, her unapologetically honest memoir. However, the success of Wild should not distract readers from pursuing her volume tiny beautiful things. This is a collection of advice columns she wrote under the pen name Sugar for the online site The Rumpus. Unlike many advice columnists, she doesn’t stick to the tried-and-true approach of giving prudent advice without offering much, if any, indication of whether she has ever struggled similarly. Cheryl, to her credit, doesn’t approach the questions with a simplistic attitude which could be expressed as follows: “When I was in a similar situation, this is what I did and it worked; therefore, it is what you should also do.” Occasionally she’ll mention an equivalent situation she has faced to assure the inquiring party that he or she isn’t alone. Afterwards she’ll encourage or, if necessary, admonish them without giving unreasonably specific instructions regarding what they should or shouldn’t do. Only in a few cases does she remind those seeking advice that they already know what they must do, and so they must decide whether to act now or later.

Her writing is fluid, poetic, and uncompromising. She refuses to pretend that all will be well for most who seek her counsel. For instance, she encourages a single woman in her late thirties who wants to have children to consider if she is willing to become a single mother. Deftly Cheryl cites examples where a woman she knows thought she was creating a happy, cohesive family unit when her significant other died, left, or otherwise was no longer involved. This theme—that life isn’t perfect, it will never be perfect, and you have to work with what you have—repeatedly surfaces.

Cheryl Strayed

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One reason her responses resonated with me was I could tell how exhaustively she wrestled with the questions before offering an answer. Beyond this, by asking questions in her replies, she appears eager to know what is left untold within what was shared. These aren’t routine, unthinking inquiries; instead, they’re questions which dig deeper and embolden the individual to surrender any traces of self-pity while confronting undesirable situations.

Cheryl, despite being reassuring, generous, and gracious towards those who wrote to Dear Sugar, does not promote self-pity or inertia. She writes, “Everything about that boy pacing the hallway tells me a story I need to know: that we do not have the right to feel helpless… That we must help ourselves. That after destiny has delivered what it delivers, we are responsible for our lives.”

This theme of responsibility is woven throughout the entire book. By and large Cheryl refuses to dwell on the question “Why did this happen to you?”; she instead gently asks “What are you going to do now?” Drawing on her own personal experiences—including the devastating death of her mother when Cheryl was in her early twenties—she declares that, even though much of what happens we would never have chosen, we must accept these events and continue living our lives. Moreover, she suggests that the tragedies we endure may help us become better human beings. She writes, “The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred, what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place. I’d give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.”

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The need to reach, to move forward, to consider our actions from alternative perspectives are themes knitted into the fabric of this book. Because life usually isn’t as straightforward as we would prefer, no glib or easy answers are offered. At the same time, she recognizes that there are “useless days” which eventually will “add up to something.” That is, of course, if we are willing to do the work.

This volume is recommended for anyone who wants to delve into Cheryl Strayed’s magnificent writing while being reminded of how complex and ultimately redemptive our lives can be.

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