Book review: Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny beautiful things. Even the title of this nonfiction book is gorgeous.

It's a compilation of advice columns by Cheryl Strayed, who wrote a column called Dear Sugar on a literary website called The Rumpus.

I don't often read non-fiction. Novels are my soul food, and I get little enough time to read that I cherish every moment I can lose myself in a stonking good story. But Tiny Beautiful Things is like a collection of short stories that, put together, become a tapestry of human experiences.

Strayed wrote a memoir called Wild a while back, which so impressed Oprah that she actually rebooted her book club just for her. In Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed demonstrates an innate talent for pulling at the heartstrings. 

Unlike the dry counselling-speak of many lesser advice columns, Strayed is first and foremost a humanist who draws upon her personal joys and tragedies to let readers know that they're not alone in this quagmire called life.

The book's title is based on one of her most widely read columns, in which a 22-year-old reader writes in to ask what Strayed, in her early 40s, would advice her twentysomething self. Her answer can be read here, but my favourite bit is this:

"Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you'll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you'll hold on really hard and realise there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room."

Then there was the story she told the 26-year-old self-professed "incredibly ugly" reader who wrote in, asking if he should resign himself to a life without love in a world where looks are everything.

Strayed tells him the tale of her friend, who was severely burnt over most of his body. A complex but intelligent man, he too had resigned himself to a life without love because of his lack of looks.

"...a week before Christmas, when he was forty-four, [Ian] would kill himself. He wouldn't leave a note."

The advice she gives him comes straight from the heart: "...your best course is to do what everyone who is looking for love does: put your best self out there with as much transparency and sincerity and humour as possible. Walk without a stick into the darkest woods. Believe that the fairytale is true."

In case you're thinking these columns are all dense, heavy, emotional stuff, it's not. Strayed has a great sense of humour too. She is capable of making light of situations when she perceives that lightness is what is needed:

"In the middle of the night in the middle of your twenties, when your best woman friend crawls naked into your bed, straddles you, and says, you should run away from me before I devour you, believe her."

So I'll leave you with a Strayed truism - one could almost say that this is probably why she continues to write.

"I think the answer to most problems is more often than not outside of the right/wrong binary that we tend to cling to when we're angry or scared or in pain. We are complicated people. Our lives do not play out in absolutes."

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