Be Your Own Book Club started 2016 with a Tiny Beautiful Things because at the end of last year, I was excited for a fresh start and I had heard that Cheryl Strayed was a really motivating person to read. By the time I actually started reading this book, my life had been thrown into upheaval. Everyone is fine (including me) and everything will be fine (including me), but after the freefalling, whirlwind of a pleasure year that was 2015, the small hurdles seem really overwhelming. Enter Tiny Beautiful Things. This collection of advice columns has made me cry over and over. There have been letters that left me horrified, letters that made me say YES out loud, letters that reminded me that my life is quite manageable, letters that have given me permission to grieve (for all sorts of things, including the life I had last year). It's interesting that I suggested this difficult, important book at a time when I didn't realize I would need it so much. I'm hoping so hard that it has had the same effect on other readers.
Cheryl Strayed writes an advice column called Dear Sugar (there is now an NPR podcast by the same name). People send her questions, and she gives them advice. She is blunt and uplifting. She is kind but does not pull punches. She uses profanity, but not too much. Where it's necessary. People write her about everything, but mostly the things that pull at us: should I get married to this nice guy who doesn't excite me? Should I internet date even if my body is representative of my age and I think no one will like it? Should I tour or stay with my local band? Should I forgive my father? All of them are answered in essay form, often with examples from Strayed's own life. Most of them will make you want to highlight at least one line.
At first, I was taken aback by Strayed's habit of starting off much of her advice with long, personal stories. I found it a little arrogant. A little voice in the back of my head kept saying, "These people want to know what they should do, not what YOU would do!" The voice was silenced after it became clear (just a few answers in) that Strayed was sharing herself to establish that she was one of us. A person who had overcome things, made mistakes, and found herself in the perplexing and sometimes embarrassing situations. Once you feel that, once you trust that you are talking to someone who has screwed up, too, the advice is much easier to take. When she gets firm, you know it's because she's coming from a place of experience, not judgement. When she is empathetic, it rings true. She is sharing herself with the readers in exchange for the sharing they've done.
Another thing that struck me is how often the people writing the letters already know what they need to do. In a good half of the questions, you can see how writing it out is the final exercise in the battle the individual has been waging within themselves. A tiny part of them hopes that Strayed will write back No darling, it's completely fine to stay in this dead relationship or Just keep hiding the drinking, you'll pull through. But they know. You can hear it in their voices. That thing that makes them feel uneasy, the action that seems so impossible that it immediately gets shoved deep down- that is what Strayed will suggest. Sometimes she even says You already knew this, sweet pea.
So, what was your favorite? Which letters resonated with you, made your eyes well up or sent you scrambling for a highlighter? Predictably, I really love the letter from Elissa Bassist, where she bemoans the difficulties of being a female writer, and Strayed basically tells her to hush up and get up and start writing. Like a motherfucker. Oh, I love that SO much. But there are some killer quotes throughout the entire book.
"This isn't a spotless life. There is much ahead, my immaculate little peach. And there is no way to say it other than to say it: marriage is indeed this horribly complex thing for which you appear to be ill prepared and about which you seem to be utterly naive. That's okay. A lot of people are." (page 294)
"It is the plight of almost every monogamous person at one time or another. We all love X but we want to fuck Z. Z is so gleaming, so crystalline, so unlikely to bitch at you for meglecting to take out the recycling. Nobody has to haggle with Z. Z doesn't wear a watch. Z is like a motorcycle with no one on it. Beautiful. Going nowhere." (page 38)
"The third this I advise you to do is arrange for child care for a few hours on a regular basis so you can go out with your coolest friends and rage with them about all the hurt and anger and befuddlement you have over the fact that a man you once slept with- the man who is biologically half of your precious child!- is a complete jackass." (page 43)
"I know as women we're constantly being scorched by the relentless porno/Hollywood beauty blowtorch, but in my real life I've found that men worth fucking are far more good-natured about the female body and it's varied forms than is generally acknowledged. "Naked and smiling" is one male friend's only requirement for a lover. Perhaps it's because men are people with bodies full of fears and shortcomings of their own. Find one of them. One who makes you think and laugh and come. Invite him into the tiny revolution in your beautiful new world." (page 184)
"I don't mean to be harsh, darling. I'm direct because I sincerely want to help you and because it's clear to me that you're an incredibly good egg. I know it's a kick in the pants to hear the problem is you, but it's also fucking fantastic. You are, after all, the only person you can change." (page 195)
I could go on like this FOREVER. Basically, read this book. Read it with a highlighter and some tissues. Use post its and tab the ones you really love and refer back to them. Often. Then come and tell me about it.
I'm having the hardest time picking a book for February. I want to read about love, specifically about friendship. Like, superstar female friendship. Yes Please was a perfect read for last February, because it was so woman-powery, but I don't want to do another memoir right now. I was close to picking Dumplin', a book about a fat girl and her adventures which features her female friendship, but I think I've settled on Kissing in America, which is about grief, romance, and a best friend. They're both YA picks, and I try not to focus too heavily on YA in our book club because I am obsessed in my personal life, but that's where I'm landing at the moment.
READ WITH US!