I am passionate about words. I read a decent amount of them. I've been inherently tuned in to lyrics and verse for my entire conscious life, and remember an inordinate amount of songs even when I've only heard them once, or not for years. As a child, I read prolifically, and started early. As an adult, I'm extremely picky when it comes to reading. I'll decide within the first few pages whether or not I can finish a book. I have to be passionate about it. For a long time, I only read poetry, because I valued succinct beauty, not long-winded story telling. I even found a poem that explained that preference, that need. If I'm not totally absorbed, enthralled, engaged, then I won't finish the book. I've given up feeling guilty about it: I'm not a patient reader. I'm a selfish, greedy, gobble-it-up reader, who doesn't want to read novels that 'might get better' or have some kind of 'classic literature value'. That said, I feel like having more free time this past year has improved my reading habits, and I've noticed that I've been reading a lot more, and a wider range, too.
Book reviews aren't really my thing, and the last time I think I mentioned a book on this blog in any significant way was when I finished 'We Need to Talk About Kevin', and that was around this time last year. Since then I've read several novels and a couple of guide books, including 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower', 'Let's Pretend This Never Happened', 'The Hunger Games' trilogy, 'Dog Training for Dummies', and (I'm mildly embarrassed to say) 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. That last one can be chalked up to liking to be informed about things I'm mocking and the fact that, sometimes, an easy book is something I like too. Still in my queue are 'Me The People' and 'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius'.
'Tiny Beautiful Things' by Cheryl Strayed, and I am absolutely and utterly compelled to write something about it. I've not felt this way about a book in a long time, and possibly never about a non-fiction book. One of her readers describes her words as 'sacred', and I actually don't think it's an exaggeration. You must, must, must read this book. It's stunning.
What started as an advice column on the book club website 'The Rumpus' has resulted in - you guessed it - a book. It's more than just a collection of columns (although essentially those are its main components), because it explains the background of how Cheryl Strayed became 'Sugar', and a little of who Chery Strayed is, too. But it's not just a collection of columns in the figurative sense, either, because these aren't just columns. They are beautiful, soul-clenching missives that you want to bundle up and somehow ingest, to remember their wisdom, their particular phrasing that rings that distant 'oh, of course!' bell. They speak to you as though you always knew their truth; they reassure you that it's okay to fuck up; they remind you that you're human in a way that gives you an innate tugging somewhere in your belly, connecting you to it all.
I'm a little concerned that I'll come across as fanatical if I continue in this vein, plus I'm certain that my words aren't enough to do justice to hers. I'm also reluctant to directly quote some of her letters because I don't want to spoil the discovery of them for you. Finally, I don't want to misrepresent what Sugar does. Her work isn't about mollycoddling, whatever you write to her about. She is honest, sometimes brutally and shockingly so. She swears (I think rather effectively, but this may put some people off). She is soothing, she is open (sometimes using personal stories to illustrate her replies), she is hilarious, and she shows such empathy that sometimes it breaks your heart almost as much as the reason she's been written to.
So, I'll just tell you how I found 'Dear Sugar', and maybe drop in one quote and leave it at that. A friend posted Sugar's Column #48 on their Facebook page and tagged me and a few others in it, meaning to give some inspiration for being perseverant in the pursuit of one's dreams. In all honesty, I thought that the letter to Sugar was the thing I was supposed to be reading to start with, as that was pretty damn good. But then Sugar came in, responding to that young female writer-who-couldn't-write's cry for help. I was... entranced? Breathless? All sounds a bit like a romantic novel, doesn't it?! But I sat with goosebumps up and down my arms, a few happy tears trailing down my cheeks, and an immediate desire to read it again. And again. And again. The way Strayed could be kind, firm, funny, inspirational, sweet, tough, and caring all at once impressed me so much. The ability to unify these elements, to simultaneously open out and condense the writer's issues, and then to find on reading the collection that she could do it with each and every diverse, painful, wonderfully human letter written to her - ah.
"The unifying theme is resilience and faith."
Read this book.