The inside flap of Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage, $14.95) is festooned with the kind of banal aphorisms all too typical in self-help books: “The only way out of a hole is to climb out”; “Believe that the fairy tale is true”; “Be brave enough to break your own heart.” Yet this collection of advice columns from Dear Sugar, the popular columnist on the literary site TheRumpus.net, has more to offer than bumper-sticker cliches.
Dear Sugar is the writer Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir “Wild,” the first pick of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. In that book, Strayed chronicles her quest to fix her crumbling life by walking the Pacific Crest Trail alone (think “Eat, Pray, Love” with rattlesnakes). In this book, she uses the hardships that led to that experience — an abusive then elusive father, the death of her mother at a young age, a string of bad relationships — as fodder for helping others. The result is a fascinating, if sometimes vexing, blend of memoir and self-help.
Strayed is less therapist than long-suffering friend who wants to show you how her spiritual reawakening can be yours, too. When, for example, a single mother asks for help dealing with the delinquent father of her child, Strayed tells her about how her own mother coped with a similar situation: by allowing Strayed to form her own relationship with her father, regardless of how her mother felt about him. “It isn’t fair that she had to be so kind to such an unkind man,” Strayed concludes, but “long after she was dead, it was her words and conduct that formed the bridge I teetered across to heal the wounds my father had made. That’s the gift you have to give your child.”
Strayed is an eloquent storyteller, and her clear-eyed prose offers a bracing empathy absent from most self-help blather. At times, however, the tendency to draw on her own experience can make the book feel like an exercise in competitive suffering. When a man confesses his anxieties about expressing love after the end of his marriage, Strayed begins her response: “The last word my mother ever said to me was ‘love.’ She was so sick and weak and out of her head she couldn’t muster the ‘I’ or the ‘you,’ but it didn’t matter. The puny word has the power to stand on its own.” Well put, yes, but is offering your own greater pain the most effective way to soothe someone else’s? Only Strayed’s advice-seekers can answer this fairly. For the rest of us, there’s a subversive thrill in eavesdropping on a therapy session that isn’t quite following the rules.
From our previous reviews:
Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River (Norton, $15.95), a “gritty but tender” novel about an abused young woman trying to carve out a life on her own in rural Michigan, bears “the saw marks of classic American literature,” according to Ron Charles, who named it one of the best books of 2011.
Destiny of the Republic (Anchor, $16), by Candice Millard, a history of the assassination of James Garfield and its aftermath, “makes a convincing case that Garfield may have achieved greatness if he hadn’t been gunned down,” wrote Del Quentin Wilber.
Yvonne Zipp called Spanish writer Felix J. Palma’s The Map of Time (Atria, $16) “a big, genre-bending delight.” This sprawling science-fiction-historical-fantasy mingles fictional characters with real ones.
Chinaberry Sidewalks (Vintage, $15.95), a memoir by country musician (and ex-husband of Rosanne Cash) Rodney Crowell, is “wistful and profane, heartbreaking and hilarious, loving and angry, proud and self-lacerating,” wrote Jonathan Yardley. Crowell’s recollection of his East Texas childhood is “an uncommonly interesting and deeply American story.”
Pop-culture journalist Toure weaves the personal and the political in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness (Free Press, $16), a book that “demolishes the notion that there is only one way to be racially authentic,” according to Gwen Ifill.
Howell Raines praisedPaul Hendrickson’s biography Hemingway’s Boat (Vintage, $16.95), calling it “a large-minded, rigorously fair summation of the best thought on Hemingway’s writing, his life, traumas, pathologies, his family and friends, his even more abundant cast of personal, literary and cultural enemies.”
Krug writes The Post’s monthly New in Paperback column.