It’s pretty unusual, I think, for books with a lot of buzz to live up to the hype. Or really, for books that are more literary to gain mainstream popularity. There are some, of course–books like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen come to mind–but generally I find that the books that everyone seems to be reading aren’t that appealing to me. Wild is absolutely one of those books–it’s popular for a reason, because it’s spectacular.
I’d heard rave reviews about Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a collection of columns written by Cheryl Strayed for a feature on “The Rumpus” called “Dear Sugar,” and had a gift certificate to a bookstore burning a hole in my pocket, so I decided to give it a shot.
Strayed kind of revolutionized the advice-column genre with “Dear Sugar.” Her responses to the letters published in the collection–some of them dealing with trivial topics, some of them dealing with the deepest of sorrows–are pieces of literature in their own right, containing both advice and insights into Strayed’s own life and past experiences. Her stories (some more obviously relevant to the issue at hand than others) are heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny and make this book one to be cherished and read over and over again.
Sugar is magic. Cheryl Strayed’s online (and originally anonymous) alter-ego has a way of dispensing advice that speaks directly to one’s core. Through the questions posed to her about love, lust, and loneliness, she tells stories about her own life that are a blow to the chest. Her honesty is wrapped in gentle, hard truths that are applicable beyond the specific question-writer.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of many of the columns that originally appeared on The Rumpus, as well as several previously unpublished questions. Strayed also talks a bit about the how/why she decided to take on this writing gig, and also her thought process leading into shedding Sugar’s anonymity. Even though I had already read many of the columns when they first posted, going over them again felt nearly as potent. This book is a lovely addition for anyone who has ever asked, Am I okay?
I read this touching memoir in one sitting. Beginning with the suicide attempt of his father, Gregory Martin discovers why the man who raised him has reached this point. Not only was his father sexually abused as a child, but he has also been a closeted gay man throughout the entirety of his 39 year marriage. He has admitted to Martin’s mother that he has sought out “hundreds” of unknown partners at parks and rest stops while traveling and while the rest of the family slept at home. Because they lived in Spokane, Washington, the settings were very familiar to me, having myself lived there for several years.
Though the book focuses on Martin’s perspective and not his father’s, this isn’t a simple story of “troubled man comes out” — this is about a father and a son having to navigate an almost entirely new relationship. It’s an interesting exploration of memory, identity, and empathy, and I’m glad I read it.
(Full Disclosure: Hawthorne Books provided me with the e-book for review.)
I’ve followed Jami Attenberg’s work online for several years now, but I must admit that this is the first novel of hers that I’ve read (a gap I plan to remedy soon). The Middlesteins is, so far, also her most successful book, and for good reason. She has written a family saga that feels very grounded in reality, centered around matriarch Edie. Edie cannot stop eating or obsessing over food, and it is severely affecting her health. Her husband, Richard, after decades of marriage, leaves her, and now her adult children are wondering how they can care for her and process their parents’ split, all while managing their own complicated lives.
One of the things I loved about the book is that Attenberg does not write caricatures. In the hands of lesser writers, a character like Edie could have dissolved into one-dimensional stereotype, but she is a whole person full of humor and love. The other family members, with all their quirks and problems, receive the same honest treatment. Though the plot deals with serious subject matter, it’s also a very funny book.
I picked up this novel on whim from the new books section at the library, and it was a lovely surprise. Using the real life art heist from the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990, B.A. Shapiro has created a fictionalized story about a disgraced painter, Claire, who has been asked by a famous gallery owner to copy a Degás — the same Degás stolen from the museum. However, the more time Claire spends with this ill-begotten painting, the more she suspects that it may also be a forgery.
Because I’m a sucker for heist stories and because I’m quite interested in visual art, I enjoyed unraveling the mystery of what had really happened during the time of the theft and in the 19th century when the painting was originally created. There’s a whole side-plot about why Claire has a poor reputation in the art world that is also quite interesting, and though I could work out some of the twists on my own, the complete ending still held plenty of surprises.
A friend recommended this novella for our book club selection, and I’m so pleased that she did because I’m not sure it would have otherwise crossed my attention. Set during WWII, Father Gaetano is assigned as the sole priest in a small Sicilian village, where not only must he conduct every mass, he must also see after the spiritual care of the many orphans who are now living at the church. To better engage the children in their catechism lessons, he brings up an old puppet set from the basement. What he doesn’t know is that the puppets believe that the stories are real, and after dark they appear without strings. What happens next is a series of disturbing events that affect everyone involved, all while subtly mirroring the national turmoil surrounding the village.
Though I am not well-versed in Catholic symbolism, I found Father Gaetano utterly compelling. Told from the points-of-view of the priest, a nun, and one sensitive boy who lives there, we are able to understand different ways how one can question their faith, and how they react when bravery is required. It’s a quick read interspersed with dark illustrations, and is yet another example of my need to occasional widen my reading repertoire.
I am not, let us say, an outdoorsy person. I have no issue with being outside per se—it’s a nice enough place, depending on location and season and proximity to a bathroom—but it is my lifelong curse to prefer the climate-controlled confines of a manmade building or, at the very least, the squishy satisfaction of an oceanside beach chair. I want to like The Great Outdoors guys, I really do. It’s just that I’m, what’s that word….tip of my tongue….oh yes, that’s it—I’m lazy.
Of course, it doesn’t take a lazy person to appreciate the concept behind Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: a solo 1,000+ mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, which is like the Appalachian Trail’s more rugged and less traversed western cousin. The idea—which Strayed developed in the aftermath of her mother’s death, her own bout with adultery and heroin, and her divorce—is ludicrous, particularly for someone as inexperienced with backpacking as Strayed was. (Though it’s worth noting that, presented with the same challenge, I would be even less prepared: After just six hours wearing moderately ill-fitting flats for a wedding last weekend, I limped myself home so pathetically that you would have thought I’d been shot.)
Wild is about 75/25 devoted to time spent on the PCT versus the events leading up to the trip, and Strayed is only moderately insightful when discussing her past. But by (perhaps intentional) contrast, her time on the trail feels honest and raw, unaltered by the liberties of hindsight, though she is writing years after the fact. Moreover, the relatively small percentage of the book devoted to backpacking minutia keeps Strayed from ever sounding like an expert, and her lack of expertise forces us to confront the magnitude of her mission. Even as the weeks pass and she hones her PCT skills, the idea itself never stops feeling insane, and the insanity is part of what makes the story great.
Essentially, a memoir in which Cheryl Strayed outlines all the ways in which she’s a thundering idiot who should have died several times over, and we’re all supposed to think she’s amazing. Full review of this smug self indulgent nonsense is here
I first learned about Cheryl Strayed when I stumbled upon Wild at an opportune time in my life. I loved it. I loved the honesty, insight, strength, and resilience that Strayed showed in her life, and I loved the adventure of such a crazy journey. In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar (2012), Cheryl Strayed takes all of the compassion and wisdom she has acquired throughout her own life and uses it to parse out other people’s problems.
This book started out as an on-line advice column that Strayed took over under the pseudonym of Sugar. She takes on the universal and incredibly difficult problems of cheating, unrequited love, addiction, death, grief, relationships, and more. Strayed manages to tie in almost every one of her answers with a personal experience of her own, making this book one part incredibly insightful advice and two parts honest autobiography.
Read the rest of my review here.