[xrr rating=4.5/5]If you’ve been inside a Barnes & Noble since March (or just in the Jamba Juice next to the Barnes & Noble), you’ve heard of Cheryl Strayed. She is the woman with the power to resurrect Oprah’s Book Club from the dead and make the remote Pacific Crest Trail the destination du jour. Strayed commands the bestseller charts again with her second 2012 release, Tiny Beautiful Things. As a longtime fan of Cheryl Strayed, even I had to ask: can one person live up to this level of buzz twice in six months?

A little background: Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection from Dear Sugar, advice columnist at TheRumpus.net. The weekly columns shot straight for the aorta with the author’s honesty, wisdom and fearlessness. What could have been a website corner for a quick laugh turned into the opposite of cynical; Dear Sugar became a source of kindness, love, and “radical courage.” The courage to forgive those who have hurt us in the worst of ways, and the courage to remember that however ugly we may see ourselves, we are all worthy of life’s “tiny beautiful things.” Dear Sugar was unmasked as Cheryl Strayed on Valentine’s Day 2012. The revelation should come as no surprise to those familiar with Strayed’s work; disarming the reader with unflinching truth is her signature. Tiny Beautiful Things builds this masterful storytelling ability into a work that is hilarious, entertaining, sexy and devastating.

Through personal essay conversation, Strayed lays bare the truth of our common predicaments: we are lonely. We are fearful. We are transfixed by the trivial. However, we are not alone. To remind us, Strayed includes in her answers an anecdote about a similar situation she’s lived through. In this way, Dear Sugar reads like miniature memoir threaded to the original “question” sent to the column. The most incredible pieces in the collection are those where Strayed uses the reader’s letter to cleave open a larger part of her own life and the emotions contained within. The complaint—a cheating lover, grown children who won’t move out, young writer’s angst—is a springboard into an examination that implicates the weaknesses and fears in Strayed and, in turn, the letter-writer.

One of my favorite examples of this style (every reader will connect with a few pieces on a more nerve-slamming level than others, and a huge part of the fun is picking out which passages to bookmark for the friend you have in mind to pass the book to next: READ THIS FIRST, IDIOT! I MEAN, SWEET PEA!) is “Write Like a Motherfucker,” which begins with a letter from a struggling writer. After a long lamentation over her writer’s block, insecurities and ego-tinted despair, which all could have been a collage of my last two years of Facebook status updates, she finally asks: “How do I reach the page when I can’t lift my face off the bed? How does one go on, Sugar, when you realize you might not have it in you? How does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she’d be?” Strayed responds by recounting the frustration of writing her first novel, involving more suffering and hard work than her young heart had dreamed. “Writing is hard for every last one of us,” she insists. “Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug… Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

This personal experience-spiked advice evens the playing field between Strayed and the audience; she may be prescribing a course of action, but by recounting a personal experience with vivid honesty, she avoids sounding preachy or self-righteous. With her advice she encourages people to swim against the stream, and to root out from what is common and easy. Strayed reminds us of what is real beyond our personal bullshit: we have one shot at this life, said life is unpredictable and fleeting, and it is our individual jobs to carve a course to happiness. In our current culture of small-minded bickering and ignorance, Tiny Beautiful Things is an essential collection, a testament to what we can achieve when we love with abandon and think beyond the angry and immediate. It is indicative of how large memoir narrative can be. When we open ourselves up, conversation and compassion can begin. As Sugar says, “Let yourself be gutted. Let [the truth] open you. Start there.”

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