On Tiny Beautiful Things

Image retrieved from reviews.libraryjournal.com

I’m beginning to think that Cheryl Strayed is one of the most remarkable humans I could ever know (in the figurative rather than literally knowing her personally sense). With wit and humor and wisdom and personality and so much heart you can’t stand it, Strayed, under the auspices of “Sugar,” maintained an anonymous advice column for The Rumpus website which has now been compiled into a brilliant single volume entitled Tiny Beautiful Things. Not usually one for advice columns (I can’t stand the idea that people actually compose a frivolous letter to ask such trivial questions as what to buy as a hostess gift or how to handle a dispute about which European country to travel to for a family vacation when the answer is painfully and obviously to just have a conversation about it!), I kept this one on the shelf for a while before I felt compelled to crack its spine. I adored Strayed’s memoir Wild but couldn’t jive with the advice column format, much as I knew her readers would have more profound and heavy questions than your standard ladies’ magazine fare.

Shoving my biases and fears aside, I plunged right in on my lunch break one day, ready to toss the book if I wasn’t smitten after the first 40 minutes of reading. I was won over in just 5.

At first, the thing I found most remarkable about Dear Sugar’s column was the vast array of life experience she has to draw from. Nearly every response to her readers includes an anecdote from her own life; her horrendous loss of innocence at age three, the heartbreaking tragedy of losing her mother, sweet moments with her husband who she adorably refers to as Mr. Sugar, vast suffering, trials and tribulations from parenting, countless friends who’ve cried upon her shoulder for reasons she recounts in order to help readers find their way. The fragmented pieces of her life are revealed in each response as isolated events, but we can still string together from them, and the general timbre of her writing, an idea of who Cheryl is, how she faces life, embracing the messy, awful, fullness of existence with a go-get-’em attitude. The Dear Sugar column wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if she only had those negative stories to share, rendering her obvious appetite for life all the more vital and worthy of imitation. So while it’s true that Cheryl has had to endure far more tragic experiences in her lifetime than anyone ever should, she doesn’t shy away from life in the least; she has determined her own fullness of existence, accepting, pursuing, embracing the range of glorious and breathtaking along with the awful and ugly.

Anyone can identify a time in their life when they felt heartbroken, despairing, confused, at a crossroads, or any of the other ways we feel when life throws us a curve ball that requires some coaching to hit. But it is a rare gift to take those uniquely personal emotional experiences and relate them to a reader enduring such specifically different struggles. Cheryl thoughtfully identifies the universality in each letter she receives, and ultimately it is that ability, rather than an exceptional depth of experience, which allows her to meaningfully connect with each and every reader in her responses. By thinking critically about her reader’s concerns and treating them with all the respect, concern, and dignity deserving of a dear friend, Dear Sugar is able to transcend the advice column format to a whole new level of connection, guidance, and healing. The result is an inspiring, invigorating, capable-of-restoring-your-faith-in-humanity thing to behold.

Sugar’s readers provide her with questions as varied as relationship uncertainties to which we all can relate, brutal personal roadblocks in life that need to be overcome, family shackles, crossroads decision-making, parenting advice. Letters came from jilted lovers, happy halves of strong relationships, recovering-addicts, young and naive twentysomethings, world-weary middle-aged readers, mournful souls, writers with strength of character bleeding through their words. No matter what the situation or who the writer, Cheryl’s responses are full of wisdom and spunk, not only educational for the letter writer but enjoyable for a reader of any kind.

I was completely moved by how totally Cheryl gave herself over to readers, allowing herself to lose sleep over their letters, putting her whole heart into providing (brutally) honest answers that we would normally expect only from the closest, if not harshest, of friends. But every response was fueled by love, as Cheryl softened the necessary firmness of her responses with validation of each reader’s feelings and a gentle understanding of the struggles that compel someone to write a stranger for an answer, complete with endearments like honey bun and sweet pea. I was amazed, not just by the strength and wisdom of the content of Cheryl’s answers, but in her absolute mastery of the advice column craft, how perfectly balanced her responses were in tone and form, how deeply attuned to people given the brevity of their inquiries.

You may not be experiencing any major crises, crossroads, or turning points in your life. Uncertainty may be a vague memory from the past, pain only a dull ache that your heart has not had to endure for years. But still Dear Sugar holds something for you. This book is not just for the troubled, confused, or heartbroken; it is a meditation on the human condition, the sufferings large and small that make up our lives and how in the world we’re supposed to rise up and meet them. Her refrain is continually that the answers lie within; we write to Sugar because we fail to trust our instincts, because we need someone to validate what we know we need to do, because we require reassurance to take control of our own lives, because we seek permission to allow ourselves pleasure and generosity and kindness. Downright essential in a crisis, the affirmations that Cheryl provides under the auspices of Dear Sugar are nourishment for anyone intending to lead a fuller life with confidence and grace and the very best of human instinct.

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On Ready Player One

Image retrieved from wikipedia.org

When a member of my book club first suggested Ready Player One as our read for the month of March, I didn’t have high hopes. The key words that I took from her brief description of the novel were “video games,” “science fiction,” and “fantasy.” I didn’t realize it until completing the book, but it’s author Ernest Cline was also the writer of the 2009 film Fanboys – a fact that would probably have further turned me off from this selection had I known it sooner. But I forced myself to give Ready Player One a shot since everyone else in my modest book club was so excited by the title. Meanwhile I worried that maybe I was in the wrong group of readers.

But from the first page, I was absolutely smitten with this book. Cline’s novel marked my first foray into sci-fi and, while I doubt many other science fiction novels are quite as enthralling and well-written as Ready Player One, this novel certainly challenged my preconceived notions of the genre.

Ready Player One launches from the death of James Halliday, creator of the virtual reality game OASIS which is as eponymous in the year 2044 as Google, Facebook, and Twitter are to internet users today. A bachelor billionaire at the time of his demise, Halliday erected an ironclad will which bestows his entire estate upon whichever OASIS-user wins the race to uncover Halliday’s “Easter egg” – videogame speak for a hidden key within a video game. The race to find Halliday’s egg, however, is more of a marathon than a sprint;  despite the number of so-called “gunters” who make it their life’s purpose to locate the Easter egg, five years pass from the time of Halldiay’s death until someone discovers the first of three keys that must be collected in order to retrieve the egg.

And that lucky someone is our protagonist, orphaned 18-year-old Wade. Wade’s success in the hunt for the Easter egg is revealed in the prologue, and Cline’s decision to share the outcome of the quest so early in the novel actually proved to be a wise choice in my humble opinion. The ensuing story is a heart-stopping, anxiety-inducing, nail-bitting adventure. The knowledge that Wade succeeds in the end calmed my nerves while reading, but certainly didn’t reduce my sense of excitement while following his progress.

As Halliday was a child of the 1980’s, many of the quests relate to pop culture of the decade, a subject which devotees of the late tech genius study religiously. Wade’s deep knowledge of ancient gaming systems, obscure 80’s films like WarGames, rock music of the time from the likes of bands such as Rush, and Halliday’s personal life aid in his ultimate success as solving each puzzle requires expertise on these topics. Though my knowledge of the 80’s pop culture was much stronger than that of video game history, Cline’s story is highly readable to people of all familiarity levels because at it’s core, Ready Player One is an adventure, an underdog story, a quest involving the battle between good and evil.

And Wade is certainly not without a few evil foes. The initial five OASIS users to locate the first key are regular gunters, competitors who pose threats to one another in their search for the egg, but lack much power over one another outside their virtual reality quest. Soon after, countless employees of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), an internet service provider and communications firm, start racking up points on the scoreboard. Known as “Sixers” because of the six digits common to each of their avatar’s names, these corporate egg hunters are obligated to hand over Halliday’s estate, should they locate the egg and win the prize. In exchange, IOI pays them competitive salaries and takes care of their every need during the quest. The average gunter despises the Sixers – after all, they’re sell outs undermining the integrity of the whole contest. And if a Sixer wins the prize, many fear that IOI will commodify the currently-free OASIS, charging exorbitant fees and denying many users the essential opportunity to escape their real lives provided by the OASIS. Wade soon learns that the gunters are right to fear IOI, a conscienceless corporation willing to employ any measure necessary to win control of the OASIS.

The world of Ready Player One is futuristic, dystopian, and alarming enough to give anyone pause about how we let technology rule our lives with little care for the real world around us. Many of the themes explored in the novel raise questions regarding our reliance on the internet, virtual reality, and social media. The OASIS serves as a necessary refuge for many unfortunate people who seek an escape from the poverty, destruction, and hunger of the real world. It also serves highly practical functions, for instance as the site of virtual public schools. For those who are lonely and misunderstood, creating an OASIS avatar instills real world outcasts with a means of finding a place to belong. But fear of the catfish runs rampant – since OASIS users can design their avatars however they please, there is no reason to believe that the appearance, actions, or behavior of an avatar matches that of their real life person. Wade (whose avatar goes by the name Perzival) has a best friend in the virtual world, a fellow Halliday-devotee and gunter whose avatar is named Aech. Though competing in the search for Halliday’s egg does stress their friendship at times, Wade still considers Aech his best friend, despite never meeting nor knowing any personal real life details about him. Cline touches on this distinction between our virtual representations of self and our true selves as well as the danger in having only virtual, rather than real, connections with others.

This might sound like a complex and confusing novel, but Cline’s storytelling skills shine in Ready Player One. He sets the stage of this virtual reality-reliant society some thirty years in the future with ease and introduces elements of Wade’s world in such a way as to not overwhelm the reader. Even someone with zero tech knowledge, no background in science fiction, and little preexisting interest in the subject found Cline’s debut novel engrossing, completely unique, and remarkably easy to grasp.

I was telling my mother, also an avid reader, about the book, about how surprised I was to find myself enjoying it, about how widely appealing and palatable it could be. I guess I really sold her on it, because then she suggested reading Ready Player One with her own book club. While I don’t think many of middle-aged, suburban, ex-soccer moms who complain about reading books more than 250 pages long (and this one clocks in at 372) would take to this novel, I’m sure more than a few of them would be surprised to find that they rather enjoyed Ready Player One if they were willing to just give it a shot – I certainly did!