Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dear Sugar,

I didn’t want to read your book. I don’t read advice columns as a matter of principle. Needy people, foolish people frustrate me. To read an entire book of advice column Q&A seemed about as necessary as professional football, with the same end result for this reader as for those players: heads bashing into unmovable objects.

But my book club selected it. Duty calls.

A bunch of shit happened in the three days I took to read your book. Like, universe is speaking to me shit.

The First Day (Parts I & II):
On this achingly bright morning I was securing a hank of hair in a little clip when I noticed gray hairs. Now, my first gray hair appeared in 1999 when we bought our first house and I’ve had a few more here and there over the years, but they’ve always been curiosities, anomalies. This morning, however, my hair was streaked in silvery white strands. I’m crazy-nearsighted and in the months since I’ve become a full-time writer, I have little reason to examine my face in the mirror; I think I last wore mascara in October. So maybe that gray has been there for a long time and it took the rays of sunshine through the skylight at just the right time to expose my new middle-aged reality.

I checked the next morning at the same time, with the same intense sun pouring through the skylight. Yep. Still there. But the hair isn’t gray. The strands are silvery white against my natural auburn. They are beautiful. I can’t fathom trying to cover them up with chemicals.

I won’t complain that people often assume I’m several years younger than I am, but along with that assumption comes the presumption that I haven’t lived, haven’t experienced, don’t quite know or get or “Just wait until you’re my age …” This beautiful hair says “Yeah, baby. I’m forty-fucking-five. I’ve lived it. I get it. I’m older than you know.”

I almost stopped reading after How Do You Get Unstuck—only the second Dear Sugar— about the woman suffering after her miscarriage and you sharing the horror stories of the young women you’d encountered as a youth advocate. It was all too raw for me. It hit too close to home. But I kept going and a few dozen pages later, you rewarded me with Write Like a Motherfucker, a statement I printed in Sharpie on a Post-It and pinned to my bulletin board.

Dudes in the Woods gave me a different way to think about friendship and I realized I needed to share a piece of knowledge about someone with a mutual friend—that it wasn’t gossip, but a search for the best way to help. Turns out that mutual friend was suffering, too, and now we’re able to move forward together.

The Woman Hanging on the End of the Line slapped me in the face with the force of my bitterness and rage at a few individuals who wronged and betrayed my husband and me and the price I’ve paid for that rage. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go just yet, but now I accept that I have a choice.

The Second Day (Part III & IV):
I went to coffee with a new writer friend (three lovely words, don’t you think?). We shared our writing journeys. I explained I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life, but I quit writing at ten, when my parents split, and didn’t resume until I was 41, after I lost my first pregnancy. And finally found the courage to begin my novel days after losing my second, when I was 43. Those are the facts.

You succeeded in making me cry with Beauty and the Beast and laugh out loud with The Known Unknowns: “I’d rather be sodomized by a plastic lawn flamingo than vote for a Republican…” Can I use that? I’ll credit you, of course!

But it was A Glorious Something Else I’ll carry with me: “…boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well the as the responses you will have to those behaviors.”

Day Three (Part V):
I finished your book this morning. Of course you would end with a letter from a reader who wondered what your now-forty-something self would tell your twenty-something self that made me cry. I closed your book and cried loud, cathartic sobs. My twenty-something self had already found an amazing guy and was deep into a rewarding career, so it’s not like I could relate to your encounters with the Ecstasy-dropping gay couple or your heroin addiction or failed first marriage. But there are other pains, other regrets, other mistakes, betrayalsabandonmentslosseshates for which I cried. It was a collective of tears for the stories I’d read and the empathy I’d felt.

Moments later I learned a friend’s marriage is ending, with a bitter custody battle underway. Reading her words, I became my ten-year-old self, caught between two bitter, angry, vengeful people who had a choice. And didn’t choose me. Didn’t choose what was best for me. They chose hate and recrimination instead of cooperation and love. I wrote to my friend with that little girl’s soul, hoping she would make the right choice for her young child. And then I went for a run.

I ran in the same aching light that three days before had revealed the undeniable proof: my body is fading from the solid brilliance of youth to silvery, tenuous old age. I ran straight into the epiphany that I stopped writing when the child I’d been was abandoned and her world fell apart and didn’t begin again until I accepted the loss of my own children and let go the hope of being a mother. I knew these as facts—I had relayed them to my new friend two days before—but I hadn’t felt the facts as emotions until that moment, in the 16° wind chill and determined sunlight. I had to stop running. I was laughing and crying so hard, I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Sugar,

I’m ETAing to let you know that one of my brothers called me a few days after I posted this review to my blog. He said he’d learned more about me from reading my review than he’d ever known. But isn’t that why you published this collection? To learn about yourself? Good on you. I reckon it worked.

Yours,

Going for Silver

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Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant ChefBlood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three and a half stars. I can’t quite get to a fourth.

My food epiphany occurred in France (of course), with food prepared by—wait for it—an Italian (of course). It was a three a.m., post-nightclub gathering of bleary-eyed, eardrum-collapsed international students, crammed into Bruno’s and Filippo’s kitchen in the Alpine city of Chambéry, where I had chosen to study because of its proximity to Italy (of course).

I was already half in love with Bruno from Ancona, but when he handed me a bowl of pasta glistening with sea salt and oil and tossed with tuna, capers, tomatoes, and Parmigiano Reggiano, its hangover-killing goodness transported me to a new sort of bliss. It took all of 20 minutes to prepare—most of that was waiting for the water to boil. Simple. And I’d never tasted anything as delicious.

A second light flashed fifteen years later, during culinary school in New Zealand. Pulling several kitchen shifts as part of my course, I realized the chef’s life was not for me. I hated the heat, the pressure, the clothing. My place was front of house, with the diners. As an introvert who loves a crowd, I adored the two-hour relationship with my tables, the way we could swap life stories over lamb shank and wine and, usually, never see one another again. It was the sharing of delicious food and the way the diners turned themselves over to me—trusting, expectant, curious, and delighted—that I treasured.

So, it was very easy to connect with Gabrielle Hamilton at the most visceral level. The psychology of beautiful food—the way it feeds our souls at least as much as our bodies, I get. It was even a vocation for a spell, from that glorious era in New Zealand where I waited tables and taught Hospitality, to the several years I spent working in Seattle as a wine and beer buyer and steward.

As someone who can’t tell a joke at a dinner table to save her life, but who feels the wonder of words in her soul and astonishment that she can weave them together in powerful ways, I connected with Gabrielle Hamilton as a writer. She made me feel better that my treasured acceptance to an MFA program this fall will go no further than a dream pinned to my bulletin board. Hamilton accepted that her soul needed the pan rather than the pen. Like me, she’s a doer, not a scholar.

This connection to her craft, born of nature and desperation, is the most powerful theme in Blood, Bones, and Butter. Hamilton’s family celebrated food and loved to party. From her French mother she learned to cook and to revere the process; from her father she learned the crazy sort of joy that comes from opening your home and feeding the masses with fishes and loaves.

The desperation came when that family split apart, scattering like dandelion spores to the wind. The author entered the back door of the restaurant world, tethering herself to dishwashers and prep sinks as a way to create stability while her adolescence was crumbling beneath her.

And thus a memoir was born—Hamilton uses the broad outline of her résumé to structure her relationship with the world—her family, her marriage, her emotional development. This is less a memoir about the power of food than it is about the power of work, about one woman’s dogged determination to succeed on her own steam. Her industry could have been writing, or the stock market or real estate or teaching. The fact that her profession is cheffing is lucky for those of us who love the things she writes about so evocatively—food, travel, and the grit and grime of the restaurant world.

But I never quite trust her. Memoir is an eel—it’s either going to slip through your hands or shock you or, as is the case with Blood, Bones, and Butter, both. The danger for the contemporary memoirist comes in offering up course after course of one’s life, proffering it as a collection of tasty facts, then dropping the plates when real life catches up and contradicts you.

Around the time of the book’s publication, Hamilton appeared on “The Interview Show” and dismissed foodies as “a population that has kind of misplaced priorities.” Granted, “foodies” is a tired moniker, but it’s an odd thing for a chef to give the finger to her most ardent fans. In the same interview, Hamilton declares “I’m barely interested in food….I love food but I don’t like to talk about it very long.”

Kinda weird. This tone of contrariness and defensiveness echoes in her writing, most notably during her years in Ann Arbor as she pursues her MFA at the University of Michigan and when she takes us down the short but winding road of her personal relationships. I ran often into the brick wall of Hamilton’s ego, erected and fortified against deep insecurities.

I was also perplexed by her marriage. Not the doing of it— she wouldn’t be the first to extend a generous hand to someone at odds with the INS. But she seemed baffled to find that love wasn’t waiting for her on the other side of the aisle. And yet, she stepped out on her long-term girlfriend to have a brief affair with her husband-to-be. And she cuckolded her own sister while writing this memoir. Hamilton’s disappointment felt very disingenuous, given her proclivity for infidelity.

I was also troubled by her mother-as-martyr routine. She chose to have two children, twenty months apart, with a man she was neither living with nor, if she is to be believed, hardly speaking to, all while in the early years of running a restaurant. These were choices. She had options, could have sought help, could have organized her life differently. She did not and I respect that. But her natural prickliness and independence read to me like a whole lotta “I’m such a badass, cooking brunch at thirty-nine weeks” self-back patting. It seems to run counter to her belief that we shouldn’t talk about “great female chefs,” we should talk about “great chefs,” period. A discussion, incidentally, that makes of one of the best chapters in the book.

Hamilton isn’t clear why she remained in a loveless marriage, nor why she drifted so far from her family, so the reader has a shadowy grasp on Gabrielle Hamilton, the woman. But in all fairness, this is the memoir of a chef. Touching on her two years abroad, on her summers in Italy with her now ex-husband’s family, her epiphany while working with the inscrutable Misty in Michigan, and her hardcore catering experiences, Gabrielle Hamilton—the chef and the writer—is a remarkable force. I’d welcome the chance to eat at her restaurant, Prune, and the opportunity to read more of her sparkling, no-holds-barred, angry, irreverent, and sexy writing. But I’d rather read it as fiction, because I think I might choke on her facts.

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Ghosts That We Knew

The Universe gently letting me know it is still watching, listening, remembering…

 

A group of eight women discovering each other over salmon and fruit salad. Strangers becoming fast friends as women do – sharing intimacies of childbirth and marriage, our deepest fears and silliest thoughts – and then having to ask your first name again, because you look just like the woman who used to teach Hot Yoga at the rec center.

 

Some of us are mothers; some of us are not. Some are married as many years as we were old when we met our husbands; some have remained single. Some wonder if they had more cash, would they have they courage to walk away from failure?

 

Some drive up in Mercedes; others have no idea when the oil was last changed in the rusting Toyota pickup.

 

We come together through a love of books and a desire for fellowship. Perhaps we are new to town and keen to make friends. Perhaps we need an excuse to escape a too-familiar routine. Perhaps we crave conversation that does not center around Sponge Bob Square Pants and refusals to eat the spaghetti that was our child’s favorite meal last week.

 

We discuss the book: a rare meeting of minds as eight women revile the month’s read in equal measure. We marvel at our host’s mad chef skills as she cracks open the baked thick crust of salt, revealing an entire salmon, steaming and tender: Pesce alla Sale à la Olympic Peninsula. Three of us run out to our cars in search of corkscrews we know are shoved into dashboard boxes or picnic tote bags. When we come up empty and are forced to drink ginger beer without a cheap Pinot noir chaser, we decide it’s an excuse for another bacon-jalapeño scone. We eat tapioca pudding made with milk from the goats we milk on our farm.

 

Which leads to a discussion of breast-feeding. As discussions about ruminants do. Who is, who wishes they weren’t, who misses it. Pockets of the table fall into silence as those who are secretly glad their breasts remain high and firm even as they ache with dreams of unborn children and those who simply cannot imagine the logistics of nursing a three-year-old try to find something to do with their thoughts.

 

A side conversation begins. Did you start Terry Tempest Williams’s When We Were Birds?

 

It’s waiting on the nightstand; I had to finish tonight’s book first. I can’t wait.

 

Another voice joins in, breaking away from the conversation about pitocin-induced labor. “Ooh, Terry Tempest Williams, I love her! What’s this one about? What’s it called?

 

“When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. It’s a series of essays she wrote after her mom died. You’d love it. It’s amazing.”

 

One of us curls up inside. One of us remembers a summer’s night a year ago, a crowd streaming into a high school auditorium, an audience hushed as an author reads from her elegiac, elegant book of essays inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed her. Journals the author discovered, after her mother’s death, were empty.

 

One of us remembers that it was a year ago tonight her womb emptied.

 

One of us marvels at the way the Universe wraps seductively around chance and feigns to be Fate.

 

One of us mourns. Mourns that she had forgotten until this night what this night is.

 

One of us sees the beauty in spending this evening in the company of women who don’t know her sorrow, not yet. But if we did, she knows we would care. We sweet mothers soothe her with our stories, we childless ones smile and allow the others to reminisce, commiserate, to delight in the bounty of their creation.

 

A phone beeps with an incoming text. One of our sisters, in a neighboring state, has just given birth to her second child. She texts us from the hospital bed, proud and exhausted. She attaches a photo. It is a son.

 

One of us reads aloud the opening page to When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice.

 

One of us returns home to reread the words she wrote a year ago. These words, here: The Scariest Thing

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand
Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

So lead me back
Turn south from that place
And close my eyes to my recent disgrace
Cause you know my call
And we’ll share my all
And our children come, they will hear me roar
So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light
Cause oh they gave me such a fright
But I will hold as long as you like
Just promise me that we’ll be alright

Ghosts That We Knew ~ Mumford and Sons