July Book Recommendations: Tiny Beautiful Things, The Last Policeman, and Office Girl
Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed will be best known for her memoir Wild, released earlier this year and, last month, featured as the first pick of Oprah’s relaunched book club. But this month, Strayed has an equally terrific book out, Tiny Beautiful Things, which collects the best pieces from her anonymous advice column, “Dear Sugar.”
“Dear Sugar” was originally written by Steve Almond on the daring (and sometimes curmudgeonly) literary site The Rumpus, but it wasn’t until Strayed took the reins that “Dear Sugar” found its dedicated Internet following. In the introduction of Tiny Beautiful Things, Almond identifies Strayed’s gift for “radical empathy,” the way she relates the strangest, darkest stories from her life to understand and console her pained readers.
The letters Sugar receives are surprisingly eloquent, even if the prompts themselves are standard advice-column fare: How do I stay faithful in my marriage? How do I reconnect with my father? Should I leave my hometown and travel the world? But the star here is Strayed — a deeply personal, compassionate voice who at the same time isn’t afraid to call someone a motherfucker — which makes every other column you’ve ever read, from “Dear Abby” to Dan Savage, feel trite and hopelessly dated.
The pieces in Tiny Beautiful Things that I was most skeptical of at the start ended up being among my favorites. In response to a reader who asks if she should leave her boyfriend, Strayed launches into a seemingly unrelated story about her time in London, working under the table as a coffee girl at a major accounting firm that would later collapse from corruption. The parallel doesn’t become clear until the end, when she sees an old woman across the street, oblivious to the bundle of rags and blankets tied to her head. The point is almost like a touching punch line, as Strayed addresses the reader: “You have a bundle on your head, sweet pea. And though that bundle may be impossible for you to see right now, it’s entirely visible to me. You aren’t torn. You’re only just afraid.”
Sugar reveals so much about herself in Tiny Beautiful Things that it also functions as a sort of memoir that catalogs Strayed’s experiences not by chronology but by theme, dilemma, and feeling. It’s a far more interesting structure than a more memoir-y memoir, though my only complaint is that all the heavier topics — love, family, friendship — are in the first quarter of the book, which leaves the remaining feeling a little unbalanced tonally.
But hell, even some of the lighter, sillier questions yield Strayed’s best responses. When one reader asks “WTF?,” Strayed recalls how she was molested by her grandfather from ages 3 to 5. It’s only when the question is an intrinsically pessimistic one that Strayed bares her teeth: “Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.”
TLDR: An advice column for the modern age, in the sense that it is the advice-column equivalent of discovering penicillin.
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
I’ve noticed two strong thematic trends in fiction this year: first, an abundance of great books about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; second, a lot of surprisingly fantastic novels about the end of the world. A strong representation of the latter trend, The Last Policeman is a pre-apocalyptic procedural, set five months before an asteroid collides with Earth. Society is quickly deteriorating; people are vacating their jobs and choosing to spend their days either praying or doing a lot of drugs. And yet Detective Hank Palace still feels a duty to uphold the law in a world that no longer needs it.
Ben Winters has penned a fantastic literary mash-up, which, as the author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina, seems to be his specialty. But this crossover thriller isn’t so much based on a gimmick as it is a compelling whodunit, set in a gloomy, desperate world of abandoned buildings, conspiracy theories, and forgotten lives. There’s also a lot to like in Hank Palace, who is more goof than grit. His self-conscious, likable nature keeps the novel from wallowing in its dreary environment.
Last month, I recommended The Age of Miracles, which was an end-of-the-world coming-of-age story. Apocalypses aside, the two books have very little in common, except that both question the existence of hope in a doomed world. For Palace, justice is a promise of a brighter tomorrow, and if the number of tomorrows is becoming scarce, you better make them count.
TLDR: It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I solve crime.
Office Girl by Joe Meno
I’ve watched (500) Days of Summer probably three or four times now, each time hoping I’ll like it. But I never do, because I have trouble getting over the fact that it’s a pretty boring love story, dressed up to be an “indie romance.” Which is probably why, despite all of its glowing buzz and the fact that it was written by the talented Joe Meno, I expected to hate Office Girl. It features a Zooey Deschanel look-alike on the cover, there are hipster-y doodles and photographs throughout, and the text is even set in Helvetica, which for me recalls The Perks of Being a Wallflower (ostensibly the Donnie Darko of high school lit).
But despite my shallow complaints, I didn’t hate Office Girl. In fact, I was completely charmed by its boy-meets-quirky-girl romance. Office Girl is unabashedly earnest. It’s so sweet and sincere, you’ll feel bad you ever sneered at the illustrations (which I could still do without).
This quirky girl is named Odile, a flighty art-school dropout who likes to ride her bicycle around Chicago and commit light acts of vandalism. The boy is Jack, who also rides a bike, and who falls in love with Odile while working a temp job at a call center. But the most important detail is the year: 1999, a moment of uncertainty in the world and the lives of the novel’s couple.
One of Jack’s quirks is that he likes to record seemingly banal things on a tape recorder — the bus stop, an airplane taking off, balloons, etc. It parallels Meno’s intentions nicely: to express the feeling of a distinct time and place. Today, when it seems that most media is hellbent on constantly reflecting on and reinventing our childhood and adolescence, it’s refreshing to read a novel that can be nostalgic without being ironic.
TLDR: (500) Days of Summer: A Novel.
Kevin Nguyen is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. His writing has also appeared in The Millions, Kill Screen, and Thought Catalog. He tweets (@knguyen) from Seattle.