Top Ten Tough Topics Tackled in Literature

This week, I’m highlighting some of my favorite works of fiction that address ten difficult social, cultural, and emotional issues. I’m sure I could think of many more books if I tried–”tough topics” are kind of my thing.

10. Bullying
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is an excellent story about one girl who has the chance to change her life–in seven days. Oliver manages to take a self-centered bully and make her a completely sympathetic character by the end.

And I’ve mentioned before how much I love Daphne’s Book by Mary Downing Hahn; Hahn’s story of two girls forming an unlikely friendship is timeless.

9. Autism
Two books about autistic boys, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, take very unique views of what an autistic child’s world looks like, and both are very convincing in their own ways. Not much is known about autism, but these books are a reminder that “developmental” issues and genius are relative.

8. September 11, 2001
I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer in college, and it has stuck with me through the years. Oskar is an intrepid and smart narrator, and his efforts to cope with the loss of his father in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center are heartwarming and inspiring–and a tearjerker.

7. Poverty
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls manages to recount her rough childhood while avoiding any trace of self-pity. This book is a little dark at times, but I highly recommend it.

6. Aging
Anne Tyler effortlessly captures the minor details of a person that accumulate into who he or she is in her novels, and she does not fail me in Noah’s Compass. Liam, the main character, is confronted with an inevitable slide into old age, but the way he deals with it is charming and humorous.

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is, of course, a classic tale of aging. The old man faces his greatest challenge, and summons the courage to triumph over it despite his acknowledged weaknesses.

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis is a rather unconventional entry for this category, but I found the book’s reverse-chronological order a fascinating study of memory and one man’s backward look on his life.

5. Racism
Often contested for its handling of race and slavery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a humorous and satirical take on pre-Civil War society along the Mississippi River.

For a more modern exploration of African-American identity, struggles with racism, and the fight for civil rights, W. Ralph Eubanks’s Ever Is a Long Time is a fascinating read.

4. Addiction
I also mentioned recently that Go Ask Alice is one of my favorite books for its raw and unrelenting take on the rebellious life of a girl in the 1960s. It was recommended to a friend of mine going through rehab, and I can see why; the narrator’s battle with addiction feels very real in this fictionalized diary.

Addiction is just one of many serious topics to which Andre Dubus III turns his artistic genius in The House of Sand and Fog. Kathy, one of the main characters, finds herself returning to the addiction from which she had recently emerged when everything in her life seems to crumble. Yet Kathy inspires a great deal of empathy and even respect from her readers–a difficult but praiseworthy feat by Dubus.

3. Abduction
As abductions of young women sweep headlines–Jaycee Dugard‘s story is one of many in the past few years–I think we all crave insight into why such tragedies happen and how victims can survive them. And Emma Donoghue certainly delivers in Room, one of my favorite books ever.

But even fifteen years ago, I was fascinated with abduction stories. Caroline B. Cooney’s smart and courageous main character in The Face on the Milk Carton made a strong impression on me as a young reader–whenever I was scared that I, too, would be swept up by strangers (hey, I was only 11!), I just remembered how cool and level-headed Janie managed to be.

2. Rape
Push by Sapphire may now be considered a classic story of rape and incest. Sapphire handles these topics very well, pushing the reader right to the edge with graphic images and then pulling him or her back with Precious’s admirable determination and optimistic outlook.

Another book about the devastating effects of rape that left a strong impression on me is We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s prose meanders at times–I remember sighing in frustration as she spends an entire chapter chronicling the contents of the family’s cluttered hall–but her attention to detail pays off as she describes that family’s hurt and rage at the violence that struck once and left an indelible mark.

1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
There are several books about war and PTSD that immediately come to mind when I think about masterful attempts to address difficult subjects. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller are, of course, classics in this field. But more recently, War by Sebastian Junger and The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli have also proved to be stunning and delicate glimpses of the lasting effects of conflict.

What about you–what books do you think have handled difficult issues well?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

9 responses to “Top Ten Tough Topics Tackled in Literature

  1. I love the way you divided your list into categories. Well done.

    Here’s my Top Ten Books Tackling Tough Issues. And don’t forget to enter my July giveaway!

  2. The Face on the Milk Carton was definitely a big favorite of mine in high school!

  3. I like you list very much. These are not always the easiest books to read but certainly books I think we have taught emotional ties to when we read them. The Glass Castle is zooming up my TBR list as it keeps reappearing!

  4. I’ve just brought The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, it sounds amazing. I’m not sure if it is meant to be funny but I read the first page in the shop and I sense a bit of humour.

    Don’t be a stranger,
    Holly @ In-Interest

  5. Glass Castle and Push are on my list also. You have gave me a few to consider.

    My Top Ten

    http://teawithmarce.blogspot.com/2011/07/top-ten-books-that-tackle-tough-issues.html

  6. Wow, what a thorough list of various works exploring each issue. There are a lot on there definitely worth checking out. Thanks for sharing!

  7. You listed some very tough reads.

    Here is my Top Ten post!

  8. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: Surprise Endings | Melody & Words

  9. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: Judging a Book by Its Cover | Melody & Words

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