Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of Top Ten Tuesday, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week I am listing my top books that deal with "tough issues." I need to preface this list with a clarification and a warning: The following paragraph may offend some of you. I apologize in advance for any offense, but I feel the need to say a few things before I move on with my list.
There are different ways of "dealing with issues" in a book. Some books are what I like to call "issue books," in which the author basically sits down and says "I'm going to write about this issue now, and it's going to be so meaningful and relevant. Look how serious I am everyone." (I'm looking at you, Jodi Piccoult). I hate these books. Hate. They are never subtle, very rarely have good writing, and are almost never written by people who have actually experienced said issue. The best books that "deal with issues" are the ones that put the issue in the context of a larger story. They are honest, subtle, multifaceted, and are not only worth reading because they deal with an issue. These books tend to be few and far between, but I think I can come up with enough to make a relatively interesting and worthwhile list.
Emily's Top Ten Books That Tackle Tough Issues
in no particular order
1. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt: If you've read my review of this book, you know that it's one of my all-time favorites. It contains a lot of issues within the story, especially women's rights. It's historical fiction set in the early 1900s, so it isn't really contemporary, but the way that people deal with things like sexism or poverty is really very similar across time-periods. Women today still have to make choices about how to balance having a family and pursuing career and educational opportunities, and I found those parts of the book especially touching. I was also impressed with how Byatt shows the complete and utter pointless wasteful horror of war without being preachy or even coming out and saying "war is pointless." She does everything through her story, and that is what makes this an excellent portrayal of issues.
2 & 3. Paradise and Beloved by Toni Morrison: I put Byatt and Morrison on basically every list, and it seems like I got them out of the way early this time. Toni Morrison is famous for her honest and complex portrayals of race, poverty, and sexism. Paradise was the first book of hers I read, and I was amazed by how she used a relatively unique setting (an all black town) to portray racism in a fresh and honest way. Her portrayal of sexism and the difficulties and dangers of overcoming tradition was incredibly powerful, and really struck a chord with me at the time. Beloved is a notoriously difficult book, but the way that the effects of slavery and racism are portrayed through the life of a character rather than just as abstract forces was incredibly well done. (The Bluest Eye, while way better than Piccoult, lacks the subtlety of her mature work and comes too close to being an "issue book" for me.)
4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker: This book is possibly the most joyous book that deals with tough things that I've ever read. Walker uses characterization to its full potential in this book. Celie, the main character, is so likeable and honest that the issues slip naturally and organically into her story. Poverty, sexism, racism, and domestic abuse all come into play at some point, and yet this book still left me hopeful.
5. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarche: I read this book back in high school. It's one of those books where the quality didn't sink in until after it had digested for awhile. Although this book doesn't try to hide the message that war is brutal and pointless, it does it with an honesty and subtlety that have assured its place in the classic cannon and English classes everywhere.
6. A Dolls House by Henrik Ibsen: I read this play in the same class that I read All Quiet on the Western Front, and it also took some time to sink in. While it isn't as subtle as some of the other books on this list, it is still a thought-provoking look at how women were (and sometimes still are) trapped by gendered expectations and social pressures. While it has its problems, it's still a good read.
7. The Yellow Wall Paper by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman: This short story is one of my all-time favorites, and has been ever since the first time I read it. It is an amazing portrayal of mental illness, sexism, and the trapping of the female creative spirit. While it isn't exactly contemporary, it is still both intelligent and thrilling, which is a combination that happens all too rarely.
8. In Search of our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker: That's right, Alice Walker is back, this time with an incredible collection of essays on the intersection of race, gender, class, and various kinds of political activism. Walker is an incredible writer and story-teller, and that comes through in these incredibly readable and honest essays. I cannot recommend this book enough.
9. The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan: If you didn't already know, I love Carl Sagan. This book is a collection of his speeches about science, religion, and the search for truth. Sagan is calm, clear, eloquent, understanding, and polite, but he never backs down or is dishonest about his views. No matter what your personal religious beliefs, I highly recommend this book.
10. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio: Did the title get your attention? This book is exactly as loud and in-your-face as it sounds, and I absolutely love its honesty and enthusiasm. While I don't agree with everything that Muscio has to say, I love her writing and her energetic and positive look at feminism and women's relationships with their bodies.
Well, that's what I've got for you today. What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Am I totally wrong about "issue books?" Let me know in the comments. In the mean time, I can't wait to read all of your lists. Happy reading.