Recent Classics About Youth: What Goes On In Those Minds?

By Carole Reedy

It’s ironic that recently published books can already be viewed as “classics.” Yet there are some books and writers destined for this path. From the start, serious readers and some critics knew that Portnoy’s Complaint (Philip Roth, 1969) and Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951) would be read well into the future by millions of people, young and old alike. Both books look into the nest of confusion that is a young man’s mind. Both were controversial, too, not only in the eyes of critics, but also to those in education, the church, and everyday homes. Even friends disagreed.

After its publication in 1951, Catcher in the Rye rose to the cherished number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list. But from 1961 to 1982 this was the most censored book in high schools and libraries across the US. One teacher was fired for assigning it in his classroom (though he was reinstated after taking his case to court). Paradoxically, in 1981 Salinger’s classic was not only the most censored book but also the second most frequently taught book in US public schools.

Portnoy’s Complaint put Philip Roth on the map of literary greats with its 1969 publication. The novel became an instant hit, and The New Yorker named it “one of the dirtiest books ever published.” Many libraries in the US banned the book because of its detailed discussion of masturbation and other explicit language. Roth was also condemned by many fellow Jews. In 2009, the Guardian published an article in honor on the 40th birthday of the novel, summing up its success by saying, “So despite reaching 40, that milestone of respectability, Portnoy’s Complaint is still a master class in how to get beneath the skin of sexuality. Has any other novel managed it quite so well?”

Even today, as in the ’60s, the names Alexander Portnoy and Holden Caulfield bring a smile of recognition to the faces of readers new and old. If you haven’t read these two books, treat yourself. You can find inexpensive copies in used bookstores and on Amazon.

In the 21st century, writers are still telling stories about the confused years of youth. This month we’re recommending five recently published books by award-winning writers that are certain to win more cherished literary prizes, which will enable them to make a comfortable living in a profession that denies many skillful this achievement, bringing us many hours of pleasurable reading.

Paul Auster, one of the most distinguished and loved writers of the past 30 years, in a recent interview on BBC talked about the daily life of a writer. Although it may seem glamorous to those of us who admire the art, Auster puts it in perspective: “Who would want to spend their days shut in a room with just a typewriter?” It’s a lonely existence. And yet, many writers still pound away on the manual typewriters they’ve owned since the 1960s, Auster and Woody Allen among them.

These best-sellers tell us stories of youth by delving into the young minds of the protagonists as they experience the tragedies and joys of living.

A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers

Yes, that’s the title, not the description. But the title does describe the book, which indeed is a staggering work of genius. Eggers has given us a variety of insightful, important, and funny books over the past 15 years that address relevant topics (What is the What, Zeitoun, A Hologram for a King, and most recently The Circle), but this is the one that stands out, perhaps because it’s his story, his life, his heartache, his experience.

When Eggers was 21 he lost both his parents to cancer in the space of two months and was left to care for his seven-year-old brother. He takes you into his mind and his thought processes, justifying his decisions and actions. Eggers is entertaining and even funny despite his pain, new responsibility, and fears. In the first 100 pages he describes the deaths of his parents, followed by a chronicle of the new life that was thrust upon him. Eggers is clever, starting the book with chapters entitled “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book” and “Incomplete Guide to Symbols and Metaphors.”

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Tartt is the author of three novels (The Secret History, The Little Friend and The Goldfinch), with 10 years passing between the publication of each. These are all big books, well-researched and entertaining. The Goldfinch tells the story of a young boy who loses his mother suddenly. At the same time he inadvertently steals a valuable piece of art from a museum. Once again, an author takes us on a mental and physical journey following tragic experiences. This is one of the best-selling books of 2014. And though it’s quite a tome, it’s hard to put down.

Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre

Born in Australia and presently living in London, DBC Pierre was raised in Mexico, and it is this culture he loves and with which he identifies. His 2003 Booker Prize-winning novel is filled with the color and warmth found only south of the US border.   Much of the novel takes place in Texas, where the teenaged protagonist gets caught up in the frenzied accusations following a school shooting. Vernon God Little is bittersweet, funny, and filled with the colloquial language of youth, which enhances the satirical point of view of life in a small town in Texas. The portrait of Vernon’s mother and her friends is both amusing and pathetic. At one point Vernon escapes Texas for Mexico, a country where, as Pierre says, “one looks destiny and death head-on and laughs.”

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

I read this book assuming it was a novel. To my shock, at the end I realized it was a true story about the author’s life. What’s astonishing is that such a childhood could produce a successful journalist and prize-winning writer who leads what most of us view as a normal life, apparently undamaged. Walls and her siblings were taught by their parents to be independent, to take care of themselves, and to be strong. Their parents did this by leaving the children to fend for themselves, the adults working only sporadically and moving (“skedaddling” in the words of her father) often. At times the parents seem smart and creative–the mother an artist, the father an alcoholic with spurts of brilliance. But they don’t care for their children, to the point of not seeking medical care for broken bones and burns or providing enough food. The children ultimately take care not only of themselves, but their parents too. Walls has an excellent story-telling technique, making this an enjoyable, if heart-wrenching, read.

Half-Broke Horses,  by Jeannette Walls

Another memoir by Walls, but this time about her grandmother. This marvelous tale takes place in the early 20th century in Arizona and New Mexico. Walls originally intended to write about her mother, but then found the life of her grandmother more interesting. Just to give you a glimpse, one chapter relates the grandmother’s journey at the ripe age of 15 which took her 500 miles by horseback unaccompanied. She was one strong, practical woman and a grand women’s libber at an early age. Through her ups and downs she kept a positive attitude, able to release her defeats and begin new adventures. Truly a role model for us all.

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