A Separate Peace by John Knowles (Scribner, $11). In this poignant classic, every sentence counts. Cast as a simple story about a boy on the brink of manhood, the novel is really about a nation about to be torn apart by war.
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates (Penguin, $15). I go back and study this novel all the time because of its unusual style. Foxfire reads like rock music: sonic and thunderous in places; a slow, lingering ballad in others. The sentences almost literally harmonize with one another.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (Knopf, $14). As Foxfire works the aural potential of prose, Perfume relies on a sense of smell. While reading, I caught a whiff of the squalid streets of 18th-century France.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, $14). This is probably the most beautiful and bittersweet modern novel I’ve ever encountered. Erdrich has a gift for infusing her characters with uncommon depth and pathos. I love the magical realism and Native American folklore woven throughout.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (Grand Central, $14). I read the author’s second novel, Middlesex, and then, stunned by his talent, backtracked to his debut effort. This slim, searing novel captures all the fierce fleeting glory of adolescence. When it ends, in shocking carnage, the teenage mind briefly and improbably makes perfect sense.
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery (Penguin, $5). This selection might seem to stand out as unsophisticated or outmoded, but I truly believe it deserves a place in the pantheon of best coming-of-age works, alongside The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain himself called Anne “the dearest and most lovable child in fiction since the immortal Alice.”