My Top 5 Favorite Literary Novels Ever

5 literary novels

My reading life has languished a bit this summer. I blame Netflix and a $20 fine at the library which I didn’t feel like paying until last week.

But I still love books and I have a few on my list for the summer, none of which I’m going to talk about in this post.

I’ve been crushing on Anne Bogel’s podcast, “What Should I Read Next?” Anne listens to her invited guest talk about their 3 favorite books ever {and why}, as well as their least favorite book ever {and why.} Then she provides suggestions as to what the guest should read next. It’s brilliant.

Her podcast inspired me to make my own lists of favorite books. Normally I’m pretty good at seeing patterns but y’all, I could not for the life of me find patterns in my favorite books.

Until I started writing about them for this post. And then I could totally see it.

Apparently I like character-driven stories and have a deep appreciation for nuanced settings, especially if that setting is a southern one. I’m also drawn to stories that are grounded in issues of race and class. These can be some of the hallmarks of literary novels, which I’ll explain in a minute.

Character-driven stories are sometimes more tedious. I’m not a patient person, so this sort of surprised me until I realized that I’ve always been drawn to complicated narratives that carry a deeper message. Perhaps the pattern will be different when I investigate my favorite mainstream fiction reads? I’m curious to find out.

I decided to break down my best ever fiction reads into two categories: favorite literary novels and favorite mainstream fiction. Otherwise it feels like comparing apples to oranges.

“What’s the difference?” you may ask. I’m no literature professor so I had the same question. I know a literary novel when I read one but I wasn’t sure how to clearly define the difference.

Here’s a super helpful post written for normal people {like us!} that breaks down the two categories in a simple way. Essentially, literary fiction “tends to focus on complex issues and the beauty of writing itself.” This why they’re recommended in high school and college literature classes; they require critical thinking and invite meaningful dialogue. Writers Relief says to “Think of literary fiction as a manifesto of sorts—it’s driven by the ideas, themes, and concerns of the novelist, often producing a narrative that is at times controversial.”

I’ll get to my top mainstream picks in another post. For now, let’s feast on these five rich literary reads and why I love them.


Favorite Literary Novels {in no particular order}

The Known World by Edward P. Jones


One of my dear friends from grad school gave me this book for my birthday soon after it was published. She thought I’d love it and she was so right.

I soon learned that everyone doesn’t love it as much as I do. Not long after reading it, I joined a book club and recommended this one. They all hated it. Yay for picking the book no one wanted to finish!

I’ll be the first to admit it’s not super accessible. The writing is gorgeous but not easy. The pace is slow, something I can’t always handle because I’m impatient. But if you like 19th-century southern history, the kind that deals with race and slavery and complicated relations, you might dig it. {The subject matter was my focus in grad school which probably explains my love for it.} If I was teaching a specialty class in college again, I’d make this book required reading, even though it’s entirely a work of fiction.

The characters are complicated and brilliantly crafted. The setting is palpable. The story is a work of genius. The historical context is accurate. Also? It was the dude’s first novel and it won the Pulitzer. Boom.


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee


I read this in high school. Then I listened to the audio several years ago with my daughter while driving to and from the South Carolina low country {which only added to the experience of this story.} We enjoyed it again this past spring for her freshman English class.

I love the people of this novel so much it brings me to tears. Scout and Atticus are two of my favorite characters in the history of the world, even if they’re not real. The sheer mention of this story sends all my senses to imaginary Maycomb, Alabama.

When I listened to the audio version several years ago, I was blown away by the narration. Sissy Spacek is the reader and she nails it. Highly recommend.

Again, the pace is slow but I become so enamored with the characters and the setting that I don’t care. If I were president, I’d make this book required reading for every American. It feels more relevant now than ever. The end and Amen.


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers


Here’s what amazon says about this novel:

Carson McCullers was all of 23 when she published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She became an overnight literary sensation, and soon such authors as Tennessee Williams were calling her ‘the greatest prose writer that the South [has] produced.’

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter tells an unforgettable tale of moral isolation in a small southern mill town in the 1930s. Richard Wright was astonished by McCullers’s ability ‘to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.’ Hers is a humanity that touches all who come to her work, whether for the first time or, as so many do, time and time again.

Twenty-three. Years. Old. I don’t even know how that’s possible.

Again, slow-ish pace, unforgettable characters, a 1930s southern setting you experience with all your senses, and, you guessed it — themes of race, class, and poverty. If you like Flannery O’Connor, you’ll like this book. This is another top pick for an audio book because the narration is exquisite.


East of Eden by John Steinbeck


Someone told me that this book is the “great American novel” and I’m inclined to agree. Identity, land, individualism, destiny — it’s all here.  Even though it’s a classic, I didn’t read it until two years ago. It looks big and intimidating but I finished it in a week, surely to the neglect of other important things. For a literary novel, it moves pretty quickly.

From amazon:

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.

The masterpiece of Steinbeck’s later years, East of Eden is a work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

Speaking of mesmerizing characters, this story has the best she-villain of any book I’ve ever read, a character so pathological you just can’t get enough of her. Also, the QUOTES from this story are profound. I highlighted more quotes in this book than in any other novel.

It’s hard for quotes to stand alone without any context but Steinbeck has a way of delivering a sermon with only a couple of lines. It’s a gift. Don’t believe me? Just read a few for yourself. 


Les Miserables by Victor Hugo


I read this book when I was 16 years old and I can still remember where I was when I finished it, sobbing, life forever changed even though I couldn’t explain why. It would be years before I could appreciate and articulate the themes of redemption and forgiveness in a grown-up way. But they captured my young heart through this story in a way I’ll never forget.

From the book jacket:

Les Miserables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld and immerses them in a battle between good and evil…Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperations of the the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thenardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds.

Real talk. This book is slooooow and sometimes painfully tedious. Also, the military backdrop of the uprising of 1832 makes certain sections a yawn fest unless you’re into battle scenes. {Guess who’s not?} Honestly, you can skim or even skip those sections because the real appeal of this book is Jean Valjean, the main character.

So there you have it, a small stack of literary faves vouched for by a real person. I’m always looking to add recommended reads to my list so what are some of your favorites? We can dish in the comments or on the blog’s Facebook page. : )


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{P.S. I’ll be hanging out on Instagram this summer. Join me?}

*Book links are amazon affiliates.

How to Receive Your Own Summer Life

  pink flower

How’s your summer going? If that feels like a loaded question, this post is for you.

We think summer is all about freedom, but then we’re bothered because this lazy season doesn’t it take a break from comparison, envy, and unrealistic expectations. I know it’s not just me because occasionally I get out and talk to people.

We don’t all have community pools, live in idyllic neighborhoods, or pass the days on a family homestead dotted with gurgling brooks and bunnies. We may not have any accessible watering holes. We may not live in a neighborhood. We may have zero budget for vacations.

Summer can sure mess with our gratitude, especially when we’re bombarded with the realities of everyone else’s seemingly better summer. “Oh, you went to Belize? How lovely. We went to our local lake one day where I fished a used diaper, a Lunchables container, and the plastic part of a needle out of the murky water all in the same outing.” {True story from when my kids were little.}

I remind myself that one never knows the truth behind the Facebook or Instagram photos. Remember how our summer kicked off with a celebratory lunch turned complicated mess? I could have taken a super cute family selfie on said trip to Chick-Fil-A, all of us smiling as we launched Summer 2016 with ice cream and happy togetherness. You would have thought, “Those Vischers. Look how much they love each other.”

The real story is a sketchy parking lot on the way to Chick-Fil-A, peace negotiations within the confines of my minivan, and a mom who was so ticked off, she almost drove home and let everyone eat microwave popcorn for lunch. “Happy First Day of Summer Kids! Here’s some kernels coated with chemical butter to help you celebrate!”


I’ve been writing and even speaking about this thing of “receiving your own life” for a long time. But lately I feel as though I’ve regressed all the way back to kindergarten. This makes me feel like a fraud. Also? It’s frustrating.

For my most recent birthday, a dear friend stamped these words on a bracelet for me: “Receive My Life.”

receive my life bracelet

She had no idea how much I’d need it this summer as I ache with invisible scars and fight for gratitude as though my life depends on it.

Because my life does depend on it. And so does yours.

In many ways, we’re having a great summer. We’re not getting a house ready to sell like Summer 2014. We’re not buying and selling a house like Summer 2015. We’re not sprinting after toddlers who can’t swim like Summers 2001-2012. My kids can feed and entertain themselves while I work from home. The guys have golfed a lot and my girl and I have watched Netflix together like it’s our job.

This summer provides enough commitment to keep us in a routine but enough downtime to sink into a lazier rhythm. Plus I have a screen porch.

It has been lovely in so many ways.

But beneath the lovely there is still junk. Plus a rogue arrow of envy that has come out of left field and pierced my heart something fierce. “Summer, why won’t you give me a two-month break from what ails me and leave me on my porch with house magazines and cold beverages?”


But summer hasn’t given me a break from the brokenness of the world around me or the brokenness of the world within me.

Instead, summer gives me a choice: open my hands to receive it all as grace or keep my fists clenched, shaking them at God and others.

I don’t always make the right choice.

Here’s what I’m still learning the hard way. You can spend your seconds turned minutes turned years wishing for a life that isn’t yours, making yourself and everyone else miserable in the process. Or you can choose to receive the beauty, provision, and even heartache of your actual life. I have a million things to be grateful for. I simply forget. And so do you.

There are things we shouldn’t have to receive, situations that it’s okay to fight against. I’m not talking about being a doormat; I’m talking about accepting that which we can’t really change — the baggage, the fallout, the limitations, the people — as we walk the path of healing, acceptance, and possibility.

I make it sound easy but let’s be honest; it’s war. Every day my real life — with all of its brokenness, lack, fear, and questions — puts up a fight and goes to war with my contentment.

And so I fight.

exercise ball
  • Sometimes that means I avoid certain people and places on the internet. Because even though I know there’s no perfect, certain things are just too much for my fragile spirit.
  • Sometimes that means I pour all of the brokenness into a journal so that my mind and heart have more space to receive the everyday gifts.
  • Sometimes that means I scrawl out my edited thoughts in this online space, pressing publish and blowing words into the world like the seeds of a dandelion, hoping they’ll land in the meant-to-be places.
  • Sometimes that means I pray. And sometimes it means that others pray for me because I am fresh out of energy to articulate my lament.
  • Sometimes that means I stop what I’m doing and eat from the word of God. Otherwise I walk around spiritually anemic, wondering why I’m so cranky and angry without an ounce of perspective. “Oh yes, I’ve forgotten to eat. No wonder I’m thinking and talking and acting like a crazy person.”
  • Sometimes that means I simply keep living, doing the next thing and not letting the hard stuff of my own life or the envied goodness of others’ lives define me.


This season invites me to slow down, to enjoy my people, to rest in the undone, and to make time for beauty.

sofa on screen porch

But as I’ve learned from prior seasons of rest — sometimes when we slow, the stuffed-down grief rises to the surface. It’s only June but summer is already reminding me {for the hundredth time} that life is a broken + beautiful mashup, that it’s okay to live in the tension because I’m not alone. I have Jesus, my friend who is no stranger to living in the tension. Jesus, who feasted with dearest friends one night while being led to his death soon after.

I tell him how I feel because He knows. I quit trying to fix broken things because I’m too tired and besides, that’s his job.


This feels like a heavy post for summer. I wish I could share with you a fun recipe for fruity drinks or 10 Ways to Make This Your Best Summer Ever. But this is the true state of things and to give you anything else feels duplicitous.

Instead, I tell you that it’s okay to laugh with your friends one minute and cry into your iced coffee the next. To receive the slower pace while you also seek healing for wounds that won’t stop hurting.

In both fresh and familiar ways, this summer invites me to “receive my own life,” to etch hopeful patterns in my troubled mind and anxious spirit, even as I enjoy my kids and my porch and sleeping in.

Maybe summer is inviting you to do the same? To receive your own unique season of parenthood, your own summer plans {or lack thereof}, your own summer budget, your own real disappointments, your own real life.

And because I’m not going to Belize or doing anything impressive, I’ll be right beside you in all my ordinary, real-life glory.

you may also enjoy

When Life is a Broken + Beautiful Mashup

Choose Life, Even When It’s Falling Apart

When Summer Gives You Crazy and You Give It Right Back


I’m all about helping you recapture the possibility of your right-now life.

If that sounds like something you need, sign up in the box below to receive fresh hope and possibility delivered to your inbox no more than a couple of times a week.

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{P.S. I’ll be hanging out on Instagram this summer. Join me?}


For the Mom Who Has a Complicated Relationship With Summer: 5 Lazy Tips to Keep You Sane and Happy


We finished school on June 1st. Yay! To celebrate, I’d planned to take the kids out for lunch to inaugurate Summer 2016, going so far as to shower, put on mascara, and wear non-yoga pants.

But within minutes of picking up the last child from school, they were already fighting about where to go for lunch. One child wanted a fro-yo extravaganza. Another wanted a kids meal. The third one wanted an array of lunch options, followed by dessert.

I just wanted some gratitude and a minivan sans strife.

After pulling into a random parking lot and facilitating peace negotiations, we decided on our local Chick-Fil-A where the line was as long as I’ve ever seen it. In the proceeding minutes, I made a number of idle threats to each of them while lamenting our less-than-ideal summer kickoff.

Food has a way of making people seem human again and within a few minutes, we were all laughing at our outside table, talking about plans for next couple of months.

The whole situation felt like a metaphor for summer — a rough transition, selfish clamoring, dashed ideals, and eventual {though short-lived} peace and goodwill.

Summer, you throw me for a loop every year. 


Here’s the thing about my mom self. Maybe you can relate. I crave order and routine but appreciate plenty of room for spontaneity. I need structure but don’t like too many rules. Over the years I’ve tried all sorts of list-y things to keep us sane during the summer. Few of them had any staying power, probably because I, as the resident grown-up, am required to enforce the standards I create and sometimes I choose to take a nap instead.

So consider this “The Lazy Mom’s Guide to Summer Sanity.” These are the loose ideas that have worked for us as well as a few things I’m hoping to try this year.

1. Incentives are your best friend.

mr. lake and raft

For you and for them. Because I work and write from home, I’m planning to wake up early and get my stuff done during the morning hours, while also keeping kids busy-ish with a few jobs around the house, reading books, walking the dog, etc. {Even as I type this, it sounds a bit like a pipe dream but one can hope.}

If we all finish our work, we get to go swimming, watch movies, play video games, stop at QT for slushies, etc. Work before play helps establish a loose routine, gets the work done, and rewards all of us at the same time.

2. Don’t freak out about screen time.


My boys last summer, gathered ’round ye olde iPod, memorizing raps.

Your kids will not die or get considerably more stupid by having extra screen time during the summer months. I often wish I was raising kids in the days before screens existed but we don’t get to choose our moments in history. For better or for worse, it’s 2016.

At our house, we have TVs, Netflix, and a Playstation. And my older two have personal devices. Even though we try to limit their access, we still have screens aplenty and I’m sure their brains aren’t awesome for it. At the same time, I have fond childhood memories of watching the same movies over and over again, playing Frogger on our Atari 5200, and watching murder mysteries with my mom. I still love movies and TV dramas. Story, whether in book-form, audio-form, or screen-form, enriches my life and provides a much-needed timeout while I do laundry or take time to unwind. I daresay it does the same for my kids.

3. Let the summer lists do the bossing.

Years ago, I got tired of “Mom, I’m bored!” and “Mom, can I have a snack?” every 15 minutes. So I made lists and put them on the fridge. They took all of five minutes to make.

Let the Snack List Do the Bossing: The Lazy Mom’s Guide to Keeping Kids Fed

“Mom, What Can I Do?” The Lazy Mom’s Guide to Supervising Children

It wasn’t a perfect system but it helped. Obviously the details need revision each summer because my teenage kids are no longer interested in the things their 6-year-old selves enjoyed. Nor do they eat Go-gurts. It’s the concept that matters. Kids need helpful reminders and you need a break from “Mom!” every five minutes.


4. Make a SIMPLE Summer bucket list.

squinting girls

As in, each kid picks one or two realistic things. This gives you some loose goals without feeling like a failure by the end of the summer because you didn’t cross off all the things on your list. Some of ours are:

  • Visit a local fun park for mini-golf, go-karts, etc.
  • See Finding Dory together.
  • Tour a local historic / scenic place we’ve never visited.
  • {With my older two kids} Summer binge-watch a couple of Netflix series.


5. Keep a list of what you do.

writing boy

A piece of notebook paper + a pen + a magnet + the front of your refrigerator = a written record of what you actually do this summer. Consider it a gift for your end-of-summer self, consolation that summer was better than it felt like on the days when the kids won’t stop fighting and it’s 1,000 degrees outside.

I’ve finished plenty of summers feeling like a loser mom who didn’t give my kids enough meaningful experiences / spend enough quality time with them. This summer I’m keeping a list and writing down everything from movies we watched and books we read to places we traveled and friends who visited.


During the school year, summer always sounds like one extended vacation. But the truth is, our selfishness, idealism, and daily work don’t go on vacation. This means that summer can feel like a long hot season of dashed expectations.

I can’t solve all your summer probs or mine. But sometimes a few simple hacks or a change in mindset can go a long way in making things more realistically awesome for everyone involved.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to receive your own life this summer. Because sometimes it feels like everyone is vacationing in Belize while you’re stuck at home with a rubbermaid container as a swimming pool in your driveway.

What are your favorite summer sanity-savers?

rubbermaid pool


I’m all about helping you recapture the possibility of your right-now life.

If that sounds like something you need, sign up in the box below to receive fresh hope and possibility delivered to your inbox a couple of times a week.


{P.S. I’ll be hanging out on Instagram this summer. Join me?}