5 Contemporary Books I’d Add to the Literary Canon

Back in October, I wrote a post about classic books I didn’t finish. In today’s post, I want to talk about books I did finish, books I think are so good they should be considered classics someday.

First, it might be helpful to identify what I mean by a classic. I like the famous definition from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I think of a classic book as being a title that’s widely read and discussed decades after its publication. It’s a book that has endured because of a specific reason, whether that’s a timeless story, a profound message, the exploration of universal truth, an in-depth look at culture, or clever writing. The books I’m sharing today have that something special that will allow them to endure. Keep reading to see if you agree. 

Book cover for Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn ward. Living with his grandparents and sister on a Gulf Coast farm, Jojo navigates the challenges of his mother's addictions and his grandmother's cancer before the release of his father from prison prompts a road trip of danger and hope.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published: 2017

I remember finishing this book and being stunned by it. I read it all in one day was tempted to start all over again after I read the last words. This novel explores a lot of different things, but what stands out to me is how Ward addresses addiction and sibling love. Jojo shows such tenderness and kindness toward his little sister, and it’s those moments that shine so brightly in a dark story. Leoni, Jojo’s mother, cannot provide what her daughter needs due to her addiction, so Jojo picks up the slack. I appreciate how Ward shows the different roles family members can take on when necessary and how addiction affects everyone in the addict’s orbit. 

Book cover for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Published: 2015

I can’t think of another novel that affected me quite as profoundly as A Little Life. Before I started this book, I kept seeing the word “heartbreaking” in just about every review. That’s for a good reason: it is indeed heartbreaking, and it’s not a story for everyone. If you’re a sensitive reader, this is probably not the book for you. But if you’re looking for a story about friendship and surviving trauma, there is much to appreciate here. Jude’s story is bleak and full of tragedy, yet Yanagihara shows how sometimes the smallest things can keep a person going. It took me a few days after finishing this book to get over it. Once you meet Jude, you won’t forget him. 

Book cover for Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Published: 2003

It’s easy to see why this book won a Pulitzer prize. It’s epic in scope, beautifully written, and wholly original. I haven’t read anything else quite like Middlesex. Cal’s story and that of her family are fascinating from beginning to end. This book is over 500 pages, yet I finished it in less than a week. Not only is it a masterful story, but it’s highly readable and engaging.

Book cover for Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In 1956, toward the end of Rev. John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forebears. This is also the tale of wisdom forged during his solitary life and how history lives through generations, pervasively present even when betrayed and forgotten.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Published: 2004

When I read fiction, I don’t tend to underline passages very often. Open my copy of Gilead, though, and you’ll see page after page bearing my uneven scrawl. I mentioned this novel in my post about Christian faith in mainstream fiction, and if you read that, you’ll know part of the reason why I appreciate this book so much is because Robinson handles Ames’s faith with honesty and nuance. Readers can learn a lot from this novel, yet it’s never preachy. Rev. Ames is a character who has stayed with me, and I bet he’ll stay with you, too. 

Book cover for Columbine by Dave Cullen. What really happened April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we "know" is wrong. It wasn't about jocks, Goths, or the Trench Coat Mafia. Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world's leading forensic psychologists, and the killers' own words and drawings. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers. They contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.

Columbine by Dave Cullen
Published: 2009

I was in middle school when the Columbine tragedy occurred, and was equally horrified and fascinated. School shootings had happened before, but never at that scope. It’s easy for us to watch the news and think we know precisely why these shootings occurred, but in this book, Dave Cullen challenges every assumption and presents facts that can’t be denied. It’s hard to read, yet is an essential book if we’re hoping to understand more about what turns a kid into a killer. 

So what do you think? Do you agree with any of my additions to the canon? What books do you think should be added? 

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Reading Recap | November 2018

Cozy Minimalist Home by Myquillyn Smith
Rating: 4/5


Smith walks her readers through a concept she calls cozy minimalism. She wanted a life with less stuff but didn’t want the stereotypical home of a minimalist with white walls, gray furniture, and few possessions. The answer to Smith’s problem is cozy minimalism which allows for a warm, welcoming home made up of well-curated and thoughtful belongings.


Smith’s approach makes a lot of sense to someone like me who’s intrigued by minimalism, but concerned about losing character and uniqueness at home. I appreciate how Smith shows before and after images from her own house, letting readers see what cozy minimalism actually looks like. 


Anyone who feels burdened by their stuff, but still appreciates a cute throw pillow will like this one.

Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More
by Erin Boyle

Rating: 4/5


Boyle tells readers about her own journey toward a simple life and encourages them in their efforts to declutter, spend wiser, and create a home with beauty and sustainability. 


This book is a pleasure to read. There’s a lot of white space on each page which lets the beautiful images of Boyle’s home really stand out. I also like that Boyle addresses making better environmental choices while making purchases. That’s something I don’t think about often enough.


Fans of Boyle’s blog, Reading My Tea Leaves, will love this one. People looking for inspiration about embracing a more mindful life and minimal home will appreciate this too. 

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Rating: 4/5


Nine people embark on a visit to a health resort called Tranquillum House. Some are there to lose weight, others to help heal their marriage, and some to deal with grief. Though the story is told through the eyes of all nine main characters, the primary character is Frances, a romance writer whose career seems dead.

At first, Frances embraces the healthy smoothies and midnight activities, but things start to get weird quickly, thanks to the resort’s mysterious leader. Soon, all nine guests are brought together in a way they never expected. 


The thing that makes me enjoy Liane Moriarty’s books so much is her characterization. There are few things I like more in fiction than a well-rounded character. Characters don’t have to be likable, relatable, or sympathetic, but I do want them to seem real. 

Frances’s disappointment and frustration seem real. Napoleon, Heather, and Zoe’s grieving seem real. Ben and Jessica’s marriage struggles seem real. A lot is happening in this story, but Moriarty always makes it about her characters and their growth. 


Moriarty’s fans will probably like this one, though I can see it being more divisive than her previous work. Readers who enjoy a well-paced story with dynamic characters will enjoy their trip to Tranquillum House too.



Clara is living a happy life with her boyfriend Luke. One night Luke doesn’t come home, and Clara starts to worry. She has a feeling something’s wrong, so she contacts Luke’s best friend Mac and Luke’s parents to help her find him. 

As the search for Luke continues, secrets from the past are finally revealed, and the repercussions of those secrets will haunt Luke and his family forever.  


This book is everything I want a thriller to be. It’s fast-paced, has surprises all throughout, and goes much darker than I expected, which I loved. I’d heard nothing but praise about this book before I picked it up, and I can say that it’s deserving. 


Thriller and mystery fans will be fully engrossed in this story. 

One Day in December by Josie Silver
Rating: 4/5


Laurie is riding the bus and looks out the window. She locks eyes with a man sitting on a bench outside. She feels an instant connection and he does too. The man, Jack, gets up and starts walking toward the bus but it drives away.

After a year spent thinking about and longing for this man she met but not really, Laurie’s best friend Sarah introduces her new boyfriend who just so happens to be Jack. 

One Day in December follows Laurie, Jack, and Sarah over several years of their lives as they intersect in interesting ways. 


This book easily could have been a cheesy, predictable story about a love triangle, but it’s not. For one thing, Josie Silver is funny, and I love finding funny fiction writing. Another thing I liked about this book is that the characters are flawed, but they see this in themselves and are working to become better people. I never ever read romance, so I was surprised by how much I loved this book.


Romance readers will enjoy this one, but I think non-romance readers might too. If you want a lighthearted, sweet, and seasonal read, One Day in December is a great option. 

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Rating: 4/5


Priestdaddy is a memoir about Patricia Lockwood’s life with a zany Catholic priest for a father. She and her husband are forced to move back home with her parents for a while, so she explores her family as an adult and reflects on her childhood and her relationship toward Catholicism. 


Lockwood made me laugh out loud, which rarely happens when I’m reading.  She’s a poet, so her writing is lovely whether she’s talking about something funny or serious. 


People who are interested in religion and don’t mind poking fun at it’s weirder aspects will probably enjoy this most. And if you’re like me and are continually searching for well-written and funny books, make sure to give this a chance. 

Have you read any of these books? What books did you finish in November? 

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Books that Have Opened My Eyes

One of the best things about reading is that it opens your eyes to people, beliefs, and situations that are outside what’s familiar. I’ve lived a privileged, middle-class life, so it’s important that I learn from stories different from mine. Many books have made an impact on me, so today I’m highlighting a few of them that illuminated a specific topic.

Please note: Two books deal with rape and sexual assault, which I do address.


Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

I knew about poverty before I read this book, of course. I knew poverty could hold people back, but I didn’t fully understand its ramifications until I read Random Family. This is a remarkable work of journalism by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc that follows a group of people living in the Bronx over several years of their lives. Their stories are full of addiction, drugs, sex, prison, broken relationships, and violence. It’s easy to say, “Just get an education. Just get a job. Just leave that situation.” But poverty often acts as a blockade. If you’re poor and might lose your housing, dealing drugs and making thousands of dollars might sound great. But dealing leads to more and more problems and the cycle keeps on going. This book showed me how easily poverty traps people and how difficult it is to transition to a better life.


I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness 
by Austin Channing Brown

One of the most striking things about this book is the author’s name. She reveals that her parents named her Austin so people would hear it and assume she was a white man. They knew this would make job searches easier and might allow her a foot in the door she might not have as a black woman. Reading that broke my heart. A child entering the world should be a time of joy; parents shouldn’t have to think about the future and prepare for eventual prejudice as they’re holding their newborn. This is a slim book, but it’s full of insights about race, and specifically speaks to the Church about what we can and should be doing better to advocate for and welcome people of color.


Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

I read (and loved) Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, so I knew she’d been raped as a 12-year-old. Hunger is the story of how that assault changed her life and her relationship with her body. With awe-inspiring vulnerability, Gay writes about how being overweight became a fortress to keep people away and how her family watched her spiral out of control and weren’t sure what to do. She talks about bad decisions she’s made, her relationship with food, and what she’s doing as an adult to manage her trauma. There are no easy answers or tidy endings here. This is a powerful memoir that shows just how much one event in a person’s life can completely change everything. Roxane Gay is one of the best writers alive today.


Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari

In this book, Johann Hari presents a well-researched history of the war on drugs, revealing all the ways in which that war has caused additional damage and suffering. He includes powerful stories about Billie Holiday, drug cartels, and needle exchanges, among others. Hari weaves all of these threads into a convincing argument about the future and reform of the drug war. This is a gripping, thought-provoking book from start to finish.


American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales

I work with kids every day, so I was curious about the role social media plays in their lives. I was unprepared for what I learned in this book.  Journalist Nancy Jo Sales interviews teen girls, so readers get firsthand knowledge of just how important social media can be to them. I was surprised that even when girls are getting bullied and have to deal with being oversexualized, they remain dedicated to their online worlds. My one complaint about this book is that most of the subjects Sales interviews are middle-class or higher, so there isn’t much information about how poorer kids interact with technology. I think that’s a big missing piece, but this book is still worth reading, especially for those of us who engage with kids on a regular basis. After I finished reading, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist while I was growing up.


Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

There are aspects of all these books that shocked me, but I don’t think any of the other books left me feeling quite as disgusted as Missoula. Jon Krakauer explores how little seriousness is sometimes given to rape and assault allegations, especially when the alleged perpetrators are people the community admire, like college football players. If I could, I’d make this book required reading for every person heading off to college. They need to know just how drastically rape and assault can change lives, whether justice is served or not.

What about you? What are the books that have opened your eyes?

My Favorite Political Books

With the U.S. midterm elections coming up tomorrow, I’ve had politics on my mind. I have zero desire to debate political beliefs or watch cable news, but I do love reading about politics and presidents.

Today I want to share some of my favorite books that fall into those categories. Some are biographies of presidents, others are memoirs, and some are extensive histories. Whatever your political leanings, I’m sure there’s something on this list that will pique your interest.


The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity
by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

In this book, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy explore the relationships between presidents from Hoover to Obama. Because of the ever-widening divisions in American culture between Republicans and Democrats, you’d think the stories in this book would include tales of alliances between members of the same party and bickering by those who were opposed to each other. Yet in several cases, it’s Republicans and Democrats who have the closest relationships, such as Hoover and Truman and Clinton and Bush 41. It’s refreshing to read about how rivals overcame their political battles and entered into deep friendships. This is easily my favorite political book.


The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
by Chris Whipple

According to Chris Whipple, the average amount of time a White House Chief of Staff stays in their position is 18 months. If you wonder why it’s not longer, read this book. Chiefs of staff have included men as varied as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Rahm Emanuel, and James Baker. Some have been incredibly effective (like Baker), and others have kept on ascending until they were second in the line to the presidency (like Cheney). Their stories are utterly absorbing from start to finish. If you have even the slightest interest in politics, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.


Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
by Jon Meacham

I picked up this biography because I’m a fan of Jon Meacham, but also because I was curious about George H. W. Bush. One of the reasons he intrigued me so much was because I noticed how people from both sides of the aisle seemed to talk about him with respect (not always, of course, but seemingly more often than not). After reading Destiny and Power, I understand why. This book is worth reading just to hear about Bush’s time serving in World War II. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not a perfect man, but his heroism is admirable, as is his dedication to his family and ideals.


Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

9/11 happened when I was in high school. Before that, I never paid much attention to who was in the White House. After the attacks, President Bush was everywhere and impossible to ignore. He was on every TV screen, newspaper, and website. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever thought much about the presidency, so I was immediately drawn to this book because of that first young awareness. Peter Baker’s history of the Bush/Cheney dynamic is as impossible to put down as any suspense novel I’ve ever read. It’s well-researched, thoughtful, and essential reading for anyone curious about Bush 43 and the complicated relationship he had with Dick Cheney. If you think history is boring, this book will probably change your mind.


Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
by Katy Tur

Katy Tur is a broadcast journalist who delivered NBC’s Trump coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign. This book is her story of that time. For a year and a half, Tur followed Trump around the country. She attended his rallies, was the victim of his insults, and consistently called him out on his lies. Tur’s stories about life on the campaign trail are fascinating, and I admire her tenacity and respect for truth. If you’re still bewildered by what happened in 2016, this book will give you a greater understanding of how Trump got elected.


Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents by Bob Greene

The five presidents the title references are Bush 41, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon. Bob Greene talks to each of them (except for Reagan, who I believe passed away before this book was completed) and reveals portraits of five complex, deeply human,  and very different men. This book is one of the shorter ones I’m sharing today, but it packs so much into its 300 or so pages. Greene captures presidents at their most vulnerable and stripped down. This book is engrossing from start to finish. Go read it.

But most importantly, go vote. Elections have consequences. Make your voice heard.

Top Five Friday: Books I’m Shocked I Liked

I’ve been a reader ever since I read Green Eggs and Ham by myself in kindergarten and thought, “This is pretty fun.” Over the years, I’ve figured out exactly what I like to read. I’ll admit I’m not the most adventurous reader, and most of the time that’s okay with me. Managing my time wisely is essential; I’m not going to spend time reading a book that’s not for me. But sometimes there’s a book that pulls me in that’s outside my literary comfort zone. Today I’m sharing five books that I picked up out of curiosity, assumed I wouldn’t like very much, but ended up enjoying immensely.


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m not into the outdoors. The idea of going outside fills me with disdain. Why would I go outside when the wifi and air conditioning are inside? Nevertheless, I kept hearing buzz about Wild, so I picked it up from the library to satisfy my curiosity, intending to read a few pages. Instead, I read the entire book in one sitting, amazed at Cheryl Strayed’s gift with words. She writes beautifully. The story she tells about her life and the loss of her mom in this book is tragic, yet she displays incredible resilience which fills her story with hope. This book is so much more than a story about a woman who embarks on a really long hike. It’s the story of coming alive again, and it’s fantastic.


Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty 

Last summer, I was sick with pneumonia for several weeks. During that time, I had zero energy and concentration, so I needed a fluffy book to join me on the couch. I chose Big Little Lies expecting fluff, but fluff I did not get. Instead, I got a novel about friendship, abuse, parenthood, deception, and how the past can haunt us no matter how beautiful things look on the outside. The pacing of this novel is pure perfection. This is another book I read in one sitting, wholly engaged by Moriarty’s well-developed characters. She’s since become one of my favorite authors.


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Despite my passion for literature and that overpriced English degree I earned, I don’t consider myself terribly well-read when it comes to classics. Not only is Anna Karenina a classic, but it’s also a Russian classic that’s over 800 pages. I picked up a used copy of this for a great price and decided I’d give it a go, even though I was intimidated by it. As I cracked it open, I thought, “There’s no way I’m finishing this.” To my surprise, I not only finished it, but I loved it. I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which is excellent. I thought this book would be a real challenge, but that’s not the case at all. I’m not sure if that’s due to the translation or Tolstoy’s ability to tell a great story. I assume it’s a mix of both. If you’re intimidated by the book like I was, don’t be. Give it a chance, and I bet you’ll love it too.


The Circle by Dave Eggers

Along with seemingly everyone else in the world, I read Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and liked it. Since I knew I enjoyed his writing, I picked up The Circle. There’s a science-fiction/dystopian feel to this novel, qualities that made me think I might not like this one. As with all the other books listed here, I’m so glad I gave this a chance. Eggers has fascinating things to say about technology and connection. Mae, the protagonist of this novel, was an engrossing character and I was invested in her story the whole way through. The Circle is nearly 500 pages long, but I finished it in just a couple of days. If you’re interested in the ways technology and social media are shaping our lives, don’t miss this one.


Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

In college, I took a class about the philosophy of C. S. Lewis. I’d read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters in high school and had really liked them, so I was excited about the class. I was slightly less excited when I saw Till We Have Faces on the syllabus, though. This book retells the Cupid and Psyche myth, and I had never studied mythology. I also had zero interest in reading fantasy. To my surprise, I loved this book. It’s one of my all-time favorites. What Lewis says about love and beauty in this book is profound. I’m grateful this text was assigned to me or I probably never would have read it.

What about you? What are the books you’re surprised you liked?