24 May 2011

A few Oprah's Book Club selections actually worth reading

Wednesday marks the last episode of Oprah Winfrey's network talk show. We won't bother watching it, so we'll have no idea whether they were all dead or not. (Been sitting on that joke for a year!)

Oprah's Book Club was great for the publishing industry and spectacular for the authors lucky enough to be picked, but it created an odd pressure system surrounding the picks. It can't be said for sure that her tendency to pick a certain type of problem novel featuring a female protagonist actually created a ripple effect in buying and marketing -- that other publishing houses decided to feature just Oprah-worthy picks -- but now to mention that a book got the once-coveted stamp is kind of a knock, isn't it? While the classics she mostly reached for in her earlier years are unassailable, some of her earlier picks (prior to 2003, for the sake of argument) are, well, assailable. Credit where credit's due, though: here are a few we actually liked:

Jane Hamilton, THE BOOK OF RUTH and A MAP OF THE WORLD: Hamilton's 2009 novel LAURA RIDER'S MASTERPIECE was kind of a weak sendup of romance-novel cliches, but her earlier works function as intricate miniatures of suburban middle-class life marked by one major event whose ramifications turn neighbors against each other. (The best of these, though not chosen for the book club, are DISOBEDIENCE and THE SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE.)

Barbara Kingsolver, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE: This novel about a family of missionaries set adrift in the Belgian Congo will ruin all other Kingsolver, but it's worth it. This is the kind of historical fiction that gives the lie to the term "historical fiction," so unconcerned is it with the concrete details of daily life, yet the lives it chronicles ring off the page. It's a textbook example of how to build a sense of creepiness into a narrative from the first page, even when nothing is happening, so as to make it unbearable when something does.

Bernhard Schlink, THE READER. This book really triumphs on rereading, when its nuances begin to emerge. Said nuances were not well demarcated by the 2009 movie adaptation, despite the best work of Best Actress Winner Kate Winslet, although for a mainstream movie it at least tries to force a kind of re-evaluation on its audience. Also by Bernhard Schlink, and excellent: THE WEEKEND.


Wade Garrett said...

Didn't she also pick Middlesex? Or are your three selections taken only from her pre-2003 selections?

Ellen said...

I did stick to the pre-2003 ones deliberately, because those are the most likely to be slapped with the "Oprah book" label. No one's saying that about THE ROAD.

Additionally, the pre-2003 books were more likely on average to have been just published (Toni Morrison notwithstanding). By the time Oprah picked MIDDLESEX, it had already been out for five years and soaked up a lot of acclaim in the middle.