Oprah recommended 69 books in her original book club, establishing the careers of many authors and spurring millions in book sales. Her books were often controversial and almost always sad; some were made into Oscar-winning movies while others stirred up controversy in the literary world.
In May 2012, Oprah launched Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, an online, interactive book club, with Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, as the first pick. Wild shot to the top of The Vancouver Sun bestseller list and has been on the list for 31 weeks.
Although I cannot claim to have read all of Oprah’s book club picks, here is a top 10 list of my favourites among those I have read, with a bias toward first novels or author discoveries.
The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver
Harper Perennial, 576 pages, $16.99
Kingsolver is a powerful writer and The Poisonwood Bible is perhaps her strongest book. It tells the story of an American missionary family with young children that moves to Africa in 1959. The book is alternately narrated by the wife and daughters in the family as they navigate life in the Belgian Congo, which becomes independent during the course of this compelling and classic book.
by Anita Shreve
Little, Brown and Company, 320 pages, $10.99
I remember this book really surprised me with the twist in its plot, and that rarely happens. The book opens with “the pilot’s wife” learning that her husband has died in a plane crash. From there, I can’t say where it goes, for fear of ruining the book. Shreve has written a total of 16 novels, many of which include a quirky surprise for readers, including several novels that are not connected, but that all take place in the same house.
Here on Earth
by Alice Hoffman
Berkley, 336 pages, $9.99
I can’t really remember the actual plot of Here on Earth, but it’s here on this list because of my admiration in general for Alice Hoffman, who has written 28 novels including Practical Magic, which was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman, and The Dovekeepers, which is an impressive work of historical fiction set in Israel in 70 C.E., when 900 Jews held out for months against Roman armies on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert.
by Chris Bohjalian
Random House, 384 pages, $15.95
Midwives was the first Chris Bohjalian book I read, and I immensely enjoyed the way he set up a moral dilemma that forces readers to look at both sides of a contentious issue. Here, Bohjalian writes about what happens when a mother-to-be dies while under the care of a rural midwife. When the woman appears to have died in labour, the midwife tries to perform an emergency caesarean section to save the baby’s life.
Black and Blue
by Anna Quindlen
Delta, 288 pages, 21.93
Anna Quindlen writes here about a marriage marred by domestic violence. It has been many years since I read this book, but I still remember vividly the descriptions of the mother’s life and how painful it was for her to run away with her young son to save him from a life of violence. Quindlen, once a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist, has written several novels, non-fiction books and children’s books.
The Pillars of the Earth
by Ken Follett
NAL Trade, 973 pages, $18.81
Long before writing The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett was a best-selling author of spy thriller novels including The Eye of the Needle and Lie Down With Lions. Here, he continues writing in the same page-turning style, but tackles the subject of building a cathedral in 12th-century England. The history is fascinating, but the plot turns keep readers reading through nearly 1,000 pages.
by Elie Wiesel
FSG Adult, 144 pages, $10.95
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote this book at least partly based on his experiences in the Nazi Germany concentration camps, including Auschwitz. It’s a heartbreaking, staggering and important work contained in less than 150 pages. Originally written in the 1950s and published in 1960 in the U.S., Oprah chose this book for her club in 2006. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his work speaking out against the Holocaust, including his writing.
The Deep End of the Ocean
by Jacqueline Mitchard
Penguin, 454 pages, $16.50
This was the first book chosen for Oprah’s book club, and also the first for author Jacqueline Mitchard. Although it has been at least a decade since I read this book, and likely quite a bit longer, I still remember the terrible shock the mother felt when her child disappeared. Mitchard has written a number of other bestselling novels and children’s books, but only The Deep End of the Ocean reached No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, thanks at least in part to Oprah’s influence.
Fall on Your Knees
by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Seal Books, 736 pages, $16.61
It’s Canadian! This multi-generational story takes place in a Cape Breton coal mining community called New Waterford and covers four generations. Given that it has been nearly 20 years since I read this book, the details of the plot are no longer clear, but the extreme turmoil and family drama contained within its pages will never be forgotten. MacDonald also wrote The Way the Crow Flies, a novel about a military family and based on a true story, in 2003.
by Toni Morrison
Vintage, 224 pages, $17.99
Toni Morrison had four books chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, more than any other author. As well as The Bluest Eye, Oprah chose Sula, Paradise and Song of Solomon to be on her club’s reading list. The Bluest Eye tells the story of black, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, who prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will fit in. The Bluest Eye is Morrison’s first novel, written in 1970, and from what I remember contains a story that is both extremely painful and very true.
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