Oprah Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at this year’s Golden Globes has had earthquake-level reverberations. She recounted her own history in the entertainment industry, which she used as a springboard to discuss sexual harassment among the women who have joined the #metoo movement as well as but those women who have endured sexual harassment and sexual assault through circumstances that will never allow them to see their assailants brought to justice.
The impact of Winfrey’s standing up for those women can be seen in the sudden discussion about whether she would make an appropriate presidential candidate in 2020. Could Democrats run the media mogul against the current occupant of the White House?
One of the major differences between Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey is that the president has said on a number of occasions that he doesn’t have time to read. Winfrey, on the other hand, has promoted the careers of a number of writers with her Book Club.
Below are a few of our favorites from Oprah’s Book Club over the years. Does looking at this list give us any clues about her thoughts or ambitions? Perhaps not, but the list does reveal that unlike our current president, Oprah Winfrey not only loves to read, she also is willing to challenge herself to read books that take her outside her world in order to understand the circumstances that others face. Perhaps this helps to explain her well-known empathy skills.
From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
In her early 20s, Cheryl Strayed was mourning the premature death of her mother. She drifted for a while, unable to cope with her grief. Strayed decided to take herself away from everything by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, which runs from Southern California to the Canadian border. Despite the fact that Strayed had no experience as a hiker, she ended up hiking over a thousand miles of the trail, an experience that she recounts in Wild in wondrous prose.
Whitehead’s book would go on to win multiple awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, but Winfrey’s choice of The Underground Railroad for her book club caused the publisher to release the book early. In Whitehead’s powerful story, an imagined America has observed “state’s rights” so that slavery continues to exist in certain southern states. Where enslaved people are still held, an Underground Railroad exists—an actual railroad with train cars and miles of tracks—which runs under the ground of those states. Whitehead combines speculative fiction with America’s shameful past when human beings were enslaved.
The financial crash of 2008 wreaked havoc for a lot of Americans in industries that ranged from the financial industry to automobile manufacturing. In Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue tells the story of the economic disaster from the perspectives of two different families. One of the families—the Clarks—is wealthy, with money tied to Lehman Brothers. The second family are recent immigrants from Cameroon. Jenda and Neni Jonga are employed by the Clarks, and the fall of Lehman Brothers has an impact on the Jongas’ struggle to establish themselves in America. The choices that confront them will challenge readers.
What a surprise this book was when it debuted. Ken Follett was known for spy novels and thrillers, so when he produced a 900+ page book set in 12th century England, it was seen as a radical departure. But the novel soon attracted rave reviews for its portrayal of Medieval life, the creation of such engaging characters, and the compelling details of what was required to build a cathedral. Follett has since produced two more books in the series: World Without End, and in 2017, A Column of Fire.
On an icy winter night in Vermont, midwife Sibyl Danforth is confronted with a nightmare situation at what was supposed to be a “routine” birth. The mother suffers a fatal stroke during labor, which forces Sibyl to perform a Caesarian section on the dead woman in order to save her baby. But questions arise later about whether Sibyl was mistaken, that the woman was still alive and Sibyl’s actions killed her. The controversy and trial divides the small town where Sibyl has always been a respected member.
Barbara Kingsolver has written a number of novels that have examined the impact of politics on the individual. In The Poisonwood Bible, she tells the story of the four daughters of Nathan Price, an evangelical minister who has come to the Congo to convert its inhabitants to Christianity. Price’s mission coincides with the period in the history of the Congo when western outsiders—for example, the C.I.A.—were busy interfering in the Congo’s fight for self-determination. The book is narrated by Orleanna Price, the minister’s wife, who worries that her husband has come to save souls but is in danger of losing his own.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Gabriel Garcia Marquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. Many consider One Hundred Years of Solitude to be his magnum opus. The multi-generational saga about the Buendia family takes place in Colombia—but not the actual country. Rather, Marquez constructs a mythical country where magic is available to intervene in the affairs of human beings. This book is a true classic.
Gabriel García Márquez
Florentino and Fermina fall in love when they are very young. Fifty years later, after Fermina’s husband dies, and Florentino has worked his way through 622 affairs because he cannot find Fermina’s equal, the two renew their love affair. A tremendous tale about devotion and the rough magic that is love, Marquez is a perfect choice for anyone who believes in the power of second chances.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” begins one of the most famous opening lines from literature. Dickens writes about Paris and London in the 1790s in A Tale of Two Cities. As the French Revolution moved through its phases, it came to days of full-scale revenge against the aristocracy who were seen by the poor as having deliberately kept them starving and weak. During the “Reign of Terror,” Madame Le Guillotine decapitated men, women, and children in front of restless crowds. In Dickens’ novel, characters are pushed to their limits and find their courage against the backdrop of unrest.
Cormac McCarthy has written some of the modern era’s greatest Westerns. In The Road, he cast his eye toward the futuristic post-apocalyptic America, in which those who are left engage in a daily struggle to survive. In this horror, a man and his son walk the roads. While chaos reigns all around them, in their relationship there is peace. The father imparts to his son all the wisdom he has about how to survive, while the son gives the father a reason for continuing on their dark and terrible journey.
India in 1975 is in the midst of a declared “State of Emergency.” Four strangers are forced to share a living space, and over the course of a year, those strangers develop relationships that will bind them to one another. During this period, the government of Indira Gandhi coerced millions to be sterilized, an effort to rein in a population perceived to be growing too fast. The poor were subjected to other measures, and while Mistry details their suffering, the book also offers joy in the lives of the four who share the apartment.
In 1986, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded it for his work as a “witness,” someone who testified to his experiences during World War II, and in so doing, hoped to prevent a repeat of its horrors. In Night, Wiesel recounts his time spent as a teenager in Auschwitz, a place that has become synonymous with human cruelty. Wiesel survived Auschwitz although most members of his family did not. This book, the first in a trilogy, bears witness to what he endured as a prisoner of the Nazis.
Carson McCullers was only 23 when she published this novel. McCullers shares the narrative among a number of characters who inhabit a small southern town. Two of the main characters, John and Spiros, who are both deaf-mutes. The two are great friends, until one of them gets into trouble and is transported to an asylum. After he leaves, the reader meets other characters whose ties to each other are challenged and tested while being strengthened by love. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is considered one of the top 100 novels written in English.
An Irish woman, Ria, discovers that while she thought she had a perfect marriage, her husband has wandered and now has a pregnant girlfriend. Marilyn is an American woman who has lost her son and can’t cope with the grief. The two decide to trade houses, and what they discover about themselves while living so far from “home” unfolds in Binchy’s charming novel.
Tony Morrison’s classic novel asks painful questions about how American culture defines beauty. She places that debate in the body of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who longs to have blonde hair and blue eyes because those traits are what her classmates consider “beautiful.” How Pecola reconciles these traits with her own body creates unbearable tension. Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
Mathis tells the story of America through the body of Hattie Shepherd, who comes to Philadelphia in the 1920s as part of the Great Migration of people of color from the south to the industrial cities of the north. Hattie gives birth to many children, and in telling the story of each of those children, Mathis reveals to readers the stories that made America.
A saga of four generations of African American women, Cane River begins with the story of Elisabeth, who is born into bondage. The story continues with her daughters and their daughters as they work the land in rural Louisiana through the 20th century. These women’s stories are part of American history, and Tademy’s meticulous research provides readers with the details of lives not covered in the “great men” version of history.
What does it mean to go “home” again? What if the place you left is not the place you return to? And what happens if the place you left is not the place you want to return to? Bond asks these and other questions in the story of Ruby, who runs away to New York as a young woman, but is then forced to return to a place she would rather forget.
At the center of the community, the Church of Fire and Brimstone and Gods Almighty Baptizing Wind holds its congregants together to receive the word of Grandpa Herman. If you don’t follow his rules, you don’t last long in the community. But when Ninah becomes pregnant, a lot of congregants’ beliefs will be tested. Reynolds offers a model of a community of faith that reveals its fault lines.
Ernest J. Gaines
Jefferson sits on death row for a crime he insists that he didn’t commit. Grant Wiggins, a local schoolteacher, works with Jefferson to help him tell his story. As Wiggins learns more about Jefferson, however, he becomes convinced that Jefferson did not get a fair trial. Set against the background of the Jim Crow South in the 1940s, A Lesson Before Dying asks whether it is possible to die with dignity when one has been treated inhumanely.
Humor lights up the corners of Morrison’s novel of a female friendship. Nel and Sula grow up together in Ohio, the closest of friends who offer shelter to one another as they are coming up. Between them, they hold a great secret that binds them together. As adults, they find themselves separated by a betrayal. Morrison weaves together the ribald and the tragic in her tale of two girls.
Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is the setting for this story of James Piper, the son of Gaelic-speaking parents, who elopes with Materia Mahmoud, whose parents are Lebanese immigrants. Their marriage has consequences for both of them that will carry down to their children. MacDonald also chronicles the experiences of Canadian men during World War I, and the ghosts of that conflict make their presence known even after the war’s end.
Gwyn Hyman Rubio
Icy Sparks is being raised by her grandparents in Appalachia. Even though she was orphaned as a baby, she is a happy, loved child. But when she is ten, she begins to experience strange afflictions that cause her to make noises and have physical spasms. Her cruel classmates call her “Frog Child,” and she is bullied by her teacher. How Icy grows into adulthood with her humor intact makes for a funny, loving tale.
In Great Expectations, Dickens gave readers some of his most memorable characters. Miss Havisham has never recovered from being jilted at the altar, and the house where she is raising her niece, Estella, looks exactly the way it did when Miss Havisham found out she would be alone. Pip, a working-class boy, falls in love with the beautiful Estella, but their class differences will keep them apart unless Pip can “improve” himself.
It’s the call that no pilot’s spouse wants to receive—the one revealing death on the job—but late one night, Kathryn gets word that her husband has died in a crash. What she is not prepared for is the newspapers’ hunger for information about her husband as recovery efforts search for the missing plane. Kathryn discovers that her husband kept secrets, and as the story develops, the reader watches as Kathryn learns new things about herself.