What Makes A Perfect Book Club Choice?
The photo at the top is how book clubs like to see themselves. Flowers, wine and at least one lady who has come dressed for a cocktail party.
Book clubs and reading groups are a global phenomenon more enjoyed by women than men, and the UK reading list tends to be aimed at women. It also seems keen to confirm dated prejudices; the emphasis is mostly on twee and tasteful books with an illuminating message, so The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer is close to the top along with The Light Between Oceans, The Secret Life of Bees and Me Before You.
There are virtually no books by male authors and nothing here that will frighten the horses. Nothing experimental or even unusual, no SF, fantasy, no non-fiction, very little that’s really contemporary, nothing political, nothing too dark or demanding. The emotional and personal are favoured over the controversial. If you think that’s harsh, check out the trending lists.
The choice is very heavily skewed toward US authors too, with only a handful of books from the UK, one of the best being Lissa Evans’ ‘Old Baggage’, making me wonder how many of the books were actively pushed at groups. The USA had a head start on book clubs, which have been enthusiastically endorsed by publishers while the UK was slower to get started. It seems to me that American publishers are keener to give away books and jump-start a selling trend.
‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver is a leading book club choice and I can see that it’s perfect for a number of reasons despite its considerable length. It throws up so many interesting questions that a discussion group has much to chew over afterwards. It also has just enough root in the reality of the past to make an explanation of its history important, especially as it explores one corner of CIA involvement in African politics.
The story is told through five female voices as a pastor’s family relocate to the Congo just before it descends into civil war. The hellfire-preaching head of the clan fails to connect with the locals on any level, even mispronouncing words in his sermon that have the opposite of the desired effect. As events come to a head, we reach a point in the narrative where the story diverges along gender lines.
The four males I know who have read the novel want to follow the ideological clash between the family and the indigenous people (there are two male characters, both one-dimensional), but Kingsolver remains true to her sister protagonists and observes their separate stories post-Africa, explaining how their experiences ultimately changed them. The book is humanist, kindly, a little florid, and could have done with a little more grit but it’s a fine read, and certain set scenes like the night attack of fire ants really stand out.
I’m sure there are different agendas for different kinds of local clubs, but judging from the national choices there’s some work to do in expanding the rather limited range of top choices for group reading.