I love book clubs. At one time I belonged to four. One was a crime fiction book club at a book store, one I ran from this website, a third I hosted on the radio, and I belong to a book club that just celebrated its twenty-second year. We are eight women who get together once a month and talk about the book we picked the month before. We read mostly fiction, most of it written by women, although I did once make them read poetry, for which I have yet to be forgiven. When we hate a book, the knives are out, and you can tell we really like a book when we’re still talking about it months and sometimes years later.
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is one of those. Nathan Price is an evangelical Baptist preacher who, along with his wife and four daughters, brings the word of God into the Belgian Congo in 1959. It doesn’t take, and neither does anything else in this rich novel about religious zealotry, stifling patriarchy and western imperialism. Lest you imagine the subject matter too grim, let me reassure you. Kingsolver is a past master at using humor to make her points. “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, “ Leah says, “bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
In The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, the narrator is Dinah, daughter of the Biblical Leah and Jacob, and the tent in question is where the women of Jacob’s tribe go to menstruate and give birth. It is also where they go to pass on stories in an oral tradition going back generations. Dinah’s stories of her four mothers, of the women her brothers bring into the tribe and their reaction to the red tent, of Dinah’s doomed love with Shalem and her subsequent abandonment of her family for a life in Egypt as a healer, it all makes for a wonderful you-are-there story that will make you wonder what the rest of the Bible might be like if it were rewritten by women.
One of my book club said of the next book that it made her hear music the whole time she was reading it, which is appropriate because Toni Morrison’s Jazz is deliberately crafted like a series of jazz rifs. All the characters are different instruments jamming on and around the same refrain, black life in Harlem between the wars. Jazz is a story of passion, of murder, of redemption, of forgiveness, and above all the rapture–and anguish–of being male and being female. Morrison says she writes for black readers, but this white reader felt like I was in Harlem, watching the story unfold right before my eyes.
And here’s one we loved. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander made us laugh out loud and cry real tears. American nurse Claire Beauchamp, on vacation in Scotland with her husband Frank after World War II, walks through some standing stones and finds herself two hundred years in the past, and right in the middle of the eternal ructions between the English and the Scots. Gabaldon’s mastery of place and time is such that you’ll feel as if you had walked through the stones with Claire, and Jamie Fraser is a hero any woman would love and any man would follow into battle. But it’s the minor characters I remember — prim Ned the lawyer, rough and ready Rupert the soldier, Machievellian Colum the laird and Dougal his Machievelli in waiting brother, firey Jenny Jamie’s sister, Claire’s fellow traveler in time the witchy Geillis, and surely one of the most evil villains ever, Black Jack Randall, they are why I reread this novel again and again.