The Joy of Bookclubs
Our literary lover ponders the appeal of book clubs and looks over the Dutch Das Magazin’s first outing in Shoreditch
Review by Kate Slotover
Book clubs are as ubiquitous in the UK as toasted crumpets and cups of tea, but not so in Holland where it seems the idea of a group of people getting together to discuss a book is an outlandish one, particularly amongst younger people. Luckily they have Das Magazin, a literary magazine founded in 2011 as a forum for the best short stories, poems and essays. Not content to rest on their laurels Das Mag then started organising festivals of book clubs – numerous book clubs going on simultaneously with up to 1,000 participants at a time. It worked in Amsterdam, in Ghent and then in Antwerp. Next stop was London where they found a willing collaborator in Shoreditch venue The Book Club.
Getting people together to discuss books is all well and good but opinions tend to flow more freely when there’s drink involved whether it’s cups of tea or something stronger. The Book Club is a convivial, light and airy warehouse-style bar that likes to work in a variety of creative events under the umbrella term ‘thinking and drinking’. So they proved a felicitous hub venue for the ten book clubs that Das Mag organised, with everyone reconvening at TBC afterwards to compare notes.
Your Riddle reviewer was at The Book Club itself to hear Zoe Pilger talk about her novel Eat My Heart Out, summarised by Dazed and Confused magazine as ‘the hipster Bridget Jones’s Diary it’s ok to like’. Sadly we were not in the warm, inviting bar itself but downstairs in a rather chilly basement. Vodka shots were offered to those who could correctly answer questions about the book and this correspondent got two which helped with the cold if not the clarity of the review that follows. The book is a coming-of-age tale in which 23-year-old Anne-Marie, somewhat deranged from the stress of her university finals, tries to make sense of her life in London and form a new relationship with a man she meets on the street outside Smithfield meat market. As her approach consists of knocking him to the ground and later grinding a cigarette out on his chest he is understandably wary but Anne-Marie won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It is a novel packed full of ideas and Anne-Marie is an unforgettable character, ‘trapped in post-feminist freedom’. It’s also complicated and Anne-Marie experiences everything in a heightened emotional state that is at times used to good comic effect but also makes for a slightly exhausting read. Our discussion was moderated by the publisher who encouraged us to ask questions and the author spoke eloquently about her work. But while characters in the book might consume pigs’ heads, have sex in stairwells and say what they think in ways that seem raw and unfiltered, our discussion was – as you might expect with author and publisher present – extremely polite.
Afterwards the group broke apart and we trundled back upstairs for drinks and to get warm. And there, freed from the constraints of being diplomatic people’s real opinions were aired. This was great fun. Plus it would be fair to say that the post-book-club discussion was incredibly well informed because we’d all just been sitting for an hour listening to the author talk about her work, so there was plenty of fuel for debate. And then, in the best way of book clubs, the conversation turned to more general literary talk; things we had read, things we wanted to read, things we would recommend to others. This reviewer came away with a reading list (The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, Shoplifting from American Apparel, Tao Lin, Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey and Swimming with Sharks, Joris Luyendijk) and a warm feeling of having met some lovely like-minded people. And you can’t really ask more from a book club than that.
And so let’s wait and see if Das Mag do another book club event in London. They are industrious folk who seem to have unlimited energy, currently launching their own publishing house where, Das Mag publisher Daniel van der Meer promises ‘we will take care of our books, our writers and our readers with all the love we have’. They are also launching an English-language edition of the magazine in April and another book club festival in June in Berlin.
The Book Club arts and culture programme for January
If you are looking for something a little more leftfield to kick off your new year, here is Das Mag’s book club selection to broaden your horizons.
Eat My Heart Out, Zoe Pilger
A crazy romp through contemporary London polarised between intellectuals and hipsters, underpinned by some thoughtful ideas about feminism. On the positive side Eat My Heart Out is an original and inventive debut, the feminist theory that lies behind it giving main character Marie a fascinating and compelling perspective on the events that unfold. On a negative note, however, everything is caricatured, from the heightened description of events to the characters Anne-Marie encounters. Characters come in and out of the story but we are not given any sense of their inner-lives and this makes it hard to identify with anyone or believe in the scenarios that unfold. Another issue is that everyone sounds the same, from feminist icon Stephanie Haight to Richard the restaurant manager as he fires a member of staff for sexually interfering with the food. The humour, meanwhile, is either too subtle to stand up against the larger-than-life backdrop or too obvious to really be amusing. Perhaps for jokes to really work the reader has to be complicit in them somehow, and the general feeling in the discussion afterwards was that Pilger doesn’t really manage to pull this off. That said this is a fascinating work that would make a great read for any book club because it is so confrontational and packed full of ideas. Pilger is an interesting writer and we look forward to reading more of her work.
Swimming with Sharks, Joris Luyendijk
A scathing portrait of the global financial sector written through a series of interviews. Das Mag say ‘Aimed at general interest readers with as little background in finance as the author had before undertaking his research, it is, fundamentally, a book about human beings and the challenges and temptations that they face.’
The Bees, Laline Paull
Taking inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Paull weaves her novel from the perspective of Flora 717, a lowly sanitation bee.
All The Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld
Das Mag say ‘With exceptional artistry, All the Birds, Singing, plumbs a life of fierce struggle and survival, sounding depths of unexpected beauty and hard-won redemption.’
Summer House with a Swimming Pool, Herman Koch
The Guardian called this ‘gripping’ proposing it as the summer’s must-read for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Dutch author Koch’s best-selling novel The Dinner (2009) was translated into 21 languages.
Glass, Alex Christofi
What’s not to love about a main character called Günter Glass, ex-milkman and aspiring window cleaner, struggling to find his way in the world.
Left of the Bang, Claire Lowdon
Perhaps a companion novel to Eat My Heart Out, Lowdon also takes as her subject young Londoners in a story woven around failing concert pianist Tamsin Jarvis. Das Mag call it a Vanity Fair for our times.
June, Gerbrand Bakker
Bakker comes to writing from an unusual perspective, having previously worked as a subtitler for nature films before becoming a gardener. Daniel Hahn in The Guardian wrote ‘Bakker is unafraid of stillness, and a master of emotional restraint …’
The Latecomer, Dimitri Verhulst
Flemish author Verhulst has created a novel with an interesting premise. Désiré Cordier – mild-mannered former librarian, put-upon husband, lover of boules – fakes dementia in order to enjoy a restful early retirement in the Winterlight Home for the Elderly. ‘A tender love story of demented minds and honourable hearts.’
These Are the Names, Tommy Wieringa
Das Mag say ‘the tale of a modern-day Exodus in Eastern Europe, this is the first English-language edition of the latest bestselling novel from one of Holland’s most distinguished writers.’