Big Issue Vendor

An autumn of books featuring Leonard Cohen, Edward Carey & Mohammed Hanif

As the nights draw in, we offer a shortlist of gratifyingly rich fodder to warm the cockles of any book worm

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib

Rock writing supremo Greil Marcus said ‘not a day has sounded the same’ since he read Hanif Abdurraqib. That’s a big statement, but Ohio-born poet Abdurraqib’s new essay collection They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us justifies Marcus’ seemingly hyperbolic response. This is some deeply, thrillingly, thought-provoking stuff. 

They Can't Kill us

Unusual among pop culture commentators (including early Rolling Stone prodigies like Marcus), Abdurraqib has little interest in linguistic swagger or street kudos. The qualities which run through everything he writes, from his evaluation of Nina Simone’s blackness to what he misses most about Obama, are his considered, unpretentious thoughtfulness, his sincerity and his compassion. He is both political, fretting over the best way to harvest the anger of young black men (which he shares), and personal, sharing cherished memories of his late mother. 

As smart and enlightening as Abdurraqib is, the most engaging thing about him is his big hopeful heart

He encourages non-black consumers of pop culture to look again at the totems they have long coveted, but his point is not to trigger cynicism or shame. As the only black man at a Springsteen concert – which he attends a day after visiting the grief-stricken town of Ferguson – he is insightful about Springsteen’s lyrics from his own particular standpoint. But he is no less in love with The River than he was as a wide-eyed kid. In fact that may be the best thing of all about Abdurraqib; as smart and enlightening as he is, the most engaging aspect of him is his hopeful big heart. 


Red Birds, Mohammed Hanif

The more you read of Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif’s exuberant, spirited prose, the more you fall in love with him. And want to have dinner with him, party with him, have a bit of a dance. He’s a maverick; he won’t mind if you don’t know all the steps. 

There’s a touch of Catch-22 style absurdism in the story of fretful crashlanded American pilot Major Ellie, and resourceful, exasperated Muslim teenager Momo, who lives in the desert refugee camp Ellie was supposed to bomb (having been informed by his Colonel it was a squalid hideout for ‘goat-fuckers’). It’s a wry, brutal satire, with many laugh out loud moments, and the dialogue fizzes like alka seltzer. But there is also much to tug at the soul in yet another contemporary fiction which looks at the current state of the planet and sees rage, madness and sadness all around.


The Flame, Leonard Cohen

For those of us who feel the absence of Leonard Cohen more markedly every day since his death on November 7, 2016 (the day after Donald Trump won the presidential election), The Flame is a gift. It is a collection of Cohen’s last poems, illustrations, unfinished drafts, the revelatory acceptance speech he gave when he won Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Literature in 2011, and his very last text, sent less than 24 hours before he died. In terms of quality, these poems and lyrics are as startling and stirring, as clever, funny and sorrowful as we came to expect from a poet/singer/songwriter who watched over the cultural landscape of the last half century like a one man Mount Rushmore (one with added chutzpah and a truckload of good jokes). ‘I’ve grown old in a hundred ways. But my heart is young and still it plays’ he writes. This treasure trove is testament to that. Amen.


Four Soldiers, Hubert Mingarelli (translated by Sam Taylor)

Set in 1919, in the bitter winter of the Russian Civil War, this short, spare story of friendship between young soldiers is beautifully evoked and deeply touching. In a lull during the fighting, always alert to the threat perpetually lurking in the surrounding shadows, the four frightened men find solace in fraternity and the small menial tasks which distract them from the inevitable horror ahead. In the most simple, unshowy prose, Mingarelli illustrates the power of small shared moments between pawns of war whose youth should have seen them making happy plans, still optimistic and full of brio. Brief flashes of warmth and humour light their blackening sky like shooting stars, eventually fizzing out to leave them engulfed in darkness again. Hilary Mantel called this book ‘a small miracle’; days after reading it, I would agree.


Little, Edward Carey

There are very few novels quite like Edward Carey’s Little. The true story of Marie, the tiny slip of an orphaned servant girl who grows up to be Madame Tussaud, is curious enough: after losing her parents at the age of six, Anne Marie Grosholtz was taught the art of wax modelling by her master in Berne, narrowly escaped the guillotine when working for the royal household in revolutionary France, then moved to London to open her world famous museum. But it is Carey’s uniquely inventive style that makes this novel so completely, wickedly, addictive. 

Please, TV commissioners, get your teeth into Little. Pheobe Waller-Bridge would have a field day.

Marie’s first person account suggests how David Copperfield might have read, had Copperfield taken a few hallucinatory drugs and made to watch the more surreal films of Tim Burton, and Davids Lynch and Cronenberg before bedtime every night. It is variously nightmarish, dreamy, sensual, emotionally affecting, and very funny. By the end, you feel Dickens missed a trick. Please, TV commissioning editors, get your teeth into this. Pheobe Waller-Bridge would have a field day.


Resistance, Julian Fisk (translated by Daniel Hahn)

Nicola Sturgeon recently picked out indie Edinburgh-based publisher Charco as outstanding in their field, and while the First Minister has a tendency to overstate the qualities of every man, woman and dog with a Scottish postcode, in this case she’s on the nose. Charco specialise in Latin American fiction and they have proven to be exceptional scouts for high quality in an arena brimming with serious talent. Resistance is the tale of a family fleeing from the vicious military dictatorship of ‘70s Argentina, attempting to build a normal life together in exile, out of the ashes of terrible memories and grief. An eviscerating howl of anguish and pain, it is also an absorbing study of how one identifies, and passes on, a story. This, it seems thankfully, is an urge yet to be diminished in a time of upheaval and anxiety.


Books about words, writing, and the history and geography of language are in abundance this autumn, which seems fitting in these Orwellian times. Simon Lancaster’s You Are Not Human is a fascinating study of the effect of metaphor; how connecting an event, place, or people with a picture, however illusory, can dictate the nature of its impact. His examples are varied – Russians as trolls, women as bitches, poor people as scum, children as wild animals – as he shows how normalising positive and negative metaphors can have extraordinary results, from the extermination of 6 million people to the election of a President. 

The best music journalists and film-makers can open minds to complexities and joys in music

However much you might think you’re rather too sophisticated to be bewitched by linguistic spin, you’re likely to find you unwittingly fall into numerous traps every day. This is an eye-opening, powerful read, as edifying as it is frightening. It might leave your brain exhausted, deconstructing everything advertisers, politicians, journalists and teachers tell you, but that’s probably all to the good.


Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence is less scary, and more rousing. As a guide to clarity and economy in writing, whether you’re composing an ad for a shop window or embarking on your first literary masterpiece, it is indispensable. As an inspiration to savour every piece of good writing you encounter, to train your lazy brain to be alert to a beautifully devised phrase, a poetic alleviation, a mood-changing bon mot, it is even more rewarding. The best music journalists, radio presenters and film-makers can open minds to complexities and joys in music (perhaps the greatest example of all, Salieri’s spellbinding description of Mozart’s Serenade for Winds in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, is available on YouTube). Moran does the same for words and sentences in this book.


Gasten Dorren’s Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages is similarly enthralling. Dorren scours the globe for clues as to why some languages have survived and risen to power, and others have withered in time. Babel is full of exciting stories and illuminating history lessons, but what I found most compelling was Dorren’s conclusions on the social and political influence of different alphabets and unique linguistic oddities, how impositions on vocabulary and even grammatical rules can influence the character and outlook of a nation. Riveting.

Illustration: Dom McKenzie