Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen – review

There’s whip-smart writing in this essay collection, but the whirligig of topics could leave readers’ heads spinning

In one of the more caustic essays in this collection of nonfiction, the American literary novelist Joshua Cohen (Moving Kings) returns to his birthplace, the kitsch gambling mecca of Atlantic City. A casino is a palace of distraction for Cohen in which the “sensory-overloaded, blinking, chirping” layout conspires to empty the wallets of dazed punters. Such tourists are now few and far between. The city is in a death spiral hastened by the current incumbent of the White House whose Plaza casino has sat rotting and shuttered since 2014.

Cohen reports that locals with knowledge of his business dealings regard Trump as a conman, but his own opinion, characteristically, is more eloquent: “Trump was always a blusterer, a conniver, a mouth: a cotton-candy-haired clown who crashed the AC party late and left ...

Fruit of Knowledge by Liv Strömquist review – eye-poppingly informative

Witty, clever and angry, this book about the suppression of female sexuality is fantastically acute

How I loved reading Liv Strömquist’s Fruit of Knowledge. Mostly, this was down to its sheer, punchy brilliance: should you be in possession of a teenage daughter, you absolutely must buy it for her and all her friends, in addition to those copies you will now immediately purchase for yourself and all of yours (I’m probably addressing female readers here, though there’s no reason why men shouldn’t get with the programme, too; in truth, it’s as likely to change their lives for the better as those of most women). But there was also, I must admit, a certain amount of pleasure to be had in watching people clock its subtitle, The Vulva vs. the Patriarchy: words that are scrawled on its jacket in blood-red letters beneath a photograph of the author with her hands ...

When my childhood bully said sorry, 40 years too late

Novelist Patrick Gale looks back on a school friendship that turned brutal – an experience shared in silence by many others

One day my agent forwarded a letter to me. Nothing unusual there; some of my readers are of an age where they regard email and direct messaging as an unmannerly introduction. But this letter proved to be a thoughtful, clearly heartfelt, two-page apology from a man who had done his best to make my life a misery at school.

“I wanted to say sorry,” he wrote. “I am sure there are many reasons why I behaved the way I did. Sadly, I think people who experience abuse and bullying are vulnerable to passing it on and I know at the time I felt quite helpless and demeaned by my behaviour. However, no explanation amounts to a justification. It was bullying. I was vindictive when you were entirely innocent, and ...

Karl Ove Knausgaard is wrong – writers should own dogs

The author blames his dog for the fact that he was blocked for two years. But pets provide a vital emotional lifeline for anybody who spends time alone

In an essay for the New Yorker, Karl Ove Knausgaard has detailed two difficult years of owning a dog, wondering if its presence in his home was connected to the fact that he did not write a line of literary prose during that period. (“Merely essays and articles,” he notes.) It was such a problem for him, he writes, that his six-volume autobiographical series, My Struggle, was originally called The Dog. “Has a single good author ever owned a dog?” he asks drily.

The essay is not an indictment of dog ownership, as such. Knausgaard admits that the dog was barely trained, that he saw too much of himself in the animal and that the failings were his own. He ended up giving it to ...

Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blog. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Let’s start with a cheering story about the benefits of education, from gavernism:

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Hugo awards: women clean up as NK Jemisin wins best novel again

Jemisin’s third win in as many years signals an end to the influence of the rightwing ‘Puppies’ groups, with female authors winning all major categories at sci-fi awards

Author NK Jemisin has scooped her third Hugo award for best science-fiction novel and, in doing so, has become the standard-bearer for a sea change in the genre’s diversity, as women – especially women of colour – swept the boards at last night’s ceremony.

Taking the stage to accept her third win in three years for her novel The Stone Sky, Jemisin told the audience at the 76th World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, California, on Sunday that “this has been a hard year … a hard few years, a hard century,” adding: “For some of us, things have always been hard, and I wrote the Broken Earth trilogy to speak to that struggle, and what it takes to live, let ...

‘Disgrace and shame’: Alan Moore points to Boris Johnson in Grenfell fire comic

Moore has briefly come out of retirement to contribute to a new anthology raising money for PTSD support for survivors

Comics legend Alan Moore, who announced he was “pretty much done” with the medium two years ago, is making a brief foray out of retirement to point an excoriating finger at Boris Johnson over the Grenfell Tower fire.

Moore, the author of the seminal graphic novels Watchmen and V for Vendetta, is one of 24 contributors to a forthcoming comic anthology, 24 Panels, which is designed to raise money for those affected by the fire that broke out in London’s 24-storey Grenfell Tower last year, killing 72 people. An illustrated poem, his comic, “If Einstein’s Right …”, touches on fragmentary moments from different lives and features a mug-shot image of Boris Johnson.

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The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai – review

An ambitious novel looking back on the 1980s Aids epidemic is thoughtful and affecting

Early in Rebecca Makkai’s stylish and ambitious new novel, one of her protagonists, Fiona, is pondering life in her 50s. She feels tired, guilty. Everyone she loved has “died or left”. She is living “after the bloodbath”. The wartime imagery is surely deliberate, though the setting is Paris in 2015, and she’s looking back at the Aids epidemic in Chicago that claimed her elder brother Nico, and many friends. “There had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy,” she feels. It’s a timely reminder that living through crisis, whether personal or political – and sometimes both – sends shockwaves across generations.

The Great Believers begins in 1985 with Nico’s funeral. His friend Yale speaks of “entire apartment buildings devastated”, the language another suggestion that the disease tearing through excitable lives is akin to ...

House of Trump, House of Putin by Craig Unger – review

Though engaging, this fresh look at Donald Trump’s links to Russia adds little to the story

However much Donald Trump rails against the “witch hunt” over his ties to Russia, he must secretly revel in the number of trees being felled to cover a presidential term not yet at its halfway point.

Craig Unger’s new book enters a crowded Trumpology market. Fourteen years after Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud, detailing links between the Bush family and Saudi Arabia and hinting at dark cover-ups in the aftermath of 9/11, the author returns to riff on his earlier title and theme.

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Secrets, lies and a child: William Boyd on the truth behind Chekhov’s marriage

In 1902, as he pondered The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov had another question on his mind: who was the father of his wife’s unborn child?

On 25 May 1901, Anton Chekhov, aged 41, married the actor Olga Knipper, eight years his junior. The marriage provoked great surprise and consternation among his friends and family. In Russia at the time, Chekhov was as famous a writer as Tolstoy and, in addition, a passionate and amorous man who had enjoyed more than 30 love affairs. He was also a regular visitor to brothels. And, even more significantly, he was the ultimate commitment-phobe. Many women had fallen in love with him and wanted to marry him but he always quickly backed away. Then suddenly, clandestinely, he married.

Knipper was a second-generation Russian, of German Lutheran stock. She came from a bourgeois family that had hit hard times, and she had audaciously and tenaciously ...

The Only Girl by Robin Green – review

No areas are off limits in a vivid account of life as the only female writer on Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s

In her funny, candid memoir, The Only Girl, Robin Green, a former writer for Rolling Stone magazine, emerges almost as an accidental feminist trailblazer – a woman living through fast-evolving and turbulent cultural, socio-political, professional, and personal times, often just trying to hang on as best she could.

Green was indeed the only girl to be listed on the Rolling Stone masthead, when she worked there during the 70s. The magazine’s co-founder and publisher, Jann Wenner, removed her name when she failed to deliver an article on the children of Robert F Kennedy – though, as becomes clear, Green had her reasons. She had slept with one of her subjects, Robert F Kennedy Jr, on his college water-bed, an event she relates in a chapter ...

How to Be Both review – Ali Smith’s dazzling novel hits the stage

The Spiegeltent, Edinburgh
An experiment in presenting fiction beyond panel discussion or onstage interview pays off handsomely

The title of Ali Smith’s multi-award-winning novel poses a question that cuts to the heart of book festival culture: how to be both serious and fun, serving both readers and an audience. It’s a particular challenge for fiction, which doesn’t profit from the usual talking-heads format in the way of, say, a celebrity autobiography or a topical tome about climate change.

EIBF supremo Nick Barley has responded with a laboratory strand of semi-staged performances, which may or may not grow into something bigger. In the second of three to be devised this year in partnership with the Lyceum theatre, two writers and three actors had just three days to corral Smith’s dazzling, time-vaulting novel into a 45-minute performance.

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Nine Lives: My Time as MI6’s Top Spy Inside Al-Qaida – review

A memoir of a decade at the highest levels of Islamist militancy by a double agent known as ‘Aimen Dean’ is extraordinary

When the Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapsed in November 2001, journalists who had been waiting in parts of the country outside the Islamist regime’s authority or in neighbouring Pakistan rushed to bombed-out and deserted training camps where al-Qaida had built the strike force that had carried out the 9/11 attacks.

I was in the eastern city of Jalalabad as opposition forces still skirmished with al-Qaida remnants on the evening of the city’s fall. After a night in the one functioning hotel, I drove a few miles down the rutted road to Kabul. On several reporting trips into Afghanistan under the Taliban I had heard of a training camp near a reservoir called Darunta, a mile off the main road. It wasn’t hard to reach: a complex of mud ...

Irvine Welsh: ‘I thought Trainspotting would be a cult book, but not generation-defining’

The Scottish author on 25 years of his landmark novel, Brexit as a catalyst for democratic change and the exhilarating effects of boxing

Trainspotting is 25 years old. Did you have any idea when you were writing it that it would become such a phenomenon, culturally and commercially?
Not really. The initial buzz it generated was among a certain section of the London cultural cognoscenti, the ex-punk crowd. They got it immediately. Because of the subject matter, which involved hard drugs, I thought it would become a cult book but not generation-defining, which is what other people have called it since. It’s strange, but it has taken on such a life of its own that when I see it on a shelf in a bookshop, it almost feels like someone else wrote it.

You’ve since written four novels with those same characters, including this year’s Dead Men’s Trousers, ...

Night Time Cool by Jamie Paradise review – a rip-roaring debut

Audacious writing puts a thrilling gloss on a conventional crime tale

The journalist Jamie Jackson has had a thriving career writing about football for the Guardian, but it is now clear that he also has the makings of a fine comic crime novelist.

At least, his alter ego Jamie Paradise does on the evidence of this rip-roaring debut novel, set amid the noise, colour and occasional violence of London, pre-Christmas 2015. Written in an audaciously flamboyant manner that is roughly equal parts Money-era Martin Amis and Filth-style Irvine Welsh, it’s a thrilling ride, even if the suspicion lingers that the verbal and chemical fireworks conceal a more conventional saga.

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Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America – review

Beth Macy’s complex, moving account of America’s battle with opioid addiction rips along with the pace of a thriller

In February 2001, Ed Bisch, a middle-aged American IT worker, received a frantic call from his daughter. She had just found her 18-year-old brother, Eddie, unconscious and turning blue in the bathroom of their house in suburban Philadelphia. By the time Bisch made it home, paramedics had given up the fight to save his son’s life. When a bewildered Bisch asked what had happened, one of them replied, “Oxy” – shorthand for OxyContin, the opioid-based painkiller that Eddie had overdosed on. “The first time Ed Bisch heard the word ‘OxyContin’,” writes Beth Macy, “his son was dead from it.”

Dopesick is threaded through with similar stories of loss and bewilderment: sad stories told by grieving parents and siblings, angry stories told by activists, and stoical stories told by police officers ...

Patrick Gale: ‘It’s true, I adore books about nuns’

The British novelist on his fascination with convents, delving into people’s hidden inner lives and the luxury of solitude

Patrick Gale is the author of 19 novels, including Rough Music, Notes From an Exhibition and the Costa-nominated A Place Called Winter. He wrote the acclaimed TV drama Man in an Orange Shirt, the centrepiece of the BBC’s 2017 Gay Britannia season. A keen cellist and gardener, he lives on a farm in the far west of Cornwall. Take Nothing With You is his new novel about boyhood, coming of age and the power of music.

You often base your novels on your life and family. How autobiographical is Take Nothing With You?
Like the lead character, Eustace, I learned the cello when I was young and went on these amazing residential music courses in Scotland, which were quite a rite of passage. The other thing lifted from life is Eustace’s ...