The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

February 3, 2016
by Dan

War and Peace Clickbait

War and Peace Clickbait Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

February 3, 2016
by Dan

Jeff Shotts: Artful and Enduring Experiences


At Literary Hub,  Jeff Shotts discusses his work an editor at Minneapolis-based publisher Graywolf Press with Kerri Arsenault:

At Graywolf, we choose what we choose because these books deal with uncomfortable issues. Sometimes we need comfort, but what comforts us as readers, when so much of the rest of the world is hard at work to comfort us? I am made more uncomfortable by passivity, invisibility, and perfection. And readers want books like Citizen, which directly confronts race, or’On Immunity, which takes on vaccination and cultural fear, or D. A. Powell’s exquisite, lyrical trilogy collected in Repast, on illness and HIV, or Solmaz Sharif’s upcoming Look, which describes the casualties of war, one of which is our language.

All of these books we choose because of the issues they confront, yes, and also because of how they confront them. The language, style, and form of the books Graywolf publishes are meant to challenge you, provoke you, keep you reading, immerse you in experiences that you can’t shake off after you look up from their pages. Not all these experiences are loud or ugly, and many of them are also subtle, internal, joyous, and beautiful. But we hope all these experiences are artful and enduring…

…It’s a risk in this climate to publish the kinds of books we do—poetry and translations, essays and short stories, works of social justice and artful language. But we continue to recognize that many, many people are excited by these kinds of books: they want to read them, share them, hand-sell them, download them, review them, teach them, study them, engage with them, maybe throw them across the room. As an independent, nonprofit, mission-driven publisher, Graywolf and our titles exist in the same marketplace as countless, more commercial publishers and their titles, and these books have to compete for attention, review coverage, bookstore placement, online positioning, distribution, sales, awards, event listings, and on and on and on. It’s a risk in most every way, but given the extraordinary success many titles have had in these last few years, I think more and more people inside and outside the industry are giving Graywolf books an extra look and an additional boost.

February 2, 2016
by Dan

Chris Jackson: Building a Literary Movement

Chris Jackson Credit Shaniqwa Jarvis for The New York Times

Chris Jackson Credit Shaniqwa Jarvis for The New York Times

New York Times Vinson Cunningham profiles Chris Jackson, executive editor at Spiegel & Grau and editor of award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Jackson’s role… is to perform nothing less than a kind of magic. He stands between the largely white culture-making machinery and artists writing from the margins of society, as well as between the work of those writers and the largely white critical apparatus that dictates their success, in both cases saying: This, believe it or not, is something you need to hear.

The book that perhaps best encapsulates that ethos is one of Jackson’s first, ‘‘Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature,’’ published in 2000. The collection, which he and the ‘‘Real World’’ star turned hip-hop journalist Kevin Powell compiled, brought together a cohort of writers — Junot Díaz, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Beatty, Hilton Als, Claudia Rankine and others — who have today come to form a loosely generational, unabashedly multicultural alternate literary establishment. ‘‘Step Into a World’’ marked a turning point for Jackson, who had until then been publishing reference works that were the stock in trade of John Wiley & Sons, where he worked at the time.

‘‘I’ll never forget a reading we did for that book,’’ he told me. ‘‘It was at the Schomburg’’ — the Harlem library that is a repository of black literature and history — ‘‘and there were so many people there, not just publishing people, as we usually think of them, but people from the neighborhood, and they were picking up this book.’’ He paused here, after uttering the word book, and his abiding wonder at the power of the object was almost tangible. ‘‘This book, containing all these ideas that were so important to me. They were picking it up and leaving with it, and it was such a wonderful literalization of the transmission of ideas.’’

February 1, 2016
by Dan

Edmund de Waal on Bookworm


On last week’s Bookworm, host Michael Silverblatt talked to artist and writer Edmund de Waal about porcelain and his new book The White Road: Journey into an Obsession:

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January 27, 2016
by Dan

Julian Barnes and Suzanne Dean in Conversation

Noise of Time

At the Penguin Blog, author Julian Barnes and designer Suzanne Dean discuss their 20 year creative relationship with Alex Clark:

“What’s so nice about working with Julian is the trust; I think that’s really important. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than producing something and someone can’t understand what you’re trying to show them. I think over time you build up that trust and you know that I’ll be working my very hardest to give you the best cover I possibly can. I really am so desperate to produce perfection each time and I want it to be better each time.”

You can listen to the full conversation on the Vintage Books podcast:


And you can read more about the cover design of Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Noise of Time, on CMYK, the Vintage design blog.

noise of time alt

January 25, 2016
by Dan

David Bowie’s Forgotten Non-Fiction Books

David Bowie Non-Fiction Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

(And, on a related note, if you are looking for Bowie links, Daniel Benneworth-Gray is compiling a list)

January 25, 2016
by Dan

Where Pilgrims Arrive in Bewilderment

let us compare

In a long profile for the Globe and Mail, book review editor Mark Medley visits Nicky Drumbolis owner of the singular Letters Bookshop in Thunder Bay:

Walking through the store is an overwhelming experience. Everywhere I look I spot something I’ve never seen before and will probably never see again. I could have picked a single shelf of a single bookcase and spent my entire visit studying its contents. Not that Mr. Drumbolis would have let me do that. As we amble up and down the aisles, he is constantly narrating, constantly picking out items at random and telling their story – how he acquired it, or who published it, or whatever happened to its author – which often leads into another, entirely different story, and another book, and so on, until I can’t remember which book started the conversation in the first place.

He throws around words like “shit kicker” or “heavyweight” to describe books he particularly loves, his voice growing progressively louder and more animated, the longer he talks. He pulls out a first edition of Leonard Cohen’s 1956 debut Let Us Compare Mythologies, part of what is probably the most extensive sampling in existence of Montreal’s legendary Contact Press, which helped to launch Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Raymond Souster and others. Now here’s his Franz Kafka collection, and over here Ezra Pound, and Charles Bukowski, and a few remaining titles from his collection of William S. Burroughs, most of which he sold years ago to David Cronenberg around the time the director was adapting the Burroughs novel, Naked Lunch.

“Henry James,” he says, tapping a shelf filled with first editions of the American master. “The guy I wanted to read cover to cover before I died. I don’t think I’ll get to it now.”

January 22, 2016
by Dan

The Cycling Anthology Jersey Designs by James Paul Jones

The Cycling Anthology_Killed Cover_1

James Paul Jones‘s unused covers for The Cycling Anthology (pictured above) were some of my favourite designs from 2015. Based on famous cycling jerseys, I liked that they were a nod to insiders, but that you that didn’t need to be a cycling fan to appreciate the stylish minimalism of the designs.

When I learnt that they were passed over in favour of a more traditional, illustrative approach, I asked James about his work on cycling books, and why the jersey covers didn’t go to press.

The Cycling Anthology_Killed Cover_2

“I’ve always loved sports but I didn’t count myself a cycling enthusiast until my last year working at Orion Publishing where I was given the job of art directing the photo shoot for David Millar’s book Racing through the Dark,” he told me. “Working with David opened my eyes to the cycling world, and I was lucky enough to work on Sir Bradley Wiggins’ book a couple of years later.”

“Coincidentally David Millar writes beautifully about cycling and has a few essays as part of the Cycling Anthology,” James continued. “I also just finished designing his latest book, The Racer a few months back — all cycling enthusiasts should grab a copy! The contact sheet of ‘tour scars’ is one of my favourite plate sections we’ve ever done, and the back cover features one of the final jerseys he ever wore. Complete with rips, holes and bloody marks from one of his most brutal crashes. As soon as we saw it we knew it had to be featured somewhere, and the photographer captured it brilliantly.”

The Cycling Anthology_Killed Cover_3

The Cycling Anthology presented a different kind of challenge, howeverOriginally self-published, it collects original writing by some of the world’s best writers on the sport, as well as cyclists themselves. Now published by Yellow Jersey Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House), the new volumes of the anthology presented James with an opportunity to repackage the series as a whole, and to experiment with a new look for the covers.

“I wanted to present the editors and authors with two options. A more traditional route, and an option that would hopefully resonate with the cycling community. The jerseys were the latter, and one of the first things I researched. I really wanted to make that connection with the cycling community, and the target market is very design conscious which helps. They are so iconic in the cycling world it just seemed to make perfect sense.”

The Cycling Anthology_Killed Cover_4

The design of the first volume was inspired by the world champion rainbow jersey. The second by the famous blue and white Bianchi jersey. Volume three was based on the ‘King of the Mountains’ polka dot jersey and the fourth on the Molteni jersey worn by the great Eddy Merckx. The fifth volume was inspired by the chequered shirt of the French cycling team Peugeot. “There were so many jerseys I wanted to include,” said James. “I also recommend David Sparshott’s poster of Cycling Jerseys for anyone wanting to admire the greats in his signature illustration style. Just gorgeous.”

Cycling Jerseys_David Sparshott

Despite the obvious appeal of these new designs, the publisher decided to stay with a familiar look to the series. “I think the authors wanted to retain some elements from the original designs, which we did on the final covers with the illustrations, and I’m happy with how they turned out,” James told me. “The illustrations are by the talented Simon Scarsbrook. Volumes 1-3 used the original artwork, and we commissioned Simon to come up with two more illustrations for volumes four and five. He was great to work with and they work really well as a series.”

The Cycling Anthology Series

James kept the stripes from the world champion jersey and used them across all the final covers to help unify the series. “The jersey covers will forever by one of my favourite ‘killed covers’ and I really wish they would have taken a chance on them as I’m sure they would have done the job and more.” Agreed.

The Cycling Anthology_Killed Cover_5

January 15, 2016
by Dan

Some Murder Methods for Modern Mystery Writers

modern murder methods Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

January 14, 2016
by Dan

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I’ve been surprised by my own ambivalence towards it. But as someone who was almost exactly the right age for the original trilogy (give or take a year or two) — and still has a slightly morbid fascination with Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon — I’ve managed to read rather a lot about it

I particularly enjoyed two articles specifically about The Force Awakens. First off, there’s Aaron Bady’s essay Our Star Wars Holiday Special for The New Inquiry:

Every beat in The Force Awakens reminds you that you are watching fan service. It recycles the original Star Wars with the same shameless and joyous abandon that the original trilogy “recycled” chanbara samurai movies, WWII movies, pulp sci-fi, and anything else that George Lucas happened to come across and devour. And this point is worth underscoring: Lucas gobbled up and digested so many different pop cultural predecessors, and did it so directly and shamelessly, that to subject any of the resulting crap to standards of originality is to fundamentally misunderstand how it works, or why. The man literally cut together footage from WWII fighter pilot films and then re-shot it as space battles; his first treatment actually plagiarizes Donald Richie’s description of The Hidden Fortress. But to accuse him of “plagiarism” is like accusing him of making a movie. If it felt good, he released it, and that’s Star Wars: sensation and feeling without thought or coherence. Star Wars is the indescribable goodness of the images and sounds, and the way that goodness overwhelms and digests the rest of it. Star Wars misses the target if it aims. Just let go, Luke. Trust yourself.

Then there’s J.D. Connor’s essay for the LA Review of Books  Making Things Right: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”1

Critics have blamed J.J. Abrams, or George Lucas, or Disney (as Lucas and Michael Hitzlik have) for the film’s lack of novelty, but whomever they’ve singled out, the range of causes has been far too narrow, locating responsibility within the production narrative of The Force Awakens. That’s typical. For decades Star Wars has inspired a strangely blinkered sort of criticism that leans on the franchise’s unique success and Lucas’s unique authority to justify treating it as somehow apart from Hollywood as a whole. It has been seen as responsible for the end of The ’70s, but somehow not the product of that ending. Worse, Lucas’s own cod-Jungian narrative theory has governed the understanding of the films’ stories to the exclusion of changes in Hollywood storytelling over the same period.

As a result, criticisms — or defenses — of Star Wars’s narrative retreading are misguided, not because the film is narratively innovative, but because critics continue to regard it as far more immune to the broad tendencies in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking than it is now or ever was.

Both articles probably contain spoilers (if that matters to you), and although neither one convinced me that I must actually go see The Force Awakens, they seem to be clear-eyed assessments of where it sits vis a vis the original film.

January 14, 2016
by Dan

On Jerks

Measure Yourself

In an excerpt from his new book Measure Yourself Against the Earth, philosopher Mark Kingwell considers jerks:

[O]ne premise of the jerk theory is that any one of us might be a jerk at almost any time, given the right conditions—a bad day at work, cramped travelling conditions, too much humidity—there is more to the failures here than cases of what we might call Excessive Entitlement Disorder, or EED. Presumably, most of us do not suffer from this condition; such people are merely the bellwethers of the system, the perverse canaries in the coal mine of plutocratic society. Of course, we must allow here for the fact that such people’s behaviour does not strike them as unseemly.

When the asshole is comprehensively reified—or when EED is well advanced—there is little sense on his own part that there is anything wrong with the picture except that he’s still waiting for that damn martini. Did you send down the street for it, or what? Such blindness is part of the true asshole. The jerk, again by contrast, may come to perceive that his behaviour has been bad, that he has failed his fellow citizens in not treating them as peers. This may happen soon after the behaviour, especially when the immediate circumstances change (I get that cool drink, we get out of the small car, the air clears); or perhaps when, relating the event to a friend in search of validation, he instead receives a rebuke.

Regret may be rare and hard to come by, but the general sense that jerkiness is associated with perceived and maybe temporary superiority, rather than with entrenched entitlement, offers at least the chance of asking oneself: Hey, was I being a jerk?

January 11, 2016
by Dan
1 Comment

Book Covers of Note January 2016

Oof. Hello, January. This is all rather soon isn’t it? But here we are, a new month, and another selection of new book covers (with a few ‘old’ ones that I missed in the excitement at the end of 2015). Happy New Year…

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; design by Will Staehle (Tor Books / January 2016)

Bird design Kelly Winton
Bird by Noy Holland; design by Kelly Winton (Counterpoint / November 2015)

Blizzard design Devin Washburn
The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin; design by Devin Washburn (FSG / January 2016)

Childrens Home design Jaya Miceli; Art by Valerie Hegarty
The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert; design by Jaya Miceli (Scribner / January 2016)

Fine Fine design by Dan McKinley
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams; design by Dan McKinley (McSweeney’s / January 2016)

A note from the book on the cover art:

“The art on this book’s cover is unsigned and was created for a romance novella published in Mexico City in the 1960s that appeared in serial form. This piece was produced using collage and gouache overpainting on illustration board, and the back reads “El Angel No. 64.” The printer of these covers held on to the originals for decades, and the entire collection was recently purchased from his warehouse. Works are available from the Pardee Collection Gallery of Iowa City, and ‘El Angel’ is provided courtesy of Diane Williams and Wolfgang Neumann.”

Gamelife design Alex Merto
Gamelife by Michael W. Clune; design by Alex Merto (FSG / September 2015)

Girl Through Glass design Jaya Miceli
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson; design Jaya Miceli (Harper / January 2016)

Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor; design by Adly Elewa (Melville House / January 2016)

Ministry of Nostalgia design Andy Pressman
The Ministry of Nostalgia by Owen Hatherley; design by Andy Pressman (Verso / January 2016)

1956: The World in Revolt by Simon Hall; design by Alex Kirby (Faber & Faber / Janaury 2016)

A nice US / UK compare and contrast for The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie:

Portable Veblen design Jo Walker
Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie; design by Jo Walker (Fourth Estate / January 2016)

Portable Veblen design Oliver Munday
Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie; design by Oliver Munday (Penguin Press / January 2016)

Prose Factory design James Paul Jones
The Prose Factory by D. J. Taylor; design by James Paul Jones (Chatto & Windus / January 2016)

snow queen sanna annukka
The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, illustrated by Sanna Annukka; cover art by Sanna Annukka (Hutchinson / October 2015)

This looks absolutely beautiful, but I’ve seen very little about it online, much less seen it in person. Apparently Sanna Annukka has also illustrated an edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Fir Tree. It looks wonderful too.

Splitfoot design by Nico Taylor
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt; design by Nico Taylor (Corsair / January 2016)

Stargazers Sister design Oliver Munday
The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown; design by Oliver Munday (Pantheon / January 2016)

stones of muncaster cathedral design MS Corley
The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral by Robert Westall; design by M.S. Corley (Valancourt Books / December 2015)

13-8 design Shepherd Studio
13.8 by John Gribbin; design by Shepherd Studio (Icon / October 2015)

This Is The Ritual design Greg Heinimann
This is the Ritual by Rob Doyle; design by Greg Heinimann (Bloomsbury / January 2016)

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