The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

September 3, 2015
by Dan

The Life of a Memoirist

Life of a Memoirist by Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld.

September 2, 2015
by Dan

Book Covers of Note September 2015

Something of a bumper post this month — a real mix of approaches, and a number YA titles to boot. Enjoy!

Complete Stories design by Paul Sahre
The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector; design by Paul Sahre (New Directions / August 2015)

Consumed design David A Gee
Consumed by David Cronenberg; design by David A. Gee (Penguin Canada / September 2015)

Cooking as Fast as I Can design Janet Hansen
Cooking as Fast as I Can by Cat Cora; design by Janet Hansen (Scribner / September 2015)

Criminal Alphabet design by Edward Bettison
The Criminal Alphabet by Noel ‘Razor’ Smith; design by Edward Bettison (Penguin / August 2015)

Cut Both Ways design Erin Fitzsimmons
Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian; design by Erin Fitzsimmons (HarperCollins / September 2015)

Dumplin design by Aurora Parlagreco illus Daniel Stolle
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy; design by Aurora Parlagreco; illustration by Daniel Stolle (Balzer + Bray / September 2015)

Everything Everything design N C Sousa
Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon; design by N. C. Sousa (Delacorte / September 2015)

Fake Fruit Factory by Patrick Wensink; design by Alban Fischer (Curbside Splendor / September 2015)

Fear of Dying design Olga Grlic
Fear of Dying by Erica Jong; design by Olga Grlic (St. Martin’s Press / September 2015)

Generation design by Harriet Sleigh
Generation by Paula McGrath; design by Harriet Sleigh (JM Originals / July 2015)

Love Love design Jennifer Heuer
Love Love by Sung J. Woo; design by Jennifer Heuer (Soft Skull / September 2015)

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt; design by Dan Stiles (AnansiGranta / September 2015)

A Manual for Cleaning Women design Justine Antweiler
Manual for Cleaning Women full
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin; design by Justine Anweiler; photography Jonathan Simpson (Picador UK / Septembr 2015)

(You can read about the design process for this cover here)

cover-50 (1)
The Man Who Remembered the Moon by David Hull; design by David Drummond (Dumgrad Books / September 2015)

New Time and Space design Palgrave
The New Time and Space by John Potts; design by Palgrave Macmillan (Palgrave Macmillan / September 2015)

Night Owls design Leo Nickolls
Night Owls by Jenn Bennett; design by Leo Nickolls (Simon & Schuster / September 2015)

rooms design Jeffrey Alan Love
Rooms by Lauren Oliver; cover art by Jeffrey Alan Love (Ecco / September 2015)

Same City design by Simon Pates
The Same City by Luisgé Martín; design by Simon Pates (Hispabooks / September 2015)

Seven Brief Lessons design Coralie Bickford Smith
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli; design by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Allen Lane / September 2015)

Symphony design by Matt Roeser
Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. Anderson; design by Matt Roeser; illustration by Kikuo Johnson (Candlewick / September 2015)

Syriza design by Jamie Keenan
Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth by Kevin Ovenden; design by Jamie Keenan (Pluto Press / September 2015)

Unbuttoning America design by Kimberly Glyder
Unbuttoning America by Ardis Cameron; design by Kimberly Glyder; illustration by Al Moore (Cornell University Press / May 2015)1

Vengeance Road illustration Teagan White
Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman; illustration by Teagan White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / September 2015)

Wallflower design David Drummond
Wall Flower by Rita Kuczynski; design by David Drummond (University of Toronto Press / August 2015)

Written in the Blood design by Alex Merto
Written in the Blood by Stephen Lloyd Jones; design by Alex Merto (Mulholland Books / May 2015)

September 1, 2015
by Dan

Graywolf Press: Saying Yes When Others Say No

Writing at NY Magazine’s Vulture, Boris Kachka, whose book Hothouse on Farrar, Straus & Giroux was published in paperback last year, profiles nonprofit literary publisher Graywolf Press:

Publishing just over 30 books a year, Graywolf has had authors win four NBCC awards, a National Book Award, two Pulitzers, and a Nobel Prize — all in the last six years. This year, it will exceed $2 million in sales for the first time. No other independent press, never mind a 41-year-old nonprofit, has come so far so fast. It didn’t happen by accident.

“I think of success as being able to say yes to something that doesn’t necessarily look like a commercial winner,” says Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s publisher since 1994, over yogurt and decaf on one of her monthly visits to New York. “Knowing something is good and having to say no, that seems to me the bigger failure.” An affably owlish Brit, McCrae started out in London’s legendary literary Faber & Faber before transferring to its small American spinoff in Boston. Three years later, she heard that Graywolf’s founder was resigning.

Scott Walker began hand-sewing poetry chapbooks in Port Townsend, Washington, in 1974. While picking up poets like Tess Gallagher and Jane Kenyon, Walker turned Graywolf Press into a nonprofit and relocated to the Twin Cities, home to a thriving philanthropic base (which also supports nonprofit presses Milkweed and Coffee House). But in the ’90s, a publishing slump hit Graywolf particularly hard; Walker resigned and his board eventually hired McCrae. At the time, she had zero experience in nonprofits — possibly to Graywolf’s benefit, because she chafed at the complacency to which nonprofits are prone. “There’s got to be a way in which you absolutely value Graywolf,” she says, “but like, come on, everybody! Other small presses are not the measure. Do you say, ‘For our size, we get more attention, so that’s it,’ or do you say, ‘Where can we go?’

And speaking of Graywolf, I am looking forward to picking up a copy  The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, which they are publishing in North America this month (can anyone tell me who designed the cover?)

the wake


August 28, 2015
by Dan

Kelli Anderson: The Price of Advice

Adobe’s Inspire magazine has a remarkably forthright post by designer Kelli Anderson on ‘advice culture’:

Will the creative community ever get its fill of advice?…

…Since advice is a nurturing impulse (a way to pass wisdom on to the future…or just next year’s graduating class), is there really any harm in this oversaturation? Does the monotone nature of our conversation on success, work, and failure actually hurt us?

I would argue yes—there is a dark side to the peppy culture of pretty advice. While other shades of goodwill, such as compassion, generosity, and friendship, only improve with quantity, advice has a cumulative effect—pooling emphasis and importance around the notion of individual initiative. More than slogans, working hard, being nice, and doing what you love have gradually become canonized as the actual reasons that success or failure occurs. When the logic of advice is allowed to co-opt reality, we begin to believe that individual initiative is why things happen.

The result may feel good and empowering, but it also creates the distorted impression that an individual’s good work, alone, will translate to a proportional reward. Conversely, failures stemming from other factors—like ingrained structural prejudice or simply bad timing—may too easily be misattributed to an individual’s lack of commitment, failure to work hard enough, or insufficient love-doing. A culture of self-help advice fosters a belief that we exist in a pure meritocracy, where everything is fair, and that our shared work of shaping an equitable community is done.

This is not the world we live in.

via Brandon Schaefer on Twitter.

August 26, 2015
by Dan

Pushkin Vertigo Crime Series Designed by Jamie Keenan

Vertigo Keenan

At the Creative Review blog, Jamie Keenan talks about his cover designs for Pushkin Press‘s new crime fiction imprint Pushkin Vertigo:

“From the beginning I wanted to come up with something that looked alien, as though someone had brought it back from a holiday in a country you’d never heard of”

They make for a stunning set.

Jamie also created that rather nice “PV” logo for the imprint. Nicely done Mr. Keenan.

I Was Jack Mortimer Keenan

Master of the Day of Judgment Keenan

She Who Was No More Keenan

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia Keenan

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders Keenan

Vertigo, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia and Master of the Day of Judgment will be published by Pushkin Vertigo on next month; two more titles, I Was Jack Mortimer and She Who Was No More, will be published in November.

August 25, 2015
by Dan

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith

fox and the star

At the Penguin blog, the remarkable Coralie Bickford-Smith talks about The Fox and the Star, a new book she has written, illustrated and designed:

The inspiration comes from a place of personal experience that I wanted to document. It’s a life lesson that I found hard to learn; one of love, loss and the ability to adapt to the constant changes that are a part of life. On a visual level my inspiration came from my design heroes, William Blake and William Morris. My love of pattern and book design is evident in the illustrations.

It looks absolutely beautiful as you can see:

fox and the star int

And here’s Coralie talking about the project:

The Fox and the Star is available from Particular Books August 27.

August 24, 2015
by Dan

David Pearson on Slow Design

david pearson melbourne writers fest WH Chong

Award-winning Australian designer and art directer W. H. Chong interviews David Pearson — who is giving a series of talks on book design in Australia this week — for his column Culture Mulcher:

I love the Gandhi quote, ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed’ (particularly reassuring words for a slow-working technophobe).

I do worry that many technological advancements are enabling us to achieve not very much, but at a much faster rate. For example, I cannot understand the very modern desire to produce work using a series of time-saving shortcuts when it is the duration of the working process itself that allows us to question, edit and fine-tune our output. To speed up or bypass this process is to give up on so much and risks the work lacking any discernible ‘human’ quality.

That said, I do work very slowly and sometimes think that a warm and welcoming hobbyist’s industry, like publishing, is the only place that would have me.

David is delivering a lecture, We Are What We Read, at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney tomorrow (Tuesday, August 25) at 6.30pm, and will be discussing contemporary book design at the Melbourne Writers Festival on August 29 and August 30, although I believe the second event is sold out.

August 24, 2015
by Dan

Amazon: Pass This Letter To My Wife and Kids

I wasn’t going to mention that New York Times article about Amazon. We already know the company treats its workers poorly (there are almost too many articles to link to at this point),1 it’s just that some people rather admire this kind of ruthlessness (or simply don’t care if they’re getting a good deal). Nevertheless, I did quite like this cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez for The New Yorker on the subject:


“It’s from Aaron, the Amazon employee who packed my headphones. He’s asked me to pass this letter on to his wife and kids.”

August 20, 2015
by Dan

Europa Editions’ Small Objects of Desire


The New York Times T Magazine profiles Italian small press Europa Editions:

Even if you haven’t heard of Europa Editions, you’ve probably heard of some of its hits. There’s Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” (more than a million copies sold); Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth” (now in its 20th printing); and Alexander Maksik’s “You Deserve Nothing” (so far, the biggest title by an American). Like any good branded product, the books have an instantly recognizable visual stamp: stiff paper covers edged with white borders that frame color-drenched matte backgrounds. According to Europa’s Australian-born editor in chief, Michael Reynolds, “When you see them all together, they draw you in like a bowl of candy.”

That effect is completely deliberate. Europa books are the invention of the Italian husband-and-wife publishing team Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, founders of the independent Roman house Edizioni E/O, who have been bringing the likes of Christa Wolf and Ryszard Kapuscinski to Italian readers since 1979. Because their countrymen are notoriously unenthusiastic book readers, the Ferris designed alluring covers to tempt reluctant Italian eyes.

Interestingly, Motoko Rich already profiled Europa Edition in the Times in 2009, so I guess they must be doing something right…

August 20, 2015
by Dan

Bob Gill: Design as Idea

Mark Mahaney: Bob Gill

Mark Mahaney: Bob Gill

In another great profile for It’s Nice That, Rob Alderson talks designer, illustrator, and writer Bob Gill:

“I don’t know what people talk about when they talk about a golden age because of a million designers in 1950 or 1960 or 1970, 13 did anything that was worth ten cents. They can call that a golden age but the gold has been tarnished I think.”

What has changed of course is technology and the way it’s altered the design process…. In fact now that the craft side of design has become demystified and democratised, he thinks designers should be able to come into their own.

“Now for a designer to make a living, they have to do more than just know how to set some type because the client can do that. So what’s left? Well the most wonderful part is left, which is to discover how you say new things. I often talk about design as idea; I am not interested in design as layout – obviously I have to lay things out in order for them to be read – but it’s very low down on my priorities. I spend the majority of my time having an opinion and trying to invent an image that says that opinion like nobody’s ever said it before. That’s the fun of it.”


Mark Mahaney

August 18, 2015
by Dan

Dan Stiles Covers for Undermajordomo Minor


Next month sees the publication of Undermajordomo Minor, the new novel by award-winning Canadian author Patrick deWitt.

An “ink-black comedy of manners”, it apparently involves an Alpine castle, a mysterious Baron Von Aux, and a lot of bad behaviour — including, if the Quill and Quire‘s Steven W. Beattie is to be believed, “an extravagant act of Hieronymus Bosch-like grotesqueness… perpetrated upon a large rat.”

It sounds a little like a horror movie directed by Wes Anderson. Or Terence Fisher doing something nasty to Gilbert and Sullivan.

While the cover for the US edition (published by Ecco) was designed by the talented Sara Wood, the UK and Canadian editions of Undermajordomo Minor feature the distinctive artwork of Dan Stiles, the American illustrator and designer who designed the covers of deWitt’s previous novels The Sisters Brothers and (the reissued) Ablutions.

Although Stiles has created different designs for Granta, and House of Anansi, the UK and Canadian covers (both featuring that unfortunate rat) have strong echoes of those previous books. According to the Canadian art director Alysia Shewchuk, this was a deliberate decision. “Dan Stiles created a very a distinctive look for The Sisters Brothers — highly stylized, dark yet playful — and we wanted to pick up these threads in our cover for Undermajordomo Minor.”


This is most apparent in the Anansi cover. Its bold geometric design is similar to Stiles’s theatrical cover for Granta, but its colour palette and texture bring it back to the The Sisters Brothers.

Interestingly, the focus of the Canadian cover is different too. “We’d seen early versions of the covers for both the US and the UK editions, and while we liked the different directions they’d each gone in, for our edition we thought it was important to feature the main character (Lucy Minor) and the castle where he lives and works,” says Shewchuk. “Dan understood exactly what we were looking for and he nailed it on the first go-around.”

Undermajordomo Minor will be published on September 3rd in the UK, September 5th in Canada, and September 15th in the US.

In the meantime, watch the slightly Monty Python-esque trailer made by artist Joanna Neborsky, with music by deWitt’s brother Nick deWitt, released today:


The same team made a similarly bizarre trailer for The Sisters Brothers. 

Correction: When first posted, I stated incorrectly that the US cover was also designed by Dan Stiles. The final design and illustration for the Ecco edition of Undermajordomo Minor is by Sara Wood. The post has been amended and updated to credit Sara for her work.

August 14, 2015
by Dan

Popular Science Bestseller Title Generator

popular science

Tom Gauld for New Scientist magazine.

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