The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

February 13, 2016
by Dan

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Tom Gauld on sexism in history writing for The Guardian.

February 8, 2016
by Dan

Book Covers of Note February 2016

Adios, Cowboy by Olja Savicevic; design by Sunra Thompson (McSweeney’s / February 2016)

The Encounter design David Pearson
The Encounter: Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu; design by David Pearson (Pushkin Press / February 2016)

Empire of Things design Coralie Bickford-Smith
Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann; design by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Allen Lane / January 2016)

A Gathering of Shadows Final
A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab; design by Will Staehle (Tor Books / February 2016)

This is a rather nice riff on Will’s cover for last year’s A Darker Shade of Magic.

In a Land of Paper God design Yeti Lambregts
In a Land of Paper of Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie; design by Yeti Lambregts (Tinder Press / January 2016)

Kropotkin design David Gee
Kropotkin and the Anarchist Intellectual Tradition by Jim MacLaughlin; design by David A. Gee (Pluto Press / February 2016)

Legoland design by Justine Anweiler illo Axel Bizon
Legoland by Gerard Woodward; design by Justine Anweiler; illustration by Axel Bizon and Lena Sarrault (Picador / February 2016)

Liar by Rob Roberge; Jake Nicolella (Crown / February 2016)1

Look at Me design by Yeti L
Look at Me by Sarah Duguid; design by Yeti Lambregts (Tinder Press / February 2016)

My Father the Pornographer-design by Jamie Keenan
My Father the Pornographer by Chris Offutt; design by Jamie Keenan (Atria / February 2016)

oblivion design Liana Finck
Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev; design by Liana Finck (New Vessel Press / January 2016)

Shadow Queen design Sarah Nichole Kaufman
The Shadow Queen by C. J. Redwine; design Sarah Nichole Kaufman; lettering / apple carving Sean Freeman (Balzer + Bray / February 2016)

song for no mans land design Christine Foltzer illst Jeffrey Alan Love
A Song for No Man’s Land by Andy Remic; design by Christine Foltzer; illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love (Tor Books / February 2016)

A Song for No Man’s Land is the first book in a trilogy of novellas by Andy Remic. All three books have covers illustrated by Jeffrey Alan Love — you can read his process at


Superabundance design by Jamie Keenan
Superabundance by Heinz Helle; design by Jamie Keenan (Profile / February 2016)

Symptoms of Being Human design by Sarah Nichole Kaufman
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin; design by Sarah Nichole Kaufman (Balzer + Bray / February 2016)

Thanks for the Trouble design by Lucy Ruth Cummins
Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach; design by Lucy Ruth Cummins; Photography by Keirnan Monaghan, styling by Theo Vamvounakis (Simon and Schuster / February 2016)

unforgettable design Sinem Erkas
Unforgettable by Charlie Maclean; design by Sinem Erkas (self-published / February 2016)

You can read more about the design of this cover on Sinem’s website.

Was She Pretty Leanne Shapton
Was She Pretty by Leanne Shapton; design by Leanne Shapton (Drawn & Quarterly / February 2016)

We Slaves of Suriname by Anton de Kom; design by David Drummond (Pluto Press / February 2016)2

You Should Pity Us Instead design Kristen Radtke
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine; design by Kristen Radtke (Sarabande Books / February 2016)

February 8, 2016
by Dan

Mirror by Chris Ware


I have to confess that I frequently find This American Life kind of irritating, but this collaboration with Chris Ware and The New Yorker to create an animated magazine cover is neat:

The animation was done by Ware and John Kuramoto. You can read more about how it came about on The New Yorker culture blog.

February 8, 2016
by Dan

The Making of Daniel Clowes

Photograph by Ian Allen

Photograph by Ian Allen

Roberto Ito profiles cartoonist Daniel Clowes, whose new graphic novel Patience is published by Fantagraphics in April, for The California Sunday Magazine, :

At the heart of Patience are questions posed within every time-travel story: If I could go back in time and change the past, would I? What would I try to fix? And how badly would I muck things up? Clowes has had a lot of opportunities to think about those questions of late. For a 2012 retrospective of his work at the Oakland Museum of California, he revisited a lifetime of rough sketches and comics. And the publication of The Complete Eightball prompted him to look at work he did more than two decades ago, back when “we were assholes,” as one artist friend recalls. “Rereading them, it feels like every little thing that’s happened to me in my life, every little thought that’s ever popped into my head, has made it into my comics,” Clowes says, laughing…

…“Even after you achieve a certain level of success, you still are that guy that was toiling in obscurity in your un-air-conditioned apartment in Chicago,” says Eric Reynolds, a longtime friend of Clowes’s and a Fantagraphics editor. In a strip Clowes did for The New Yorker in 2001, a Clowes doppelgänger identifies himself as a screenwriter at a cocktail party. “I dare not tell anyone I’m really a cartoonist,” he thinks to himself. With each new project, Clowes is still plagued by doubts. That’s why he doesn’t show anyone his work until it’s done, he says. “Half of the time I’m like, Well, this is really fun,” he says. “But the other half I’m thinking, I could always just not publish this. I make sure I just do the book before I even try to get any money for it. So I always feel like, worst-case scenario, I could publish ten copies and sell it as a limited edition to my friends.”

February 5, 2016
by Dan


new yorker subway reading

Will McPhail for The New Yorker.

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.”

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