The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

June 13, 2016
by Dan

Classic Literature with Added Science!

science versus fiction tom gauld

Science versus Fiction — Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

June 10, 2016
by Dan

Australian Book Design Awards Catalogue 2016

Earlier this week I received a copy of the 2016 Australian Book Design Awards Catalogue designed by Alissa Dinallo. My photos don’t really do it justice, but it is a thing of beauty:

ABDA 16 Catalogue

ABDA 16 Catalogue Hot Little Hands

ABDA 16 Catalogue Endpapers

You can buy a copy of the catalogue from the ABDA wesbite.

June 8, 2016
by Dan

Book Covers of Note June 2016

Something of a bumper post this month, with lots of black and white covers for some reason. Perhaps it’s a thing…?

Addlands design Jenny Grigg
Addlands by Tom Bullough; design by Jenny Grigg (Granta / June 2016)

barkskins-design Jaya Miceli
Barkskins by Annie Proulx; design Jaya Miceli (Scribner / June 2016)

The cover of the UK edition (Fourth Estate / June 2016), designed by Anna Morrison, is an interesting contrast:
Barkskins design by Anna Morrison

Boy-s Own Story design Ami Smithson
A Boys Own Story by Edmund White; design by Ami Smithson (Picador / June 2016)

But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman; design by Paul Sahre (Blue Rider Press / June 2016)

The Chaplin Machine by Owen Hatherley; design by David Pearson (Pluto Press / June 2016)

Crow-Girl design Mendelsund and Munday
The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund; design by Peter Mendelsund & Oliver Munday (Knopf / June 2016)

death confetti design Jacob Covey
Death Confetti by Jennifer Robin; design by Jacob Covey (Feral House / June 2016)

Essex Serpent design Peter Dyer
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; design Peter Dyer (Serpent’s Tail / June 2016)

Fen design by Suzanne Dean
Fen by Daisy Johnson; design Suzanne Dean (Vintage / June 2016)

The Girls by Emma Cline; design Peter Mendelsund; lettering by Jenny Pouech (Random House / June 2016)

The cover of the UK edition (Chatto & Windus / June 2016), which makes intriguing use of ITC Avant Garde Gothic,1 was designed by Suzanne Dean:

girls UK

Goldfish JKT_final

Goldfish by Nat Luurtsema; design by Anna Booth (Feiwel & Friends / June 2016)

(This has a fancy spot gloss that makes the school of fish appear to shimmer)

How to Ruin Everything design Ben Denzer
How to Ruin Everything by George Watsky; design by Ben Denzer (Penguin / June 2016)

Human Acts design Tom Darracott
Human Acts by Han Kang; design by Tom Darracott (Portobello Books / January 2016)

Infomocracy design Will Staehle
Infomocracy by Malka Older; design by Will Staehle (Tor Books / June 2016)

ink and bone design Ervin Serrano
Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger; design by Ervin Serrano (Touchstone / June 2016)

In the Dark in the Woods design Kate Gaughran
In the Dark in the Woods by Eliza Wass; design by Kate Gaughran (Quercus / April 2016)

Is That Kafka design Erik Carter
Is That Kafka? 99 Finds by Reiner Stach; design by Erik Carter (New Directions / April 2016)

Invincible Summer design Justine Anweiler
Invincible Summer by Alice Adams; design by Justine Anweiler (Picador / June 2016)

Lost Time Accidents design Pete Adlington
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray; design by Peter Adlington (Canongate / June 2016)

The cover of the US edition (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / February 2016), designed by Janet Hansen, is another fascinating contrast:
Lost Time Accidents design Janet Hansen

The Muse cover art Lisa Perrin
The Muse by Jessie Burton; design by Ami Smithson, cover art by Lisa Perrin (Picador / June 2016)

Naked Diplomacy by Tom Fletcher; cover design by Jonathan Pelham (William Collins / June 2016)

Nitro Mountain design Oliver Munday
Nitro Mountain by Lee Clay Johnson; design by Oliver Munday (Knopf / May 2016)

The Panama Papers_9781786070470
The Panama Papers by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier; design by James Paul Jones (Oneworld / June 2016)

Rasputin design Ed Kluz
Rasputin and Other Ironies by Teffi; design by Eleanor Crow; cover art by Ed Kluz (Pushkin Press / May 2016)

Scar design CS Neal
Scar by J. Albert Mann; design by Christopher Silas Neal (Calkins Creek / April 2016)

sex object design by Lynn Buckley
Sex Object by Jessica Valenti; design by Lynn Buckley (Dey Street / June 2016)

White Sands design Pete Adlington
White Sands by Geoff Dyer; design by Peter Adlington (Canongate / June 2016)


June 8, 2016
by Dan



Creative Review talks to Mark Ecob about his cover design for Paul Kingnorth’s new book Beast (Faber & Faber, July 2016), which incorporates “a series of folkloric linocut illustrations” by Alan Rogerson.

CR-Beast-front-cover-papers CR-Beast-back-cover-papers

I love this cover.

June 6, 2016
by Dan

All the Books

Assault design Oliver Munday

At Literary Hub, Designer Oliver Munday discusses his design process and reading the whole text:

As designers, we are forced to read quickly, and incisively, mining for the clues to the coveted iconic cover. It can feel careless at times, leading me to believe that my reading skills are being dulled. I think of the author in this process, and in some ways the guilt that I may feel about a less-than-ideal reading of their text is exceeded by the potential of presenting their book with the best possible jacket, one that their audience of ideal readers will appreciate. A cover that feels simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.

I used to aspire to a process that created an expanse for reading each text, one that merged the ideal-designer and ideal-reader into one, but found the boundaries of distinction too severely marked. It would be amazing to have the time, space, and inclination to read an entire text when designing its cover, but I have realized that is not essential. There may be times when my two selves are reconciled, but in the event that they exist separately, a reading designer, divided against himself, will remain standing.

June 3, 2016
by Dan

How To Be a Bad Writer

How to be a Bad Writer Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld for The Guardian, inspired by this piece on what makes bad writing bad by Toby Litt.

June 2, 2016
by Dan

Monocle on Books in Translation


On the latest Monocle 24 Culture show, host Robert Bound discusses the recent rise in translated fiction with Anne Meadows, commissioning editor at Portobello and Granta, and Lisette Verhagen, foreign-rights agent at David Godwin Associates, while Andrew Mueller talks to Deborah Smith, Man Booker International Prize-winning translator of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and Lyndsay Knecht visits Deep Vellum in Dallas:1

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June 2, 2016
by Dan

A Window onto a Window

photograph by Ike Edeani

photograph by Ike Edeani

In this profile of Peter Mendelsund in the June issue of Rhapsody Magazine, there is a lovely bit about the designer’s architect-artist father:

In the living room of Knopf associate art director Peter Mendelsund’s Upper Manhattan apartment, inspiration is everywhere: a battered, sea-green first edition of Ulysses; a toy version of the rocket Tintin takes to the moon; the vertebra of a blue whale; and, on top of his baby grand piano, a wooden model of a convention center made by his father, in the mid-’70s, when he worked for a New York architecture firm. It was never built, because the firm didn’t win the competition (Renzo Piano did), nor were any of his other models, because, in his late 30s, Benjamin Mendelsund was diagnosed with a brain tumor and devoted the rest of his life—he died at 48—to sculpture and painting. “He cut out all the bureaucracy of architecture,” Mendelsund says, “and turned to this.” He points to a small canvas painted entirely black except for two rectangles—two faded photos of a barn’s loft, its window open to the bright of day.

That image of a window onto a window is central to the signature style that’s made Mendelsund one of our preeminent book jacket designers: geometric, fascinated with negative space, striving to capture infinity through simplicity. You see the painting echoed in his cover for Martin Amis’s 2006 novel, House of Meetings, for which he photographed a tiny simulacrum of a room, its perspective slanting toward a miniature door. You see it in his many book jackets with drop-cuts—holes carved out of an image—like the diamond torn from a woman’s face on an early cover for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, back in 2005 when it was called The Man Who Hated Women. And you see it in his May 11, 2015, New Yorker cover, which features an American flag smashed like a storefront window, a single star-shaped hole evoking the myriad emotions of last year’s civil unrest in Baltimore.

His father’s second act as an artist also helps explain how, at 33, Mendelsund had the confidence to abandon his career as a classical pianist (“Eventually, I realized that I’d never truly be world class”) and reinvent himself. His wife suggested he try something visual—he was always drawing; he had designed their wedding invitation. “Sometimes the obvious things take a long time to see.”

June 2, 2016
by Dan

Working for the Building


In a long and fascinating interview with the Ballardian, Ben Wheatley talks about J.G. Ballard and his adaptation of High-Rise:

Initially, I really enjoyed the cult appeal of [Ballard’s] work, or more specifically the counter-cultural aspect. His books, particularly Crash and High-Rise, were like rites of passage for anyone trying to read subversive and counter-cultural literature. Alongside Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, they were books you had to read. But I was especially struck by Ballard’s use of language and turns of phrase, which didn’t feel like any other writer I had come across.

Although I enjoy SF, and that was also part of the charm of his novels, I also think it was books like The Atrocity Exhibition and then his 70s books that really hooked me in. When I was a teenager, there were two writers that really appealed to me: Burroughs and Ballard. They weren’t just authors and novelists in the traditional sense, they seemed much more dangerous and enigmatic than other writers. Burroughs naturally has a mystique because he shot his wife in the head and was a junkie, and therefore the extremity of his fiction was partially mirrored in his real life.

But the thing is, there was something about Ballard that was even stranger and perhaps more insidious, in the sense that he didn’t do those extreme things and was living a quiet, suburban life as a father to three children while also pouring out these amazingly perverse books. That had a big effect on me, but I was also aware of him through music, comics and other media. I wasn’t a particularly voracious reader of novels, so in some ways I experienced Ballard through a kind of cultural response to his work.

This is the best, most in-depth interview with Wheatley I’ve read on the subject of adapting Ballard and making High-Rise.

June 1, 2016
by Dan

ELCAF 2016 Official Poster


The official poster for the fifth East London Comics Art Festival by Jean Jullien.

May 31, 2016
by Dan

Find Your Stories in the Dirt

cover design by Steven Seighman

cover design by Steven Seighman

I mentioned Andrew F. Sullivan’s piece on High-Rise last week, and I recently spoke to the author about his own novel WASTE, and about influence of David Lynch on his writing in a Q & A for Publishers Group Canada:

Initially, I think I was very resistant to Lynch. I think I thought a lot of it was just nonsense for the sake of nonsense. It was Blue Velvet that won me over, that showed me you could implicate and confront your audience, you could tell a sad, vicious truth and people would want to hear it/see it. Lynch opened up so many opportunities to leave the explanation out, to make the work immersive and unsettling while still dancing around the established conventions for storytelling. What he was doing seemed very singular, but also invested in the everyday, in waking up, going to work, putting in the hours. He created a world, especially in Twin Peaks, that began as just slightly askew, plausible even. He lured you into the nightmare and then told you it was real. And everyone questions the theories their friends have, there is no code to break. His work exposes the peculiarities of each audience member in their own response—their passions, fears and obsessions. How can they make this story make sense? What demons does it awaken?

Lynch is still doing that. He is always doing that.

May 28, 2016
by Dan

Title Fight

At The Paris Review blog, author Tony Tulathimutte (PRIVATE CITIZENS) considers how the titles of books get chosen:

Every literary generation has its naming conventions, and it’s as hard to imagine the sixty-five-word original title for Robinson Crusoe passing muster today as it is to imagine a nineteenth-century novel called Never Let Me Go. It’s easy to spot the fashions of our publishing moment: short-story collections are named after the collection’s centerpiece practically by default. Titles for longer literary works are often staked to a central relationship—The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Abortionist’s Daughter, The Orphan Master’s Son—or a group in a setting: The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Mystics of Mile End, The Dogs of Littlefield. Publishing favors the memorable, the concrete, and the vivid; it also has grammatical preferences, like solitary adjectives (Mislaid, Thrown, Wild, Lit), rousing imperatives (See Me, Find Me, Find Her, Lean In), and quirky pleonasms like Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever or What’s Important Is Feeling… And for whatever reason—maybe a surge of interest in young women’s lives, maybe Lena Dunham—we may soon hit Peak Girl, with The Girl on the Train, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, Girl Through Glass, Girls on Fire, Girl at War, Gone Girl, The Girls 

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