The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

November 14, 2014
by Dan

Ulysses by Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins, who is the author of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, wrote about the agonizing process of drawing his weekly comic strip for The Guardian newspaper here:

When I think about making comics, I think of deep vein thrombosis. I don’t think I’ve ever actually *had* DVT, but whenever I embark on my weekly trip to What-The-Actual-XXXXing-XXXX-Am-I-Going-To-Put-In-The-Guardian-This-Week-Land, I can often feel its friendly fingers digging their way into my merrily atrophying leg muscles while I sit, and sit, and sit, and sit, and sit, trying for hours to think of an idea. It feels sort of cold, and tingly. I get cold legs. Cold, cold legs. Are you feeling the inspiration yet?

You can buy prints of the Ulysses strip from the cartoonist’s online shop.

November 12, 2014
by Dan

Describing the Indescribable: Jeff VanderMeer and Peter Mendelsund in Conversation

If you only bookmark one long(ish) thing to read today, make sure it’s the slightly bonkers conversation between Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and book designer Peter Mendelsund at Boing Boing:

JV: I very much like how you draw out in ‘What We See When We Read’ this idea of creation of character by the constraints around them. Which helps to create an outline of the character. It’s more or less how I thought of Control in ‘Authority’. Taking this even farther, I think that writers like Karen Joy Fowler do something even weirder where sometimes the absence of text or the cutting of text creates a ghost or resonance that allows the reader to fill in the space. Is there an equivalent effect in art/design? Perhaps it’s something you’ve played around with in your own work. An absence that denotes presence.

PM: “An absence that denotes presence” could be the definition of a good book cover. Good book covers are hard to make, I think, specifically because a designer is asked to deploy the facts of a narrative without showing anything explicit about the setting or characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. Everything is done by implication, proxy, metaphor or analogy.

So what is left off of a jacket is crucial. (I’ve often said that most of my day in the office is spent either suggesting things or hiding things.) I’m not an anti-intentionalist or anything, but I do believe that the reader deserves, to some extent, the right to co-create a fictional world alongside the author. So when you make the author’s world explicit on a cover, you’ve taken something from the reader.

The Southern Reach Trilogy — Annihilation, Acceptance and Authority — have now been collected into a single volume called Area X. While the original (American) covers were designed by Charlotte Strick with illustrations by Eric Nyquist, the new cover is by Rodrigo Corral:


VanderMeer also talks to his editor Sean MacDonald about the process of writing the books at the FSG Work in Progress blog. The post includes an amazing cover for the Polish edition of Acceptance. If anyone can tell me who the designer/illustrator is, I would be much obliged…


November 11, 2014
by Dan

The War of Words

Keith Gessen, writer and author of All the Sad Young Literary Men, has a long article in the December issue of Vanity Fair on the ongoing hostilities between Amazon and Hachette. Essentially it’s a timely primer on how the retailer’s relationship with publishers sank to its current low, but it is worth reading for literary agent Andrew Wylie’s thoughts on the matter alone:

The issues at the heart of the conflict are both margin and price, according to Wylie. Publishers have been slow to recognize the danger of percentage creep, he told me. “There was a European publisher in here recently who proudly sat on that sofa and said, ‘I’ve worked everything out with Amazon. I’ve given them 45 percent.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘But they wanted 50 percent.’ ” The European publisher thought he had won. Wylie stared incredulously at the memory of this encounter. “He’s a moron!”

Losing the fight over margins would be an immediate blow to the publishers’ profits, but losing control over pricing could be fatal. “If Amazon succeeds,” said Wylie, “they will lower the retail price—$9.99, $6.99, $3.99, $1.99. And instead of making $4 on your hardcover, you’ll be making 10 cents a copy on all editions. And, Keith, you will not be able to afford to write a book.… No one, unless they have inherited $50 million, will be able to afford to write a serious work of history, of poetry, of biography, a novel—anything. The stakes are Western culture.”

Western culture I could take or leave, but the part about me sent a chill down my spine. This is not what you want to hear from your literary agent. Surely we’ll think of something, I said to Wylie, if Amazon does win?

“You think?”

Wylie was not in the mood for a pep talk.

If you don’t have the strength to wade through the whole thing (and who can blame you?), Gessen discussed the piece with Leonard Lopate on WNYC today:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

But for more Wylisms, the man himself was in Toronto recently and Mike Doherty interviewed him for the National Post:

Wylie readily admits, in his Massachusetts drawl, that he was once a big supporter of [Amazon], going so far as to call up CEO and founder Jeff Bezos and offer to help him expand into Europe. He praised the idea that, unlike in a bookstore, backlist and literary titles could be on equal footing with bestsellers — the industry dependence on which he calls a “coked-up, crazy, wild weekend-in-Vegas approach to publishing.” Amazon’s dedication to the long tail, he thought, was key, but then with the introduction of the Kindle, he says, “the dark side of their intention began to be visible.”

Wylie was in town to deliver the keynote address at the International Festival of Authors.

November 11, 2014
by Dan

Hilary Mantel: Speaking with the Dead

I’m finally, finally reading Wolf Hall (I know, I know…). It is excellent of course, and I’m looking forward to reading Hilary Mantel’s new collection of stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher just as soon as I’ve finished it (and Bring Up the Bodies). Mantel was recently profiled by Olivia Laing, author of A Trip to Echo Spring (one of my favourite books of the year), for the November issue of Elle magazine:

there’s an unmistakably eerie element to what Mantel does: a summoning of and speaking with the dead. Although she insists that she has “a very constrained imagination” and is happiest working within a scaffolding of fact, she is nonetheless adept at the act of mediumship that fiction requires. More than any other historical novelist I can think of, she also has a knack for conveying the slipperiness of time, the way it sloshes backward and forward, changing even as you watch. “History and memory is the theme,” she agrees, “how experience is transmuted into history, and how memory goes to work and works it over. It’s the impurity, the flawed nature of history, its transience—that’s really what fascinates me.”

November 11, 2014
by Dan

A Cartoon About Football by Tom Gauld


It’s possible this is only funny if you’re British, but hey…

Did you know that Tom has prints of his Guardian cartoons for sale?

November 6, 2014
by Dan

Matchbox Theatre Design by Alex Kirby


One of the fun things about doing this blog is that you never quite know when one post might lead to another. After posting photographs of Alex Kirby’s jacket and cover design for Amnesia by Peter Carey yesterday, I realised Alex had also sent me photographs of his work on Matchbox Theatre by Michael Frayn, published by Faber & Faber last month. As you can see, it is rather splendid:


matchbox4 matchbox5




November 5, 2014
by Dan

A Little Film About… Jean Jullien


Another cover featured in this month’s round-up was Jean Jullien‘s illustrated design for Dear Reader by Paul Fournel, published by Pushkin Press. In this short film by Handsome Frank, Jullien talks about his work, drawing with a brush, his relationship with technology, and laughing at yourself:

(via It’s Nice That)

November 5, 2014
by Dan

Amnesia Cover Design by Alex Kirby


The cover for the new Faber & Faber edition of Amnesia by Peter Carey was featured in this month’s ‘book covers of note‘ post, and designer Alex Kirby kindly sent me some lovely photographs of the book with and without it’s acetate dust jacket so you can get a better look at it:





November 3, 2014
by Dan

Book Covers of Note November 2014

This is the last of the monthly cover round-ups for 2014, and I have a lot to cram in before I start on my big end of year list, so it’s a bit of corker (if I do say so myself) with lots of gold foil and other fancy finishes:

Amnesia by Peter Carey; design by Alex Kirby (Faber & Faber / October 2014)

(The dust jacket is actually acetate)

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis; illustration by Matt Taylor; type design and art direction by Richard Bravery (Viking / August 2014)

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya; design by Devin Washburn (FSG / December 2014)

Convulsing Bodies by Mark D. Jordan; design by Anne Jordan (Stanford University Press / October 2014)

Critical Journeys by Robert Schroeder; design Jana Vukovic (Library Juice Press / September 2014)

Dear Reader by Paul Fournel; illustration by Jean Jullien (Pushkin Press / November 2014)

The Enormous Room by E. E. Cummings; design by Devin Washburn (Liveright / October 2014)

Fiddler on the Roof by Joseph Stein; design Christopher Silas Neal (Crown / September 2014)

forgive me leonard peacock
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick; design by Gray318 (Little Brown & Co / July 2014)

Girl Defective by Simmone Howell; design by Debra Sfetsios-Conover; illustration Jeffrey Everett (Atheneum / September 2014)

(I also really like Sandy Cull’s design for the Australian edition published by Pan Macmillan in 2013)

The Hoarders by Scott Herring; design by David Drummond (University of Chicago Press / November 2014)

In Case of Emergency by Courtney Moreno; design by Sunra Thompson (McSweeney’s / September 2014)

Into the Blizzard by Michael Winter; design by Scott Richardson (Doubleday Canada / November 2014)

It’s Not Me It’s You by Mhairi McFarlane; design by Heike Schuessler; illustration by Gianmarco Magnani / Silence Television (HarperCollins / November 2014)

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart; design by Rodrigo Corral Design (Random House / October 2014)

Smoke Proofs by Andrew Steeves; design by Andrew Steeves (Gaspereau Press / September 2014)

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James; design by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Penguin / November 2014)

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen; design by Nathan Burton (Pushkin Press / September 2014)

(The hardcover edition, designed by David Pearson, is also amazing)

Sailing the Forest by Robin Robertson; design by Neil Lang (Picador / September 2014)

(The skull is gold foil on the finished book)

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; design by Louise Fili; illustration by R. O. Blechman (Viking / September 2014)

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; design by Jim Stoddart & Isabelle de Cat; photograph by Kayla Varley (Penguin / September 2014)

Tales of the Marvellous and the Strange translated by Malcolm C. Lyons; design by Coralie Bickford-Smith Isabelle de Cat; illustration by Nina Chakrabarti (Penguin / November 2014)

(Just look at all that gold!)

Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter; design by Charlotte Strick; photograph by Natalie Dirks (FSG / November 2014)

What I Want to Tell You Goes Like This by Matt Rader; design by Ben Didier / Pretty/Ugly Design (Nightwood Editions / October 2014 )

You by Caroline Kepnes; design by Natalie Sousa (Atria / September 2014)

October 31, 2014
by Dan

The Rediscovered Classic


Tom Gauld for The New Yorker.

October 31, 2014
by Dan

“A Literary Octopus with an Insatiable Appetite for Print”

In November’s Vanity Fair, Bruce Handy profiles George Whitman, the late owner of Shakespeare & Company — “the most famous independent bookstore in the world” — and his daughter Sylvia, the current owner of the shop:

It is not true, as the store’s workers have sometimes overheard passing tour guides proclaim, that James Joyce lies buried in the cellar. (If only. He was laid to rest at a conventional, non-bookselling cemetery in Zurich.) But the store’s roots do indeed reach back to the Shakespeare and Company that Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate, owned in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. As every English major knows, her bookshop and lending library became a hangout for Lost Generation writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Joyce, whose Ulysses was first published in its complete form by Beach because authorities in Britain and America deemed it obscene. She closed up shop during the Nazi occupation and never reopened. But her mantle was taken up by another American, George Whitman, who opened the present-day store in 1951, just as Beat Generation writers were finding their way to the Left Bank. (The so-called Beat Hotel, which would become a Parisian equivalent to New York’s Chelsea Hotel as a flophouse for writers, artists, and musicians, was only a few blocks away.) Writers who logged time at the current Shakespeare and Company, sometimes even sleeping there—Whitman was possibly keener on extending hospitality to authors, lauded or not, than on selling their books—include Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Lawrence Durrell, Anaïs Nin, James Jones, William Styron, Ray Bradbury, Julio Cortázar, James Baldwin, and Gregory Corso. Another early visitor, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, co-founded his City Lights Bookstore, in San Francisco, as a sister institution two years after Shakespeare’s opened. William S. Burroughs pored over Whitman’s collection of medical textbooks to research portions of Naked Lunch; he also gave what may have been the first public reading from his novel-in-progress at the store. (“Nobody was quite sure what to make of it, whether to laugh or be sick,” Whitman later said.)

October 24, 2014
by Dan

Penguin Modern Classics The Cut-Up Trilogy by William Burroughs

Following on from yesterday’s post on Penguin’s pocket hardback classics, Penguin Modern Classics are also reissuing William Burroughs’ cut-up trilogy with menacingly dark collage cover art by Julian House:




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