The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

August 14, 2015
by Dan

Popular Science Bestseller Title Generator

popular science

Tom Gauld for New Scientist magazine.

August 13, 2015
by Dan

The Real-World Architecture of Monument Valley

monument valley

Architecture critic Alexandra Lange, author of Writing About Architecture, talks to the creators of Monument Valley — an award-winning video game in which players must navigate the Princess Ida through a maze of impossible buildings and architectural puzzles — for Curbed:

Much of Monument Valley operates in the impossible space drawn by M. C. Escher, whose 1960 drawing ‘Ascending and Descending’ Monument Valley lead designer Ken Wong has acknowledged as an inspiration. The Escher drawing even features a couple of figures scratching their heads about how to get around. The connection between Escher’s drawing and Wong’s original Monument Valley concept sketch is clear; Wong’s is also strikingly similar to the finished product. The whole structure floats in space in a way that suggests infinity, and it features the same isometric perspective, same gelato colors, and a similar sequence of steps and ladders and domes to give it a touch of character. In Monument Valley, sometimes you seem to be floating on water and sometimes in space; sometimes positive and negative are reversed, and you may be underground in paths and tunnels carved from rock. “We were all so taken with [Escher’s] image,” says [Neil] McFarland, that the designers said, “We don’t know what this game is, but if we can make that into a game we will be really happy.”

For the design buff, the game seems rife with visual cues, allusions to the built world, and academic references. Even if Monument Valley’s designers aren’t familiar with deconstructivism, 1970s architecture may have infiltrated its digital world sideways, as architecture-school graduates turn into programmers and once rarefied ideas turn into placeless pins. Monument Valley’s chapters have to cover a lot of territory, in scale and geography.

Sometimes Ida seems very small, like an earlier puzzle-solving heroine in a gridded Wonderland, wending your way through a music box. Sometimes she appears to be climbing a pixel version of Philip Johnson’s concrete-block Monument to Lincoln Kirstein (1985), “a staircase to nowhere.” Sometimes she finds herself holding a red flower, laying it on a rectangular sarcophagus in a sea of sarcophagi that strongly resemble Eisenman’s Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2004). Sometimes you find yourself tripping along a wall that resembles Bofill’s La Muralla Roja housing project (1968), “characterized by a series of interlocking stairs, platforms, and bridges.” Elsewhere the game recalls Tarsem Singh’s cult movie The Fall, filmed at the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur (a real-life white, floating world) and the Chand Baori stepwell, a Qbert landscape made exclusively of blocks. Some scenes are more perplexing, and require your seven-year-old to show you which button to push or which screw rotates the cube so that what was once an unbridged gap closes, in digital space, and allows you to cross.

I really don’t play a lot video games, but I do love Monument Valley.

August 12, 2015
by Dan

Françoise Mouly: No House Style

Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

Sarah Shatz: Françoise Mouly

It’s Nice That has a great interview with the remarkable Françoise Mouly, co-founder of comics anthology Raw, editorial director of TOON Books, and, of course, art editor at The New Yorker:

“One of the things we had at Raw which I have tried to keep is not having a house style, it doesn’t all look alike. Raw really was the sum of its parts but you can’t say that Raw magazine was Joost Swarte or Charles Burns or Sue Coe.

“At The New Yorker when I came in there was a house style, a nice cat-on-the-windowsill type watercolour and you could look at the covers and see the common denominator. I have tried to never let it settle into, ‘Oh that’s a New Yorker cover’ except in the approach.”

August 10, 2015
by Dan

NYRB: Publishing Serious Literary Books

Larry Rohter profiles the New York Review Books, the publishing offshoot of the literary magazine The New York Review of Books, for the New York Times:

“From the beginning, it was our intention to be resolutely eclectic, and build our classics series as different voices build a fugue,” said Edwin Frank, the house’s editorial director. “We set out to do the whole mix of things that a curious person might be interested in, which would take you back and forth from fiction to certain kinds of history.”

New York Review Books was founded in 1999, when the mainstream American publishing houses were shifting their focus to big frontlist titles and paying less attention to their back catalogs, sometimes allowing the rights to books that weren’t selling well to lapse, and also cutting back on literature in translation.

“We were picking low-hanging fruit, only no one knew the fruit was out there, hanging from the branches,” Mr. Frank said.

Over the years, the publishing house has revived work by English-language authors including Henry Adams, Kingsley Amis, Edith Wharton and Angus Wilson. In translation, it has issued works by authors like Adolfo Bioy Casares, Cesare Pavese, Raymond Queneau, Robert Walser and Stefan Zweig.

The writer and critic Ian Buruma, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, which was founded in 1963 and is published online and every two weeks in print, said the publishing arm fills an important niche.

“Because they are smaller and more nimble, they can do things that larger houses would be less inclined to do,” he said. “They pick up books that maybe 30 years ago, the big publishers would have done but now have to be careful about.”

August 10, 2015
by Dan

Book Covers of Note August 2015

The entire book industry isn’t on vacation. It only seems that way. 1 Here’s August’s book covers of note…

Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction design Palgrave
The Aesthetics of Middlebrow Fiction by Tom Perrin; design Palgrave Macmillan (Palgrave Macmillan / August 2016)

Ally Hughes design by Darren Booth
Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes by Jules Moulin; design by Darren Booth (Dutton / August 2015)

Almost Famous Women design by Na Kim
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman; design by Na Kim (Scribner / July 2015)

Among the Ten Thousand design Strick&Williams
Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpoint; design by Strick&Williams (Random House / July 2015)

Barbara the Slut design by Rachel Willey
Barbara the Slut by Lauren Holmes; design by Rachel Willey (Riverhead / August 2015)

Barbarian Days design Darren Haggar
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan; design by Darren Haggar (Penguin / July 2015)

Black Hole design Matt Dorfman
Black Hole by Bucky Sinister; design by Matt Dorfman (Soft Skull / August 2015)

Capitalism in the Web design by Anne Jordan
Capitalism in the Web of Life by Jason W. Moore; design by Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein (Verso / August 2015)

Death by Video Game design by Steve Panton
Death by Video Game by Simon Parkin; design by Steve Panton (Serpent’s Tail / August 2015)

Dust That Falls From Dreams design Oliver Munday
The Dust That Falls From Dreams by Louis de Bernières; design by Oliver Munday (Pantheon / August 2015)

Genghis Khan design James Paul Jones
Genghis Khan by Frank McLynn; design by James Paul Jones (Bodley Head / July 2015)

And because it’s always interesting to see US and UK covers side by side…

Infinite Home US
Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott; design by Alex Merto (Riverhead / August 2015)

infinite home
Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott; design by Stuart Bache (Borough Press / July 2015)

Katrina After the Flood design by Julius Reyes
Katrina by Gary Rivlin; design by Julius Reyes (Simon & Schuster / August 2015)

Landline design Olga Grlic handlettering Jim Tierney
Landline by Rainbow Rowell; design by Olga Grlic; hand-lettering by Jim Tierney (St. Martin’s Press / July 2015)

Memoirs of a Dipper design by Gray318
Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon; design by Gray318 (Fig Tree / June 2015)

Narcisa design by Milan Bozic
Narcisa by Jonathan Shaw; design Milan Bozic (Harpercollins / March 2015)

New American Stories design by Peter Mendelsund.
New American Stories edited by Ben Marcus; design by Peter Mendelsund (Vintage / July 2015)

Street Poison by Justin Gifford; design by Michael J. Windsor (Doubleday / August 2015)

Vegetarian design Tom Darracott
The Vegetarian by Han Kang; design by Tom Darracott (Portobello / January 2015)

Wicked and Weird by Rich Terfry; design by Scott Richardson (Doubleday Canada / August 2015)

August 8, 2015
by Dan

Tom Gauld’s Suitcase


Tom Gauld for The New Yorker.1

August 7, 2015
by Dan
1 Comment

The Truth of Life: Paula Fox on Desperate Characters

desperate characters

At Longreads, Sari Botton talks to author Paula Fox talks about the latest reissue of her 1970 novel Desperate Characters:

It’s for all kinds of tension, not just racial, but class—the poor, who don’t have money or success, against the well-to-do. There are all these antagonisms… We live by pressing our palms against the skulls of the people whom we climb over. The sense of that is very strong in human society. Sometimes it’s based on possessions, or looks, or color, or experience, or history, and all these various things that we make judgments out of.

If you haven’t read Desperate Characters — and it’s a pretty perfect read if you’re stuck in the city this summer — Longreads also has an excerpt.

The cover of the W. W. Norton’s new edition (pictured above) was designed by Yang Kim.

August 7, 2015
by Dan

Saying Goodbye to a Secret Bookstore

Also at The New Yorker, Brian Patrick Eha writes about the closure of Brazenhead Books, Michael Seidenberg’s secret New York bookstore:

Michael Seidenberg’s one-of-a-kind bookshop, Brazenhead Books, closed last month. For seven years, it operated out of an apartment at 235 East Eighty-fourth Street. Of course no bookstore or other business had any business being there, in that rent-stabilized apartment, so it was, strictly speaking, illegal, and because it was illegal it had to be secret. The secret was known to a small number of discreet patrons and shared strictly by word of mouth. (At first, Michael saw customers by appointment only.) Inside, the windows were blacked out and covered with shelves. On bookcases, in every room, volumes of all sizes in serried ranks rose two deep from floor to ceiling. More were stacked on desks and tables and grew in unsteady columns from the floor. There was a stereo (covered in books), a few chairs, and a large desk in the front room (likewise all but submerged), on which Michael kept a half dozen or so bottles of wine and spirits, a tower of plastic cups, and a bucket of ice.

Walking in, you might find a handful of patrons lounging on chairs with drinks in their hands, or browsing amiably, making conversation, generally about books, but often ranging widely into art, politics, personal life stories, and the history of New York. In the same way that children imagine adults living in perfect freedom, enjoying all the cookies and television they want and staying up till all hours, Michael’s shop was what a bookish child might dream up as a fantasy home for himself, a place far from any responsibilities, where he would never run out of stories.

The good news is that Seidenberg plans to reopen the store elsewhere. Until then, you can watch this video about the old location.

August 7, 2015
by Dan

Comma Queen: Mad Dash

The New Yorker‘s Mary Norris, author Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, clarifies the difference between the hyphen (-), the en dash (–), and the em dash (—):

August 3, 2015
by Dan

Joost Swarte’s “Summer Adventures”


“Cartooning has an edge on all other media. You don’t need anything else such as canvas and paint, or camera and actors: the road to expression is only a sheet of paper and a pencil away.”

A new Joost Swarte cover for The New Yorker.

July 31, 2015
by Dan

A Secret History of Manhattan’s Book Trade

Don’t miss Dwight Garner’s New York Times review of Martial Bliss.: The Story of the Military Bookman, Margaretta Barton Colt’s account of running an antiquarian bookstore in Manhattan that sold only military titles. If you ever worked in an independent bookstore, you’ll probably relate…

Historians and journalists were devoted to the store, and leaned on it for their research. No one is lonelier than the author of a forgotten book. Ms. Colt speaks for many writers who walked into the Military Bookman when she says of one, “He loved to come to a place where the denizens knew what he had done”…

…Ms. Colt, who had previously worked in publishing, didn’t suffer fools — or ghouls. Here she is on one customer: “Lean and mean, with a crew cut, he was a real right-winger, collecting Holocaust memorabilia while being a Holocaust denier: a misanthrope with a sour sense of humor and guns in a secret closet.”

The store kept sometimes mischievous notes on its customers. These had observations like “tire-kicker, quote-dropper, reservation-dropper (particularly heinous), unredeemed check-bouncer (even worse). Also: cheapskate, picky, SS tendencies, questionable dealings, edition or d/j freak, and other sins and misdemeanors.” (The “d/j” refers to dust jackets.)

If it sounds as if the patrons were a band of brothers, yes, they were mostly men. The store maintained a comfortable chair for wives and girlfriends. Ms. Colt, who loved her work, writes terrifically about trying to maintain her sang-froid in this testicular environment.

July 27, 2015
by Dan

Keyboard Shortcuts for Novelists

keyboard shortcuts for novelists Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld for The New Yorker.

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