The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

October 17, 2016
by Dan

The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

illustration Essy May

illustration Essy May

Julie Phillips long profile of author Ursula K. Le Guin for The New Yorker is wonderful:

Starting in the nineteen-eighties, [Le Guin] published some of her most accomplished work—fiction that was realist, magic realist, postmodernist, and sui generis. She wrote the Borgesian feminist parable “She Unnames Them,” and in 1985 an experimental tour de force of a novel, “Always Coming Home.” She produced “Sur,” the epic tale of an all-female Antarctic exploring party that may be her greatest and funniest feminist statement. Her short stories began appearing in The New Yorker, where her editor, Charles McGrath, saw in her an ability to “transform genre fiction into something higher.”

In fact, it was the mainstream that ended up transformed. By breaking down the walls of genre, Le Guin handed new tools to twenty-first-century writers working in what Chabon calls the “borderlands,” the place where the fantastic enters literature. A group of writers as unlike as Chabon, Molly Gloss, Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem, Victor LaValle, Zadie Smith, and David Mitchell began to explore what’s possible when they combine elements of realism and fantasy. The fantasy and science-fiction scholar Brian Attebery has noted that “every writer I know who talks about Ursula talks about a sense of having been invited or empowered to do something.” Given that many of Le Guin’s protagonists have dark skin, the science-fiction writer N. K. Jemisin speaks of the importance to her and others of encountering in fantasy someone who looked like them. Karen Joy Fowler, a friend of Le Guin’s whose novel “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” questions the nature of the human-animal bond, says that Le Guin offered her alternatives to realism by bringing the fantastic out of its “underdog position.” For writers, she says, Le Guin “makes you think many things are possible that you maybe didn’t think were possible.”

October 17, 2016
by Dan

The Neighborhood Bookstore’s Unlikely Ally

The New York Times on the small independent bookstores making the most of social media and online sales:

Undoubtedly, the bookselling industry is still digging out of a deep trough. Sales of physical books in physical stores were just $11 billion in 2015, compared with $17 billion in 2007.

But owners like Mr. Makin are finding ways to gain customer loyalty with the aid of technology. He knew he could not compete with Amazon on price, but he believed that online buyers would flock to Brilliant Books if they experienced the same customer service that shoppers in his physical store do.

“I say, ‘We are your long-distance local bookstore,’” Mr. Makin said.

He began offering free shipping anywhere in the United States and hired a full-time social media manager, who promotes the store and has used Twitter and Facebook to talk to readers who would never find themselves near Traverse City.

One of his most successful ways of getting repeat business is his store’s version of a book-of-the-month program, which makes personalized recommendations for each of its nearly 2,000 subscribers every 30 days. Rather than use an online form to track preferences, Brilliant sends each new subscriber a customer card to fill out by hand and mail back.

Employees then scan the card into the system so that when it is book-selection time, they can see what the customers said they liked and how they said it.

“How we might write something might show an entirely different taste in books,” Mr. Malkin said. “People scribble things out. They draw arrows. We get a feel for who they are.”


October 14, 2016
by Dan

Tips For Getting Your Novel Published


… during a skeleton apocalypse. Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

October 13, 2016
by Dan

Book Covers of Note October 2016

Busy, busy October… here are this month’s book covers of note…

Aluta by Adwoa Badoe; design Michael Solomon; cover art Shonagh Rae (Groundwood / September 2016)

American Ulysses design Eric White
American Ulysses by Ronald C. White; design Eric White; photograph © Colorized History, colorized by Mads Madsen (Random House / October 2016)

The Architecture of Neoliberalism by Douglas Spencer; design Daniel Benneworth-Gray (Bloomsbury / October 2016)

The Best American Comics 2016 edited by Roz Chast; illustration by Marc Bell; design by Christopher Moisan (Mariner / October 2016)

Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 edited by Rache Kushner; illustration and lettering by Jillian Tamaki; design by Mark Robinson (Mariner / October 2016)

The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier; design Jamie Keenan (Virago / October 2016)

Virago’s other new du Maurier reissues are also really nice:

I wrote about the series last year.

Chance in Evolution edited by Grant Ramsey & Charles H. Pence; design by Jenny Volvovski (University of Chicago Press / October 2016)

Darktown by Thomas Mullen; design by Craig Fraser (Little, Brown / September 2016)

Another entry for the sideways covers collection (although this is not a first for Mullen’s books — the US paperback edition of The Last Town on Earth, published by Random House in 2007, also has a sideways photograph on the cover).1

Oh, and the cover of the US edition of Darktown (published by Atria in September) was designed by Laywan Kwan.

don’t i know you? comp18.eps
Don’t I Know You? by Marni Jackson; design by Phil Pascuzzo (Flatiron / September 2016)

A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem; design by Gray318 (Doubleday / October 2016)

Ghostland by Colin Dickey; cover art by Jon Contino (Viking / October 2016)

Himself by Jess Kidd; design by Pete Adlington (Canongate / October 2016)

How To See design Peter Mendelsund
How to See by David Salle; design by Peter Mendelsund (W.W. Norton / October 2016)

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole; design by Alex Merto; photograph Teju Cole (Random House / August 2016)

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter; design by Jack Smyth; illustration Pietari Posti (Virago / October 2016)

The Mothers by Brit Bennett; design by Rachel Wiley (Riverhead / October 2016)

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra; design Jonathan Pelham (Granta / October 2016)

Nayon Cho’s design for the US edition of Multiple Choice, published by Penguin US, was featured in July’s covers post.

Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli; design by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Allen Lane / October 2016)

This goes rather nicely with Coralie’s design for Rovelli’s previous book Seven Brief Lessons in Physics:

Results May Vary by Bethany Chase; design by Misa Erder (Ballantine / August 2016)

Sirius by Jonathan Crown; cover art by Pascal Blanchet (Scribner / October 2016)

That Self-Forgetful Perfectly Useless Concentration by Alan Shapiro; design by Isaac Tobin (University of Chicago Press / October 2016)

The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang; design by Kimberly Glyder (Houghton Mifflin / October 2016)

The Wealth of Humans by Ryan Avent; design by Tom Etherington (Allen Lane / September 2016)

Who Killed Piet Barol? by Richard Mason; design Sinem Erkas (Weidenfeld & Nicolson / September 2016)

Wrecked by Maria Padian; design by Liz Casal (Algonquin Young Readers / October 2016)

October 12, 2016
by Dan

Elaine Lustig Cohen, Pioneer

Elaine in 1964, photographed by Naomi Savage (1964)

Elaine Lustig Cohen, photographed by Naomi Savage

I was sad to hear that designer Elaine Lustig Cohen had died aged 89 last week. She will forever be associated with her more famous husband Alvin Lustig, but she was a remarkable designer in her own right and her influence, as Steven Heller notes at Design Observer, extended far beyond her studio:

Elaine’s professional standing far outlasted her years of practice because beyond being a pioneer, she was also the benefactor in so many ways for graphic design history, and an advocate for so many other historians, practitioners—and especially women. It is this enduring integrity and generosity that ultimately defined her highly treasured life.

Following Alvin Lustig’s death, Elaine specialized for some time in designing book covers and jackets, initially following her late husband’s aesthetic, until finding her own style and vision. For over a decade she earned commissions from museums, architects, and book publishers—including Noonday Press, whose publisher, Arthur Cohen, would become her second husband. Her own studio closed in 1967, although Elaine continued to design catalog covers for Ex Libris (the antiquarian bookstore she and Cohen ran together) focusing on avant-garde modernist books and documents. She turned instead to making art—inspired in part, by Constructivism, Dada, and the Bauhaus—and continued to do so until the end of her life.


In a profile of the designer for Eye magazine in 1995, Ellen Lupton noted what made ELC’s book covers so distinctive…

In her covers for Meridian Books and New Directions, designed from 1955 through 1961, Elaine Lustig Cohen used abstract structural elements, expressive typography, and conceptual photographs to interpret the books’ contents. Working at a time when most book covers employed literal pictorial illustrations, Cohen visualized titles in contemporary literature and philosophy through a rich variety of approaches, from stark abstractions and concept-driven solutions to obtuse evocations that bring to mind the recent work of Chip Kidd and Barbara de Wild for Knopf.

Elaine Lustig Cohen’s cover for the journal ‘The Noble Savage’ 4 (1960) features a time-worn classical statue festooned with a typographic moustache and blasted with a star-burst pull-out quote from Darwin. For Yvor Winter‘s ‘On Modern Poets’ (1959), Cohen photographed a loose arrangement of plastic letters, while she used a field of pebbles to obliquely represent ‘The Varieties of History’ (1957). If such solutions are suggestively poetic, Cohen could also be brilliantly blunt, as in her choice of oversized, cello-wrapped bonbons for Tennessee Williams’s ‘Hard Candy’ (1959).

…A point echoed in the New York Times obituary:

She designed museum catalogs and furniture. As a book-cover designer, she followed in Mr. Lustig’s precisionist footsteps but eventually established her own, more free-form style.

“I tried to reflect the spirit of the books,” she said in a video made by AIGA, the graphic arts organization, when she was awarded its medal in 2012.

Her jacket for “Yvor Winters On Modern Poets” looked as if plastic letters had been placed on a tabletop, then jostled by a passing child. A book about St. Augustine featured his name twice, as the arms of a cross. The jacket for Tennessee Williams’s short-story collection “Hard Candy” showed extreme close-ups of cellophane-wrapped sweets, seeming to fall through the air.

You can see a selection of ELC’s book covers on her website, and the video referenced above is here:

October 6, 2016
by Dan

Gimme Danger

A Jim Jarmusch documentary about Iggy Pop and The Stooges? YES.

Gimme Danger is scheduled for a limited release on October 28th.

October 3, 2016
by Dan

Stanislaw Lem Penguin Modern Classics

Mortal Engines design by Haley Warnham

A new Penguin Modern Classic edition of Mortal Engines by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem is available in the UK this week. Art directed by Jim Stoddart, this is the third of Lem’s books in the Penguin Modern Classics series featuring cover art by illustrator and designer by Haley Warnham.

You can read more about Warnham’s collages in an interview with illustrator on AIGA’s Eye on Design blog.

Star Diaries Mortal Engines design by Haley Warnham Cyberiad design by Haley Warnham

September 26, 2016
by Dan

Drafts of the Novel


Tom Gauld for The New Yorker.

Tom’s new graphic novel Mooncop is out now.

September 23, 2016
by Dan

The Bolted Book

Designers & Books, in collaboration with the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York and the Mart, the Museum of modern and contemporary art of Trento and Rovereto, Italy, is launching a Kickstarter campaign on October 18 to publish a new facsimile edition of Depero Futurista, the 1927 monograph of Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero. Famously bound by two industrial aluminum bolts, “The Bolted Book” is full of typographic experimentation and widely recognized as a masterpiece of avant-garde book-making.

At the project’s website you can see each of the book’s (amazing) 240 pages in detail, read translations from the original Italian and annotations of selected texts, and learn more about Depero’s life and work.




September 23, 2016
by Dan

Cynan Jones Covers by Jenny Grigg


I’m a little late to work of Welsh novelist Cynan Jones, but I recently finished reading his award-winning 2014 novel The Dig, and it’s not hard to see what all the fuss is about. The writing is beautifully spare and intimate, and the story is devastating.1

The stark, illustrated cover of The Dig and Jones’s earlier books, recently republished by Granta, also caught my eye. The striking designs are, it turns out, by the brilliant Australian designer Jenny Grigg, which seems obvious once you know. Her previous covers for Peter Carey and Ernest Hemingway have similarly bold simplicity and tone.

Grigg has also designed the cover of Jones’s new novel, The Cove, which will be published by Granta in November.





September 17, 2016
by Dan

New Lines


A new comic from Grant Snider.

September 13, 2016
by Dan

Promotional Stickers for Novels


Tom Gauld‘s latest cartoon for The Guardian. It seems kind of appropriate for the day this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist is announced…

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