The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

January 13, 2017
by Dan
1 Comment

The Scientific Erotica Book Club

Tom Gauld for New Scientist.

January 12, 2017
by Dan

Future Shock

A decade after its first release, Vulture looks back at the terrifying new relevance of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film (based loosely on a novel by P. D. James), Children of Men:

Children of Men is having a remarkable resurgence — not just because of its tenth anniversary but because of its unsettling relevance at the conclusion of this annus horribilis. There have been glowing reappraisals on grounds both sociopolitical (Children of Men is “obviously something that should be on people’s minds after Brexit and after the rise of Donald Trump,” political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared in September) and artistic (“Children of Men, like no other film this century, and perhaps no other movie ever, solves the meaning of life,” wrote Vanity Fair columnist Richard Lawson in August). It’s getting the kind of online attention it sorely lacked ten years ago, generating recent headlines like “The Syrian Refugee Crisis Is Our Children of Men Moment” and “Are We Living in the Dawning of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men?” As critic David Ehrlich put it in November, “Children of Men may be set in 2027,” but in 2016, “it suddenly became clear that its time had come.”

Cuarón, however, is not feeling like taking an overdue victory lap. Curled over a table in an upscale Mexico City restaurant recently, the 55-year-old director gets a little irritated when I laud the film’s imaginative prescience. “This thing was not imagination,” he says, jabbing his index finger into the tablecloth. By Cuarón’s estimation, anyone surprised at the accuracy of his movie’s predictions was either uninformed or willfully ignorant about the way the world already was by 2006. “People were talking about those things, just not in the mainstream!” he says. He was reading about refugees, know-nothing reactionaries, and eerie disruptions in biological processes during the early ’00s. If Children of Men can be said to have a message, Cuarón encapsulates it: “What’s really relevant now,” he tells me, “is to stop being complacent.”

January 12, 2017
by Dan

Brutalist Dreams

At the New York Review of Books, American architecture critic Martin Filler casts a critical eye over a slew of new books on Brutalist architecture: 

In addition to its echoes of art brut—Jean Dubuffet’s name for outsider art—New Brutalism was also an oblique riposte to New Humanism, a set of beliefs inspired by Geoffrey Scott’s hugely influential book ‘The Architecture of Humanism’ (1914). But Scott’s call for a return to Arts and Crafts design principles was scorned as escapist nostalgia by many young midcentury modernists. Among them was the period’s foremost British architecture critic, Reyner Banham, who with his scant empathy for the Arts and Crafts Movement’s focus on social reform issues belittlingly described New Humanism as “brickwork, segmental arches, pitched roofs, small windows (or small panes at any rate)—picturesque detailing without picturesque planning. It was, in fact, the so-called ‘William Morris Revival,’ now happily defunct….”

Yet it was not a utopian nineteenth-century dreamland that Brutalism countered as much as the thin, commercialized version of the International Style that after World War II gained ascendance through economic expediency. Brutalism’s striking departure from the steel-skeleton-and-glass-skin conformity of this routine, profit-oriented modernism was defined by its contrary emphasis on raw concrete (‘béton brut’ in French) in massive forms of imposing scale, idiosyncratic shape, rough finish, and uncompromising forcefulness, with a building’s inner workings and services—structure, plumbing, electricity, heating, and ventilation—unabashedly exposed. Brutalism soon became a worldwide craze, as this comparatively economical means of fabrication offered a cost-effective alternative to hand-riveted metal construction and allowed a broader array of sculptural effects than those obtainable with rectilinear frameworks.

One gets the sense Filler is no fan of Brutalism — at least its bleak British incarnation — so there is, inevitably, a reference to J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise:

This was never a style that attempted to convey warmth, comfort, intimacy, or other qualities we tend to associate with an enjoyable way of life, and thus it never won much love except from architectural specialists. Brutalism posited an unsentimental, not to say harsh, view of the modern world, and however heroic its unflinching embodiment of hard realities may have been, most people do not enjoy a daily diet of architectural anxiety and alienation, especially in northern climates under cloudy skies.

One of the first signs of rejection came in J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel ‘High-Rise (1975), which is set in a thinly fictionalized version of Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London’s North Kensington (1966–1972). (It is one of fifty-four sites highlighted in the ‘Brutalist London Map’, a useful guide to landmarks of the style in the British capital.) This thirty-one-story apartment block, commissioned by the Greater London Council, was based on Le Corbusier’s original Unité in Marseilles, although Goldfinger’s scheme is nearly twice as high as its prototype. Trellick Tower was well received by its first inhabitants, but as was also true of contemporaneous public housing projects in the United States, it quickly went to pot as funds for its upkeep and security were slashed, which resulted in a rapid descent into crime and squalor.

Neoconservative critics blamed the architecture, but as sociological studies have since proven, the claim that tall residential complexes breed social malaise is groundless. After Trellick Tower was privatized in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher got the British government out of the public housing business, the building’s owner-residents increased protection from intruders, paid for long-delayed repairs, and it is now a highly desirable property rightly appreciated for its design quality. 

If anyone can point me to a review of these books by someone a little more sympathetic to Brutalism, I’d be much obliged. 

January 6, 2017
by Dan

Book Covers of Note January 2017

My first post of 2017 includes some cracking new book covers fresh this month, and a few handsome stragglers from the end of 2016… Happy New Year! 

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson; design by Erin Fitzsimmons (Katherine Tegen Books / January 2017)

Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller; design by Elena Giavaldi; art by Lee Price (Liveright / January 2017)

Because of the Sun by Jenny Torres Sanchez; design by Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein (Delacorte / January 2017) 

Caraval by Stephanie Garber; design by Erin Fitzsimmons and Ray Shappell (Flatiron / January 2017)

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; design David Pearson (Pluto Press / January 2017)

Enigma Variations by André Aciman; design by Na Kim (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / Januay 2017)

The Futures by Anna Pitoniak; design by Lauren Harms (Lee Boudreaux Books / January 2017)

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; design by Nathan Burton (Viking / January 2017)

The cover of the US edition of Homegoing, published in 2016 by Knopf, was designed by Peter Mendelsund:

Jerusalem Ablaze by Orlando Ortega-Medina; design by La Boca (Cloud Lodge Books / January 2017)

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney; design by Olga Grlic (St. Martin’s Press / January 2017)

London Perceived by V. S. Pritchett; Nathan Burton (Daunt Books / November 2016)

Lotus by Lijia Zhang; design by Adly Elewa (Henry Holt / January 2017)

Lucky Boy by Shanti Sekaran; design by Stephen Brayda (G.P. Putnam’s Sons / January 2017)

Nicotine by Gregor Hens; design by John Gall (Other Press / January 2017)

Novels, Tales, Journeys The Complete Prose of Alexander Pushkin; design by Oliver Munday (Knopf / November 2016)

Once Upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo; design Suzanne Dean; photograph by Robin Friend (Chatto & Windus / January 2017)

A People’s History of the Russian Revolution by Neil Faulkner; design by Jamie Keenan (Pluto Press / January 2017)

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga; design by Matt Dorfman (Scribner / January 2017)

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg; design David Pearson; illustration Tom Frost (Portobello Books / January 2017)

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson; design by James Paul Jones (Granta / January 2017)

Walking in Berlin by Franz Hessel; design by Nathan Burton (Scribe / December 2016)

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo; design by Bill Bragg (Faber & Faber / January 2017)

We Will Not Be Silenced edited by William I. Robinson & Maryam S. Griffin; design by James Paul Jones (Pluto Press / January 2017)

December 13, 2016
by Dan

The Rest of the Best

When it comes to choosing the year’s best book covers, it seems that everyone is at it these days…

“These covers are challenging without being impenetrable and playful without being precious — none of which is an easy task for a designer. If good design might lure us into an experience that makes us smarter, then we’ve hit the jackpot when the book allows us to spend time within the head space of a stranger.”     

I always look forward to Matt Dorfmann’s selections for the New York Times Book Review. Matt is the NYTBR‘s art director and a cover designer in his own right so he knows what he’s talking about, and his choices are always interesting. If I am honest, I think this is the list the designers (American designers at least) really pay attention to. And it’s worth noting that half of Matt’s choices this year were designed by women. 

Slate’s list of Best Book Jackets of 2016 includes notes from the designers about each cover.  

Vyki Hendy and Eric Wilder have chosen  — with input from designers Erin Fitzsimmons and Stuart Bache — 25 of the year’s covers for SPINE Magazine

Jarry Lee chose 32 “of the most beautiful book covers of 2016” for BuzzFeed.

And last but not least, Paste’s selections includes “a few novelette and short story covers.

December 13, 2016
by Dan

Series Design 2016

Some of the most interesting and innovative book covers in the last few years have been designed as part of a series — designers and art directors seem to have more leeway with backlist titles (especially so if the author is no longer in the picture!) — and 2016 was no exception. Here are some of my favourite series designs from past year…


The Angelus Trilogy by John Steele; designed by Jason Booher (Blue Rider Press / 2016)

Inspector Littlejohn Mysteries by George Bellairs; design Stuart Bache (IPSO Books / 2016)

The Birds and the Bees; cover art by Timorous Beasties (Vintage / 2016)

Read more about the series on the Creative Review blog.


Virago Modern Classics Daphne Du Maurier; designs by Jamie Keenan, Neil Gower, Gray318, and Nico Taylor (Virago / 2016)

Vintage Eliot; cover art by Zeva Oelbaum (Vintage /2016)

Read more about the series on CMYK, Vintage book design tumblr.


Found on the Shelves / The London Library; design by David Pearson; illustration by Joe McLaren (Pushkin Press / 2016)

Read more about the design of the series at The Bookseller


Gollancz William Gibson ‘Sprawl Trilogy’ and Burning Chrome; design by Sinem Erkas; cover art by Daniel Brown (Gollancz / 2016-2017)

Read more about the books and the design on the Gollancz blog.

Patrick Hamilton reissues; design by Jack Smyth (Abacus 2016- 2017)

Sonya Harnett reissues; design by Marina Messiha; cover art by Maxim Shkret (Penguin Teen Australia / 2016)

New Directions Roger Lewinter; design by Erik Carter (New Directions / 2016)

Macmillan Classics; design by Neil Lang (Macmillan India / 2016) 

This is just a fraction of the covers designed by Neil and he is working on even more to complete the series.

Beck and Mal Peet reissues; design by Jack Noel; illustration by Telegramme (Walker Books / 2016)

Pelican Shakespeare; design by Manuja Waldia (Penguin US / 2016)

Mortal Engines by Stanislaw Lem (Modern Classics); series design by Jim Stoddart; cover art by Haley Warnham (Penguin / 2016)


The Great Science Fiction by H.G. Wells (Modern Classics); series design by Jim Stoddart; cover art by Evan Hecox (Penguin / September 2016) 


Penguin Essentials; designs by Kyler Martz, Gray318, David Foldavi, Julian House (Penguin / 2-16)

See more of the series at Design Week.

dune design Alex Trochut

Penguin Galaxy series; design by Alex Trochut (Penguin /2016)

No Man’s Land Trilogy by Andy Remic; design by Christine Foltzer; illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love (Tor / 2016)

Read more about Jeffrey Alan Love’s work on the series on


New Directions W.G. Sebald; design by Peter Mendelsund (New Directions / 2016)





December 7, 2016
by Dan
1 Comment

Notable YA Book Covers of 2016

Hot on the heels of my annual covers post, here is my look back at the year’s young adult book covers. As in previous years, this list is a somewhat crowd-sourced affair, so I must thank all the designers and Twitter-folk who made suggestions and helped in various others ways. I’ve tried my best to credit the designs as fully as possible, but please let me know if there are any errors or omissions.

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

American Girls by Alison Umminger; design by Philip Pascuzzo (Flat Iron / June 2016)
American Girls by Alison Umminger; design by Philip Pascuzzo (Flatiron / June 2016)

And I Darken by Kiersten White; cover art by Alessandro Taini (Corgi / July 2016)

As I Descended by Robin Talley; design by Michelle Taormina (HarperCollins / October 2016)

Beast by Brie Spangler; design by Leo Nickolls (Knopf / October 2016)

Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh; design by Leo Nickolls (Delacorte / February 2016)

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Burdago; cover art by Thomas Walker and John Bartlett; design Thomas Walker and Richard Deas (Henry Holt / September 2016)

Cuckoo design Jack Smyth
Cuckoo by Keren David; design by Jack Smyth (Atom / August 2016)

A Darkly Beating Heart by Lindsay Smith; design Elizabeth H. Clark (Roaring Brook / October 2016)

Enter Title Here design Maria Elias
Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia; design by Maria Elias (Hyperion / August 2016)

Exit, Pursued by Bear by E. K. Johnston; design by Kristin Logsdon (Dutton / March 2016)

The Fall of Butterflies by Andrea Portes; design by Sarah Nicole Kaufman (HarperTeen / May 2016)

A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry; design by Allison Colpoys (Algonquin / April 2016)

Frannie and Tru by Karen Hattrup; design by Ray Shappell (HarperCollins / June 2016)

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett; design by Matt Roeser (Candlewick / April 2016)

The Graces by Laure Eve; design by Maria T. Middleton; illustration by Spencer Charles (Amulet / September 2016)

The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle; design by Krista Vossen (Simon & Schuster / March 2016)

The Haters by Jesse Andrews; design by Chad W. Beckerman and Will Staehle (Abrams / April 2016)

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo; design by Liz Dresner and Elaine C. Damasco; photograph by Michael Frost (Flatiron / May 2016)

Into White by Randi Pink; design by April Ward (Feiwel & Friends / September 2016)

The Island by Olivia Levez; design by Nathan Burton (Oneworld / November 2016)

Kids of Appetite by David Arnold; design Theresa Evangelista; illustration Yuschav Arly (Viking / September 2016)

It Looks Like This by Rafi Mittlefehldt; design by Matt Roeser (Candlewick / December 2016)

Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig; design by Rich Deas (Feiwel & Friends / October 2016)

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge; design by Maria T. Middleton; cover by Vincent Chong (Amulet / April 2016)

The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs; design by Matt Roeser (Candlewick / September 2016)

The Monstrous Child by Francesca Simon; design by Will Steele; cover art by Olivia Lomenech Gill (Faber & Faber / October 2016)

The Nightwanders by C. J. Flood; design by Nic&Lou Studio (Simon & Schuster / June 2016)

Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst; design by Michelle Taormina, art by Jacob Eisinger (Balzer + Bray / November 2016)

design Matt Roeser
Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner; design by Matt Roeser (Candlewick / September 2016)

Replica by Lauren Oliver; design by Erin Fitzsimmons (HarperCollins / October 2016)

This really needs to be seen in person for the fancy acetate wrap as well the double covers:

Save Me, Kurt Cobain by Jenny Manzer; design by M80 (Bantam / March 2016)

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

Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate; design by Maria T. Middleton (Abrams / March 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)

Shiver the Whole Night Through by Darragh McManus; design by Jet Purdie (Hot Key Books / April 2016)

Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King; design by Samira Iravani (Dutton / October 2016)

Study in Charlotte jacket art Dan Funderburgh design Katie Fitch
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro; jacket art Dan Funderburgh; design Katie Fitch (Katherine Tegen Books / March 2016)

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon; design Elaine C. Damasco; art Dominique Falla (Delacorte / November 2016)

Swan Boy by Nikki Sheehan; design by Nathan Burton (Oneworld / November 2016)

Tales of the Peculiar by Ransom Riggs; design by Lindsey Andrews; cover art Andrew Davidson (Dutton / September 2016)

Tell Me Something Real by Calla Devlin; cover art Jill de Haan (Simon & Schuster / September 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)

This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp; design by N. C. Sousa (Sourcebooks / April 2016)

This Savage Song design Jenna Stempel
This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab; design Jenna Stempel (GreenWillow / July 2016)

The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee; design by Jenna Stempel; cover art by Sasha Vinogradova (HarperCollins / August 2016)

cover 100915.indd
A Totally Awkward Love Story by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison; design by Ray Shappell (Delacorte / May 2016)

The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson; design by Lucy Ruth Cummins; photography by Meredith Jenks (Simon & Schuster / May 2016)

When Everything Feels Like the Movies design Ceara Elliot lettering Martina Flor
When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid; design Ceara Elliot; lettering and illustration Martina Flor (Atom / February 2016)

Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke; design by Kristin Smith; cover art by Lisa Perrin (Dial / April 2016)

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


November 27, 2016
by Dan

Notable Book Covers of 2016

It is that wonderful/awful time of year. Wonderful because we get to look back at some of the amazing work people have done over the past 12 months. Awful because lists are arbitrary and someone always misses out.

I’m not going to say these are the ‘best’ covers of year. I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t feel qualified to make that kind of judgement. This post is more an attempt to reflect the year in covers as I saw it — the covers I liked; the covers I thought were well done; the covers I thought were interesting; the covers that I thought were a bit different. 

Like last year, I’ve clustered my selections around designers. Not only does this allow me to post more covers, it means I can show a greater diversity of work.

I am truly sorry to all the hardworking and talented designers (and art directors) whose work I have overlooked this year. I do my best. It is not enough. Bring on 2017.

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

Also designed by Jenny Grigg:

All Things Cease design Mario Hugo
All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage; design by Mario Hugo (Knopf / March 2016)

Association-Small-Bombs design Matt Vee
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan; design by Matt Vee (Viking / March 2016)

Barkskins design by Anna Morrison
Barkskins by Annie Proulx; design Anna Morrison (Fourth Estate / June 2016)

Also designed by Anna Morrison:

Beast design Mark Ecob
Beast by Paul Kingsnorth; design Mark Ecob; illustration Alan Rogerson (Faber & Faber / July 2016)

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall; design by Alysia Shewchuck (House of Anansi / August 2016)

A burglar's guide_cvr_revised.indd
A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh; design by Nayon Cho (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / April 2016)

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

Also designed by Paul Sahre:

Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair; design by Nathan Putens; artwork by Wangechi Mutu (University of Nebraska Press / September 2016)

Cannibals in Love design Na Kim
Cannibals in Love by Mike Roberts; design by Na Kim (FSG Original / September 2016)

Also designed by Na Kim:

Childrens Home design Jaya Micelli; Art by Valerie Hegarty
The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert; design by Jaya Miceli (Scribner / January 2016)

Also designed by Jaya Miceli

Comet Seekers design Chloe Giordano
The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick; design by Chloe Giordano (Harvill Secker / August 2016)

congratulations on everything design Gary Taxali
Congratulations on Everything by Nathan Whitlock; cover art by Gary Taxali (ECW / May 2016)

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble; design Rafi Romaya; cover illustration by Timorous Beasties (Canongate / November 2016)

Also designed by Rafi Romaya:

Dialogue design Catherine Casaline
Dialogue by Robert McKee; design by Catherine Casalino (Twelve Books / July 2016)

Also designed by Catherine Casalino:

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

Also designed by Phil Pascuzzo:

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

Also designed by David Pearson:

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

design Zoe Norvell
Faithful by Alice Hoffman; design by Zoe Norvell (Simon & Schuster / November 2016)

Also designed by Zoe Norvell:

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

Also designed by Gray318:

Girls on Fire US design Robin Bilardello
Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman; design by Robin Bilardello (Harper / May 2016)

Also designed by Robin Bilardello:

The Good Immigrant design James Paul Jones
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla; design by James Paul Jones (Unbound / September 2016)

Also designed by James Paul Jones:

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet; design by Lauren Harms (Flatiron Books / October 2016)

Also designed by Lauren Harms:

The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone; design by Chelsea McGuckin; art by David Wu (Atria Books / July 2016)

 How Propaganda Works design Chris Ferrante
How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley; design by Chris Ferrante (Princeton University Press / May 2016)

Also designed by Chris Ferrante:

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

Also designed by Peter Mendelsund:

Imagine Me Gone design Keith Hayes
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett; design by Keith Hayes (Little, Brown & Co. / May 2016)

Also designed by Keith Hayes: