Critic, Book World

(Janet Hansen/Knopf)

The coverup. With “Cherry,” debut novelist Nico Walker has a hit on his hands, but those hands are currently locked behind bars. The former Iraq War medic has two more years left on his sentence for bank robbery, which puts a crimp in the book tour plans — and makes selling the novel’s film rights tricky, too. Deadline Hollywood reports that Walker ran out of his weekly allotted phone minutes “and will not be able to entertain any offers until he can again use the jailhouse phone on Sunday.”

Meanwhile, I was curious about the striking dust jacket for “Cherry.” I looked at the book for a couple of weeks before I noticed the skull lurking in those red stars. Janet Hansen, senior designer at Knopf, told me that she worked on this cover for months of trial and error. You can see some of the alternative designs here.


Alternative dust jackets for “Cherry," by Nico Walker (Knopf) designed by Janet Hansen (Janet Hansen/Knopf)

(Janet Hansen/Knopf)

“There was a lot to work with,” Hansen said. “Between the gruesome war scenes, the agonizing PTSD and the dark rabbit hole of drug addiction were fragmented moments of hilarity, love and goodness. And did I mention the smoking? My God, there was a lot of smoking. To symbolize it all with a skull made sense. The trick was how to do it in a way that doesn’t feel too creepy. And how could I also incorporate the fact that this is uniquely an American story? Stars immediately came to mind. I played around with these two elements, but what I like about this final execution is the fact that the skull is secondary to the stars, as though all of the things that turn bad in this novel are some sort of naive mistake.”


(Janet Hansen/Knopf)

(Janet Hansen/Knopf)

Commenting on her final choice for the dust jacket lettering, Hansen said: “This type specimen designed by Armin Haab & Walter Hættenschweiler in 1968 has a rawness to it that feels edgy and trippy. It’s funny how things this old can feel so current and fresh.”


(Janet Hansen/Knopf)

“My favorite rejection line of them all: ‘This looks like it should be sold in Hot Topic.’ Ouch.”

Bullish on book videos. Just when you thought book trailers were dead, along comes this funny video for Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success” (Random House, Sept. 4), his upcoming comic novel about a hedge-fund manager. Most book videos I’ve seen feel precious and dull, but this one might attract an audience.

Random House

Featuring Hollywood writer-director-actor Ben Stiller, Shteyngart’s book trailer sports genuine star-power and should benefit from Stiller’s efforts to promote it to his 6 million Twitter followers. I asked Shteyngart how he managed to make a book trailer that looks more like a “Saturday Night Live” skit. “I was thinking of who would be perfect for the role of a hedge fund manager who keeps losing money, somebody who was both an over-optimistic bro and kind of clueless, and I knew Ben would knock it out of the park,” Shteyngart said. “I sent him the script, and a few months later we got those vests. The rest is history. Needless to say, Ben improved on a lot of it. He just kept bringing those fist bumps. It was like a master class in comedic acting.”

Make New York Great Again. Colson Whitehead has been named New York’s 12th State Author, and Alicia Ostriker has been named New York’s 11th State Poet. “New York has long been an epicenter for arts and culture,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday, “and this award celebrates some of the state’s most talented and influential writers in their respective fields.” Asked about his agenda as State Author, Whitehead replied, “For starters, I’m going to get Gray’s Papaya on 72nd recognized as a historical site and reopen the Headless Horseman investigation.” This is change we can believe in.


2018 National Book Festival, by illustrator Gaby D'Alessandro (Gaby D'Alessandro/Library of Congress)

A grand donation. The National Book Festival is just two weeks away — Saturday, Sept. 1 — but there’s still time to support this literary extravaganza that’s expected to draw 200,000 people to Washington. The festival’s $2.4 million cost is funded by donors (like David Rubenstein) and sponsors (like The Washington Post), but you don’t have to be a billionaire or a big company to help out. For $1,000, you can join the Booklovers Circle, a special program that began last year with 17 donors. Members of this group will receive reserved seating for the Main Stage events at the festival, a festival poster signed by illustrator Gaby D’Alessandro and other benefits. For more information, click here.

Resistance is not futile. Bob Woods writes in Strategy+Business that “the consumer market for physical, printed books is holding its own in an increasingly digital world.” Publishers Weekly reports that sales for the first six months of 2018 were down just 1 percent, to $4.71 billion, compared with the first six months of last year. And the news is even better for independent bookstores. Members of the American Booksellers Association report that their sales for the first seven months of this year were up about 5 percent over the same period in 2017.

There’s still room for imagination. Morgan Jones, author of “The Good Sister,” offers a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing debate about cultural appropriation. His essay in the Guardian, “How free should novelists be to imagine radically different lives,” begins by acknowledging what a vexed issue this is. “My new novel may need justifying. Half of it is narrated by Sofia, a 17-year-old girl born in Cairo; I’m a 47-year-old man who has never lived outside the UK. More to the point, the story opens with Sofia arriving in Syria to join Islamic State — a long way from any experience of my own. Privately, I have been asked what gives me the right to tell this story.” His replay is worth considering: “Fiction remains the best means we have of finding connection where there seems to be none; and the novel, of all forms, encourages a search that’s deep and sustained. By reading (or writing) one, you’ve travelled somewhere else. You’ve moved, if only slightly, towards others. In a world that finds and increasingly exploits division and difference, this is an invaluable, precious exercise.”

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.