I like to start the new year with a clean house, an empty calendar and a long-deferred project to tackle. So far, I have the last of the three, but no time for tackling anything beyond last year’s messes; I have yet to get my Christmas tree out of the house, and the same goes for the Christmas cards my dutiful husband had made more than a month ago. At least I can say that I’ve managed to fit a good book into the first weeks of 2016, one that offers an interesting twist on the theme of “New Beginnings.” Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is a boldly playful novel divided exactly into two halves, either of which might precede the other, depending on your copy. The pieces are meant to be interchangeable, each creating mysteries for the other to explore and enrich. One half is the story of George, a 16-year-old girl in modern-day England who is processing her mother’s recent death; the other half is the story of Francesco del Cossa, a 15th-century artist whose work fascinated George’s mother. Francesco’s story is exciting, but George’s story gives it a special depth and purpose. While George tries to build a new life out of quirky memorial rituals, she gives a sort of new life to Francesco, keeping vigil by one of his paintings in the National Gallery. Not wishing to spoil any of the novel’s secret pleasures, I won’t say more—except that this book is a work of real craft, full of tantalizing glimpses of the possibilities beyond the boundaries of convention.
For Editor-in-Chief Maria Scala, a new beginning means new mindfulness: “Last year I logged quite a few miles, visiting Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as some favorite cities closer to home. I am starting off this year by slowing things down with Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. This slim book pulled me in immediately, with these intriguing lines: ‘In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’ Iyer, a seasoned essayist, novelist, and travel writer, opens the book with an anecdote about visiting Leonard Cohen at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. The poet and singer taught him about the virtues of going nowhere so as to make sense of everywhere else. Iyer also draws on the wisdom and lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Marcel Proust, and Emily Dickinson, showing how stillness can quicken creativity and counter the mad rush of our modern lives. Early on in the book, the author admits that there’s nothing new about this concept of stillness, of going nowhere. In fact, it’s an age-old practice, as old as humanity. Iyer writes in a friendly, conversational tone, and I was able to read the book in a couple of short sittings, since I turned my phone off. (You can complement your reading with the author’s 14-minute TED talk on the subject.)
Lisa Katzenberger, editorial assistant in fiction and creative nonfiction, sees fresh promise in the world of children’s books: “As mothers, much of our reading time is —or has been at one point in the past—devoted to reading to our young children. Last Stop on Market Street, a beautiful book written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, is the first picture book to win the prestigious Newbery Medal for excellence in children’s literature. It is also the first book by a Latino author to win the award. This book tells the story of CJ and his Nana, riding the Market Street bus through the city after church on Sunday. CJ is bored and upset that they don’t have a car, but Nana encourages him to find beauty in the small details of everyday life around him. The story uses lovely language, as when it describes CJ’s reaction to a musician playing his guitar on the bus: ‘CJ’s chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.’ I love this striking book for its sharp details and vivid images, how it meets the mission of We Need Diverse Books, and what it represents for the future of children’s literature. With books like these, more children are starting to see themselves represented in the world of literature. With a strong, new beginning like that, we are sure to engage more young children with the world of literature and nurture them into lifelong readers.”