How to Be Both

How to Be Both

Book - 2015 | First Anchor Books edition, Anchor trade paperback
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SHORT-LISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith's novels are like nothing else. How to be both is a novel all about art's versatility. Borrowing from painting's fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it's a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There's a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There's the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real--and all life's givens get given a second chance.
The brilliant Booker-nominated novel from one of our finest authors: How to Be Both is a daring, inventive tale that intertwines the stories of a defiant Renaissance painter and a modern teenage girl. How can one be both--near and far, past and present, male and female? In Ali Smith's new novel, two extraordinary characters inhabit the spaces between categories. In one half of the book, we follow the story of Francescho del Cossa, a Renaissance painter in fifteenth-century Italy who assumes a duel identity, living as both a man and a woman. In the novel's other half, George, a contemporary English teenage girl, is in mourning after the death of her brilliant, rebellious mother. As she struggles to fill the void in her life, George finds her thoughts circling again and again around a whimsical trip she and her mother once made to Italy, to see a certain Renaissance fresco... These two stories call out to each other in surprising and deeply resonant ways to form a veritable literary double-take, bending the conventions of genre, storytelling, and our own preconceptions.
Publisher: New York : Anchor Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015
Edition: First Anchor Books edition, Anchor trade paperback
Copyright Date: ©2014
ISBN: 9780307275257
Characteristics: 316 pages ; 21 cm


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Oct 06, 2018

What I like about Ali Smith's writing is that she has a style of her own. It is poetically evocative of so many things. While reading this book, I thought of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. From hearing Smith on several podcasts, you know that she thinks about Woolf as well as a million other things.

Too bad the internet reproductions of Francesco del Cossa's work is not in great detail. Maybe it's my poor eyesight. How to be Both requires looking, as well as feeling.

TSCPL_ChrisB Jun 04, 2016

This is an unconventional, character-driven novel. It is comprised of two connected stories, and depending which version you get, the stories may be in the opposing order. How to Be Both is a challenging novel for readers looking for more "art" in their story.

May 06, 2016

Wonderful complex yet very readable novel. Worth a second read to see all the subtle connections between the modern story and the old.

Bunny_Watson716 Apr 11, 2016

I loved reading this book. I liked the unconventional structure of the novel and Smith's language, and really loved George, the protagonist.

Mar 07, 2016

This is an interesting and innovative book that has a lot to say about art and relationships. I really enjoyed reading it.

Dec 29, 2015

The book is not really classifiable; I've never encountered anything like it before, morphing as it does from poetry to prose to stream-of-consciousness musings, dreamscapes and back. At first glance it appears almost unreadable, reminiscent of James Joyce. But after a few pages one gets the rhythm of it and Smith's use of the voice of the painter Francesco (or rather his/her ghost) observing people as they study his and others' works on display is intriguing. How this connects to the second half of the book remains unclear until much later. She certainly waxes lyrical, even fantastical at times, so this is definitely not a book that will appeal to readers who don't appreciate prose.
My major complaint is Smith's decision to abandon intelligible sentence structure in favor of random mutterings of the teenage protagonist in most of the contemporary portion of the book. While this may serve to place the reader "inside" George's thoughts, it does so at the expense of making it laborious to read. I'm not being stuffy here; there's a reason for grammar and punctuation: It facilitates the clear communication of ideas from writer to reader. Disjointed, random, unstructured comments that are meant to convey character and perhaps "make it real" quickly become tiresome when they cause a reader to lose the thread of the narrative (which is what happened to me unless I slowed down and concentrated on every phrase, as if I were reading a text book). Ironically that never happened in the part of the book set in the renaissance time frame! The contemporary half of the book just never achieves the rhythm and flow of the renaissance portion.
If this book is "about" anything, it's about character development -- i.e. the two main protagonists. For me, that's an admirable objective on the part of the author and I was cheering for Smith to make those two unique characters live and breathe for me. I believe she succeeds to some degree with Francesco but doesn't quite make it with George, despite having invested so much effort in "voicing" her as noted above. Too bad, because I think George had more potential as an interesting and likeable character but somehow, it just doesn't quite come off. Many other readers will probably disagree with me about this.
I've no idea how to place this book on a rating scale but I have to say I find it astonishing how highly rated it tends to have been by other readers. Maybe I just don't "get it" ....

Sep 07, 2015

Struggling to read. Will try to finish but not really enjoying it yet.

Jul 28, 2015

The sheer number of themes/amount of symbolism was overwhelming.

BPLpicks Jun 03, 2015

A very clever and unique novel. Winner of the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

BklynKalliopiM Mar 12, 2015

Incredible novel(s) from Ali Smith. True to the title, How To Be Both compounds layers of narrative into moving themes and poignant writing. Highly recommended for older teens and adults who enjoy realistic fiction with a touch of magic and experimental style. Favorite parts include our young narrator's navigation of her mother's death and her own identity in our modern world, as well as the beloved painter Francesco, brought back to life, amazed by our incessant staring into our "holy" tablets.

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Dec 30, 2014

how to tell a story, but tell it more than one way at once, and tell another underneath it / up-rising through the skin of it


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