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How to Be Both

3.6  ·  Rating Details ·  9,936 Ratings  ·  1,458 Reviews
Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith’s novels are like nothing else. A true original, she is a one-of-a-kind literary sensation. Her novels consistently attract serious acclaim and discussion—and have won her a dedicated readership who are drawn again and again to the warmth, humanity and humor of her voice.

How to be both is a no
Kindle Edition, 376 pages
Published September 4th 2014 by Penguin (first published August 28th 2014)
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Jensha Buskey Cate, you can just put a note on it to say that the reader can choose which way they want to read it. I'm assuming that most people who are familiar…moreCate, you can just put a note on it to say that the reader can choose which way they want to read it. I'm assuming that most people who are familiar with Ali Smith's work were aware of the uniqueness of this publication ahead of reading it. I knew, so I chose. In my version, the Francescho part was printed first, but I chose to start in the middle of the book, with the George part. (less)

Community Reviews

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This clever, very clever, novel is made out of the stuff of life. Here we have the usual suspects: time, language, love and art. Four of them. And as it is about life, it is also about death.

Time in which the past and future intertwine in the fleeting present. Love fledging its most admirable redeeming abilities. Language as the malleable communicator that sometimes fails. Art in its ability to fascinate and enchant.

With death always lurking.

Its structure is paramount. It has
Dec 05, 2014 Diane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Diane by: Alan S.
This experimental novel is challenging, but if you can give it your attention, it is wondrous.

The novel has two parts: One part tells the story of George (full name Georgia), a teenage girl who is trying to cope with the sudden death of her mother. The other part tells the story of Francesco del Cossa, who was a real-life Italian artist during the Renaissance. The two narratives are linked because George and her mother had gone to Italy to see a fresco painted by del Cossa, and it turned out to
How to write a novel about art - everybody’s doing it - without revealing the amount of research that has gone into it?
There’s the twist.

Research has to be important in a novel written in the twenty first century but partly set in Renaissance Italy. The author needs to comb the archives but burn her notes after reading. She needs to walk the old town she’s writing about from one end to the other but then she needs to throw the guidebook away and leave with only her impressions, forget the hard
Violet wells
You could say the muse of this novel is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The mischievous, time travelling, gender crossing spirit of history who breaks down boundaries, reconciles opposites, defies death.

I read the Francesco narrative first. Francesco is based on the real life painter Francesco del Cossa (who I had never heard of). The fresco which features large in this novel is a stunning piece of oddball invention and even if I’d hated this novel I’d be grateful to Smith for introducing me to it: F
MJ Nicholls
I tussled for two weeks with this challenging and disappointing novel from the Best and Most Innovative Scottish Novelist Alive. Split into two separate narratives connected via the novel’s bipolar concept, the first section is quintessential Smith with its precocious teenage protagonist and her tireless obsession with words (these recurring characters are sentimental love-affairs with one’s formative time discovering language and its possibilities), while the second part is one of her riskiest ...more
Ron Charles
Dec 10, 2014 Ron Charles rated it really liked it
Ali Smith’s playfully brilliant new novel makes me both excited and wary of recommending it. This gender-blending, genre-blurring story, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, bounces across centuries, tossing off profound reflections on art and grief, without getting tangled in its own postmodern wires. It’s the sort of death-defying storytelling acrobatics that don’t seem entirely possible — How did she get here from there? — but you’ve got to be willing to hang on.

The games start even be
Oct 01, 2014 Teresa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My dear friend Cathrine is the reason I first read Ali Smith about ten years ago and she is the reason I was able to read this book as quickly as I did. She and Ali Smith will be forever linked in my mind. When she gave me this book, she told me copies of the novel have either one of the two sections first: you get what you get. (Unless of course you go to a bookstore and choose the one you want.) Not surprising to us, I received a copy different than hers: because, you see, we too (two) complem ...more
Jan 04, 2015 Cheryl rated it it was amazing
It is an infinite loop. A book of mirrors. There are many kinds of both, inside the stories, outside the stories but in the book, over and over, back and forth. Like looking in a mirror of a mirror, to see endless reflection.

The words line up one after the other, but they also reach out, silently, to pair up and mirror and reflect upon themselves across time, thereby bridging it.

Time merges. The book somehow begins to escape time, to transcend it, to weave a fabric.
”Past or present? George says
Julie in its most completeness is never found in a single body but is something shared instead between more than one body

Ali Smith upends the standard binary worldview in this gorgeous, complex, postmodern creation. It's a rare book that leaves me weeping at the end, but this is a rare read, indeed. At once playful and melancholic, absurd and achingly real, How To Be Both transcends boundaries of past and present, life and death, perception and reality—not to mention plot and character—to
Oct 13, 2015 ·Karen· rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: brits, best-of-2015
It is both blatant and invisible. It is subtle and at the same time the most unsubtle thing in the world, so unsubtle it's subtle. Once you've seen it, you can't not see it....But only if you notice. If you notice, it changes everything about the picture, like a witty remark someone has been brave enough to make out loud but which you only hear if your ears are open to more than one thing happening. It isn't lying about anything or feigning anything, and even if you weren't to notice, it's ther
Jan 20, 2015 Mom rated it did not like it
Well, I tried. It won the Booker Prize and had loads of rave reviews, so it must be good, right? Well I read the first half (about George) and it was okay maybe, with reservations because of the odd & difficult-to-understand word usage/style. Then I started the second section and decided that life is just too short and I have way too any books on my "To Read" list anyway. Perhaps Ali Smith is an amazing writer who's invented a totally new way to write a novel, but it sure didn't touch me.
I'm not supposed to get everything, I know that. And I have a ready excuse, having read this book before and after Thanksgiving. That chronological reading experience was on my mind, even as I read this, because Ali Smith talks about before and after, then and now, in this ostensibly bifurcated novel(s).

I better explain the plot/structure for anything of what I'm saying to make sense. There are two parts to this book, two equally divided stories. The first part, in my edition*, is in the here an
Jan 01, 2015 Douglas rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This is one of the best books I’ve read in awhile.

“It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you abou
How to be both contains two stories, one (Eyes) about a fifteenth-century artist, Francesco del Cossa, and one (Camera) about a modern-day teenage girl, George, designed to be read in whatever order the reader desires. The ebook edition I read had Eyes first (or you can skip to the middle and read Camera first, as the stories mirror each other, while the order of the sections is randomised in physical copies). I was pleased about this - Eyes may be a bit harder to get into, but it's fascinatingl ...more
Nov 29, 2015 Mala rated it really liked it

And which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see? (p.150)

How to be both— to be made & unmade both, exist in the past and the present, perceive more, create more, love more, live more – be more.
Ali Smith's latest book explores these questions through the transformative agencies of Art and Friendship.
Two mourning children, existing in different time frames, learn to cope with their loss & find meaning & purpose in their lives – what connects them is Art
helen the bookowl
Jun 08, 2016 helen the bookowl rated it really liked it
This book was so interesting that while reading it, I decided to order 5 other of Ali Smith's novels just because I knew I had to get to know her better. This book contains two fates and two stories which are told seperately. The writing style is unique and somewhat messy, but the tone of voice is clear and the two characters have very different personalities.
Meanwhile, the lines between their fates shine through and that's one of the beauties of this novel. I was impressed by how they are both
Jun 01, 2015 BrokenTune rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
"...and 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) –"

This book is a complete and utter but strangely beautiful mess - at least structurally. But then there are different editions to this book and depending on which edition you picked up, it either starts with the story of George or the story of Francescho.

No matter which one it starts with, both stories are intertwined and both stories - though very different - to
Apr 11, 2016 Deea rated it it was amazing
5* (I would give the first story 10* and the second 4*, but I liked the idea so much that I cannot lower the number of stars because of the second story)
How can one review this book? It is original, surprising, ingenious. It talks about art and how the concept of art and life can switch places so easily.
Is it possible then that all the people of this place are painters going about their world with the painting tools of their time?

Art, art, art. In art, just like in life there are certain thin
Sep 29, 2014 Maxwell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: i-own-it, 2014
A new favorite. Innovative, original, and unforgettable. I'm confident in saying that I will reread this in the near future, because it was that darn good. Please do yourself a favor, and go pick this one up.
Sep 18, 2016 Maria rated it it was amazing
This wonderful, playful, beautifully written book contains two different stories. In one story, we meet George (short for Georgina), a teenage girl in present day London. George just lost her mother, and are having a difficult time handling the grief.

In the other story, we leap 600 years back in time to meet Fransesco del Cossa, a renaissance painter. Fransesco is an actual, historical figure, and the paintings that are described in this book does exist. Very little is known about him though, s
Yes, yes. Well done Ali Smith. You're very smart.

If there is one thing Ali Smith's Bailey's Prize Victory with her novel 'How To Be both' has proven to me it is that even literary prizes can fall prey to the bells, whistles and buzz words of a good media campaign.

'How To Be Both' was marketed as a genre defining, genre bending and genre creating novel of ultimate importance in the literary world. It hailed the rebirth of true stylistic originality, and Ali Smith has been described by one of the
K.D. Absolutely
Jan 01, 2015 K.D. Absolutely rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to K.D. by: Booker 2014
My 3rd Ali Smith book and what I can say is that each time is a different kind of reading experience. Her post modernist stream-of-consciousness writing style is difficult so I have to slow down but it is always rewarding in the end like seeing the finished drawing on a canvas.

How To Be Both is composed of two stories. The first is set in a contemporary time and it is about a teenage girl named George and her relationship with her witty and funny mother. Each time they exchange banters, I immedi
Even if I've tried hard to read this book, I am giving up on this one.

Even if the author tried to use different styles of writing, she didn't get any close to the masterpiece written by Julio Cortazar in his famous book Rayuela.
Shahirah Loqman
Oh, this book! This wonderful, weird yet heartwarming book! I admit it was so difficult to get into this book at first. My narrative began with the 16 year old girl, George (short for Georgia) who recently lost her mother. But in the midst of her sadness and grief and attempt to move on without her mother, I became very, very attached to George. In truth, I am a sucker for mother-child stories and this hit me right in the spot.

Then the story transitions into a Renaissance painter's narrative.
Nidhi Mahajan
When I first began this book, I thought to myself, "This is nothing like I have ever read before". That is because this book is as original as it is innovative. How to be Both tells the story of two characters, a Renaissance artist (Francesco) and a young girl living in our contemporary times (George). Depending on which edition you get, you will either get Francesco or George's story first. Both stories are marked as 'one'.

The best way to describe this book is to call it a palimpsest. It doesn
Jenny (Reading Envy)
If the Booker shortlist only had room for one book about art, I can understand the argument for why this would keep The Blazing World out (but I enjoyed reading that one more.) This has a great main character in the first half, someone who understands her dead mother enough to turn mourning into an outdated dance ritual, and to stalk her mother's friend instead of going to school. It was very readable, very current, almost too current, making me wonder if even five years from now the references ...more
Dec 14, 2014 Issicratea rated it liked it
I was inexorably drawn to reading this novel on account of its subject-matter, even though I have never got on that well with Ali Smith in the past. I love the Ferrarese school—in some ways, it’s almost my favorite 15thC school of painting—and novels on Francesco del Cossa aren’t likely to come along any too often.

In the event, I liked this more than others of Smith’s novel that I have read or attempted (Hotel World, The Accidental), though there was quite a bit in it that annoyed me as well. I
Aug 23, 2016 Angela rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a difficult book to review. 'How to Be Both' initially felt experimental and clunky and I found myself sighing inwardly at the prospect of a laborious read. However, moving through the artists narrative I found myself captivated, although I am still left wondering what the exact reason is. The journey through the painters personal history in relation to the time period was fascinating (for me as a philistine, anyway) and Smith described vividly the artists life and struggle as a grieving ...more
Ana Ovejero
Jul 15, 2016 Ana Ovejero rated it it was amazing
Ali Smith's masterpiece is published in two different editions. Some readers would get the 'eyes' section first and the 'camera' section in second position. In my case, it was the other way around.

The 'camera' section depicts the life of teenaged George who has lost her mother and who tries to figure out her father's attitude, her little brother's loneliness and her own pain. In unforgettable flashbacks, we see the family's visit to an Italian palazzo just to admire the frescoes done by the not-
Jake Reynolds
Sep 02, 2014 Jake Reynolds rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Perhaps a subtle - even subconscious - reason why Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch didn't make the Booker Prize longlist this year. How To Be Both engages with art in an intelligent, complex and beautiful manner.
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  • The Lives of Others
  • The Blazing World
  • J
  • The Dog
  • Unexploded
  • Harvest
  • The Year of the Runaways
  • History of the Rain
  • The Emperor Waltz
  • The Stories of Jane Gardam
  • The Tidal Zone
  • The Lighthouse
  • The Wake
  • The Wolf Border
  • Satin Island
  • Animals
  • The Hired Man
  • The Essex Serpent
Ali Smith is a writer, born in 1962 in Inverness, Scotland, to working-class parents. She was raised in a council house in Inverness and now lives in Cambridge. She studied at Aberdeen, and then at Cambridge, for a Ph.D. that was never finished. In a 2004 interview with writing magazine Mslexia, she talked briefly about the difficulty of becoming ill with chronic fatigue syndrome for a year and ...more
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“Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.” 22 likes
“... always looking off to the side. But that's good too. It's good, to be seen past, as if you're not the only one, as if everything isn't happening just to you. Because you're not. And it isn't.” 13 likes
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