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How to Be Both
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How to Be Both

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  20,153 ratings  ·  2,584 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 n
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 w…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)

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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 is important in a novel written in the twenty first century but which is 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 own impressions, any hard facts
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
Sep 04, 2014 rated it really liked it


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 ha
Nov 18, 2014 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
Jan 20, 2015 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 many 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. ...more
Dec 02, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: couldn-t-finish
Sometimes, I think authors write books to have a laugh at us. And I think that we as people think that because we don't get it, it must be profound. Which means it must be amazing. And then everyone just follows suit and insists this book is stellar.

I didn't get it. I hated the style. I loathe authors that can't be bothered to make something readable (hello, quotation marks for defining speech sections). I mean I got it. But I didn't _get_ it. And so I gave up maybe a quarter of the way through
Pamela  (Here to Read Books and Chew Gum)
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 Bothhas 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 Bothwas marketed as a genre-defining, genre-bending, and genre-creating novel of utmost importance in the literary world. It apparently hailed the rebirth of true stylistic originality, and Ali Smith has been described by one
Oct 01, 2014 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
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
Nov 16, 2014 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
Jul 23, 2014 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 sa
Feb 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Michael by: kalliope
This is exactly what I like best in “experimental” writing. Playful vistas with depth, lives with layers and connections that bubble up delightfully into your awareness, the fruits of discovery there for taking and in enough plenty there is no want or penalty of missing some. We have one-half of the book devoted to the life of a female painter in Renaissance Italy posing as a man, Francesco, and a second half about a teenaged girl in contemporary England, Georgie, who is engaging with her dead m ...more
Jun 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-fiction
This book won the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize, the Novel Award in the 2014 Costa Book Awards and the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. This, very much lauded in literary circles book, is a clever tale somehow connecting a story of dealing with loss in the 21st century to the story of a struggling female artist forced to dress and live as a man in 15th century Italy! Maybe a bit too clever, so not as accessible as it could have been? A great piece of work, smart and genre busting. 8 out of 12
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—t
Playful and unique in structure - this novel is comprised of two stories which, depending on the copy of the book you are reading, could start with the story of George, a precocious teenager who has recently and suddenly lost her mother, OR the narrative of relatively unknown Italian renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa. What is kind of brilliant about this little trick, is that each person's understanding of the stories will be slightly different, depending on which story they read first. I ...more
Jan 28, 2015 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 th
Jul 02, 2016 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
Dec 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: best-of-2014
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
Helene Jeppesen
Jul 27, 2015 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
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
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
Sep 07, 2014 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, no doubt t
Sep 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
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. ...more
Nov 01, 2014 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 -
Occasionally infuriating and impenetrable but undoubtedly a masterpiece. This book floored me... but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of it. I'm having a particularly hard time arriving at a star rating because Ali Smith is a genius and I want to read everything she's ever written (this was my first time reading her), but I found this book inspired and frustrating in equal measure.

How to Be Both is comprised of two halves - one of these follows Francescho, a female Renaissance p
Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer
Revisited for the 2019 Mookse Madness tournament.

The novel takes its inspiration from the fresco painted by the 15th Century artist Francesco del Cossa at the Ducal Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara – known only for a letter he wrote to the Duke asking if he could be paid more than the other artists given his clearly superior work.

The novel has two first person sections: one "Eye" narrated by the painter Francescho (in the book), and the other, "Camera", the tale of a 21st Century girl, George the p
Jan 21, 2016 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. In art, just like in life there are certain things that,
This was such an infuriating reading experience.
I thought I would have loved How to Be Both, my first approach to renowned author Ali Smith. It has all the elements I usually love, particularly the focus on art and artist(s). And yet, I very much struggled to connect to this book. What I presumably considered to be a fast read, because of its shortness and its big - very big - character font, became something I had to force myself reading.
I have to say though that I recognise its worth and all t
Richard Derus
Mar 10, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: borrowed, returned
Real Rating: 2.5* of five

Just not what I would describe as a successful experiment; more a failed gimmick. "George"'s androgyny and Francesco's response to it probably sounded good in 2010 or so, as the book was being planned, but it comes across as queer-baiting in 2020. Also, connections reaching through time is a trope well-established (which, to be fair, wasn't anywhere near as much the case in 2014) and thus in need of something *not* negative to distinguish it from the mass of others like
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Ali Smith is a writer, born 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 how it for ...more

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cause although it seemed to be the end of the world to me -
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