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HOW TO READ BOTH 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 two strands one and one, or one and one They differ from each other in that one is about Eyes and the other is about Cameras and that the stories are different Also in that one is set in today s world and the other in 15Century Ferrara Both are about looking Looking through disembodied eyes or through additional devices that come with extended memory Randomly, the individual volumes, when printed, will come as either Eyes Cameras or Cameras Eyes For the electronic format randomness has been substituted by repetition They have included the two combinations I fell in that trap since when I thought I was in the exact middle of the novel, I was faced with its doubling mirror Was I supposed to travel back in my reading to its beginning Or did I feel as if life had halted and I was left suspended in mid read As my first Smith her writing lured my interest The two stories are engaging and, though appended and different, they intertwine through those four elements Recognizing those elements gives comfort and bliss Given the twenty views of my spiraling avatar it should not be surprising that her literary double helix, the coiling of her themes, and the pictorial snails added to my reading enjoyment Smart is also her exploration of complementing or uniting doubles, particularly in sexuality, again at the core of life But I found a certain unbalance in the quality of her two narrative strands The one set in today s world seemed sturdier While her 15C setting failed to create the texture of the Italian Renaissance For authenticity she has peppered her story with quotes from Alberti s On Painting and from Cennini s The Craftsman s Handbook, both of which I have read, but which felt like Museum stickers in her narrative She has also included highly apt textual versions of many beautiful paintings, mostly by the one artist who becomes a protagonist These I have tracked in my updates in what became for me like a delightful detective game in a Museum But the flavour of the language failed to recreate the aimed qualitas and transport me to a past, and now imagined, age I hope her other novels stay in the present Smith knows how to capture this I wish to thank Cheryl view spoiler hide spoiler 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. 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 Ferrara, here I come Francesco is born a woman though it s easy to miss this very important premise and I only caught it by sensing I had missed something and going back to the beginning when I was about fifty pages in History knows next to nothing about Francesco so Smith or perhaps George, her other narrator was able to or less make him her up Which she does with compelling brio and mischief Though Francesco s voice can be a bit hit or miss, overly pretentious at times in its stream of consciousness highwire cavortings, at its best it s definitely for me the most creative achievement in this novel Smith does something new with language here nothing revolutionary but she strikes up a deliciously quirky rhythm through Francesco s voice The other narrator, George, a girl with a boy s name, is much conventionally familiar and therefore safer Smith uses George to introduce a lot of stock in trade social satire, which might make you giggle but also might elicit a weary sigh I ve also been racking my brains to find Geoege s twin in literature or cinema because I did have a sense of d j vu while reading her narrative an adolescent girl whose mother has just died and is left with an emotionally absent father and a shell shocked younger brother Hasn t she appeared rather brilliantly somewhere else before What s the point of art George asks her mother How to be Both tries to provide various answers to that question To be honest, I m not sure I really understood the higher significance of the gender swapping except as a paying of lip service to feminist notions of gender interchangeability Perhaps Orlando, her muse, led her a bit astray here George s sexual ambivalence was fine and subtle Francesco s seemed a bit too conveniently forced Sometimes Smith s determination to enter into mirrors everywhere was a bit heavy handed for me Like a teacher lecturing you on how much profundity resides in this passage or those brushstrokes The novel flows beautifully in parts and it s usually when Smith is reinforcing her double agent surveillance theme that the flow is interrupted The most exciting and thought provoking moments of the novel are when the narratives intersect, when Smith gets the mirrors to smoke This essentially happens twice and this is when you put most effort into trying to imagine the effect had you read the narratives the other way round And when you try to answer the question, Are the two alternative versions a stroke of ingenious artistry or little than a marketing gimmick I m glad I read the Francesco narrative first The other way around and I think the novel would have been dialectical, emotionally detached You d also probably have the idea that George is inventing Francesco s biography for her own purposes and this would surely make him less significant and poignant as a character in his her own right You d also be deprived of the revelations that take place in the National Gallery which is a brilliant moment of bringing into focus everything you ve seen so far The principal achievement of this novel for me was not its philosophical maze of smoking mirrors but simply the hightide creative energy and the playful joie de vivre with which it s written A novel will always be compelling when the author feels consuming love for her story and characters and manages to convey it Smith certainly achieves this I felt this strongly with Francesco whom Smith clearly adored George was less original as a voice though probably accessible as a result. 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 be George s last trip with her mom George became interested in the painter s life as a way to remember her mother, and she even researched del Cossa for a school project This novel is an experiment because half of the books were printed with the story of George first, and the rest were printed with the artist s story first The writing style in each section is very different both have stream of consciousness prose, and George s teenage thoughts move lightning fast between the present and past memories The artist s narrative is poetic and fragmented The prose is lovely, but it requires focus.In my printed copy, del Cossa s story came first However, when I first tried to read the artist s poetic beginning, I wasn t in the right frame of mind and couldn t concentrate on it I had heard about the trick with the two parts, so I skipped ahead to George s section to read that first, and that is when I fell in love with the book Truthfully, I wish the entire novel had been from George s perspective I think if it had been, this would have been a five star review Poor, clever George She used to pride herself on her wordplay games with her mom, but she regrets that sarcastic tone she used Most teenagers don t expect to lose their mothers you expect to have time to grow older and apologize for your youthful arrogance George didn t get that Instead, she has lots of time with her thoughts and memories.After finishing George s story, I immediately went back to the beginning and read the artist s section, which I appreciated on the second attempt The novel has beautiful themes about the role of art in our lives, how we communicate with one another, and the connections between the past and the present, the living and the dead I would recommend this book to readers who like stream of consciousness writing and who appreciate the mingling of poetry and prose.Favorite Passage George and her mother are talking about history History is horrible It is a mound of bodies pressing down into the ground below cities and towns in the unending wars and the famines and the diseases, and all the people starved or done away with or rounded up and shot or tortured and left to die or put up against the walls near castles or stood in front of ditches and shot into them George is appalled by history, its only redeeming feature being that it tends to be well and truly over World War One is like a whole hundred years ago next year, George says You can hardly call it relevant to us any What, the Great War in which your great grandfather, who happened to be my grandfather, was gassed in the trenches not once, but twice Which meant he and your great grandmother were very poor, because he was too ill to work and died young And meant I inherited his weak lungs Not relevant to us her mother says And then the break up of the Balkans, and the start of the territorial trouble in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the civil unrest in Ireland, and the shifts of power in Russia, and the power shifts in the Ottoman empire, and the bankruptcy, economic catastrophe and social unrest in Germany, all of which played a huge part in the rise of Fascism and in the bringing about of another war in which, as it happens, your own grandmother and grandfather who happened to be my mother and father both fought when they were just two or three years older than you Not relevant To us Her mother shakes her head. 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 experiments with style, voice, mild typography, wearing its Christine Brooke Rose influence with pride, and for this reader seems to fall facewards Establishing a loveable character within a wondrous Smith world and dropping this after 170 pages for the rambling narration of a 15thC painter that splices epithets about art and painting between various tortured plot strands, written in frustrating run on sentences in a semi Italian accent, is ballsy and indulgent The meandering aspect of the second tale and its seemingly slapdash effect impeded my fun, despite the isolated moments of quotable and perfect thought making that leap out from the sprightly pages Smith s latest teaches one how to be both exhilarated and exhausted. 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 therebut you ve got to be willing to hang on.The games start even before you know it, as soon as you pick up a copy In a flight of whimsy that is far too rare in publishing, How to Be Both is being released like some kind of literary Pushmi pullyu In half of the editions, a historical novella precedes a contemporary one in the other half, the order is reversed You won t know which version you ve bought until you begin reading The two novellas make frequent references to each other, but how you interpret those references will depend on whether they re looking forward or backward What a perfect complication for the adventuresome book group As one character says, it s a lesson in how to tell a story, but tell it than one way at once, and tell another underneath it up rising through the skin of it The 15th century story is narrated in a stream of consciousness monologue by the impish ghost of Francesco del Cossa c 1430 c 1477 An Italian painter about whom little is known, del Cossa worked on the frescos inside the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, until he apparently became annoyed with the meager wages On the scrawny skeleton of that historical record, Smith fleshes out the life of a precocious young artist who binds her chest with linen, takes the name Francescho and pretends to be a man so she can get commissions.It s a fascinating bricolage of history and speculation enriched with Francescho s audacious patter, often comically incongruous with the Renaissance Freely mixing genders and pigments, the young artist distinguishes herself early as a magician with paints and she knows it I m good at the real and the true and the beautiful, she tells us She can capture human figures in suspended motion, and she has mastered a sense of depth that transfixes the eye.That self taught skill gets Francescho a job painting panoramic frescos at the Palazzo Schifanoia, and there we follow her working with the famous Cosimo Tura Amid her boasts and complaints about her artistic rival, we learn much about the way Francescho and, by implication, Smith relishes the trompe l oeil effect of great art I like very much a foot, she says, or a hand, coming over the edge and over the frame into the world beyond the picture, cause a picture is a real thing in the world and this shift is a marker of this reality and I like a figure to shift into that realm between the picture and the world just like I like a body really to be present under painted clothes where something, a breast, a chest, an elbow, a knee, presses up from beneath and brings life to a fabric The most delightful and admittedly absurd scene is one involving her trip to a whorehouse with her best friend, a male, who has no idea Francescho is approaching their sexual adventure with entirely different expectations But soon the ladies are asking for Francescho she paints their portraits behind closed doors Francescho s friend assumes his fine featured buddy must be quite the stud Love and painting both are works of skill and aim, she confesses to us.Francescho s half of the novel follows a bumblebee s flight pattern, darting forward and backward through memories of childhood and old age, alighting on certain sweet or painful experiences for a moment We go out anonymous into the insect air, she says, and all we are is the dust of colour, brief engineering of wings towards a glint of light on a blade of grass or a leaf in a summer dark Francescho assumes that she is dead, hovering in purgatory, but she has no idea how she got here Do any of us The most perplexing visions that pass before her involve a young man no, wait, a young woman in the year 2013 There, during unpredictable and baffling moments, Francescho can see her and her mother looking at paintings in a Ferrer museum and carrying a holy votive tablet upon which appear an impossible number of quickly changing portraits Shifting through space and time, Francescho tenderly observes this teenager studying the little square images she has affixed to her bedroom wall.In the second novella or the first, depending on your particular edition of this book we follow the life of a 16 year old girl, George, an acerbic high school student in contemporary England Although it is told in the third person, George s story, like Francescho s, moves freely through time, circling back on significant moments and themes that gradually come into focus Among her most cherished memories is a family trip to Italy, where she and her mother saw frescoes created by del Cossa See where this is going Believe me, you don t In the hazy months following her mother s unexpected death, George returns to that happy trip, with its witty banter about art and feminism Those memories are a respite from her father s drunken sorrow and the platitudes of her well meaning school therapist Left largely alone in a fog of despair, George struggles to grasp the surprising dimensions of her mother s life as a loving parent and a well known online anarchist.This sounds like a novel freighted with postmodern gimmicks, but Smith knows how to be both fantastically complex and incredibly touching Just as Francescho s story is laced with insights about the nature and power of painting, George s story offers its own tender exploration of the baffling and clarifying power of grief How can a loved one suddenly not exist And how can a painting bring ground pigment and oil to life Standing in the Palazzo Schifanoia, George looks up at the frescoes and says, What there is is so full of life happening that it s actually like life To which her mother responds, Whenever it s sardonic, a moment later it s generous again So, too, with this swirling, panoramic vision of two women s lives, separated by than 500 years, impossibly connected by their fascination with the mystery of existence This rest first appeared in The Washington Post http www.washingtonpost.com enterta 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 complement and, yes, compliment each other.When I got home from my recent trip, which included my first face to face meeting with Cathrine in Norway, she emailed me that she d heard from others who struggled with the section I had first that flipping to my second section first was easier Of course, I took that as a challenge, but I need not have worried the reading of my first section wasn t a negative challenge I wondered if maybe those readers hadn t gotten past the first two pages and things began to be quickly, though gradually, revealed In this beginning, I detected a whiff of Joyce s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but really it was all Ali Smith I loved its language and especially the voice for the artist that Smith conjured up with her magical skills it was endearing and quite funny My colons are in homage to the 15th century artist, who is both real and imagined To be completely honest, I m not sure if this is as perfect as Smith s Hotel World, though it s certainly ambitious, maybe even ambitious than The Accidental, which I also loved I found my first section so wonderful that I felt the second could only pale in comparison, and it does a little bit, if only because there s maybe a bit too much talking here and there But still I loved it it dovetails into the other section, like a hand in a glove, like one puzzle piece into another Cathrine and I had the same experience reading my second section, though she read it first in her copy that is, much googling of images, though we googled nothing in the other section In that section Smith s rendering of the artist s works is enough.Many ways of how to be both are found in this novel I won t list any as seeing those are part of its pleasure and the structure of the book is not a gimmick, but another reflection of the theme. *FREE EBOOK ↙ How to Be Both ⇱ 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 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 S There S The Child Of A Child Of The S 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 ChanceA NOTE TO THE READER Who Says Stories Reach Everybody In The Same Order This Novel Can Be Read In Two Ways And This Book Provides You With BothIn Half Of All Printed Editions Of The Novel The Narrative EYES Comes Before CAMERAIn The Other Half Of Printed Editions The Narrative CAMERA Precedes EYESThe Narratives Are Exactly The Same In Both Versions, Just In A Different Order The Books Are Intentionally Printed In Two Different Ways, So That Readers Can Randomly Have Different Experiences Reading The Same Text So, Depending On Which Edition You Happen To Receive, The Book Will Be EYES, CAMERA, Or CAMERA, EYES Enjoy The Adventure 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 Male or female It can t be both It must be one or the other.Who says Why must it Her mother says This is my pick for the Booker winner. 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 Which isn t fair, but sometimes that s life, and I honestly believe this book is a laugh at us Just to see how far we ll go to prove we are deeper than the shallow end of the pool.