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How to Be Both (2014)

by Ali Smith

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,1743811,856 (3.79)1 / 240
"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"--… (more)
Recently added bynick4998, baggish, m_z, hmtownsend, CarrieWuj, private library, Nickelini, LondonLori76, MenloPark

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Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
Masterfully written, this book is pure fluidity of time, place, gender (i.e. how to be "both"). "...beauty in its most completeness is never found in a single body but is something shared instead between more than one body." (90) If you liked Life After Life, you will enjoy the non-linear nature of this story, but it takes some work. The first half, Eyes - Camera, is told in flashback and re-incarnation (?) by the painter Franceso(a) della Cosso during the Renaissance of both the time period in Italy and his/her fresco work but also observations and musings about a young girl in contemporary time that (s)he is observing as a spirit or re-incarnation in the form of a seed/leaf.(?) Obviously this part is a little unclear, and is meant to be -- the narrator is sifting through 500 years of memory and also trying to make sense of modern-day conventions and inventions. The second half, Camera - Eyes is what makes the book so enjoyable. George (ia) is a teen girl in Cambridge who has lost her mother to a sudden death in the previous year. She is trying to make sense of the loss and her life in addition to looking after a younger brother, Henry and her failing father. Part of her grief therapy is photography and she creates a wall of images of her mother (a sort of modern-day fresco) with the help of a friend. Her mother was a well-known activist and created many famous "subverts" that went viral in cyberspace -- George has her intelligence and artistic temperament. On a trip before her death, her mother took George and Henry to see the frescoes of della Cosso after reading about their subversive undertones ((s)he thought (s)he was underpaid for the work and put many hidden meanings in the paintings.) That is what joins the 2 narratives, in addition to some clever word play, parallelism and similarities. For example George observes the Italian countryside: "Things change in a moment here, light to dark, dark to light, and although it is so stony it is somehow also bright green and red and yellow too. " Regarding the frescoes (although it pertains to the photographs too), Francesco (a) notes "the thing that happens when the the life of the picture itself steps beyond the frame....it does 2 opposing things at once: the one is it lets the world be seen and understood. The other is, it unchains the eyes and the lives of those who see it and gives them a moment of freedom, from its world and from their world both." And one concept from the past portion of the book comes from the narrator's mother (also dead prematurely): "We need both luck and justice to get to live the life we're meant for..." (131) She illustrates the lesson with the example of seeds and where they fall and if they grow. All these dualities and threads of themes are carefully pieced together into a cohesive whole that examines the nature of art, love, and time. ( )
  CarrieWuj | Oct 24, 2020 |
delightful and different
  audsreads | Jul 19, 2020 |
https://nwhyte.livejournal.com/3265118.html

One of those prize-winning books from a few years back that I have only now got around to reading. Not a lot to say about it, except that I enjoyed it. It comes in two halves, one about a girl in contemporary Cambridge whose mother has recently died, and who has become obsessed with the portrait of Saint Vincent Ferrer by Francesco del Cossa, and the other about del Cossa who turns out (in this narrative) to have been a woman passing as a man in Renaissance Italy. The two stories echo into each other, and it was a satisfying read. ( )
  nwhyte | Oct 16, 2019 |
My copy started with Francescho's story, but after a couple of pages tumbling around in the stream of consciousness, I decided to start with Georgie's story instead, and glad I did. What a wonderful voice Georgie has - her mother nailed it when she called Georgie 'sardonic and generous'. The story of a 16 year old girl mourning the sudden death of her mother sounds like a recipe for depressing and bleak (not my thing by a mile!) but it's not at all - Georgie and her mother are both so sharp and engaging. Georgie's story isn't a linear narrative - it often goes in circles and doubles back on itself, but its still got great momentum. Francescho's story made much more sense after reading Georgie's - it's not all stream of consciousness - like Georgie's it circles and doubles back and has great set pieces. Some scenes here and there didn't make sense to me, but I was happy to let it go and just enjoy the ride. It seems like the kind of book that would give more with each re-read.

And what a blah cover for such an inventive book! ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
8. How to Be Both by Ali Smith
reader: John Banks
published: 2014
format: 8:29 audible audiobook (~235 pages equivalent, 372 pages in hardcover)
acquired: January
listened: Jan 15-31
rating: 4

The audiobook explains that in print the two sections of this book come in alternate orders, the buyer unaware until they open it, but in audio it always opens with George, an adolescent girl stuck in the car with her mother to go see a painting. This was actually my first introduction to Ali Smith, even if I finished it second, so what struck me, as a first impression, is that Smith is being clever, everywhere, always, and it gives the whole book a playful feel that makes it both very thought-provoking and very entertaining to read. That's good, because I never really got what she was doing here...I didn't mind though. (Since I own it, I might listen to it again.)

In any case, George is relayed to us in third person, thinking in flashbacks on her recently deceased mother, while in the present explaining to her grief counselor in school that she thinks she is doing OK because she doesn't really feel anything. Francesco del Cossa will narrate the the other part (second part here) as a disembodied voice that has come out of his own painting and finds itself somehow tied to George. The voice assumes it's in purgatory, amused on this world of it, and begins to think back on its own life. As it goes, George will see the lovely painter's famous hall of months (c1470) in Italy, but she will never be aware she is also being seen.

A lot of layers of play, a close look at visual arts, pictures and seeing, and a decent introduction to Ali Smith.

2019
https://www.librarything.com/topic/301619#6727971 ( )
1 vote dchaikin | Feb 2, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
...there is no doubt that Smith is dazzling in her daring. The sheer inventive power of her new novel pulls you through, gasping, to the final page.
added by charl08 | editThe Guardian, Elizabeth Day (Jul 9, 2014)
 
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Epigraph
Et ricordare suplicando a quella che io sonto francescho del cossa il quale a sollo fatto quili tri canpi verso lanticamara :
Francesco del Cossa
green spirit seeking life
where only drought and desolation sting;
spark that says that everything begins
where everything seems charcoal

— Eugenio Montale 'The eel'/ (trans. Jonathan Galassi)
J’ai rêvé Que sur un grand mur blanc je lisais mon testament

Sylvie Vartan
...although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living...

Hannah Arendt, 'Introduction to Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections'
Just like a character in a novel, he disappeared suddenly, without leaving the slightest trace behind.

Giorgio Bassani /Jamie McKendrick
Dedication
For Frances Arthur
and everyone who made her,

to keep in mind
Sheila Hamilton,
walking work of art,

and for Sarah Wood
artist.
First words
Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George's mother says to George who is sitting in the front passenger seat.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (2)

"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"--

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amazon Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive, and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith’s novels are like nothing else.



How to be both is a novel all about the versatility of art. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving, genre-bending conversation among 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, structure gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s “givens” get a second chance.
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