Summary and book reviews of How to be Both by Ali Smith

How to be Both

by Ali Smith

How to be Both by Ali Smith X
How to be Both by Ali Smith
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2014, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2015, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Naomi Benaron
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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Man Booker Prize Finalist
Winner of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction
Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize
Winner of the Costa Best Novel Award
Winner of the Saltire Literary Book of the Year Award
A Best Book of the Year: NPR, Financial Times

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.

This book has a dual structure and can be read in two ways. There are two stories in the book and they can be read in either order.

Excerpt
How to be Both

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George's mother says to George who's sitting in the front passenger seat.

Not says. Said.

George's mother is dead.

What moral conundrum? George says.

The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side the driver's seat is on at home. This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.

Okay. You're an artist, her mother says.

Am I? George says. Since when? And is that a moral conundrum?

Ha ha, her mother says. Humour me. Imagine it. You're an artist.

This conversation is happening last May, when George's mother is still alive, obviously. She's been dead since September. Now it's January, to be more precise it's just past midnight on New Year's Eve, which means it has just become the year after the year in which George's mother died.

George's father is out. It is better than him being at home, standing maudlin in the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of How to be both, the playfully experimental, emotionally wrenching, and aesthetically inquisitive two-in-one novel by Ali Smith, which juxtaposes the stories of two young women from different centuries and different countries to explore the intrinsic values of art in the shaping of one's identity.


Introduction
Passionate, compassionate, vitally inventive and scrupulously playful, Ali Smith's novels are like nothing else.Borrowing from painting's fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, How to be both is a novel all about art's versatility. It's a fast-moving genre-bending ...
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  • award image

    Costa Book Awards
    2014

  • award image

    Women's Prize for Fiction
    2015

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Whichever way you read it, How to Be Both is a wide-eyed look at the world’s magic. It is breathless with both joy and sorrow, with the miracle of being alive and the grief of someone you love being taken suddenly from the living. “So always risk your skin, and never fear losing it,” Francesco del Cosa’s mother tells her. Indeed, Ali Smith has risked her skin with her bold reimagining of the novel. And indeed, we are the better for it...continued

Full Review (1029 words).

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(Reviewed by Naomi Benaron).

Media Reviews

The New York Times
It is a synthesis of questions long contemplated by an extraordinarily thoughtful author, who succeeds quite well in implanting those questions into well-drawn, memorable people.

Elle
Innovative. . . . The book’s high-concept design is offset by the beauty, prowess, and range of Smith’s playfully confident, proudly unconventional prose.

Los Angeles Times
Deft and mischievous, a novel of ideas that folds back on itself like the most playful sort of arabesque.

The Washington Post
[A] swirling, panoramic vision of two women’s lives, separated by more than 500 years, impossibly connected by their fascination with the mystery of existence.

The Spectator (UK)
Extraordinary...Warm, funny, subtle, layered, intelligent...Brilliant.

New Statesman (UK)
Exuberant, rhapsodic...Dizzyingly good and so clever that it makes you want to dance.

The Independent (UK)
"Dazzling indeed...Smith has written a radical novel, one that becomes two novels, with discrete meanings... Those writers making doomy predictions about the death of the novel should read Smith's re-imagined novel/s, and take note of the life it contains.

Financial Times (UK)
[A] rich, strong and moving novel... Ingenious... A triumph.

The Daily Express (UK)
Immensely enjoyable... Inventive and playful, compassionate and sagacious… Explores the injustices of life but also its delights, including the pleasures of art and the redemptive power of love.

The Telegraph (UK)
An heir to Virginia Woolf, Ali Smith subtly but surely reinvents the novel...How to be both brims with palpable joy, not only at language, literature and art's transformative power but at the messy business of being human, of wanting to be more than one kind of person at once.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Smith's two-in-one novel is a provocative reevaluation of the form.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Comical, insightful and clever, Smith (There But for The, 2011, etc.) builds a thoughtful fun house with her many dualities and then risks being obvious in her structural mischief, but it adds perhaps the perfect frame to this marvelous diptych.

Library Journal
Starred Review. In a work short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Smith presents two extraordinary books for the price of one.

Booklist
Starred Review. We learn . . . how everyone, everywhere, must come to terms with the passage of time and the grief of loss. And we learn how to be both: male and female, artist and businessperson, rememberer and forgiver, reader of tales and literary adventurer. Lucky us.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

A History of Fresco that Leads to Francesco del Cossa

Early Fresco Painting
Flying BullAli Smith's How to Be Both was inspired by a book she found about frescoes. Fresco, meaning "fresh" in Italian, is the technique of painting in water-based pigment on wet plaster so that the plaster, paint and wall fuse into a single entity. The earliest known examples date from c. 1500 BCE, on the island of Crete, the center of Minoan civilization. One of the more stunning fresco paintings is of a Flying Bull at the Palace of Knossos, which was the seat of Minoan culture. The painting shows a bull in mid leap with a man at his horns, another leaping over his back, and a third behind the bull's kicking feet. The work, with its sweeping curves and detailed and accurate muscularity of both men and bull, exhibits a sense...

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