Monthly Archives: July 2015

Books vs. Birds

My life has undergone some significant upheavals in the past few months, and the stress has frequently left me too frazzled to write or, heavens forfend, even read. Lately I’ve been ignoring the piles of unread books lying around my house in favor of the new bird feeder in my backyard. It’s a hit with the local birds: cardinals, black-capped chickadees, the occasional blue jay–they are all a-twitter out there.  Watching birds is strangely soothing, and better suited to my currently short-circuited attention span.

I still managed to get a couple of books read, however, so here are two mini-reviews for the record.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive the Next Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz: This highly readable book makes a good companion piece to Elizabeth Kolbert’s brilliant The Sixth Extinction; it’s much more optimistic (sort of). I particularly loved the section devoted to the works of one of my favorite science fiction authors, the incomparable Octavia Butler.

My Real Children by Jo Walton: I love Among Others and The Just City by this author, but this novel about alternate worlds, while interesting, didn’t grab me in the same way. It’s a good read if you enjoyed The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

I’m currently reading The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl, an intriguing historical novel about swashbuckling book pirates and their efforts to steal a manuscript from a somewhat sinister Robert Louis Stevenson. Normally this book would take me about a day and a half to read, but I’ve been dipping into it off and on for a week. It’s overdue at the library, but my “must finish” mentality refuses to return it until I’m done, no matter what the price! (I consider it a donation.)

It’s not the book’s fault. It’s my stressed-out brain, and all those distracting birds.

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Review: How to Be Both by Ali Smith


Where did I get this book? The library!

Where did I get this book? The library!

I picked up this book without really knowing what it was about, so I had no particular expectations. How to Be Both was a Man Booker Prize finalist and won the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction , plus I’d enjoyed a previous book by Ali Smith, The Accidental, so I thought I’d give it a try.

How to Be Both tells the story of George (aka Georgia), a sixteen-year-old girl whose mother died suddenly six months before the novel opens. George’s mother, Carol, was a witty, intelligent woman with strong opinions, best known for her involvement in a series of thought-provoking guerilla pop-up ads known as Subverts. Everything around George triggers memories of her mother, and Smith brings Carol to such vibrant life that the reader shares her grief at such devastating loss. (I found myself wishing Carol were a real person, and that I knew her.)

George is a sharp young woman with a critical mind and a penchant for automatically correcting grammar mistakes. In the aftermath of her mother’s death, she is responsible for caring for her seven-year-old brother Henry, while her father drowns his sorrows and struggles to comprehend her.  Two things coincide to bring George back to life: a new friendship with a classmate named Helena, known as H to her friends; and George’s memories of and obsessive interest in the paintings of Francesco Del Cossa, a little known 15th century Italian artist.

George’s mother took her and her brother on an impromptu trip to Italy to see the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferara, the whole outing arranged on a whim after Carol saw a picture by the artist and needed to see it for herself. (I felt the same urge after reading the descriptions in this book, and created this How to Be Both Pinterest board as a result.)

Smith has a remarkable talent for rendering the stream of conscious thoughts of a teenage girl in a way that is both natural and deeply moving. That’s why it’s a bit of shock when, three quarters of the way through the book, the perspective shifts dramatically. At first this change bothered me intensely, but the voice grew on me, and by the end of the book I was happy to have gained this additional insight into a person who balances between two states of being.

Genre: Contemporary art-loving literary fiction with a dash of historic imagining.

Read it if: You love literature inspired by art; you enjoy novels that take you inside the minds of complicated, realistic, unique characters; you have ever fallen madly in love with a fresco (Giotto! Mi amor!)

Skip it if: You have little patience for internal dialogue, memories that blend into the present, or unexpected perspectives; you strongly prefer unambiguous endings and/or unambiguous genders; you hated art history with a burning passion.

Movie-worthy: I think this is one instance where the book would automatically be a million times better than any movie.  Although it would be cool to see the art.