The Bailey’s Reader: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Note: I’m incapable of writing reviews of things without spoilers. Be forewarned!

The structural conceit of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both presents a reader (and a reviewer) with a particular dilemma: two distinct halves of the same story, “Eyes” and “Camera,” which we are told at the outset can be read in either order, without losing the necessary context to understand the full story.  And yet, once reader/reviewer has chosen their starting point, there’s no going back, no unremembering how it felt to dip into the section we chose and thus seeing how differently the novel might read had we picked the opposite starting point.

It’s a particularly interesting conundrum because “Eyes,” the section I chose to read first, is a master class in how to seduce a reader, literally starting with fragments and abstracted phrases that slowly fill in — both plot details, and as structural sentences — until it resembles what we would more traditionally recognize as a story.  Told from the point of view of a Middle Ages Italian painter, Francesco del Cossa, a woman who has spent most of her life masquerading as a man (del Cossa and the works in the novel are real but there’s no historical evidence for the gender-bending backstory), “Eyes” is the half of the story in which the environment is most unfamiliar — both for its setting and the fact that it is unclear, until sometime into “Camera,” how Francesco has come to be a ghost, attached somehow to an adolescent girl in what appears to be the modern day United Kingdom. (There are a few to-be-expected observations from the ghostly spirit about certain confusing aspects of modern life that veer a bit into twee territory but Smith keeps these to a minimum.)  “Camera,” told from the point of view of George (a nickname for Georgia), the teenage girl, is a far more traditional and recognizable narrative.  George isn’t even aware of the painter’s ghostly observance of her life, so we get a far more pedestrian (although beautifully written) look at a girl grieving her mother’s untimely death, exploring first love and sexuality, and sorting out the “real” world the way teenagers so often do when confronted with it.

Smith wisely balances the parallels between her two main characters without forcing them into too equal of shapes — both women lose their mothers as children, but Francesco far earlier than George (there’s a nice touch in having both Francesco and her mother die from diseases modern medicine has cured, while George’s mother dies from an allergic reaction to a medicine that wouldn’t have existed but for modern science).  George is allowed to explore her attraction to a fellow female classmate and its implications far more openly than Francesco is allowed to consider her sexuality, despite being far more experienced in such things than George. Francesco collects faces and other items she encounters in real life and reproduces them in her works; something echoed not by George, but by her mother’s remixing of art and political tropes in her “subversive” artwork. (To be honest, that subplot felt incomplete for me partly because the art as described just didn’t feel dangerous or challenging enough to gain the following we’re told it had — it reminded me of something I’d happily chuckle over at The Toast.)

Ultimately, I found myself wishing for an entire “Eyes” book, without developing any particular attachment to the characters in “Camera,” which I found myself reading largely for clues to Francesco’s life (and afterlife).  Would I have read it differently if I’d started with “Camera”?  Personally, I doubt it — Francesco’s story is so much more alien and intriguing that reading it second probably would have made me wonder why I’d spent so much time with George. But there’s the rub — unlike Smith’s title, the reader can’t have it both ways.

Rating: 4 stars (5 stars for “Eyes,”  3 for “Camera”)

Next Up: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

Station Eleven Waitlist Position: 194

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Old and New

Been awhile, huh?

When last I posted, I was unaware that my entire life was about to change in the space of a month.  Right about the time SB and I started apartment hunting to move in together, I found a new job faster than I could have ever imagined.  In the space of a week I moved to the Financial District and started working at a nonprofit based down there.  The new job and cohabitating have both been great for me overall, but both had a pretty steep learning curve, and the complete overhaul of professional and personal life at once meant a lot of routines and habits got pushed to the side as I sorted out how my life worked in this new era.

But things have finally settled into something approaching a steady rhythm , and I’ve been slowly reclaiming some of my old hobbies and projects, and also creating some new ones.  This blog is sort of both.  I’ve been trying to encourage myself to both write and read more.  When it comes to reading, I’ve been particularly behind on contemporary fiction.  So I decided to read the entire Bailey’s Prize longlist this year, reviewing the books as I go.  I get to read a bunch of outstanding new novels by women, and I get to stretch my writing muscles a bit.  Hopefully someone out there gets to enjoy it.

I’ve already read one book from the list, so that review will be coming shortly.  In the meantime, you can see the full list and my progress on The Bailey’s Reader tab at the top of the page.  A key subplot at this point is how long I will have to wait for Station Eleven to become available at the library — I’ve been on the waitlist for a month already and have in that time gone from 411 to 298 on the list.  How many other books will I read before I actually get to the top of the list? Will it break the record four months’ that I waited for Wolf Hall?  Stay tuned!

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Three Sentences I Have Uttered Today That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Me

1. “No, no I did make a purchase from Canada yesterday. It was yarn.” *

2. “I could totally watch three spring training games at once right now.”

3. “Oh my god, Kristen Bell is on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me this week?!?”

 

* As said to my bank’s fraud prevention rep, by way of explaining that one of the three questionable foreign transactions on my card in the last 24 hours was actually legit. Don’t worry, everything’s fine and I’m kind of super impressed with my bank right now.

What I’m Reading (and Not Reading): February

I received almost every book on my list for Christmas this year (including some that had been carried over several years in a row).  I started in on Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, but I have abandoned it for the time being.  I may not be in the right place at the moment for watching a young woman flail around incompetently at her job (we’ll just say I’ve had a few professional struggles of my own of late and leave it at that).  I’m also incredibly sensitive to foreshadowing; if part of the skill of a book/movie/TV show is the growing sense of dread as you see a main character’s life unraveling, even as they remain unaware, I very rarely can make it all the way to the end. Call it the Edith Wharton Effect. In any case, after a full week of avoiding my bedtime reading so I wouldn’t have to face another chapter, I thought it was best to move on.

I have replaced Sweet Tooth with The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg. So beautiful, these stories — whole worlds in thirty pages, like little snowglobes. I’m only about four stories in so more on this later, perhaps.

Internet-wise: “How To Give Birth to A Rabbit” by Carrie Frye (via The Awl), caught my attention with its title and before I knew it, I was deep into one of the best pieces of nonfiction I’ve read in months.  Also, the best thing about the NHL lockout being over is more Katie Baker columns!

Les Miz and Me: A Personal History

I.

SB and I are supposed to be seeing Django Unchained with his brother and sister in law.  As a general rule I don’t watch horror or gory/ super violent movies, which pretty much rules out the Tarantino ovuere, but I’m willing to suck it up because it’s the holidays and it’s his family.  But the four person outing expands to include several of the brother’s friends and I have always had a lousy poker face, so SB declares we are going to see Les Miserables instead.

After we are seated in the theater, SB looks around at the largely high school/college aged moviegoers around us and muses “it’s a younger crowd than I would have expected.”

“That’s because,” I said, “every teenage girl at some point believes she’s Eponine, whether it’s remotely applicable or not.”

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Of Baseball, Nostalgia, and Stan

I often say that I don’t remember being taught the basic rules of baseball — balls and strikes, relief pitchers vs. starters, why first base is the position where you “hide” your defensive liability — because in my family this was all such common knowledge that it seemed like we learned it by osmosis. My knowledge of Cardinals history is not quite as hazy in origin; I remember my father regaling us around the dinner table with stories about Bob Gibson and Stan Musial, imprinting a love for the Cardinals on his children even as the current team descended into its post-1987 mediocrity. But consider, for a moment, that my father was born in 1957.  The Gibby stories were of a player he had watched through his teens, had embraced and celebrated the way we were learning to cherish Ozzie Smith.  The Stan stories were of a player who retired when my father was only six; most of the best stories were not my father’s memories, but his father’s.  And yet, if you watched a game on the right day, you could actually see Stan, sitting in the stands, waving to the crowd, occasionally venturing into the broadcast booth.

Albert Pujols, a player the St. Louis fans long thought would be the person to take up and carry on Stan’s mantle, refused the nickname “El Hombre” because it infringed on Stan’s “The Man” nickname (and continued to reject it even after going to Anaheim). When he left last offseason, I wrote:

[this] is what makes sports fandom so hard, so frustratingly stupid at times: the rational part of your brain knows the player isn’t trying to hurt you — he doesn’t even know you.

Stan was different.  It wasn’t just that we felt like Stan knew us; there are reams of fan anecdotes to verify that Stan treated everyone who approached him like they were a good friend. If you were not lucky enough to have such a story (I am not), you always entertained the possibility that someday maybe you’d be in the right place at the right time and get to shake his hand. He was ours, and he remained so for so long, it seemed like we might never have to give him up.  Last spring, he came out for Opening Day looking noticeably frail.  His wife of over half a century passed away during the season.  We didn’t want to add up these signs. We weren’t ready to let him go.

Someday, I will tell my own children about Stan, just like I’ll tell them about Ozzie, and about what it was like when Albert came out of nowhere. But it won’t be quite the same as when my dad told us. Stan’s a true legend now, just out of reach in the history books, not on the TV waving and rooting on the Cardinals. The next great Cardinal won’t have a picture like this in his Google image search.

Goodbye, Stan.  The world will miss you, and baseball will miss you, but Cardinals fans will miss you most of all.

 

The Summer Sandwich Project, Part 1

Since we don’t get lunch service at work in the summer months (a fact of life I have conflicting emotions about, given the amount of administration an operating kitchen requires), and the UES remains a difficult place to purchase an affordable and efficient lunch, I begin each summer vowing to take my own lunch at least 4 days a week. Of course, by August I’m usually so sick of all my usual lunches that I’m going out most days anyway.  In an attempt to prevent that this year, I’m trying to come up with a new sandwich for each week’s lunch (since most packages of ingredients I buy are about a week’s supply).  These are my June sandwiches (only three because I started the project mid-month):

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A Short Play About Junk Food

Me: You better take those jellybeans with you, I don’t need any more Easter candy.

SB: No way, I’m leaving them here.  This is payback for you leaving the Double Stuff Oreos at my place last week. I ate the whole package!

I should object here that he ate the full package minus the 4 cookies that were in my Oreo sundae (our Valentine’s Day dessert, and why I brought the cookies over in the first place). In other news, our respective attempts to eat healthier are … not going so well.

 

On Albert

After I got over the sudden sinking feeling in my gut when the link first appeared in my RSS feed, I was doing fine for about an hour.  We had plenty of work crises and meetings this morning to distract me, I was rationally discussing it online with SB and Lady Bee, I was going to be fine.  Then it occurred to me that I was just typing all these words, that I hadn’t actually said out loud to anyone, even myself, “Albert Pujols is going to be an Angel.”

That’s when I needed a moment.

Though I’m pretty much in agreement with Will Leitch’s gut reaction (I’ve never actually met Leitch but we were both commenting on a now defunct Cardinals blog back before Deadspin launched; as non-St Louis native Cardinals fans who now live in New York, it sometimes feels like we’re living oddly parallel lives), it was actually a piece I read this morning before the news broke that best captured my feelings. Posted on a White Sox blog after their home-grown star player, Mark Buerhle, signed with the Marlins, I read it thinking “this is how I will feel if Albert signs somewhere else.”  Thirty minutes later, the news broke that he had.

For those of us Cardinals fans who aren’t quite old enough to remember the team’s run of success in the early 1980s, who clung to McGwire’s home run chase only to see it soiled by the steroids accusations, who fell for Rick Ankiel’s early promise as a pitcher only to watch him implode in horribly public fashion, Albert Pujols was the first real sign that the Cardinals were finally returning to prominence, to playing October baseball that actually mattered instead of being sacrificial lambs to the Braves every year (if we made it at all).  Moreover, we were going to do it with a player found in our farm system, who seemed destined to become not only a Cardinals legend, but an all-time baseball legend.  When he signed that first big contract 10 years ago, I still remember that now defunct Cardinal blog enthusing, “Can you believe he’s ours?  That we have him?”

And now we don’t.  And yes, “we” never did, which is what makes sports fandom so hard, so frustratingly stupid at times: the rational part of your brain knows the player isn’t trying to hurt you — he doesn’t even know you.  The emotional part can’t help feeling like 10 years of adulation ought to be worth something.

I’m glad that the Cardinals won two World Series with Albert on the team — it feels less like he’s abandoning us for greener pastures, then that he’s a 31 year old who has worked for the same company his entire adult life and wants to try something new.  I’m glad that he’s going to the Angels — a team I have such fondness for, I wrote a short story in grad school organized around their first World Series win — and not the Marlins, who not only have ugly uniforms and construct their teams in a way that feels like they are gaming the system, but are covered frequently in the New York media as a divisional rival of the Mets.  Still, Opening Day 2012 — a day that should have been about watching the Cardinals get their championship rings — is now going to be about enduring the spectacle of Albert in his new uniform in Yankee Stadium.  For the first time in a long time, I welcome the long months of the offseason.

About that Very Big Baseball Game That is Happening Tonight

These are the opening lines of the email my friend Sarah sent me at 11:43 PM Thursday:

Hey sorry about the cardinals! The only good thing is it won’t conflict with Stevie Wonder.

At 12:51 AM Friday I wrote her back:

I think you reverse jinxed us.

So, thanks to the weather postponement on Wednesday, and whatever the hell happened last night to save the Cardinals from their final strike not once, but twice, the first Game 7 in almost a decade is being played in St. Louis after the craziest World Series game I have ever seen and I HAVE PLANS.

Not, “oh I can reschedule because I can do this some other time” kind of plans, either.  Once in a lifetime, seeing-Stevie-Wonder-in-semi-private-concert-at-the-Waldorf-Astoria-for-free plans.

Stupid Mother Nature.

So here’s what’s going to happen:  I’m going to SB’s for the first hour of the game, then running to the Waldorf Astoria (it’s a short walk) for the concert, while SB DVRs the innings I’m missing, then coming back and trying to catch up.  You are probably better off not texting or emailing me until the wee hours of Saturday morning, but I’m going to turn my phone off just in case.

Also I may be wearing a Halloween costume.  I bought it for a party a few years ago, a party that was also scheduled on the day a Game 7 might have been played, had one been necessary.  In 2006.

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