How to be both

Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9780241146828
Rating: ★★★★½
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How to be Both is not just a book. It is an art form by itself. Depending on your luck, you might get one version of the book, or the other. Your understanding of the story could change, depending on which version you happen to read.

That’s how the book has been printed. It has 2 parts: one is about a teenage girl, George/Georgia, dealing with her mother’s death, and the other is about the spirit of a bygone artist that George’s mom spoke about.

I happened to get a book that had George’s part first. George is mourning the death of her mother a few months before.The narrative is written in such a way that you experience this loss personally; the narrator, on George’s behalf, constantly corrects the grammar of her sentences (“When they see the painting, George’s mom says…. Not says. Said.”) George’s mother was an economist, a feminist, a freethinker and, most importantly from the perspective of the plot, a Subvert, someone who used early pop-up technology to make unexpected things appear on a webpage, just like pop-up advertisements, but meant as a political statement.

Since her charismatic, provocative, fun-loving mother’s death, George has been cut adrift. Every day she does the ‘dance thing’, a dance routine her mother did as part of her daily exercise regime. Every day she watches a horrifying porn video, as tribute to the underage actress in it. She deliberately neglects to mention the leak in the roof to her father. She attends counseling sessions with the school psychiatrist, where she reveals her suspicions that her mother was being watched by the government for her subvert activities (but is she being paranoid? Does she even believe this herself?) And she wonders about Lisa Goliard, her mother’s friend (lover?) who disappeared before her mother died.

Actually, this seems like a lot… and yet all of it is dealt with lightly, almost carelessly. There’s a lot going on, and the reader must pay attention to tiny details to get a sense of what’s happening.

The other part deals with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa, a young girl who dresses up as a man, to be able to work as a fresco painter. History tells us that this particular painter demanded more money for a collaborative painting that he was one of the many painters on, because he felt he was better than the others. Now, his (her?) spirit has been resurrected, and is following George on her soul-searchings.


This book has no real beginning, middle or end; at least none that was discernible to me, in my first reading. Rather, it is the same tale, rather the same slice of time, told from two perspectives. One is the sketch underneath, the other is the ‘real’ painting. Which is which?

As such, this book is not just a book; it is a puzzle, a mental whodunnit. And it makes you think about art, the creation of it by the artist, the experiencing of it by the viewer. Whose version is ‘correct’?

The narrative is peppered with other gems : tender notes on mother-daughter relationships where supportive mothers help expand their daughters’ horizons. Sidelights on love, sexual feelings, friendships, siblings, animals, modern technology, ancient art, pop culture.

Does it deserve the Booker?

I’ve read two other nominees : The Lives of Others and We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Of the three, this is the one that strikes out in a new direction. It is a delicate bit of tightrope walking, a genre-breaking, surprise-on-every-page type of book. Like last year’s winner, this one is … well, different.

As of now, my money’s on this one.

The Verdict

This is not an easy book to read. There is no real plot, no tying up of loose ends. Engaging? undoubtedly. Entertaining? Hmmm. I’d say, no, not entertaining exactly. Without being particularly highbrow or difficult, it is thought-provoking, yes. If you want something out of the ordinary, if you want to be challenged, then this is the book for you. Like a fine piece of porcelain, or a lovingly crafted wine, or a flawlessly choreographed ballet routine, or a skillfully rendered raaga, this book is writing elevated to the highest level as an art form.


Birth of the Bastard Prince by Anurag Anand
Author: Anurag Anand
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9788129134547
Rating: ★★½☆☆
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When I picked up Birth of The Bastard Prince, the titillating title dominated my choice. And it certainly lived up to its name. In this sequel to the widely acclaimed Legend Of Amrapali, Anurag Anand has captured an important fragment of history with his raconteurial abilities. Although written as a sequel, it can be read as a standalone book. The author’s recounting of the first book makes it easy for the reader to connect The Legend of Amrapali to this book.


Birth Of The Bastard Prince is a fictional account that draws inspiration from history. This book carries forward the story of Amrapali after she becomes the Nagarvadhu (the bride of the state), detailing the trials and tribulations that she has to go through. After her bereavement due to the demise of all her close ones, Amrapali has nothing to live for. Sparks fly as Amrapali and Bindusen meet and are drawn to each other. Bindusen is a trader who sweeps Amrapali off her feet and recreates feelings that she never thought she would feel again after the death of her beloved. In reality, Bindusen is the Magadha King Bimbisara, who dons the garb of a trader and infiltrates Vaishali to gather intelligence inputs. During such a clandestine meeting in Amrapali’s Swapna Kakshika (her private chamber), they sire a child. Their mutually desire delivers fruition in the form of Vimal Kondana, the Bastard Prince. Then the story moves on to describe the siege laid on Vaishali (Amrapali’s homeland) by Magadh, a battle in which Amrapali plays a pivotal role. The antics of the court, the surreptitious information transactions and gravely innocent mistakes by her near and dear ones land Amrapali in situations she never thought she would have to face again.

How Amrapali navigates this pandemonium of court politics, war and personal conflicts form the bulk of the book. We see that although Amrapali rules more hearts than she would like, her intelligence and geniality are what help her make true friends and mentors that help her through her tough times.


The fictional plot draws on specific details from actual history and the wonderful amalgamation of both creates a larger-than-life tale. The setting of the war keeps the pace of the book alive as the story moves between betrayals and war stories. Amrapali’s character as a level-headed and beautiful woman has many nuances. Amrapali’s closest aide and confidante, her childhood friend Prabha, is her root, her only reality and family. The camaraderie and deep bond between the two is celebrated and gives Amrapali much need constant support in the ever-changing landscape of her life. The war scenes with their trickery, deceit and the nefarious schemes of enemies of the state give the novel a picaresque edge. The motives behind the various deceptions elucidate very extensive back-stories, which help you understand the actions of the characters.

Birth of The Bastard Prince is an engaging read, which ends on a note that leaves you feeling happy but not quite. The instant gratification I wanted with the ending was hazy. But as they say, “happy endings depend on where you stop the story.”

Buy the prequel, The Legend of Amrapali, from here!


Marriages : Love or Arranged?

September 23, 2014

It is hard not to feel cynical about both love and marriage, when the papers are full of horror stories about women being tortured and killed over dowry, or honor killings in which two youngsters who dared to fall in love are butchered to death. One wonders if love and marriage ought to be relegated to the trash heap!

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Not So Beautiful? My Beautiful Shadow

September 22, 2014
My Beautiful Shadow by Radhika Jha
Author: Radhika Jha
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9789351362777
Rating: ★★½☆☆
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Radhika Jha’s novel, My Beautiful Shadow, is set in Japan of the 1980s. It was the time when the Japanese economy was experiencing a heavy boom and its unemployment rate was as low as 4.9%. It was the time when various new brands were storming Japan and ‘they brought a new religion of ‘Happyism’’.

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For the Science Fans: Ultimate Horizons

September 19, 2014
Ultimate Horizons by Helmut Satz
Author: Helmut Satz
Publisher: Springer
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9783642416576
Rating: ★★★★☆
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Ultimate Horizons is one of the best books, rather narratives, I have read. It discusses at length the evolution of our understanding about our universe and its functioning. In every direction, it explores the ultimate horizon which we have reached and can reach.

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Paulo Coelho’s latest – Adultery!

September 15, 2014
Adultery by Paulo Coelho
Author: Paulo Coelho
Publisher: Random House India
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9788184006094
Rating: ★★★½☆
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Before taking up Adultery by Paulo Coelho, I was a tad bit skeptical. I’d absolutely fallen in love with The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes, whereas The Winner Stands Alone was a huge disappointment. Regardless of highly varying critical reviews, Paulo Coelho always manages to touch the life of his readers.

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Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

September 10, 2014
We are all completely beside ourselves thumbnail

Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9781846689666
Rating: ★★★★☆
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This is the story of the Cooke family. A father, a mother, a son and two daughters. One day, one of the daughters disappears, and is never heard from. But the parents, who are involved in her disappearance, act as though nothing were wrong. The missing daughter is, quite simply, never mentioned in their family again.

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In The Valley of Hot and Cold: A Town Like Ours

September 8, 2014
A Town Like Ours by Kavery Nambisan
Author: Kavery Nambisan
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9789383064007
Rating: ★★★☆☆
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It’s hard to judge a book when it fails to create an opinion, when the work is neither bad nor too impressive. I call this situation ‘The Valley of Hot and Cold’.

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Away from the stereotypes: A Wonderful Boss!

September 3, 2014
A Wonderful Boss

Author: Virender Kapoor
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Year: 2014
ISBN: 978-93-82951-58-2
Rating: ★★★☆☆
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The moment I opened this book, I had mentally braced myself to be reading about stark comparisons between a leader and a boss. However, I was very pleasantly surprised to realize how the Kapoor has projected the quality of being a boss as a sub product of the quality of being a leader.

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Review: The Last Song of Dusk

September 1, 2014
The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
Author: Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year: 2005
ISBN: 9780143423188
Rating: ★★★★½
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The story is intensely gripping – just when you feel that no more misfortune can befall these characters, a dark tragedy is just around the corner, waiting to happen. Just when you dream of a happy ending, the twist takes your breath away.

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