Book Review: Ali Smith’s How to be both (fiction)

How to Be BothHow to Be Both by Ali Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m bowled over by this book.

I had no expectations and hadn’t heard anything about it. Neither did the cover photo of the singers Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy give me an idea of what I’d encounter. The initial theme, of grief and losing a family member, is well-worn in literature, TV and movies; and a teenage girl is not who I’d naturally connect with as the narrator.

But I found myself not only immediately drawn into the story but delighted and confused: the narrative voice seemed so real, intriguing and charismatic that my reading slowed down. It was as if I couldn’t read faster than the action itself, my brain was taking extra time to absorb and try to make sense of what was happening. I was observing an interesting mind at work, in an unfamiliar culture (how young people think and interact with the world) in a situation unfamiliar to me (losing a parent at a young age).

Then suddenly, the narrative stops. A new one begins, not a teenage girl, now, but an artist of the Renaissance in the 1460s whose voice literally swirls through the page in a different shape and with different styling : and the artist, Francesco del Cossa, is hovering, observing the girl, George, who is observing the artist’s paintings. It would be disorienting if it didn’t feel already somewhat the way that I, as a reader, was observing George, hovering and intrigued. Francesco’s story is then told, interspersed with the way the artist is checking in with the girl, and I still smile to myself, the idea that the iPad is interpreted as a votive table, perhaps combined with the first Camera Oscura.

Perhaps to traverse so much time between the reader and character, the writing is showier than before; while we might not know how to imagine Italy in the 1460s, the images and descriptions are both clear and elegant. They transported me there. What I loved most were the descriptions of art. Often, I have not liked writers writing about artwork, and have a number of poems on my shelf by authors I otherwise love, where I feel that I’d much rather witness visual art than have it described to me. But art is described here in a general and specific way in language that excited me. A picture, Francesco explains, ‘does 2 opposing things at once … it lets the world be seen and understood… 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 then when explaining the intersection of ‘art and love … a matter of mouths open in cinnabar, of blackness and redness turned to velvet by assiduous grinding…’ It continues in a way that in a way that seems intellectually and emotionally astute, but makes me swoon with the beauty of its description.

In the meantime, there’s an interesting offering of themes that readers can connect with or not. While an examination of gender and gender identity is probably the strongest theme, it’s treated in such an interesting way, and there are so many more sub-themes and turns and twists. I was amused that what I connected with most viscerally was something the artist goes through: a period of time I’d rather forget with managers with the ugliest of characters and souls and me trying to be valued and paid for my work. Suddenly, here it was presented on the page in an unexpected form.

The biggest surprise was after finishing the book and finding out that half were printed with the story of the artist at the start followed by the story of the young woman; and the other vice versa. I wonder if I can be patient and forget enough of the story and get my hands on one of those other versions… How crazy and bold! I could have had such a different experience, just by chance and at this moment, I can’t figure out how I would have interpreted the book with the parts reversed. That blows my mind.

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Sydney Food Diary: Poly, Surry Hills

Paramount is a really great place to see films. It’s intimate, with not so many seats, and a good view from each of them. But it’s still a communal experience, which, if people remember they’re not watching Netflix at homes, is a fun way to watch a movie. I like hearing other people’s sounds of pleasure or surprise, or a collective silence during an intense moment. On the other hand, I don’t know why this couple talked to each other the entire way through the documentary on Alexander McQueen. I think it’s show a real lack of awareness and respect for the people around you.

Finishing the film (highly recommended, by the way), what a treat it was to wander down the block to Poly in November 2018. I think it used to be a furniture shop, and then had some pop-up clothing sales. Very little has been done to the space: it’s open, with little adornment, but they’ve lucked out with (or have designed) the acoustics so it’s not too noisy.

I’d heard about the buzz (and it’s located across the street, pretty much, from Chin Chin, so the whole street has a buzz). We grabbed two seats, without a reservation, at a counter, and were thrilled with the whole experience. It was super buzzy and fun. The wait staff are fun and efficient.

And most of all, the food was sensational. A ‘donut’ with comte cheese ($15, photo above). Shitaake mushrooms in a creamy sauce (flavoured with pancetta) where the ‘shrooms have broken apart and taste like a noodle ($12). A delicious steak tartare hidden beneath a parmesan wafer (titled raw beef and grilled cheese) ($24). Zucchini flowers and ricotta gnudi (sort of like a gnocchi) with ‘smoked whey sauce’ ($24).

Each dish was tasty and surprising, with great textures as well as flavours. The mushrooms were my favourite but I wouldn’t hesistate to recommend any of them. A humungous selection of very, very interesting wine (though the selection by the glass is smaller). We ordered by the glass so we could try more. So, yup, I could just move in here and try everything on the menu, including the wines.  Maybe I should.

Returning for a Mardi Gras night meal in March 2019, the meal was just as perfect. We didn’t order a lot of dishes but it somehow filled us up nicely, matched with interesting wines (I had a Portuguese Vinho Verde). A starter of two types of anchovies surrounding, on a skewer, a blanched cherry tomato, was a perfect amuse-bouche. The salty comté donut was as good as I remember, perhaps better. Loved the beetroot and burrata dish, not only because of the alliteration.

The final dish was lamb ribs, two of them, achingly tender, yet with crispy, charred bits on top. A gorgeous dish. Poly is really impressing me.

Poly Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


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Sydney Food Diary: Medan Ciak, CBD

Belanchan is a chili shrimp paste found as an ingredient in both Indonesian and Malaysian food. I’m not so familiar with it from my Cantonese background, but find it earthy and complex, with a hit of spice. So, to see it as the feature ingredient of the Char Kway Teow, the fried rice noodles dish that I love (and I find the Malaysian and Indonesian versions of this more flavourful and interesting than the Cantonese version I had as a kid), this was a no brainer of a choice.

Served with an even spicier sauce on the side (which I mostly avoided but probably should have just doused onto the whole plate), this was a very delicious dish and for $13, a cheap lunch too.

Surprising that after only discovering the Medan Ciak on Elizabeth Street in Surry Hills recently, I came upon their CBD branch (which I’d seen but not taken note of). It’s just around the corner from GetUp! where I’m doing some volunteering in the lead-up to the national election. So, I’ll have the opportunity to make it a regular lunch spot!

Medan Ciak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: The Union Hotel, Newtown

A friend introduced me to the Botany View Hotel for a meal a few weeks back, and I found the experience so fun, we thought we’d do another pub dinner in Enmore (the bottom end of King Street, Newtown).

The Union Hotel has been around for yonks, though I think they change the menu and chefs every few years. On a Wednesday night, it was nicely buzzing; it’s what I liked about the feel of the other pub. Friends and couples and families out for a treat, a nice meal in a relaxed and casual atmosphere.

The food was good. I’ve been kind of interested in the concept of a ‘chopped salad’ and how I don’t think I had really understood it, and I don’t think it’s a ‘thing’ in Australia, but in the USA, it seems to be a long-established food trend, where you simply chop a salad into small pieces and coat it with the right amount of dressing.

Sometimes called a Cobb Salad, it’s said to date back to the 40s, but seems to have had a resurgence in recent years. It’s all about getting a perfectly well-distributed biteful of a good mixture of taste and crunch. More complicated than it might seem, but I could definitely see the appeal, in the Southern Fried Chicken chopped salad that I had, which was basically a delicious mixture and combo (in fact, if you’re at all interested, this NYT article, is a pretty good review of the chopped salad).

My pal had a haloumi salad and also enjoyed it; we also had a side of slightly sad garlic bread, and inexpensive house wine and lemon, lime and bitters. All in all, a fun night out, and I have to say that I liked the kooky decor too.

The Union Hotel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Din Din Persian Kitchen, Surry Hills

Near the corner of Cleveland Street and Elizabeth Street is the quiet oasis Din Din Persian Kitchen. There have always been restaurants around here, a cluster, mostly Lebanese with somewhere East Asian around the corner. Pub food and it looks like an Italian wine bar has opened on the other side of the street. But this was the one that appealed to us the most, wanting dinner before seeing the show Confessions of a Mormon Boy at the Giant Dwarf theatre.

I liked it. The food was simple and plain but tasty. There are no pretensions here (as the packet of butter that comes with the rice indicates). We started with a tasty Dolmades ($1.50 a serve, what can you get in a restaurant for that amount?!) and also had a simple salad (A shirazi salad $5), which was a nice contrast in flavours to the rich meat dishes.

Lamb shank for my husband (Baghali Polo Mahicheh, $16), and the light pilao rice is pretty marvelous: his was herbed, which I liked and thought it made it a bit more attractive than mine.

I had a meat skewer made of two different meats: the Kobideh matches lamb and beef ($13.50). It was BYO so we stuck with tea, an ornate pot with little cups of glass, too hot to hold. Probably the only thing I thought overpriced ($5) since $40 for the two of us for dinner is ridiculously cheap for Sydney.

Din Din Persian Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Kid Kyoto, CBD

I’d heard very good things about Kid Kyoto, and you know, folks weren’t lyin’. We went for a special mid-week meal, an Entertainment Book meal with matching wines from St Hugo and Perrier-Jouët champagne.

I quite like these meals, which seem to allow chefs to show off a bit, with great grog alongside it. I prefer when they’re not group tables, which they often are, and while the tables were a little close together, we were happy we had our own.

We snuck in a sneaky cocktail beforehand, my martini was fusioned with sake. Both were refreshing.

Before the first course, a little plate of deep-fried lotus chips and pickled beets. A nice amuse-bouche.

I adored the first course: ‘sticky corn ribs, chipotle miso jam, rice puffs, togarashi’ matched with Barose, a Barrossa Valley Rose (which was super light, so light it was almost as if you weren’t drinking it at all…). I’ve never had corn like this, quartered perfectly so you could chew on the perfectly cooked kernels, as if on a rib, smothered in an umami dressing. Tasty and surprising.

The smoking salmon dramatically arrived with a glass cover, which removed, released a cloud of smoke. Perfect pieces of salmon in umeshu jelly with whipped avocado and pink grapefruit. The only thing is… with this beautiful jelly and broth: we couldn’t get at any of it with just our chopsticks, and had lost our desire for it by the time the waiter came by when we could have requested a spoon. Still, a nice dish. It was matched with a St Hugo Barossa Grenache Shiraz Mataro which coated the inside of my mouth so entirely, I thought it tasted cubic (and that’s a not bad thing).

A surprise course. Who doesn’t love a surprise? Hidden underneath some greens were two perfect cubes of pork. Yum.

And can I digress to say that I loved the style and feel of the place. Concrete and neon and wood.

The main was as delicious as it looks: poached snapper, yuzu fish broth, torched leeks and broad beans. Loved those charred leeks. It was matched with a St Hugo Eden Valley Chardonnay, which had a bit of body, yet some acid to cut through the cream and oil.

To finish, with a glass of Grand Brut champagne, was smooth white chocolate, matcha, and jelly. It was pretty much perfection.

All in all: an awesome and memorable meal. I’ll be back!


Kid Kyoto Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Medan Ciak, Surry Hills

Biting into a whole cardamom is always unpleasant; it’s soapy and pungent, with a concentrated punch. But the thing is, as I know from when I’ve used it in my own cooking, it’s a good sign: that a dish has great spices, and not just ground powders. And Medan Ciak serves up Indonesian food with great flavour.

We arrived early (11.30am) to avoid the lunch rush as I’d heard this place packs out at lunch time, and indeed it did seem to. Cheap and cheerful, it’s popular with university students, but having tried the food, I can imagine various foodies putting it on a do list!

The Longtong Sayur looked the most foreign to me, even though I was tempted by a special of an Indonesian style of wonton with roast pork. I’m glad I ordered it: a rich sauce and gravy, lots of different bits of food (a hard-boiled egg, crispy dried fish, a piece of chicken) and with the base starch a sort of rice cake, which was unfamiliar to me.

My friend went for a Nasi Padang, an Indonesian combination rice, and it was colourful and flavourful and a good combo of things. Oh, we had some tasty prawn crackers as well, and I had a coconut water. Most of the mains are $12 or $13: laughably inexpensive. I’d be game to come back and try every single dish on the menu.

Medan Ciak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Dead Ringer, Surry Hills

I would guess that the reason I didn’t review Dead Ringer before is because I’ve only had cocktails here. But what cocktails! An interesting selection with enticing descriptions in a fun, casual, hip atmosphere. I sent friends here who told me they’ve been back more than once to flirt with the cute barmen. But finally, I managed to get a meal here, and it didn’t disappoint.

Anyone remember the pop-up restaurant that Broadsheet put on on Danks Street? We went and found it an interesting concept, that there were ‘hit’ dishes from restaurants from all over Sydney. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I do remember that one of our favourite dishes came from Dead Ringer.

In any case, an Australian, a Swede and a Canadian meet at Dead Ringer. We split three mains, the gnocchi with wilted greens, smoked mozzarella and pine nuts ($26), the blue-eyed cod with pepperonata and charred salsa ($33) and charred flat-iron steak with a celeriac remoulade ($32), which I think was our favourite and the only one I got a photo of (I think I forgot to take photos as we were having such a good time).

It seemed to be a perfect representation of what’s going on in Sydney at the moment: tasty, well-considered share plates, not fussy but full of flavour, slightly unusual combos and great drinks. My only regret: we should have ordered a number of sides too. I was still hungry!

Dead Ringer Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Lankan Filling Station

I was blown away by this place. I always like flavours that surprise me and aren’t what I’m used to, and in my limited experience of Sri Lankan food, there’s a depth and complexity, and a hit of spice, which I find delightful.

I’d heard recommendations but hadn’t made my way to the Lankan Filling Station in Darlinghurst. We arrived a little after 7pm on a Tuesday and it was packed; we had to wait another half an hour to get in. Then, it’s a crowded little place with tiny tables, and I wasn’t sure of what to make of the menu: like a yum cha place where you tick off the orders on your own.

But we got into the groove of things. The Beef Pan Rolls could have been not so pleasant in someone else’s hands. Plain flour crepes stuffed with ground beef, and then fried. But it was perfectly crispy, contrasting with the soft inside. The spices were great, as was a bright red dipping sauce.

We also had crab cakes, four of them and I thought they were pretty tasty at the time, though looking back, I would agree with MissDissent that they didn’t taste very crabby.

I find hoppers, either the crisp pancake kind, or the ones made out of rice noodles, a very tasty creation. We had ours with an egg in the centre, which I liked. But what really excites me are the sambals: with grated coconut and spices and pickles: I should pay more attention. But they’re really good mixed and matched with various bites (photo at the top!)

Goat curry is one of my favourites: such a strong flavour. The issue is that it usually is so full of bones that it’s hard to get at any meat. So, a boneless curry in an intense black curry, made of clove, cinnamon, cardoman and coriander seeds, charred and ground: heaven.

Likewise the eggplant, with shiny fried curry leaves, a hit of sour in there somewhere to go with the spice. It’s got both tamarind in it and tomatoes. I loved this dish.

Between the two of us, there was slightly too much food, so I took a takeaway home and had a delicious lunch the next day. At the time, I washed the food down with a glass of the rosé on tap. All in all, a lovely experience at a buzzy, contemporary eatery; I will definitely be back to try more dishes.

And here, the day after I post this review, a rave review appears in the New York Times. Congratulations, Lankan Filling Station (and its semi-famous chef, O). Well-deserved. Now it will be even harder to get a seat!

Lankan Filling Station Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Zaida Cafe, Darlinghurst

It’s such a casual-looking place, Lebanese food, set slightly back from the street, that I must have walked by it a hundred times and never tried it. My loss.

We split a falafel salad, four yummy kibbehs, and some hummus with ground beef… and it was slightly too much food for us.

And it was all pretty much absolutely delicious. Couldn’t fault anything about it. I even had to take some of the leftovers home (I hate wasting food!)

Zaida Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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