Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir


The beloved and bestselling author takes an intimate look back at a life of reading and writing

“The memory that we live with . . . is the moth-eaten version of our own past that each of us carries around, depends on. It is our ID; this is how we know who we are and where we have been.”

Memory and history have been Penelope Lively’s terrain in fiction over a career that has spanned five decades. But she has only rarely given readers a glimpse ...

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Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir

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The beloved and bestselling author takes an intimate look back at a life of reading and writing

“The memory that we live with . . . is the moth-eaten version of our own past that each of us carries around, depends on. It is our ID; this is how we know who we are and where we have been.”

Memory and history have been Penelope Lively’s terrain in fiction over a career that has spanned five decades. But she has only rarely given readers a glimpse into her influences and formative years.

Dancing Fish and Ammonites traces the arc of Lively’s life, stretching from her early childhood in Cairo to boarding school in England to the sweeping social changes of Britain’s twentieth century. She reflects on her early love of archeology, the fragments of the ancients that have accompanied her journey—including a sherd of Egyptian ceramic depicting dancing fish and ammonites found years ago on a Dorset beach. She also writes insightfully about aging and what life looks like from where she now stands.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
At 80, Lively, celebrated British novelist and author (How It All Began), examines in five essays the many appealing and noteworthy facets of old age with her expert observer’s eye and eloquent touch. With the aged literally inheriting the earth in greater numbers, Lively is simply fascinated to be among this swelling, far-from-invisible demographic, and in her digressive, erudite, witty narrative, she looks at issues of mortality and degeneration, which slam everyone as they age, as happened to her recently in terms of back and eye problems, and left her widowed after the death of her longtime husband, Jack, 12 years ago; as well she delves into the marvels of memory as the “majestic, sustaining weapon” over the ravages of time. For Lively the realities of old age mean she has given up on traveling (“been there, seen that”) and vigorous gardening, both of which she once threw herself into headlong, yet she has intensified her reading, and in her mellifluous bibliographic essay “Reading and Writing” she returns to some of the formative works of her generation, and which have influenced her own writing, from Beatrix Potter to her beloved blue Pelican paperbacks. Overall, these reflective essays offer a wealth of riches for further study, and help to dispel many of the stereotypes about the aged, from the “smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon,” which she abashedly admits are frequently ossified in fiction. (Feb.)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-20
An insightful book of self-reflection from the acclaimed novelist--"not quite a memoir," she writes, but "the view from old age." Every few years since the 1970s, British author Lively (How It All Began, 2012, etc.) has published a slim, delicious novel, mixing sympathy and satire with a Chekhov-ian focus on time, mortality and wasted opportunities. Born in Cairo in 1933 and raised in World War II–era Egypt, she described her childhood in Oleander, Jacaranda (1994), but this insightful reflection on her life is not merely the second volume of her memoirs or, as she notes, even much of a memoir at all. Autobiographical details appear, but for the most part, Lively ruminates on a handful of subjects of universal interest on which a perceptive 80-year-old can speak with authority. She remains the person she has always been, encumbered by various indignities and disabilities but less preoccupied by death than concern that young people take for granted that the elderly are boring. Readers will share her amazement at society's seismic changes since the mid-20th century. When he learned of the 14-year-old's crush on a distant relative, an uncle warned that he was "queer," and Lively was mystified. Learning about Oscar Wilde during a theater outing, her granddaughter exploded, "I don't believe you! He went to prison because he was gay?!!" The faithful will recognize the author's love of archaeology, and many will keep a pen handy to record titles and authors, since reading is one activity age has not diminished, and Lively is not shy about musing over her favorites. Readers will share her relief that dementia has not made an appearance. Although they will long for her next novel, few will regret that she has taken time off to write this unsentimental, occasionally poignant meditation on a long life, mostly well spent.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670016556
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 2/6/2014
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 124,300
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Penelope Lively

PENELOPE LIVELY is the critically acclaimed author of many books for both adults and children, including the Man Booker Prize–winning novel Moon Tiger. In recognition of her contributions to literature, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012. She lives in London.

Good To Know

In her interview with Barnes & Noble.com, Lively shared some fun facts about herself:

"I came late to writing -- I was in my late 30s before I wrote anything. The years before that had been busy with small children, and I seem to have fallen into writing almost by accident. Since then, I have never stopped -- books for children to begin with, then a period writing for both adults and children -- short stories also -- then for adults only when the children's books, sadly, left me."

"It has been a busy 30 years, but because writing is a solitary activity and I like the company of others, I have also always had other involvements -- with writers' organizations such as Britain's Society of Authors, with PEN, with the Royal Society of Literature, and, for six years, as a member of the Board of the British Library (the opposite number of the Library of Congress) which I regarded as a great privilege -- what could be more important than the national archive?"

"I have always been an avid user of libraries; like any writer, much of my inspiration comes from life as it is lived -- what you see and hear and experience, but my novels have sprung from some abiding interest -- the operation of memory, the effects of choice and contingency, the conflicting nature of evidence -- and these concerns are fueled by reading: serendipitous and eclectic reading."

"I am first and foremost a reader myself. I don't think I could write if I wasn't constantly reading. I both wind and unwind by reading -- stimulus and relaxation both. I used to love tramping the landscape, and gardening, but arthritis rules out both of those, so I do both vicariously through books. I live in the city now, but feel out of place -- I have always before lived most of the time in the country: I miss wide skies, weather, seasons."

"Never mind, there are compensations, and London is a very different place from the pinched and bomb-shattered place to which I came as a schoolgirl in 1945 -- now it is multicultural, polyglot, vibrant, unpredictable, in a state of constant change but with that bedrock of permanence that an old place always has. I like to escape from time to time -- mainly to West Somerset, where we have a family cottage and I can admire my daughter's garden -- she has the gardening gene in a big way and is far more skilled than I ever was -- bird-watch, walk a bit, talk to people I've known for decades, and see the night sky crackling with the stars that the city blots out."

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 17, 1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cairo, Egypt
    1. Education:
      Honors Degree in Modern History, University of Oxford, England, 1955

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