Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir

Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir

by Penelope Lively
     
 

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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

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Overview

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
01/06/2014
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.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Dancing Fish and Ammonites

“Buoyant and propulsive . . . Dancing Fish and Ammonites is about growing old, about memory and history, about reading and writing. . . . Lively communicates ideas and experiences with flashes of narrative color: the tins of water in which the feet of her crib stood in childhood, to spare her from Cairo’s ants; the layout of a beloved garden; the sight of women in felt hats and gloves as they walked past the bombed-out rubble of wartime Britain.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Lively describes how literature shaped her from the time she was a small girl growing up in Cairo, and gives a deeply thoughtful account of the formative powers of consistent literary engagement. . . . She moves with agility between a wide range of observations on the personal and social consequences of being old, providing her readers with a perspective from ‘an unexpected dimension.’”
The New Yorker

“Funny, smart, and poignant . . . Admirers of Penelope Lively's many fine novels will find the same lucid intelligence at work in her elegantly written ‘view from old age.’ . . . Memory, history, archaeology, paleontology—for Penelope Lively, they are all part of our individual and collective effort to retrieve lost time. She chronicles her personal engagement in that quest with wit and rue.”
Los Angeles Times

“Witty, gentle-humored, sharp . . . Throughout Lively is a keen observer and an engaging narrator. . . . Subjects that may, at first glance, seem random and somewhat scattershot take on the elegant coherence of a deeply satisfying conversation.”
All Things Considered

“Lively looks out at the world and then back at herself in it, examining everything through the scrim of a prodigious intelligence and a memory that is ‘the mind's triumph over time.’ . . . Dancing Fish and Ammonites is chock full of anecdote, opinion, insight, lore and the sheer delight of a life lived fully.”
Shelf Awareness

“An insightful book of self-reflection from the acclaimed novelist. . . . Every few years since the 1970s, Lively has published a slim, delicious novel, mixing sympathy and satire with a Chekhovian focus on time, mortality, and wasted opportunities. . . . 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. . . . Although readers 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.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Lively examines the many appealing and noteworthy facets of old age with her expert observer’s eye and eloquent touch. . . . These reflective essays offer a wealth of riches for further study.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Elegant and thoughtful.”
Times Magazine (London)

“Lively’s memoir about age and the pleasures and pains of seniority is informative, instructive, unexpected, and beautifully observed.”
Vogue (UK)

“Lively remains alive to the world, as any novelist should be (and, for the record, she still writes very fine novels). . . . Dancing Fish and Ammonites is powerfully consoling. Lively is certainly sagacious, her words careful and freighted. But there is girlishness here, too. Things still catch her eye, her attention. New books. Old stories. Another day for the taking.”
The Observer (London)

“As tightly coiled as one of the ammonites of the title . . . Lively’s briskness, expressing valuable insight and masking deep feeling, will delight all those who love her novels. . . . What she offers is a series of meditations on memory itself and on what still gives her life purpose: reading and history. Her attitude is rueful but accepting—as it must be. . . . Of course, for most of us, memory starts to fail as we get older, but Dancing Fish and Ammonites is itself a wonderfully optimistic testament to intellectual activity as one way towards, if not eternal youth, then a brightness that defies the encroaching gloom.”
The Daily Mail

“A reader’s pure delight . . . It works as a whistle-stop history of the past 80 years from the perspective of one delightful and bookish woman’s life. . . . Reading it is like listening to a favorite older relative reminisce, if only older relatives were all well-traveled Oxford graduates with keen humor and a sharp knack for observing human behavior.”
The Independent on Sunday
 

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:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/06/2014
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
922,396
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Praise for Dancing Fish and Ammonites

“Buoyant and propulsive . . . Dancing Fish and Ammonites is about growing old, about memory and history, about reading and writing. . . . Lively communicates ideas and experiences with flashes of narrative color: the tins of water in which the feet of her crib stood in childhood, to spare her from Cairo’s ants; the layout of a beloved garden; the sight of women in felt hats and gloves as they walked past the bombed-out rubble of wartime Britain.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Engaging . . . Lively’s writing shines brightest when her discursive remarks demonstrate the methods and preoccupations that have shaped her fiction.”
The New Yorker

“Funny, smart and poignant . . . Admirers of Penelope Lively's many fine novels will find the same lucid intelligence at work in her elegantly written ‘view from old age.’ . . . Memory, history, archaeology, paleontology—for Penelope Lively, they are all part of our individual and collective effort to retrieve lost time. She chronicles her personal engagement in that quest with wit and rue.”
—Los Angeles Times

“A collection of well-written essays that draw on Lively’s past as she reflects on the present. . . . Lively notes the physical challenges of aging as well as the pleasures she’s given up; some with relief, others with regret. She also reveals a sly sense of humor. . . . Her lifelong love affair with books is the topic of "Reading and Writing," where she mines the quirks of her own personal reading habits and library (her fiction is kept in the kitchen) and the glorious news for readers that ‘The stimulus of old-age reading is the realization that taste and response do not atrophy: you are always finding yourself enthusiastic about something you had not expected to like.’”
—Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A gift . . . witty, gentle-humored, sharp . . . Throughout Lively is a keen observer and an engaging narrator. . . . Subjects that may, at first glance, seem random and somewhat scattershot take on the elegant coherence of a deeply satisfying conversation.”
—All Things Considered

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Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

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

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