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Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir Hardcover – February 6, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Superb British novelist Lively (How It All Began, 2011) begins her “not quite a memoir” with bracing yet graceful reflections on old age. The author of two dozen keenly observant books, Lively is intrigued by this phase of life and its “metamorphosis of the sensibilities.” Her grand subject has always been the workings of the mind, and even as she rues physical miseries, she celebrates age’s fostering of “an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in.” Lucid and penetrating, Lively looks back to her Egyptian childhood, her fleeing with her mother during WWII, and the shock of cold, bombed London and her parents’ divorce. As a history major at Oxford, the Suez crisis was for her a “baptism by fire, a political awakening.” Ever since then, she keeps “one ear cocked to the clamor of events.” How nimble her episodic stride through the decades, how astute and stirring her perception of memory as “the mind’s triumph over time,” how affirming her gratitude for books and libraries, ancient artifacts and fossils––the endlessly illuminating, tangible past. --Donna Seaman


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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Viking (February 6, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670016551
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670016556
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #423,458 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Lively has entered that time she feared, "that hazard light worn by the old- slow potentially boring, hard going." While I share that status with Lively, I also believe this book has much to inform those entering the ranks of the aged. After all, there appear to be a lot of us and more on the way. The task to place oneself in the world comes as a reality for us all. I agree with Lively that we are a bit invisible, out of the way, no longer the dominant. I also find it a relief. However, present we are, and Lively's thoughts are instructive and sprightly.

I am quite charmed by the ways of viewing age in this book. In particular the review of treasured belongings. Of course I also share with her that legal addiction, reading. Her prose is witty, self deprecating, and literate. Lively's own works are part of my library, and it find enchanting the peppering of titles that share her own life. She has a dignity about diminishment that I admire, and a wry regret that I enjoy. Last, but not the least, the memoirs that apply to her own life come as illustrative of a life culminating in her present state.

I would urge you to read this book. The thoughts have a comfort and a wisdom. After all, "the poor have always been with us, now the old are too."
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54 of 60 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Reviewer on February 6, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir by Penelope Lively is an insightful and fascinating consideration of old age and memory which will leave you with the thought whether it’s the traveling that’s better or having arrived at the destination. The Man Booker Prize-winning novelist’s memoir is driven by wistfulness and reminisce her journey of over eighty years, wondering if one remains the same or experiences change during the course of life. It is a deeply personal reflection which is both charming and compelling.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the memoir is the audacity of the author to honestly and candidly scrutinize the landscape of old age from the viewpoint of someone in her sunset years, which certainly wouldn’t be an easy task. Old age appears to be the overriding theme of the book. Though the memoir comes short on various fronts, the author’s masterful storytelling, sharpness and creativity makes it an enjoyable read.

Though age may no longer be on her side, her writing is as brilliant as ever, reminiscent of the time when she won the Booker for her book Moon Tiger in 1987. Reading the first section on “Old Age” makes one more thankful for her life. What flows all throughout the book is her recollection of her childhood years in Egypt. The section on “Life & Times” is informative and the section on “Six Things” is heavily reflective and personal. The book is all about Penelope Lively and there is not much information about her family. As she mentioned in the book, Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir “…. is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.” And that’s what it is!
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on March 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Penelope Lively knows a few things about a few things: history, being a writer and, well, being herself. She’s almost 80 now and speaks with crystal-clear veracity about how the world looks from where she is, standing atop a lifetime of experience and imagination, a world of her own making. And yet, in her latest book, the “memoir” DANCING FISH AND AMMONITES, Lively reminds us that, although we are all treading water in different places, the water is pretty much the same for everyone.

Growing up in Cairo, she was whisked off to an English boarding school, and that dichotomy --- the two different cultures and worlds --- marked her particular life journey in a very curious way. Even as she was caught up in the new directions of politics in 20th-century UK, she nursed a lifelong dedication to the study of archaeology. In fact, on a Dorset beach, she once discovered an Egyptian ceramic shard that depicted dancing fish and ammonites. Thus, the title of the book mirrors the juxtaposition of cultures and the special lookout point on life that this has afforded her.

Lively writes about growing up in World War II Cairo, and the ways in which English-language authors affected her for life as she made her way out of war-torn Egypt to jolly old England. She writes about Palestine, the Blitz, Syria, and how the experience of childhood manages to circumvent some of the generalities of what these times meant to so many millions of people throughout the world. Her stories about Egypt before and after the war are filled with historical facts, so many that it reads like a primer of day-by-day wartime movement.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Jo the traveler on March 16, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The British author Penelope Lively has reached the age of 80, and her reflections on her life now, as they relate to the long years she has already lived, are insightful, direct, charming but not at all sentimental. How does she see herself changed, and in what ways is she still the same? What and whom has she gladly put aside? Born in Cairo to ex-pat Brits, she has lived a full and accomplished life, had a clearly-loved husband and family, and traveled widely. This book is an inspiration to anyone facing the last chapters of life, a picture of what remains, and how well it can be lived.
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