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Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir [Hardcover]

Penelope Lively
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)

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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

About 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.
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