Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir.
Dancing Fish and Ammonites
By Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively, born in Egypt, has lived in England for most of her prolific writing career. In addition to short story collections and several autobiographical works, she has published 17 novels, including Moon Tiger (f 1987 booker prize), Making It Up (***1/2 Jan/ Feb 2006), Consequences (***1/2 Sept/Oct 2007), Family Album (***1/2 Mar/Apr 2010), and, most recently, How It All Began (**** SELECTION Mar/Apr 2012).
THE TOPIC: At age 80, lively is increasingly conscious of death's approach. She begins this unusual memoir with a survey of the changing concept of old age across cultures and centuries. Although she resents the social invisibility that often accompanies age, it nonetheless leaves her "free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch." Memory is not tidily chronological, however, but "random, non-sequential, capricious"--qualities she replicates in these personal reminiscences. Her tour through the decades spotlights meaningful books she has read and introduces six prized possessions, including the title's ammonites-and-dancing-fish potshard from Cairo, where she spent her childhood. Like the archaeologist "manque" she has always considered herself, Lively measures out her life through books and other treasured artifacts.
Viking. 224 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780670016556
Seattle Times ****1/2
"Not for Lively is the ordinary memoir that begins with birth and early childhood, marching sequentially on through adulthood and into old age. We discover snippets of the author's fascinating past, through the 'moth-eaten' fabric of memory that makes certain events vividly recollected, while others recede as if they'd never happened." MELINDA BARGREEN
Independent (UK) ****
"It works as a whistle-stop history of the past 80 years from the perspective of one delightful and bookish woman's life.... Lively's generosity and wise perception will surely outlive her; but happily, it seems she's not going anywhere yet." KATY GUEST
Los Angeles Times ****
"A 12-page montage of random moments from her life, offered as an illustration of how memory works, seems slapdash; so do some of her remarks on the six objects, which ramble in ways that are not necessarily illuminating. But even these slightly disappointing passages contain examples of Lively's gift for sharply turned phrases and cogent reflection." WENDY SMITH
Telegraph (UK) ****
"[The book] is certainly archaeological in its method, digging down into the past to turn up shards that provide a fragmentary but fascinating portrait not only of the author but of the times through which she has lived.... [A]s a writer she remains clear-sighted and able to pounce upon the smallest, most telling detail with unerring accuracy." PETER PARKER
Minneapolis Star Tribune ***1/2
"Penelope Lively says it herself in the first line ... 'This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.' Indeed, this is only a memoir in the loosest of terms; it is more like a small collection of well-written, if meandering, essays that draw on Lively's past as she reflects on the present." MEGANNE FABREGA
Washington Post ***1/2
"[W]hile Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, and Six Things each rate a chapter in Dancing Fish and Ammonites, the important people in her life--her late husband, two children, six grandchildren and a best friend--figure only peripherally. It's a void at the heart of this fascinating, clear-eyed but chilly meditation on the elements that add up to a life." HELLER MCALPIN
NY Times Book Review **1/2
"Her narrative style can be buoyant and propulsive, but also overly chatty and strangely baggy.... I found myself wishing for an account that was more particular, less about context than about this one extraordinary woman." LOUISA THOMAS
Although not quite as cohesive as Lively's fiction, this memoir still bears the stamp of her intelligence, observant mind, and wit. It perhaps more closely resembles a set of essays about the ways in which we attempt to regain lost time--both through memory and via connections with the material world. However, more than one critic marked the absence of Lively's family from this book, as well as the seeming arbitrariness of her subject matter. "She opens a space between herself and her audience, then measures the distance," the New York Times Book Review reviewer remarked. Therefore, although the Seattle Times critic gushed that the book "accomplishes everything one could wish for in autobiographical writing," it left others feeling somewhat alienated from Lively's inner and personal life.
A timeless book to be read by all
One of the best of its genre
Enjoyable, particularly for fans of the genre
Some problems, approach with caution
Not worth your time