book review: Dancing Fish and Ammonites

dancing fish

Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively. Publisher: Viking (February 10, 2014). Memoir. Hardcover. 234 pages. ISBN 9780670016556.

“A lifetime is embedded; it does not float free, it is tethered—to certain decades, to places, to people. It has a context; each departure leaves a person-shaped void—the absence within a family, the presence lost within a house, in a community, in society itself.”

Penelope Lively begins “This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.” And that’s exactly right. Aging happens to almost everyone. It’s unavoidable and inevitable unless of course you die young. Lively reminisces quite a bit in this memoir but strikes a balance, not dwelling too much on one subject or another. Lively spent her childhood in Egypt, attended boarding school, then college in England and wrote dozens of novels [for which she won many awards— including the Booker Prize]. The writing itself isn’t terribly organized or edited although she divides her memoir into sections: Old Age; Life and Times; Memory; Reading and Writing; and Six Things. At 80-years-old, Lively makes astute observations though can wander off on rambling tangents too often.

I simply didn’t care for several sections in this pithy memoir—one which dealt two much on her WWII memories and one from which she chose her title. She describes several objects which hold special meaning for her. It fell a bit flat particularly after an intriguing portion on reading and writing. In the best parts she describes what influenced writing many novels as well as favorite books and authors. She humorously writes about the technology gap as someone gets disappointed when the smart phone purchase is for her not her grandchild or her granddaughter asked her to put a ribbon into her “vintage” typewriter. Also most times she discussed [non-wartime] London delighted me. Perhaps I’d have appreciated this memoir if I’d been better acquainted with Lively’s fiction writing and I’m apologetic that I’ve only read Moon Tiger. I have several others like Consequences on my bookshelves, waiting to be read. Since it’s a quick read, it’s worth reading, particularly for avid readers and writers, as Lively provides some interesting anecdotes and meditations.

On aging:

“We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now, with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation.”

On writing:

“I am a diarist. It is a working diary, mainly, in which I jot down stuff that might possibly come in useful at some point.”

On reading:

“I can measure my life out in books. They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.

“We read to bond, to oblige, to discover how someone else reads. And read to persuade, to agree or disagree.”

RATING: ***/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Viking.

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