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Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  1,052 ratings  ·  257 reviews
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
Kindle Edition, 224 pages
Published February 6th 2014 by Viking Adult (first published October 10th 2013)
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Grey Power

Our idea of a ‘person’ derives from the ancient Greek conceept of the ‘prosopon,’ the mask worn by actors in the theatres of Attica. The Romans, litigious folk that they were, put this idea to work in law. ‘Persona’ for them was a legal designation of an entity with status to appear on his (sic) behalf in legal proceedings. There were only two such persons in Roman law - the Emperor and the paterfamilias, head of the family. A person, therefore, was a highly constrained and tightly def
Oct 16, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: published-2014
I learned Penelope Lively’s three favourite novels are What Daisy Knew by Henry James, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford and The Inheritors by William Golding. I’d like to say I learned lots more of interest from Lively but I’m afraid I didn’t. I was often rather bored by her musings in this book of rather disconnected essays. I’d describe this as a pastime rather than any kind of inspired performance. Overall it came across as a writer writing for the sake of it. I’ve got a lot of love for Pe ...more
After reading Dancing Fish and Amonites I feel like I've been on a retreat for a few days with an especially erudite friend talking the days away while taking a ramble on this or that trail, enjoying cups of tea (and perhaps a glass of wine or two) by the fire as we share our histories and thoughts on life. There is an intimacy as well as the intelligence of an ever questing mind that makes this book irresistible to me.

Lively has written memoirs before, but this is her "view from old age", writt
The subtitle of this book is "A Memoir". But it is not a memoir in the traditional sense of covering a person's life chronologically. In fact, the author says in this book that she has no interest in writing that kind of memoir.

Rather it is a book of musings and reminiscences about her life, largely concerned with getting old (she was 80 when she wrote this book in 2013). I will be 63 in March so I have to say it was very encouraging to find out that, despite her age and a few health issues, she
Feb 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
I began on a spring morning in the Anglo-American Hospital in Zamalek, which was a residential suburb on Gezira, the island in Cairo’s Nile; 17 March 1933. Elsewhere, things were going on that would lead to turmoil in North Africa in a few years’ time; my parents’ lives would be affected, and mine, but they were comfortably oblivious that morning, and I was tucked up in a crib, the feet of which stood in tin trays of water, because there had been instances of ants getting at newborn babies.
I wondered if I was a fraud of some sort for wanting to read the memoir of a writer for whom I actually haven't read any of her books. I've hovered around her, intrigued by her novels when I worked with them in the bookstore, but failed until now to actually commit to one.

But I'm glad to have read her memoir before exploring her backlist. Although, as she says, "This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age..." Although the structure feels just a bit cobbled together, I mean th
I like Penelope Lively. I enjoy her thoughtfulness, apparently in any form. It was written when she was eighty years old. Her age takes a significant amount of space in the narrative and gives the book a perspective that perhaps is not appreciated by everyone. “Dancing fish and Ammonites” is not a book to read for the virtues of the plot. It is not a biography either. It reveals bits and pieces about its author in bypassing, through some not particularly chronological episodes or through her mus ...more
May 24, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Years ago Penelope Lively surprised me with Moon Tiger, a fine autobiographical exploration of the past by a rather eccentric and unreliable female narrator. It seemed to me that Lively had made it her trademark in literature to explore the vigour and reality of the past, because the theme is also dealt with in other books of her.

This booklet she wrote at the age of 80, in her own modest style, not as a memoir but as a "view from old day". She muses about the passing of time (faster as you get
Diane Barnes
Feb 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A beautiful memoir of aging, reading, writing, family, history; Penelope Lively sat down to write about the things that have been most important to her. She was 80 at the time of writing, and although her body is breaking down and often painful, her mind is as sharp as ever, and as she says "memory is the mind 's triumph over time." She has the same wish as me in her time remaining; that her eyes continue to serve her, because losing the ability to read would be the worst tragedy she can imagine ...more
Oct 28, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This was a memoir I had to read ... for many reasons. Lively has long been one of my favorite novelists, a Booker Prize winner (although her Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger, is very good, it is by no means my favorite of her work), the female author I've read more of than any other over a lifetime of reading. Indeed, I fondly remember - in the 1980's and early 1990's - buying her earlier works in London bookstores (Foyle's - remember Foyle's, wow! - or Blackwell in Oxford or...) before all of he ...more
Lyn Elliott
Dec 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I do enjoy Penelope Lively.
Brisk, wry, to the point, keen eye, sharp mind, wonderful turns of phrase.
The very first sentence of the Preface announces 'This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.
And a view of old age itself, this place a which we arrive with certain surprise - ambushed, or so it can seem'.
She goes on to say that she finds herself thinking less about her own life than about the times she has lived in - 'the times of her life', and 'the great sustaining balla
Feb 17, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
More musing than memoir, Penelope Lively writes of aging, memory, reading and the role of history in our lives. Since these are all topics that fascinate me, and because I've recently come to enjoy her fiction writing, I was enchanted and charmed by these essays.

I cannot claim Lively as a contemporary as I am neither 80 nor English, but I do believe she'd be the kind of friend I like. I share some of her sensibilities and so I read this all the while thinking, "Yea, this is exactly what I would
Jan 25, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Partly outdated. Mostly boring.
Mar 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A book review in the New York Times moved me to read this book which the Boise Public Library owned. From the introduction I knew I was going to consider this one of the finest memoirs I've ever read, and by the last line, my certainty was confirmed. More, I felt that I had made a friend, one who shares and is able to articulate the concerns of aging, the love of books, the changes in desires (to travel or not to travel, that is a question), the changes in acquisitiveness, the changes to memory. ...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
I see her books everywhere but I haven’t purchased or read any of them except this, her memoir written when she was already 80 years old. A quick check at google showed that this well-known, Booker prize-winning author is still alive and is now 88. She’s a few years older than my mother who is still up and about, living by herself in California, and if I inherited her genes one day I may find myself in my 80s also. So I though I might as well read this book by an 80-year-old about her life as an ...more
Aug 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found this a very enjoyable and interesting "view from old age". A wry and erudite reflection on the experience of being 80, memory, changing perspectives, history, books and artifacts and their associations. ...more
Apr 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some years ago I read and enjoyed Penelope Lively's memoir of her childhood in Cairo (Oleander, Jacaranda). Now over eighty, Lively has taken a different approach to memoir, using five chapters to explore her reflections on old age, life and times (the major historical events and social changes of her lifetime), memory, reading and writing and a chapter she calls Six Things in which she describes the importance of six of her personal possessions. I'm giving it four stars - not so much for the bo ...more
Mar 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Enchanting memoir written at the age of reaching 80, that I read off and on in the course of just over a day between visitors. It's Penelope Lively at her most candid and most exquisite. The first section was exceptionally scrumptious as it SO applies to most all of us who have reached what is currently considered "old". Memory and movement sections were OUTSTANDING. And that generic "old" age category has changed, but has our human physicality changed? And what does age do to certain sensibilit ...more
Jul 16, 2017 rated it liked it
This book was my selection for a Book Club discussion. I am a Penelope Lively fan of longstanding and had only recently noticed this "memoir". There are some oddities - like editions of the book with the title reversed. My copy was entitled Ammonites and Leaping Fish.

As others have pointed out, this is not a memoir, but rather a collection of reminiscences and reflections. Her writing is as engaging as ever, her turn of phrase in particular is both charming and spot-on. She so often gets it - in
Feb 14, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Regrettably, this book just never hooked me they way I had expected. It is certainly not bad, but just not good, although it did have a number of insightful points. Maybe I was just expecting too much. Here is what Amazon says: 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
Artemisia Hunt
Feb 09, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A really lovely little memoir where Lively looks back at her long and productive life and focuses not so much on all she has achieved or accomplished, but on the fondest fragments of a life, as remembered through the lens of memory and the physical objects she has kept from that life. Broken into sections about Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing and Six Things, she takes up the memories, objects, literary and other pastimes and concerns of a particular life, her own, from her e ...more
Apr 23, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Phoebe by: New Yorker review
I disagree with the label of memoir for this book, which rambles intelligently around the topics of growing old, the phenomenon of memory, and reading and writing. Lively ends with brief essays about "six things," objects that hold significance to her. While the book has many intriguing thoughts, it could have used some editing for grammar, and just felt very loosely strung together, as if the author sat down on a summer's afternoon and let her pen flow aimlessly. Granted, most of us do not prod ...more
An excellent memoir from this celebrated novelist. Written at the age of 80, this is not a standard memoir beginning with her birth and moving on to present day but rather each chapter focuses on one aspect of her life and her thoughts and feelings. In the first section she tackles the subject of aging and I found that I was frequently nodding in agreement with her arguments. The section on memory is an excellent survey of current and past theories on memory mixed in with personal experience. T ...more
Paul Secor
I love Penelope Lively's fiction. I enjoyed Dancing Fish as a behind the scenes look at Penelope Lively's life and her thoughts on aging, memories, and reading. However, I'm sure that it's her fiction I'll end up rereading and not this book.

Sep 24, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed these musings of Penelope Lively's, but if you haven't read her fiction before, or if you've found your way to her through this memoir and are wondering about a different recommendation. . . please, go read Moon Tiger. ...more
Mar 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir-biography
Love Penelope Lively's fiction and memoirs. This is her third book of the latter. ...more
Nov 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Penelope Lively has a point of view, a remarkable life and a witty, erudite, pithy way with words. AND her memoir has interesting insights on a number of her books
Dec 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a lovely little book that while called a memoir is more musings of someone who's led a full life looking back from 80 at what was important. She discusses memory as a concept as well as her own memories, books that were important to her and how books are important in general, and so on. Parts dragged, but for most of it I wanted to go to England to sit and have tea with her. I haven't read any of Lively's novels but feel the need to pick one up. If anyone out there in Goodreadsland has a ...more
Aug 16, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014-reads, memoir
Three and a half stars overall, but I rate the opening chapters on old age as four and a half. Penelope Lively's take on old age is spot on. "...we feel much the same, but clearly are not." Lively notes that "'old' is never a fixed feast" citing a Uganda tribe in the mid-twentieth century, on subsistence living where the old were in their forties. She astutely notes that "We (the aged) have not been, in the past, and are not so much around still in some parts of the developing world. But in the ...more
Apr 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Enlightening, in her look at how age, memory, coincidence, and serendipity intersect to inform and often redirect the course of one's life (a theme of her recent novel How It All Began). Instructive, in that I discovered at least three new books in her chapter on reading and writing for further reading and reflection. Not a traditional linear memoir, but certainly an affecting account of a life well-lived, and well-read. Her descriptions of the social upheavals of the mid-twentieth century, thou ...more
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Penelope Lively is the author of many prize-winning novels and short-story collections for both adults and children. She has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize: once in 1977 for her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, and again in 1984 for According to Mark. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel Moon Tiger.

Her other books include Going Back; Judgement Day; Nex

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