Review by New York Times Review
PENELOPE LIVELY IS WRITING from another country, a place she calls "old age." She is 80, and so, she assures us, she is now "a native" of this territory, an "authority." "Dancing Fish and Ammonites" is about growing old, about memory and history, about reading and writing and the way experiences become associated with certain objects - with a book, say, or a piece of pottery. Lively has explored these themes before, in her many novels and in a handful of previous memoirs. This time, though, she says she wants to address them more abstractly: "I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me but interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life." She's not trying to tell us a story. Old age is not a country one can visit and leave. One might not even know when one has arrived. Sometimes I feel as if I'm nearing its shores, and I'm in my 30s. Penelope Lively is here to tell me that I'm not. From her perspective, 70 is "the brink of old age." While I may be drawing closer, until I'm an authority myself, I'll have to trust her. So why don't I? Lively's book describes the view from old age as if to a stranger, but it doesn't turn that stranger into a native. Her narrative style can be buoyant and propulsive, but also overly chatty and strangely baggy. "I never speak French now," she remarks in a section on memory, "but because once, when I was young, I spent a long time in France and emerged with good French, I still have the language, after a fashion; I wouldn't be able to speak it as I once did, but the ghost of it is there in my head - I know how you say this, say that." She 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. But she doesn't inspire empathy. She opens a space between herself and her audience, then measures the distance. Fans of Lively's previous books may be interested in knowing what she was reading when she began "Cleopatra's Sister" (Stephen Jay Gould's "Wonderful Life"), or what prompted her to write "City of the Mind" (a booklet about Martin Frobisher from Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum). And those who are close to old age, or who fear it, may find "solace," as she puts it, in her assertion that her present life is as fresh and vivid as her life has ever been; that she revels in small pleasures; that reading is the drug that sustains her. But for me, the moment that resonates is the one she ends on, in which she describes her desire for "imaginative leaps out of my own time frame and into other places." Those lines send me elsewhere, to Lively's other books - to books that don't describe a view but inhabit it. To Lively's credit, she makes the point that the view from old age is always changing. But I found myself wishing for an account that was more particular, less about context than about this one extraordinary woman. Penelope Lively's voice is suggestive. It's the voice of empire, tempered by a cosmopolitan tolerance. It's the voice of a woman who has read her "Oxford Book of English Verse" but doesn't make a fuss about it, the voice of a woman who once dropped a sandwich into the Suez Canal. I wanted to leap into her place and time, but this book wouldn't quite let me. LOUISA THOMAS is a staff writer at Grantland and a fellow at the New America Foundation.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [February 9, 2014]
Review by Booklist Review
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.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2014 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
At 80, Lively, celebrated British novelist and author (How It All Began), examines in five essays the many appealing and noteworthy facets of old age with her expert observer's eye and eloquent touch. With the aged literally inheriting the earth in greater numbers, Lively is simply fascinated to be among this swelling, far-from-invisible demographic, and in her digressive, erudite, witty narrative, she looks at issues of mortality and degeneration, which slam everyone as they age, as happened to her recently in terms of back and eye problems, and left her widowed after the death of her longtime husband, Jack, 12 years ago; as well she delves into the marvels of memory as the "majestic, sustaining weapon" over the ravages of time. For Lively the realities of old age mean she has given up on traveling ("been there, seen that") and vigorous gardening, both of which she once threw herself into headlong, yet she has intensified her reading, and in her mellifluous bibliographic essay "Reading and Writing" she returns to some of the formative works of her generation, and which have influenced her own writing, from Beatrix Potter to her beloved blue Pelican paperbacks. Overall, these reflective essays offer a wealth of riches for further study, and help to dispel many of the stereotypes about the aged, from the "smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon," which she abashedly admits are frequently ossified in fiction. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
An insightful book of self-reflection from the acclaimed novelist--"not quite a memoir," she writes, but "the view from old age." Every few years since the 1970s, British author Lively (How It All Began, 2012, etc.) has published a slim, delicious novel, mixing sympathy and satire with a Chekhov-ian focus on time, mortality and wasted opportunities. Born in Cairo in 1933 and raised in World War IIera Egypt, she described her childhood in Oleander, Jacaranda (1994), but this insightful reflection on her life is not merely the second volume of her memoirs or, as she notes, even much of a memoir at all. Autobiographical details appear, but for the most part, Lively ruminates on a handful of subjects of universal interest on which a perceptive 80-year-old can speak with authority. She remains the person she has always been, encumbered by various indignities and disabilities but less preoccupied by death than concern that young people take for granted that the elderly are boring. Readers will share her amazement at society's seismic changes since the mid-20th century. When he learned of the 14-year-old's crush on a distant relative, an uncle warned that he was "queer," and Lively was mystified. Learning about Oscar Wilde during a theater outing, her granddaughter exploded, "I don't believe you! He went to prison because he was gay?!!" 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. Readers will share her relief that dementia has not made an appearance. Although they 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, mostly well spent.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.