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review 2018-02-24 15:07
Dancing Fish and Ammonites
Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir - Penelope Lively

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.

Towards the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me but interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.

I have no idea why, but Penelope Lively's book seems to go by various titles. Another one seems to be Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, which is a bit confusing when you're trying to find the book but at the same time makes it really easy to tell someone else what the title is because inevitably any one of the variations on the title may bring up the book in a search. Leaping Fish, Dancing Fish... at least the Ammonites seem to be present in all of them.


Anyway, this book is my RL book club's read for this month and it is the first of their picks that I have really enjoyed. It is not a perfect book, but I was glued to Lively's essays on ageing, memory, her own story, her accounts of history, and her musings on life, on reading.


As it turns out, she seems to be an author that I share some interests with and whose thought-process I find both inspiring and, not easy to follow exactly, but neatly cutting to salient points without a lot flourish. What I mean is, she gets to the point. I like that.  

You aren’t going to get old, of course, when you are young. We won’t ever be old, partly because we can’t imagine what it is like to be old, but also because we don’t want to, and – crucially – are not particularly interested.




We are too keen to bundle everyone by category; as a child, I used to be maddened by the assumption that I would get along famously with someone just because we were both eight. All that we have in common, we in this new demographic, are our aches and pains and disabilities – and, yes, that high C evoked by Anthony Burgess. For the rest of it, we are the people we have always been – splendidly various, and let us respect that.

Whether it were her thoughts on old age, or her dissection of the Suez Crisis (which, btw, I found particularly fascinating in that horrifying way that history has when it becomes clear just how stupid and reckless politicians are when gambling with people's lives), or her description of how much she loves reading and how books are part of her life (Right on, Penelope!), I will be returning to this book to re-read certain sections. 


Can’t garden. Don’t want to travel. But can read, must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions, plenty of fiction, history and archaeology always, reading to satisfy perennial tastes, reading sideways too – try her, try him, try that, Amazon and AbeBooks would founder without me; my house is a book depository – books in, books out (to family and friends, to my daughter’s Somerset cottage where there is still some shelf space, to wonderful Book Aid which sends English language books to places where they are needed).

Despite all my enthusiasm for this book, it is not without faults. They show up especially when compared to Lively's fiction, which has structure - as story-telling tends to do.


This, her memoir, does not stick to that prescribed architecture of beginning, middle, end, with a relevant flow of narrative. It is a memoir, in a  way, but certainly not anything that could be referred to for chronology. In this book, Lively dissects topics - old age, memory, the individuals place in collective history - and connects them to her own life.

Her narrative in this book very much reminded me of that of Claudia in Lively's book Moon Tiger, who exclaims the following at the beginning of the book:

‘I’m writing a history of the world,’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this old ill woman. ‘Well, my goodness,’ the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’

(Penelope Lively - Moon Tiger) 

It is ... messy ... in parts. Yet, I actually found that aspect charming. Others may not.

Oh, well.

Am I envious of the young? Would I want to be young again? On the first count – not really, which surprises me. On the second – certainly not, if it meant a repeat performance. I would like to have back vigour and robust health, but that is not exactly envy. And, having known youth, I’m well aware that it has its own traumas, that it is no Elysian progress, that it can be a time of distress and disappointment, that it is exuberant and exciting, but it is no picnic. I don’t particularly want to go back there. And in any case, I am someone else now. This seems to contradict earlier assertions that you are in old age the person you always were. What I mean is that old age has different needs, different satisfactions, a different outlook. I remember my young self, and I am not essentially changed, but I perform otherwise today.

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text 2018-02-18 14:45
Reading progress update: I've read 89 out of 224 pages.
Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir - Penelope Lively

I have lots of stuff to get on with this afternoon, but have spent the last 30 minutes glued to Lively's book - I won't call it "memoir". It's only partly a memoir. - in particular to her discussion of the Suez Crisis.

I couldn’t be at the meeting, not being a senior member of the university, but I remember vividly the heightened atmosphere of that time, the urgency of the newspapers, the climate of discussion, of argument, and eventually, for many of us, of outrage. For me, what was happening had a personal dimension – here was my own country dropping bombs on the country I still thought of as a kind of home. The Suez crisis was a baptism of fire, a political awakening, the recognition that you could and should quarrel with government, that you could disagree and disapprove.

I really want to re-read Moon Tiger after this book. Not because it also looks at Suez, but because it has a similar theme in that the MC looks at her own life and ties it to current event of the time.


Also, as some of you know, I have had some rough reading experiences with the RL book group I sort of joined last year. Dancing Fish and Ammonites is their choice for February and I cannot wait to see what they all thought about. It also is the first one I'm reading with that group that I really like. (In fairness, they had picked Rebecca a few months ago, but I was too busy with something else to re-read it.)

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text 2018-02-18 13:29
Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir - Penelope Lively

"I am no longer acquisitive. I was never exactly voracious, but I could fall prey to sudden lust: one simply could not live a moment longer without that sampler spotted in an antique shop, or that picture or rug or chair. No longer. I can admire, but I no longer covet. Books of course are another matter; books are not acquisitions, they are necessities."


Penelope Lively - Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time

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review 2018-02-11 22:08
Enjoy the Dance (Dancing, #2) by Heidi Cullinan Review
Enjoy the Dance (Dancing Book 2) - Heidi Cullinan

Kindergarten teacher Spenser Harris has carved a quiet, stable future out of his tumultuous past, but his world turns upside down the night a homeless teen appears on his doorstep—a boy whose story mirrors the one Spenser has worked so hard to overcome. The decision to shelter Duon is easy. What’s tricky is juggling the network of caregivers in Duon’s life, especially Tomás Jimenez.

Tomás wouldn’t have hesitated to take Duon in, but his plate is already full working three jobs to support his family. Though Spenser’s carefully constructed walls are clearly designed to keep the world at bay, Tomás pushes past Spenser’s defenses, determined to ensure the man is worthy of his charge. As the two of them grow closer, Tomás dares to dream of a life beyond his responsibilities, and Spenser begins to believe he might finally find a home of his own after all.

But Spenser and Tomás’s world is forever poised to crash down around their ears. Duon’s grandmother isn’t sure she wants him to be raised by a gay man and challenges Spenser’s custody. Tomás’s undocumented parents could be deported at any time, and all the while the state of Minnesota votes on a constitutional amendment against marriage equality and the US Supreme Court debates whether or not Spenser and Tomás get a happily ever after. All they can do is hold tight to their love, hope for a better future…and remind each other to enjoy the dance.



Spenser and Tomas are lovely. The romance between them unrolls slowly like it has to when we have family and work and life. 

This book ends up being about so many things in terms of social justice: the immigration system, equality, LGTBQA rights, adoption, fostering, the arts, job protection, poverty...

It is ground in a wonderful circle of friends and also deals with the addiction of a loved one. 

The romance balance could be richer in places but overall it is a very good read and a must for lovers of Cullinan's world.

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review 2018-02-02 00:00
Dirty Dancing at Devil's Leap
Dirty Dancing at Devil's Leap - Julie An... Dirty Dancing at Devil's Leap - Julie Anne Long Buddy read with Joanna Loves Books. Thanks Joanna! It was fun.
..I'll link to her review when it's up.
This is fast becoming one of my favorite series....I can't tell you how many times I've reread parts of book 2!

I thought the first one was, well, weird, and I really only liked the hero...And from this one there was a (thankful) noticeable absence of an annoying oak tree. Where [b:Wild at Whiskey Creek|29436302|Wild at Whiskey Creek (Hellcat Canyon, #2)|Julie Anne Long|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1473678817s/29436302.jpg|49704361] may have felt a lot longer, this one was a snap. Maybe too much of a snap. It was still beautiful, the characters were still complex, but I did think the conflict was slightly weak and based on about a lifetime ago. Ultimately, the resolution felt really rushed, but at times I didn't get the motivations behind everything.

The shining light of this novel was the hero, Mac. The heroine has a big heart, and is a tough, bold, loved and loving sort. The book begins like many others, with Avalon catching her boyfriend fucking the intern in their bedroom. She does the obvious thing and heads out of town. I've read so many contemporaries set in rural areas that start exactly this way, but Julie Anne Long does a great job at painting Avalon as looking like she's got life conquered but is really adrift. As usual, the familial and town interactions were rewarding, though a little short-changed in this book. And I'll begin to illustrate some of the highlights and issues I had with this book under the spoiler tag.

We know Avalon left town carrying a flame for her old summer muffin, Mac Coltrane and that somehow he broke her 16 year old heart and she never saw him again. The somehow was the major hang-up for me. It seemed like some earth-shattering mystery, but it wasn't, even though it was well-explained and easy to empathize with. It was frankly a bit out of character.

Meanwhile, Mac's had his life unravel (his dad imprisoned for fraud, lost his wealth) and seems adrift. At one point, Avalon even says "she won" over Mac. Of course, though, Mac has it mostly figured out. He is slowly revealed to be a multi-layered onion of a hero with deep insecurities, grudges, and vulnerabilities. He's also smart as hell, funny, sweet, and unaccountably romantic--though he never shows it. His hope in the darkness and the thing he's holding onto- "the one lit bulb left in his string of Christmas lights" is his old house...where he felt happy in the summers he spent in Hellcat Canyon and on Devil's Leap. There's an auction, and we found earlier that Ava plans to bid too. But Mac is so emotionally invested in purchasing his old house that I was rooting for him and really really didn't get why Ava wanted it. Turns out she was going to flip it, and hadn't realized she missed her family, her animals, and her small town yet. This, once again, was really confusing for me.

Obviously Ava wins. Mac still owns the caretaker's cottage and a parcel of the land-including Ava's favorite (why does she care if she's planning to sell to her friend, I don't get) - Devil's Leap. The rock formation where they are brave, the founding spot of Mac and Ava's relationship, and a beautiful romantic setting. This is where the pranks and trying to drive each other off begins. She wants to buy his parcel, he wants her house. Bit by bit, the pranks bring them closer together with mutual admiration for a game well-played (or not so well-played. Turns out Ava was wrong and Mac gets along well with a Hummingbird troop, for example). In addition, in this process, they find out how adrift Ava is from herself or initial plans and how Mac is basically living the life we'd think she'd want. There are many wonderful moments of revealing the vulnerability and sweetness of Mac - thinking of The Cat here - but that feels like it simultaneously endears the hero to us (that's where I fell in love with him) and would make the heroine on the edge of irritating. A lesser heroine couldn't do it. Mac doesn't share his feeling easily, though he's direct. So unlike Eli, who is quiet and thoughtful and then FREAKING RIDICULOUSLY eloquent, Mac stumbles when discussing the emotional and is much more a man of action.

I just didn't buy Avalon's lack of self-awareness or willingness to change her lifestyle. I still don't understand her desire to flip the house and not sell it to Mac.

The end was sadly rushed-and ultimately, I thought she had more to prove to him because of her rejections and cuts during adulthood, her experience with being loved, adored, and accepted by her family, and him putting himself out there already. While I liked his grand gestures, he wasn't the one who was afraid the whole time. She was the one not taking chances and I would've liked to see her step up here. How many times did he tell her "I only want you to be safe," and what exactly did that mean to her? The looking for her thing was so weak, I can't even start with that. That would've been weird.

The book was hot, hot, hot. Wonderful sexual tension, wonderful sex scenes. I seriously think one was 10 pages long and I would've read 10 more. The characters were a great pair with what I understand is a JAL hallmark, flying and funny dialogue. Ultimately, this doesn't get a five star from me for some weak plot points including the conflict and too much rush at the end.
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