Penelope Lively describes her latest book, Dancing Fish And Ammonites, as "not quite a memoir," but rather "the view from old age," a subject she says she can report on with some authority — Monday is the British writer's 81st birthday.
Lively was born in Egypt, where her father was working at the time. She and her mother fled the country during World War II. When she was 12, in 1945, Lively was sent to live with her grandmothers in England.
Lively is known for her children's books as well as her novels. She received the Booker Prize, a British literary award, in 1987 for her novel Moon Tiger. In recognition of her contributions to British literature, she was given the honor "dame" of the British Empire in 2012.
Lively tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about how she's adjusted to old age.
On why she wanted to write about old age
We're the new demographic. For the first time in human history there's a large tranche of the population, at least in the Western world, that is old, that is over 80. ... We're a significant group now, which has never been the case before. There have always been old people around, but as isolated figures, people living to 80 would've been extremely exceptional 200 [or] 300 years ago. So although the old were known, they weren't this army, as it were — this army requiring attention, requiring funding, giving grief to government agencies. ... It's quite interesting to be part of a new demographic.
On adjusting after her husband's death
I was quite good at being alone, anyway. Jack, my husband, and I had both led busy, professional lives rather separately. He was an academic and I was a writer, so I was often on my own. We lived in two places. We lived partly in London and partly in the country, in Oxfordshire, and quite often we'd be in different houses, so I was used to being in a house on my own. That didn't worry me too much. Of course, then I always knew there'd be an end to it — we'd be together again — so that's rather different...
I don't think I could've possibly adjusted to life with another person. I did think about that once or twice: Would I like there to be someone else? And I didn't want that, no.
On how women and men adapt differently to a spouse dying
Looking round my several women friends who are widows, [they] have all adapted very well. One has a new partner, a couple of other close friends who are widows don't. The only friend/acquaintance men I know who have been widowed found new partners with almost disconcerting rapidity. It really did seem as though they couldn't stand to be alone, and you learned with surprise that within six months or so they had set up with someone else and you wondered slightly if this was just simply that they felt they wouldn't possibly be able to adapt to life on their own.
On not wanting to purchase new things in old age
I think the lack of acquisitiveness is, interestingly, a sort of old age thing. I have a houseful of possessions; I don't want any more things. But when you were younger, you often wanted new things, yes indeed. You coveted a lovely new rug or you coveted something new for the kitchen. I don't do that now because in a sense I've — I was going to say, "I've got it all," but no, you can always have something that's even better than what you've already got. But I seem to have lost that feeling of, "Ooh, I really just must have that," whatever it was. It goes, which is something of a relief.
On not getting rid of books
They chart my life. I don't want to sound ponderous, but they chart my intellectual life. They chart everything that I've been interested in and thought about for the whole of my reading life. So if they went I would, in a sense, lose a sense of identity. They identify me. ... Most of them I shall never read again, but you never know what you may want to go back to. And it does constantly happen to me that there's something that I suddenly think, "Oh, I've got that book, let me just look that up." I do it every day.
"No one on the corner has swagga like us," sang rapper M.I.A. in her global hit, "Paper Planes." The song was later sampled by T.I. and Jaz-Z declares in their hit song "Swagga Like Us." A few years before that, it was Jay Z who declared, "I guess I got my swagger back" on his 2001 album The Blueprint.
The word swagger should be a familiar term to anyone who has listened to popular hip-hop songs in recent years - a recent search on Rap Genius turned up over a thousand songs that used the word in the lyrics.
Given those stats, you'd be forgiven for thinking that 'swagger' was a relatively new concept, but it can be traced all the way back to Elizabethan England. Like so many other famous words and phrases, the first writer to use it was William Shakespeare. The playwright first had the "shrewd and knavish sprite" Puck use it in this monologue in A Midsummer Night's Dream:
"What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here,
So near the cradle of the fairy queen?"
While there is a tiny hint in this usage that swagger is closely related to braggadocio and pride, it wasn't until Henry IV, Part 2 that the meaning was really driven home by the bard. It's in that play the London innkeeper Mistress Quickly gives this speech about one of the overly aggressive and forward men who frequent her tavern:
If he swagger, let him not come here: no, by my
faith; I must live among my neighbours; I'll no
swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the
very best: shut the door; there comes no swaggerers
here: I have not lived all this while, to have
swaggering now: shut the door, I pray you."
It's clear from this passage that 'swagger' has two meanings- one that refers to drunken behavior and another, more familiar one, that denotes arrogance and (in the eyes of people like Mistress Quickly) an outsized sense of self-worth.
Jonathan Swift would also pick up this usage over a century later in 1726 with Gulliver's Travels, when he wrote that the Queen's Dwarf "would always affect to swagger and look big as he passed by me in the Queen's Antechamber...and he seldom failed of a small Word or two upon my Littleness."
While the definition of the word would keep its judgmental connotations during the 1800s, in his 1865 dictionary, British etymologist Hensleigh Wedgwood defined the word in poetic terms, writing that it was "the idea of tremulous motion, swaying backwards and forwards, is commonly expressed by forms originally representing the sound made by the dashing of water."
By the 1870s, the word would take on the definition we know today, that is, as this 1872 dictionary puts it, "to boast or brag noisily." (Cultural critics have been declaring that 'swagger' has been on the decline since at least 1892. A piece in the magazine Science that year called swagger "[t]he most obvious and disagreeable form of self-assertion, which consists of making other people conscious of their inferiority...")
But swagger, fittingly, was and is persistent. Definitions like the one in that 1892 article, show how "swagger" was in many ways a natural fit for the hip-hop of the last two decades. According to Slate, the very first hip hop artists to use the word 'swagger' in a song was the group Brand Nubian in their 1990 song 'Slow Down,' where they note someone "used to walk with a swagger, now you simply stagger."
"Slow Down" would start a lyrical trend. As Ben Gabriel wrote in The New Inquiry three years ago:
Swagger is not new to hip-hop but has always been exterior to it. It recalls '70s rockers, '20s gangsters, pirates and Shakespearean vagabonds. The connotations are all, one might say, very white. But it is a very particular kind of whiteness — one which is very aware of itself and makes an explicit performance of its own economic or legal disenfranchisement.
Since then, the evolution of swagger has continued and has been shortened to simply 'swag' in recent years.
But the award for the most gratuitous and random use of swag goes to rapper Souljah Boy in his song about Joseph Kony, leader of the guerrilla Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda "Stop Kony."
What do you think we should do about it?
We should stop him
We should stop who?
It's obvious that Kony should be stoppped.
The problem is that 99% of the planet doesn't know who he is.
If they knew, Kony would have been stopped long ago.
A team of Navy SEALs boarded and took control of an oil tanker carrying Libyan oil, southeast of Cyprus, at the request of the Libyan and Cypriot governments, the Defense Department said in a statement Monday.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the SEALs boarded the Morning Glory on Sunday night local time in international waters; the vessel was seized earlier this month by three armed Libyans.
"The SEAL team embarked and operated from the guided missile destroyer USS Roosevelt," Kirby said in the statement.
NPR's Leila Fadel reported on the operation for our Newscast unit. She said:
"Anti-government rebels who control three vital ports in the east had sold and loaded the crude oil onto the tanker bypassing the central government's authority. The rebel group wants their share of Libya's oil wealth and more autonomy in the east. The move embarrassed an already weak central government."
No one was hurt in the operation, which was approved by President Obama, the Pentagon statement said. The tanker was headed back to a Libyan port to return the oil.
The New York Times reports that the Morning Glory was sailing under a North Korean flag, but that country disavowed any role in the operation. The newspaper added:
"News reports have said it was operated by a company based in Alexandria, Egypt, and that after leaving Libyan waters it appeared to have sailed the Mediterranean in search of a buyer for its oil."
Already in the news for a recall involving 1.6 million small vehicles with faulty ignition switches, General Motors on Monday added 1.2 million SUVs and nearly 400,000 other vehicles to its list of models with problems that need fixing.
The new recalls, which GM has listed here:
— "1.18 million Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia models from the 2008-2013 model years, Chevrolet Traverse from the 2009-2013 model years, and Saturn Outlook from the 2008-2010 model years." According to the company, the problem stems from what can happen if drivers don't pay attention to the "service air bag warning light." If that light's ignored too long, GM says, the air bags will be disabled.
— "303,000 Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana [commercial vans] from the 2009-2014 model years with gross vehicle weight under 10,000 pounds." They need to have more protection built into their instrument panels for passengers who aren't wearing seat belts.
— "63,900 Cadillac XTS full-size sedans from the 2013 and 2014 model years." There's a problem with the brakes that GM says "could lead to overheating, melting of plastic components and a possible engine compartment fire."
The company says it has set aside $300 million this quarter to account for the costs of those repairs as well as the fixes to the small vehicles' ignition switches. It says the need for the latest recalls emerged after new CEO Mary Barra's "request for a comprehensive internal safety review."
The Detroit Free Press reminds readers that GM "is facing four investigations over the timeliness of its reporting to federal safety regulators reports of crashes or deaths that may have been caused by defective ignition switches on 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts, Pontiac G5s, 2003-07 Saturn Ions, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars."
As Morning Edition reported last week, the faulty ignition switches "have been linked to a dozen deaths. GM has had information about the defect for more than a decade."
General Motors has also been the focus of a safety group's allegation that 303 people died in crashes of those small vehicles when their air bags failed. But as the Free Press has also reported, that group's study has been challenged by other researchers and "death counts can be misleading in the midst of a recall" because the fatalities might be attributable to factors other than the cause of the recalls.
Other automakers have their issues too, of course. Among the most recent: Honda is recalling nearly 800,000 Odyssey minivans because of a danger that a leaky fuel pump could cause a fire.
Green food may mean party time in America, where St. Patrick's Day has long been an excuse to break out the food dye. But in Ireland, where the Irish celebrate their patron saint on March 17, green food has bitter connotations that recall the nation's darkest chapter, says historian Christine Kinealy.
The reason, Kinealy explains, is the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, which forced so many Irish to flee mass starvation in their homeland in search of better times in America and elsewhere. Those who stayed behind turned to desperate measures.
"People were so deprived of food that they resorted to eating grass," Kinealy tells The Salt. "In Irish folk memory, they talk about people's mouths being green as they died."
At least a million Irish died in the span of six years, says Kinealy, the founding director of Ireland's Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Which is why, for an Irishwoman like Kinealy, who hails from Dublin and County Mayo, the sight of green-tinged edibles intended as a joyous nod to Irish history can be jolting, she says.
"Before I came to America, I'd never seen a green bagel." She says. "For Irish-Americans, they think of dying food green, they think everything is happy. But really, in terms of the famine, this is very sad imagery."
Of course, Americans have long embraced St. Patrick's Day traditions that might bemuse the folks back in Ireland, where festivities are a lot more subdued, Kinealy notes.
For instance, St. Paddy's Day Parades? Those originated here in the late 1700s. (George Washington was known to give his Irish soldiers the day off so they could join the celebrations, she says.)
And that quintessential dish of the holiday, corned beef — it may be delicious, but it's most definitely not Irish.
As Smithsonian.com noted last year, in Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and a sacred animal, kept more for their milk than their meat - which was only consumed once an animals' milking days were over. In the Irish diet, meat meant pork. It wasn't until Britain conquered most of Ireland that Irish "corned beef" came into existence — to satisfy the beef-loving English.
"Ironically, the ones producing the corned beef, the Irish people, could not afford beef or corned beef for themselves," Smithsonian notes.
Funny enough, the Irish didn't learn to love corned beef until coming to America - where they picked up the taste from their Jewish neighbors in the urban melting pot of New York City.
But these days, even the Irish back in the homeland have to come to accept this Irish-American dietary quirk, Kinealy says. As tourist season revs up and Americans head to the Emerald Isle to celebrate St. Paddy's Day, "a lot of pubs in Ireland will offer corned beef because they know the tourists like it. It's come full circle."