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Memories Of A Long Life Return In 'Alive, Alive Oh!'

Diana Athill is, by her own account, a very old woman. At 98, she lives in a home for the elderly in North London. This small and lovely book is a collection of favorite memories that return to Athill at the end of her life: heartbreak, yes, a miscarriage, but also a moment by the apple tree, a hill carpeted in bluebells, Byron's letters.

"Looking at things is never time wasted." she writes. "When I was marveling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman's idle days pleasant instead of boring."

She's wry, pleasantly and cleanly detached. "My two valuable lessons are: avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness. Both of these can be dangerous, and in conjunction with sexuality even lethal." She says she is past sexuality, but her writing is often ecstatically sensual: In Tobago, "the plunging valleys jostle with leaves like open hands, like elephants' ears, like saws, like feathers, like fans ..." She conjures with crisp grace the taste of lemonade, the smell of violets, the look in her mother's eyes as she died.

These are vignettes rather than a single story with a narrative arc. Perhaps the most vivid section, the one which gives the book its title, is the one in which she details her pregnancy. She had been careless with contraceptives — a carelessness, she acknowledges now, that does not reflect "an optimistic belief that she will not conceive, but ... an exactly opposite subconscious optimism: deep inside herself she wants a child." It is not a convenient time to be pregnant. She is low on money and the father is her married lover, but she finds she must keep the child: "It was a happiness very new to me, but it felt very ancient, and complete."

The horror of the miscarriage — the pain, the gush, the "peppery smell of blood" — is matched only by the joy of surviving it when it looked like she would die. She survives blood transfusions, and wakes certain she will live: "It was enough. It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any I had known before ... I loved being alive so much that not having died was more important to me by far than losing the child: more important than anything."

The nearness of death could make this a grim book, but instead it is a joyous and vivid one. She is, as she notes, a "rather lucky woman," but it's not just a matter of luck. Her unsentimental optimism is clearly a choice — there is plenty of unhappiness that could be brooded over, made large and obscuring, but she chooses instead to savor the beautiful.

It's a lovely book for the company alone, for the luxury of wandering in someone else's best memories, but it is also a nimble recasting of the familiar warning: gather-ye-rosebuds, memento mori, carpe diem, what have you, because we do not live forever.

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Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.