Monday, May 4, 2015


"It takes a special person to understand what it means to have a friend who's an octopus."

Every once in a while I read a book that makes my face hurt from grinning like an idiot throughout. It happens mostly with non-fiction works involving animals or nature/science themes. Perhaps those are simply the subjects that make me feel like a beaming 6-year-old again, but whatever magic they hold, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness has it in spades.

Sy Montgomery is a naturalist, author, and scriptwriter who has been described as "part Indiana Jones, part Emily Dickinson." She has written more than fifteen books, most of which have to do with a particular species of animal. This time, she shares her extraordinary relationships with four octopuses* at the Boston Aquarium: Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma, each friendship as complex and unique as those between humans.

Montgomery knew little about octopuses when her adventure began, but what little she did know intrigued her:
Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart.

According to Montgomery, "those who work with octopuses report seeing things that, according to the way we've learned the world normally works, should not be happening." For an invertebrate, octopuses have enormous brains, and they evidence incredible problem-solving skills.

These skills are required for survival in the wild, where an octopus is basically a "big packet of unprotected protein." Well aware of their vulnerability, octopuses are magicians, altering body position, color, and skin texture to, for example, morph into a flatfish, then a sea snake, and then a poisonous lionfish, all in a matter of seconds. An octopus has to choose what to display for an occasion, monitor the results/reaction and then change again if necessary, all in the name of survival:

From building shelters to shooting ink to changing color, the vulnerable octopus must be ready to outwit dozens of species of animals, some of which it pursues, others it must escape. How do you plan for so many possibilities? Doing so demands, to some degree, anticipating the actions - in other words, imagining the minds - of other individuals...[O]f all the creatures on the planet who imagine what is in another creature's mind, the one that must do so best might well be the octopus - because without this ability, the octopus could not perpetrate its many self-preserving deceptions. An octopus  must convince many species of predator that it is really something else...The octopus must assess whether the other animal believes its ruse or not, and if not, try something different.

In captivity, octopuses have to be carefully kept, as any weakness in their tanks will be exploited as an escape route. Given a series of increasingly difficult interlocking cubes, octopuses will solve them one after the other, each animal going about the problem differently. One octopus learned to get the attention of her owner when he was out of the room by removing the interior portion of a magnetized tank cleaner. Once she removed the magnet from the glass, the exterior portion would crash to the floor, summoning her human like ringing a servant's bell.

Smart indeed. But what about characteristics and abilities that go beyond intelligence? Do animals have souls? Do they feel emotions like we do? If you have doubts, I dare you to read this book and not be persuaded. The scientific information in Soul is worth the price of admission alone, but the emotional connections between the four octopuses and the author, as well as various aquarium keepers, scientists, interns, and their friends turns this book into a true love story, intraspecies and interspecies alike.

I have heard octopuses described as the "dogs of the sea," and after reading this book that description seems right on point. They recognize people as individuals, greeting and reacting to them differently, sensing various moods and responding accordingly. Some lift their arms out of the water and reach toward a favorite person like a child who wants to be lifted and hugged. Other times, they spray a victim with a strong stream of water, often in play, sometimes to teach a lesson.

I can't do justice to the wonder of this book, the joy and pain and fellowship and grief that Montgomery brings to life with her words. The window she provides into the lives of these four creatures, young and old, sharp as a tack and descending into "dementia," as well as her human counterparts, is completely engrossing and accessible, making the reader feel like a part of the community they created around an octopus barrel. It will make you want to run to your nearest aquarium and sit in front of the octopus display, hoping to make your own connection with this extraordinary animal.

(*The scientifically correct plural, I learned, is not octopi. Apparently it is improper to put a Latin ending - i - on a word of Green origin, as is the word "octopus." Who knew? (Not me. Or the author, so I don't feel so bad.))

STREET SENSE:  I can't recommend this book highly enough for anyone who is the least bit interested in animals, natural science and/or animal sentience. Packed full of facts, it still reads like a great story. It's very smart while not overly-technical, immersed with emotion while not treacly or manipulative. Heck, I fell in love so hard I would go out and get an octopus if I didn't know I would be outwitted and over-matched.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Even though her skin can change color and taste flavors, it, like mine, relaxes into a caress. And though her mouth is between her arms, and her saliva dissolves flesh, she, like me, clearly enjoys a good meal when she's hungry. I felt as if I had understood something very basic about her at that moment. I don't know what it's like to change color or shoot ink, but I do know the joys of gentle touch and of eating food when hungry. I know what it feels like to be happy. Athena was happy.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover is going to be in the running for my favorite of the year. Everything about it is perfection. The palette, the art work, the fonts and relative sizing. I took one look and knew I wanted to dig in. There are certain covers that, like movie posters, would look great hanging on a wall. This is one of those covers.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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