Thursday, May 28, 2015

REVIEW: The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery


In this astonishing book from the author of the bestselling memoir The Good Good Pig, Sy Montgomery explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus' surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature: and the remarkable connections it makes with humans.

Sy Montgomery's popular 2011 Orion magazine piece, "Deep Intellect"; about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death, went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. Since then Sy has practiced true immersion journalism, from New England aquarium tanks to the reefs of French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico, pursuing these wild, solitary shape-shifters. Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But with a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, and a tongue covered with teeth, how can such a being know anything? And what sort of thoughts could it think?

The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their color-changing camouflage techniques. Montgomery chronicles this growing appreciation of the octopus, but also tells a love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about consciousness and the meeting of two very different minds.

Hardcover, 272 pages
Expected publication: May 12th 2015 by Atria Books
ISBN 1451697716 (ISBN13: 9781451697711

About the Author

Part Indiana Jones, part Emily Dickinson, as the Boston Globe describes her, Sy Montgomery is an author, naturalist, documentary scriptwriter, and radio commentator who has traveled to some of the worlds most remote wildernesses for her work. She has worked in a pit crawling with 18,000 snakes in Manitoba, been hunted by a tiger in India, swum with pink dolphins in the Amazon, and been undressed by an orangutan in Borneo. She is the author of 13 award-winning books, including her national best-selling memoir, The Good Good Pig. Montgomery lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.  


My Thoughts
On a rare, warm day in mid-March, when the snow was melting into mud in New Hampshire, I traveled to Boston, where everyone was strolling along the harbor or sitting on benches licking ice cream cones. 
I think probably just about every person who came in contact with me while I was reading this book, and for weeks after, heard about it from me. That's how much it affected me!

This book follows the author's experiences with the New England Aquarium and her time getting to know octopuses, both wild and tame. As the title would indicate, the book showcases the octopus, with its intelligence and complexity and depth. However it also includes many of the other inhabitants of the aquarium, like starfish, anemones, lobster and fish of many varieties.

The author first wrote about the octopus Athena in her piece “Deep Intellect” in Orion magazine in 2011, and this book introduces us not only to Athena, but also to Octavia, Kali and Karma, and their various personalities.

Like the author, I learned that I've "been using the incorrect plural of octopus all these years..."
I knew little about octopuses-- not even that the scientifically correct plural is not octopi, as I had always believed (it turns out you can’t put a Latin ending-- i -- on a word derived from Greek, such as octopus).
And I learned that the power of an octopus is mindblowing…
A giant octopus-- the largest of the world’s 250 or so octopus species-- can easily overpower a person. Just one of a big male’s three-inch-diameter suckers can lift 30 pounds, and a giant Pacific octopus has 1600 of them. An octopus bite can inject a neurotoxic venom as well as saliva that has the ability to dissolve flesh.
Octopus are viewed as frightening enigmas, or even as ugly and disgusting creatures, but the author helps the reader to see their beauty. At one point, she writes of a time that she was standing with the aquarium’s other visitors and observing the octopus Octavia. Some teenage girls were disparaging the aging octopus absorbed in the care of her eggs, and the author engaged the girls through education about Octavia’s anatomy and behavior, but then there was a moment that the girls could identify with, and eventually the girls’ attitudes toward Octavia turned around.
They don’t want to hear how Octavia is different from us. They want to know how we’re the same.
My final word: The author successfully shows that octopuses are so much more than what we typically think. Their behavior is sometimes reminiscent of a pet dog, seeking human interaction and their tactile natures touching and tasting their human companions. The author succeeded in affecting me, and not only making me recommit to never eating octopus or their cousin the squid, but it made me begin to doubt my ability to continue to eat seafood at all. The consciousness of even fish like grouper is phenomenal and at times unsettling. Tender and amusing stories of starfish and anemones had me shaking my head in amazement. I adored this book, and it left me yearning to make the acquaintance of an octopus, envious of others who have been so blessed.

Buy Now:
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My Rating:


I received a copy of this book to review through Netgalley and the publisher, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. The book that I received was an uncorrected proof, and quotes could differ from the final release.

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