Restorative reading: The Soul of an Octopus

Katherine Arthaud

I don’t know about you, but I think one of the worst days of my life was Nov. 8, 2016. It felt like Sept. 11, 2001. Or that’s what it felt like to me, anyway. Like the world as I had loved it would never be the same again. 

We had a new president. And it was unimaginable to me that America had made such a choice. As it happened, I had a flight that morning to Detroit, where I was registered for a conference. The plan was that my friend Susan and I would fly out together, and our friend Sheila would meet us the next day. Susan was as devastated as I and, though much more politically savvy and prescient, equally shocked and blindsided by the results of an election it seemed to just about everyone on the planet Hillary had in the bag. It was a dark day. It actually surprised me that planes were running as usual, that the world hadn’t needed to stop, take a deep breath and moan a collective WTF. And this conference—a women’s conference—was it still going to happen? (So much for the opening night Celebrate-the-First-Woman-President dance party…) 

But somehow, strangely, the world seemed not to be stopping or pausing but rather going about its business. The conference was on, and flights were (I checked) taking off per usual. Once in Detroit, we checked into our hotel, and as nothing conference-related was scheduled till evening, set about thinking up something to do. 

Luckily for me, Susan, though seriously debilitated by post-election malaise, is a whiz at travel and was able to rally her spirits enough to decide that our best bet was probably the Motown Museum. So off we went. I won’t go too much into the details of this excursion, because it would take up the whole word-count, but suffice it to say, it was just what the doctor ordered. The exuberant tour guide, the diverse, friendly handful of our fellow tour-mates (including a group of sympathetic, charming architecture students from the Netherlands), the never-ending music, the photographs, the history of Motown itself, and the legacy of passionate, talented, inspired, indomitable human beings who overcame tremendous obstacles to give birth to the Motown phenomenon. Well, somehow, miracle of miracles, my spirit returned to me. I could feel it seeping back into my cells with every minute we spent on that tour, with every step we took with our buoyant, radiant and often dancing guide. 

Whatever disaster had just occurred, whatever our country was in for in the days to come, there was magic in this place. I don’t know why, or how, but hope, love and a sense of resiliency was in the air, and it was contagious. It’s hard to put into words. But when we walked out and clicked a few last photos of the house on West Grand Boulevard in the slowly dimming late afternoon light, I was better. Much better. I don’t know how it happened, but after our excursion, I felt deep in my bones that somehow we were going to get through this, and we were going to do it together. I believed that, no matter who we had elected president and what hard times might lie in store for our nation, human beings are inherently good and friendly, and in the end, mostly just want to dance and listen to really great music. Together. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe there are exceptions, but I’m holding onto this basic premise and choosing to believe that…well, that we shall overcome, one day.

And now, here we are, two years in. And yes, there have been some tough days. A few weeks ago I wrote about how a trip with my son to the New England Aquarium restored my soul after the Kavanaugh hearings. Standing with a big group of animal-loving human beings, mostly children, waiting our turn to touch the slippery, gray back of gliding stingrays with the palm of one’s hand is (take note, if you ever need it) highly restorative. 

~All of which brings me to this book I’ve been wanting to tell you about: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. 

Just as I didn’t know when I walked in through the wooden door of the Motown Museum, or through the glass-paned one at the New England Aquarium, how healing these places would be, so too did I not guess how comforting and mind-expanding would be the pages of this slim volume by Sy Montgomery. Perhaps I should have, as my daughter’s friend Lucy has been trying to get me to read it for years, but I had no idea. (Sorry, Lucy.) But perhaps books come to us when we need them most. 

What is this book about? Well, it’s about octopuses. But not just octopuses; we’re talking specific octopuses, like Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma. “Octavia’s one visible eye, coppery now, not silver, faces us. I can’t tell if she is looking at us or staring into space like a person lost in thought.” “It is possible that Athena, in fact, knows I am female. Female octopuses, like female humans, possess estrogen; she could be tasting and recognizing mine. Octopuses can taste with their entire bodies, but this sense is most exquisitely developed in their suckers. Athena’s is an exceptionally intimate embrace. She is at once touching and tasting my skin, and possibly the muscle, bone, and blood beneath. Though we have only just met, Athena already knows me in a way no being has known me before.” 

The Soul of an Octopus isn’t just about octopuses. It is about the aquarium, and other ocean animals, and about some of the people who work with, befriend and protect them. You will not believe some of the things you read about octopuses—how smart they are, how intuitive and creative; how they have a sense of humor and different personalities; how strong they are, and how sensitive and curious and mind-bogglingly intelligent. We live in an amazing, wonderful, fragile, resilient, crazy-beautiful, heartbreaking, joyful, beleaguered, irrepressible world. 

I so recommend this book. Lucy was right. It will do wonders for your spirit. It will fill you with awe and wonder. It exudes curiosity, humility and great kindness. And you will learn so much from it. And it’s really not very long. And there are pictures, too—glossy color photographs—which I can’t stop looking at. I want to go back to the aquarium and commune with these magical creatures. I think I need to. Soon. Come with me. It will do us good.

Two more very worthy books are Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered and Tara French’s The Witch Elm. They have very little in common with each other except that both are very good, very worth your time. I am a huge fan of Tara French and have been waiting for a new book by her for some time. 

The Witch Elm begins with a haunting inscription from Hamlet: “Lord, we know what we are/but know not what we may be.” I guess you would categorize this book as “crime fiction,” but it is so much more. It is suspenseful, beautifully written and a bit dark, and of course there is a body. But as this novel reveals itself, as the plot and various histories and motives become unveiled, the nooks and crannies of its characters come increasingly to light, along with the complicated ways they relate to each other. At times, as I read, I found myself remembering Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, another dark, rich, brilliant, haunting “crime drama.” I don’t want to say more, don’t want to risk spoiling one single second of your enjoyment of this book. Try it. You will like, and probably love, it. 

Unsheltered worried me at first. Kingsolver has set such a high, high bar with The Poisonwood Bible, which I consider a masterpiece. Though Unsheltered didn’t quite live up to The Poisonwood Bible, it is a very good book. I really admire and respect Kingsolver for the way she took on some of the big issues here (like climate change, death and dying, and the untraditional family) and skillfully and artfully braided them into a fine story with characters you want to stay in touch with well beyond page 464, which is where this novel comes to a close. I will be among the first in line for the next books by both French and Kingsolver. They are masters, and I bow to them. Encore!

Oh, and speaking of encores: I know this column is about books and reading, but if you haven’t yet seen Bohemian Rhapsody or The Hate U Give, go see them! And, meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving!