“We are all much more connected, related, relied upon, and dependent on each other than we know or will ever be able to comprehend.”

On Thursday, June 2nd a group of  Books on Tap readers met at Champion Brewery (following a power outage) to discuss Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness.  Published in 2015 and a National Book Award Finalist, much of this non-fiction work takes place at the Great Ocean Tank of the New England Aquarium in Boston.  

Those who listened to the author read the audio version of the book really liked it. They enjoyed putting a voice to their image of the author and pointed out that she read with such expression that they could feel how passionately she felt about each amazing creature she encountered, especially the octopuses. Everyone agreed they learned new things about octopuses and other sea creatures over the course of the book. Everyone was astounded by the extraordinarily short lifespans they have. We found the book approachable and very readable.

Some readers felt the book was shallow. They thought that the author was hyper focused on the various places where she traveled to research, and thought that she concentrated on relaying only her personal experiences of said trips. They wished that she would have delved deeper into specific details about their research and they wished she had included more how and why information about the various scientists who supported her on the research trips. In this same vein, some attendees felt that they wanted to know more about the meaningful relationships between the main characters she volunteered with and their relationships between each other. There was also the opinion that there could have been more scientific facts presented about the various octopuses mentioned in the book. Some readers were distracted by the meandering side stories and wished the author had incorporated more details and connectivity to the people she volunteered with at the New England Aquarium.

Readers felt the author did not address the idea of the octopus soul. They found the title misleading. This was a disappointment and they felt let down at the end of the book. One topic to ponder is the thought that it is wonderful that the book highlighted the incredible intelligence of the octopus but some felt sad that the author did not question the morality of keeping them in captivity in small spaces, at times, for the education and for the entertainment of humans. Several readers appreciated the fact that the octopuses who are captured to mate in aquariums on the west coast can be successfully and safely be re-released into the wild near where they were captured in the first place.

It was a passionate and lively discussion and we all left with the feeling that all creatures of the land and the sea are important and deserve support and  protection. 

“There’s nothing more peculiar than an octopus.”

Other titles, movies, and lectures mentioned:

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Mozart’s Starling By Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

The Octopus Scientist: Exploring the mind of a mollusk– children’s non-fiction book by Montgomery We had this book on hand for readers to browse through the photographs of various octopuses.

The Hawk’s Way  (2022) by Sy Montgomery

My Octopus Teacher currently available to watch on Netflix

Sy Mongomery’s lecture about the octopus Octavia on YouTube

Upcoming titles:

July 7th   Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

August 4th  Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

September 1st  The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

“The more I read, the more I became afraid of wars.”

Books on Tap met Thursday, May 5 at Champion Brewing Company to discuss The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. This is a beautiful, compelling family story of love, sacrifice, and incredible pain. The Vietnam War traumatizes, wounds, and kills members of this family, but the intricacies of war are kept off the page, and are only discussed between characters after conversations that swing between gentle coaxing and frustrated demands. Where Quế Mai really rests her focus is on the internal war existing inside one very strong woman – Trần Diệu Lan, a mother who is narrowly able to escape her home during the Vietnam Land Reform, her six children in tow – for a time. The decisions she must make for those children as they journey were a heavy crux of our discussion. Which character elicited the most sympathy as this young family scrambled to survive? What is the mark of a mother, and is that mark indelible, or not? As we read about Trần Diệu Lan, we were reminded of the theme of motherhood found within Beloved

We learned a lot from this book. Many shared stories of friends, and in one case, a beloved husband who later passed away from Agent Orange exposure, who served in Vietnam and came home reticent, not wanting to share those stories or experiences. Some of the book was brutal: we gritted our teeth through a gruesome decapitation in broad daylight in the middle of the road and trembled as we read through the opening scene of the book: 

“Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Sixty kilometers away. Armed forces get ready to fight back.” The female voice becomes more urgent. The sirens are deafening.

Shelter after shelter is full. People dart in front of us like birds with broken wings, abandoning bicycles, carts, shoulder bags. A small girl stands alone, screaming for her parents.

“Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Thirty kilometers away.”

Clumsy with fear, I trip and fall.

Our readers were appreciative of what Quế Mai gifted to us because she chose to write in English: voice to the trauma and PTSD that exists in Vietnam as a result of the war and associated societal upheaval. What does history look like when written from everyday people’s memories? In this case, it includes stunning Vietnamese proverbs that many readers recalled as some of the most poignant lines from the novel. 

In conclusion, our readers would recommend this book. It was well-written and interesting, deftly moving between two different time periods, keeping us on our toes and paying attention – simply a good book. As one reader noted, “if you want to write a good novel, make it as hard as hell to read!” 

Other Books Mentioned: 

Wild Swans: three daughters of China by Jung Chang         

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen 

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain 

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway 

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, June 2 at 7 pm to discuss The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. Our remaining summer titles include: 

July 7: Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

August 4: Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

“Vote, but don’t expect it save you. March, but don’t expect it to save you. Pray, but don’t expect it to save you.”

Books on Tap met on Thursday, April 7 at Champion Brewing Company to discuss My Monticello by Jocelyn Johnson. Johnson is a local teacher and writer, so we were all excited to dive into this fictional debut, which is a collection of short stories plus one novella, all revolving in some way around survival in the often difficult quest for belonging. 

Our main point of discussion came from the fact that these stories are set in Charlottesville or, more generally, Virginia. We discussed how we think Johnson might feel about Charlottesville, and because there is such a strong sense of place throughout the book, we were also able to share our own thoughts and feelings about Charlottesville, and how the book worked to shape our own mental chatter regarding our town. 

We enjoyed the short stories. The first, “Control Negro,” was the most interesting to discuss. The professor studying racism in real time, in the most personal means possible, spooked and freaked out some readers. His character was certainly complex and sparked debate about hope, cynicism, choices, and legacy. While I won’t spoil details here, his decision regarding his familial ties ultimately foreshadows important discussions on race, privilege, and family that take place in the titular novella, “My Monticello.” For readers who didn’t catch that mirroring in their first read, they may enjoy going back and rereading the collection with an eye particularly trained to the black male characters – their choices, secrets, interior lives, and how they move through the world. 

Family was huge in this book, both blood family and found family, which leads us to the novella, “My Monticello.” We had to discuss the ending, of course! Some readers took Johnson’s ending and then tacked on their own final scene – and we could all agree that we did sense what was implied to be coming. But just because we know what is likely around the corner does not mean the story had resolution. Was the story resolved? And if not – was that even a bad thing? Someone noted that an unresolved story leaves room for you, the reader, to take control. Unfortunately, some readers felt like there was nothing to resolve. The action – from the madness of the white militia to the love-triangle-forming lovemaking – largely takes place off the page. For some, a premise that held so much potential felt like little more than a house tour and an interesting dip into shattering “Monticello mystique.” 

We read and discussed this book in Charlottesville. The events of August 11-12, 2017 are featured in My Monticello as life-altering memories. Less emotionally charged, there are references to our streets, landmarks, and restaurants. As Charlottesville residents, we read this book with a particular lens; that lens might be deep, shallow, curved, or fragmented based on our lived experiences here and elsewhere. The next question is: what do we get from this book if we don’t live in Charlottesville? We need an outside perspective! If you can offer such a perspective, or relay that perspective from a family member or friend who doesn’t live here in Charlottesville, chat with us in the comments! 

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, May 5 at 7 pm to discuss The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. Come prepared to share book titles you’d like to recommend we read as a group!