“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 problem in marriage is learning to overcome boredom.”

Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, May 19 to discuss Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, a story very loosely based on the tragic, comic love story of García Márquez’s parents. This book generated some of the most animated discussions I have witnessed from the group since joining back in 2020. The premise is simple: Florentino and Fermina fall in love in their youth, but it is a forbidden love, and Fermina marries someone else. As time drags on, Florentino continues to watch Fermina from afar, debatably never fully moving on with his life, even as he embarks on dozens of love affairs. He’s a man who can’t write a business letter, but crafts exquisite love letters for other people who can’t express their own feelings. 

This book has a very strong sense of place and time: rich colors, mountains you can feel, steamy streets, telegraphs, steam ships, old cars. It’s as if García Márquez sampled conditions of various places in South America, and combined the details to create one “mythical” place – a place it’s clear García Márquez has a love-hate relationship with (although, readers noted this book has about ⅓ the amount of “magical realism” compared to García Márquez’s other book, One Hundred Years of Solitude). 

The writing and translating was described as beautiful. One reader loved the “parade” of mores and social conventions through the years; we were really able to put ourselves in that place in time and understand why people behaved the way they did. We did have trouble stomaching Florentino’s love with the very young girl, just on the brink of her teenage years, but whereas now, girls that age are called little girls, back then, in traditional Latin America, they were seen as “young women.” 

In addition to an enveloping atmosphere of time and place, the book’s theme is alluring: the later love presented here is electric and rejuvenating. Childhood sweethearts, finally reunited; at the end, a revelation – maybe everything is not as sweet as we all thought it would be – and yet readers loved that, too. 

The book is epic in its study of love. One reader called it an exploration of “every different kind of love in the world.” Not only does the book detail the experiences of love, but also how a person’s outlook on love affects them, as well as how people respond to the love from another. Some read the story as a mystery – would Florentino be caught loving other women? So many choices were made based on a need for secrecy, the book certainly had mysterious airs. 

Fermina is the paragon woman, but Florentino loved the others with tenderness and endurance throughout life. If he loved the others, what does he feel for Fermina? Can it be love, if what he felt for others was love, but what he feels for her is “more”? What is greater than love? Or then, is his feeling not greater, but different? 

And then, the title! Plagues feature prominently, and the symptoms of love and cholera were discussed – how they mirror one another and what they mean. In Spanish, cólera refers to the disease of cholera, and an intense feeling of anger (although the two meanings are gendered differently – the disease is masculine and the feeling is feminine – and it is the woman who is angry throughout the novel). The word comes from Greek χολή which means bile. We also have choler in English, which means anger or irritability, and it stems from the four humors theory where choler (yellow bile) meant people were bitter, short tempered, and daring. The word choler comes from French colere, which comes from Latin cholera. Florentino is plagued by love, physically and mentally, but it is also the cholera that facilitates his isolation on the riverboat with his beloved…. Cholera is everywhere, in the people, and in the land. Circling back to our discussion on the setting, we realized Colombia is a character at play here, and the country itself is dying of cholera. When we see what has become of the flora and fauna at the end of the book, we are dumbstruck by the devastation. 

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, June 16th at noon to discuss Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s not too late to read the book and join us, because it’s very short! 

Other books: 

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez

Same Time, Next Year by Bernard Slade 

One Day by David Nicholls

Martin Rivas by Blest Gana

“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