Review: The Soul of an Octopus: A surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness, by Sy Montgomery

Audio edition published by HighBridge Company, 2015

Dewey class number: 594/.56

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

Rating: ★★★★

Summary: The author documents her experiences with octopuses at the New England Aquarium and in the wild. She records the profound, intimate, and emotional relationships she builds with these strange, fascinating, and intelligent creatures.

Thoughts: The book raises some intriguing issues and questions, some of which are scientific, some of which are philosophical or even metaphysical. What is consciousness? If some animals have it, do all animals have it? If animals are far more conscious and intelligent than we have heretofore recognized, what does that mean for us, ethically?

The author’s descriptions of octopuses and other marine animals were vivid and absorbing. The picture she paints of aquariums is glowingly positive, and I found it interesting that among all the discussion of animal intelligence, the issue of wild animals in captivity only came up once, and was quickly dismissed (they have better, longer lives at the aquarium). Perhaps it was beyond the purview of this book to address the issue on a wider scale.

The book isn’t long, and never got tedious or boring. For my personal tastes, I would have preferred more scientific descriptions and facts, and less speculation about things like souls. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the title. Nonetheless, the question that the author is asking the reader to consider is an important one. If it’s possible to experience kinship with, and recognize consciousness in, a creature as alien to us as an octopus — what about the rest? What about each other?

Note: I listened to the audio edition of this book. It was read by the author, who is a good story-teller. The production was of good quality, although you could hear the sound of pages turning, and the reader pausing for breath, which I found distracting. The author’s inflection was also, at times, a bit over-exuberant, but at least never boring. Overall, a good audio production.

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Review: The Witches: Salem 1692, by Stacy Schiff

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2015

Subjects:

Rating: ★★★★

Summary: A thorough, clear-eyed, and penetrating look into one of the most infamous incidents in early American history.

Thoughts: This was not a light or quick read for me. Even at the end of 417 pages, I feel that I’ve only brushed the surface of the events, barely developing a grasp on understanding the political and social forces. While the author clearly relishes historical discovery, this relish is not always communicated to the reader (in the sense of passed on to). This is not a book for those interested in the subject purely for its sensational aspects; those readers will quickly find their attention waning as the narrative wends its way through sociopolitical structures, the effects of 17th century Puritanism on adolescent psychology, and gender constructs. Readers who stick with the book through to the end will be rewarded by a deeper understanding of the infamous Salem incident, and perhaps gain some insight into how the events of 1692 may contain lessons for current times as well.

Review: The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, by David Jaher

 

Subjects:

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Summary: The Witch of Lime Street chronicles Harry Houdini’s fascination with spirit mediums and his obsession with revealing fake mediums as frauds. The book focuses on his rivalry with the controversial medium Mina Crandon, known as “Margery,” and covers the era roughly from the end of the First World War to the beginning of the Second. It features an ensemble cast, with Houdini and Margery at the forefront, and such personages as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge in the background. It reveals an intriguing era in Western history when interest in the paranormal spiked and grew into a national obsession on both sides of the Atlantic.

Thoughts: Well, it was an interesting read. I learned a good amount about Sir Arthur, Houdini, and the Spiritualist movement. However, I found it unsatisfying in a number of areas. First, I would have liked more history and less rumor. Second, much of the book seemed based on hearsay, making it seem to amount to little more than gossip. For example, often things were said about one character or another but never substantiated. Additionally, I wanted to know how Houdini did his tricks. The author would say things like how Houdini’s tricks were so great they seemed like they could only be pulled off with real magic — and then not explain how they were actually done. Maybe no one knows, but he didn’t say that either. The same with the mediums. All in all, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the subjects covered, but not if you are looking for serious history.

Does going to IKEA count as a memorable experience?

I only go to IKEA one or two times each year so, for me, it counts as a memorable experience. IKEA also seems to know how to capitalize on the experience economy, offering a cafeteria that opens 30 minutes before the rest of the store. The “Restaurant” serves breakfast for around $1-$3 dollars, and coffee (which is organic) is free before 10 o’clock. While I can’t say the $1 breakfast (scrambled eggs, potatoes, and sausage) was particularly good, the coffee was surprisingly so.

I was there with my dad to deal with a missing part. We sat at a booth by the big windows and watched people in the parking lot heading into the store. Then, while my dad went to deal with Exchanges/Returns, I wandered about. Eventually, we met up and picked out a few extra small things my mom wanted, like dish towels and a wooden spoon. I got a small clip-on light, rather like a very large book light, that I can angle down at what I’m reading at my desk, and a 99c toy rat. I don’t know why I wanted the toy rat. It’s just one of those things. I think I’ll call him Ricky.

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Casket of Souls by Lynn Flewelling

(Written October, 2015)

Series: Nightrunner, book 6

Genre: Fantasy

Year of publication: 2012

Rating: ♥♥♥½

Summary: Flewelling’s sixth entry in the Nightrunner series takes place entirely in Seregil and Alec’s home city of Rhímenee, which is actually something of a nice change after the last three books (Book 3 took place in Aurënen, Book 4 in Plenimar, and Book 5 in Aurënen/traveling/Plenimar). The gist of the plot is that various groups of conspirators are plotting to assassinate various royals, and Alec and Seregil must discover their plans before it is too late. At the same time, a mysterious illness has come to the city — the Sleeping Death. As more and more people fall victim, and even the wizard Thero can’t determine why, Seregil and Alec begin to suspect something more sinister than mere sickness is at work. Besides Seregil and Alec, this book also features their friend Thero, Princess Klia, and, of course, the Cavishes.

Thoughts: It was good, but in some ways unsatisfying. The plot was fairly solid — better than books 4 and 5, but not quite on the same level as the first three. We got to see a bit of development between Seregil and Alec, but this is pushed aside as the chapters are taken up by visits to various nobles and interactions with other characters. I’d have liked to see more about how they are each dealing with the aftermath of the whole Sebrahn thing. We get a few mentions about Alec’s sadness at having had to let go of Sebrahn, and Seregil’s continuing anxiety about Alec after what happened to him in Plenimar. Still, they were enslaved, tortured, separated for weeks or months, and so on — but none of that seems to have had much of a lasting effect on their characters.

I was also disappointed that Alec and Seregil don’t seem to have learned anything new in this book. In the other books, they’ve discovered either something significant about their pasts or about themselves. I’d also have like to see them learn some new skills, or put their skills to more impressive use. I mean, the bad guy wasn’t even that impressive in this one, but he came off as being almost more clever than Seregil. Maybe it’s because they were supposed to be somewhat similar, but still — it doesn’t seem like he should have been as much of a challenge as he was.

I’m still looking forward to the last book, though. Maybe everything I’ve been hoping for will happen in that one. I’d like to see lots of impressive archery from Alec, learn something special about either character, see lots of relationship details, and some character development for Seregil (he was honestly a bit flat in this one).