Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Nonfiction Animal Books: Soldier Bear, The Elephant Whisperer, The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

"A giant Pacific 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 1,600 of them. An octopus bite can inject a neurotoxic venom as well as saliva that has the ability to dissolve flesh. Worst of all, an octopus can take the opportunity to escape..." 
The Japanese word for octopus is tako which means the first time I ate octopus I thought I had ordered a taco. Beware of homophones! I didn't know too much about octopuses (or octopods - never octopi) before I read this book. I knew they're really smart and can get into and out of crazy complicated spaces, I knew they have three hearts, I knew they're good at predicting World Cup winners. 300 pages of Montgomery's amazing non-fiction book (written for an adult audience but appropriate and appealing for young adults) and I am now much more knowledgeable and a little obsessed. To be clear, I spent an entire day researching how to have a pet octopus and was a little devastated to discover that the black telescope goldfish I named 'tako' in high school is the closest I will ever have to owning my own tako. 

This book is part non-fiction information about octopods, part philosophical wonderings about consciousness, part memoir about Montgomery's personal life. I find all three of these genre appealing, and I am now completely in love with octopuses, so this will surely be one of my favorite books of the year. 

Montgomery gains access to the behind-the-scenes area of the New England Aquarium, allowing her to meet and befriend the different octopods that call that space their home. I found the information fascinating, but someone who already loves octopuses might find it a bit remedial. She is even allowed to touch the octopuses, and these descriptions were some of my favorite in the book. 
"I stroked [the octopus's] head, her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me. Clearly, each of us wanted the other's company, just as human friends are excited to reunite with each other. With each touch and each taste, we seemed to reiterate, almost like a mantra: 'It's you! It's you! It's you!'"
Montgomery includes the other New England Aquarium volunteers and employees in her narrative, and I enjoyed the anecdotes about their personal lives and how they ended up with their arms stuck in a very cold tank letting an octopus use her suckers to taste them. The only part of the book I didn't love was Montgomery getting her SCUBA certification to join research expeditions to study octopuses in the wild. I had already read details about that research in the excellent picture book The Octopus Scientists (also by Montgomery), so that was a little redundant since I read both in the same week. 

Last week I found myself at the Aquarium of the Pacific and I spotted a gorgeous giant Pacific octopus in a tank in front of a line. 'Of course a person would want to wait in line to stare at this majestic creature,' I thought, and dutifully waited in line with all the 10 year olds. I stood off to the side of the tank so the littlies would be able to see and just sighed and marveled at this incredible being. She turned white and striped, changed her texture from smooth to spiky, and her color undulated between bright red and dark red. She moved around her tank, and I watched her for about 15 minutes until she tucked herself into a corner to hide. 

When I finally let my thoughts disentangle from her tentacles, I realized that the line was not for the octopus tank at all, but for a petting tank. The octopus was the opening act, the preshow. I felt miffed on behalf of the cephalopod - no sea star can compete with the soul of an octopus. 


The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence

"She got straight to the point...would I be interested in adopting a herd of elephants?...
'They must be a big problem. Nobody just gives away elephants.'
'As I said, the matriarch keeps breaking out. Not only does she snap electric wires, she's also learnt how to unlatch gates with her tusks and the owners aren't too keen about jumbos wandering into the guest camps. If you don't take them, they will be shot.'"

Lawrence Anthony, like Sy Montgomery, is not a scientist by trade. He does, however, run a game reserve in Zululand in South Africa (the kind of reserve where you take pictures as souvenirs - not heads). He is a wild animal lover who truly believes that animals should be wild in their natural habitat with as little human interference as possible. When presented with a free herd of 9 elephants that included babies, (well, free except for transportation, adding a giant electric fence around the whole reserve, chopping down all trees near the fence so they can't be used to take down the fence, creating a holding area that is elephant proof and also electrified, getting all these structures approved by the powers that be, and of course, feeding the elephants while they were in their elephant proof holding area which involved Anthony at one side of the area and another ranger at the other side as they alternated distracting the herd and pushing up to 2,000 pounds of alfalfa through the fence - other than that they were totally free!), Anthony couldn't resist saving them from certain deaths.

Incorporating a herd of elephants is very very complicated because elephants are giant and destructive and this particular group was pretty angry at the world. Their first night on the reserve, they break out of their elephant proof holding area, out of the electric reserve fence, and go on the run. Several days of helicopter chases later, they're back on the reserve but even more dangerous because now they know they can escape. Anthony wrestles terribly with how to keep the elephants and keep them safe (as soon as they're outside of the reserve, they're a danger to people and villages, and poachers can legally kill them).
"Then in a flash came the answer. I decided there and then that contrary to all advice, I would go and live with the herd. I knew the experts would throw up their hands in horror as we had been repeatedly instructed that to keep them feral, human contact...must be kept to the barest minimum. But this herd had already had too much human contact of the very worst kind, and their rehabilitation, if such a thing was even possible at all, called for uncommon measures...I would remain outside the [structure], of course, but I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them, but most importantly, be with them day and night."
Here begins the story of the elephant whisperer desperately trying to figure out how to balance saving the herd with keeping them wild. The story of the elephants is the main narrative that runs throughout this thick book, and it is certainly what readers will expect and want, but the subnarratives and anecdotes that don't involve the elephants are just as interesting and entertaining. Cowriter Graham Spence has done an excellent job interweaving stories about running the reserve, anecdotes about funny or dangerous animal encounters, and the politics between the white reserve owner Lawrence Anthony and the Zulu tribes and clans as they attempt to co-create an even larger game reserve that involves lands owned by many different people.

This is one of the few books I've read recently that is not young adult and not for any classes. When I picked it out at the airport, I felt like I was giving myself the gift of a good book, and luckily it lived up to that idea expectation perfectly. I also really really really want to go to the Thula Thula reserve where you can stay for 9 all-inclusive nights for under $2000 USD (airfare not included).


Soldier Bear by Bibi Dumon Tak illustrated by Philip Hopman

" 'You bad bear, what have you been up to now? And what on earth are all of those things doing on your head? What do you think you are? A clothesline?' The bear put his paws back over his eyes and started rocking slowly backward and forward. The unsuspecting bear had wandered into the women's quarters...'Hello,' [the woman] said to him, in a friendlier voice. 'Aren't you a funny bear!' 'Nice to meet you,' the second soldier said. 'I'm Stanislav, that's Peter, my best friend and the bear's master. And the bear? Well, he's Private Voytek - and it's about tie we started chaining him up.' "

This book tells the true story of Private Voytek, a bear and a member of the 2nd Polish Corps during WWII. A group of Polish soldiers find a boy carrying a baby bear in a sack in Iran. They trade a few things for the bear and find themselves in various hijinks which include the repeated scene of the group of soldiers going to a new place or being under a new command and having to explain, justify, beg, and plead to keep the bear. The soldier's menagerie grows until at one point they are begging an officer to let them take a Voytek, a monkey, a dalmation, a mutt, a parrot, and pigs on a ship as they get transported from the Middle East to Italy. While the story is interesting and provides a good introduction to WWII, the audience is hard to determine.

At one point the Germans invading Russia is described as a conversation:
'We thought you were our friends!' the Russians shouted at the Germans. 'Ha!' the Germans shouted back, 'We're only friends with ourselves.'  
At one point the Germans invading Russia is described as a conversation:
'We thought you were our friends!' the Russians shouted at the Germans. 'Ha!' the Germans shouted back, 'We're only friends with ourselves.'  
Less than a hundred pages later, the Polish soldiers share the traumatic horrible things they've witnessed:
"Do you know what it feels like to see two boys standing there and then getting blown to pieces the next second with bits of them hanging from the trees?" ... Then Peter said, "I saw a boot a while ago and it still had a chunk of someone's leg in it." ... "And do you know what I saw the other day?" Pavel said. "A dead soldier with a cigarette in his mouth. And it was still lit. He was lying on his side, like he was having a nap, but there was a fresh bullet in his head." 
Most of the book seems like it's written for grades 3-6, but that scene (which is definitely the most graphic in the novel) would make me a little uncomfortable sharing it with the younger crowd. Overall, the book was okay or a little less than okay. I know part of my disappointment is because I don't usually read books for this age range (I enjoy picture books and books for grade 6+ but I do not and have never wanted to work with elementary school kids), but I think another part is because I had just read two really great non-fiction books about animals that I was mentally comparing it to. There's no information about bears in general, bear life, or why this bear was so tame when pet bears are generally a really bad idea - we don't even find out what kind of bear it is until the very end. Private Voytek is an interesting anecdote that kept soldiers' morale up in horrific circumstances, but I would have been satisfied with a single podcast or a long news article about him.


Christopher said...

Did you read a bunch of animal books on purpose

Christopher said...

...or on porpoise

Brittany said...

Ha! You are the best.

The Soul of an Octopus was for my non-fiction youth literature class and Soldier Bear was for my social justice in a global context in youth literature class. The Elephant Whisperer was discussed in one of my classes, and it was the only book at the airport bookstore that was in paperback and looked interesting. Why are airport bookstores so bad?