Full disclosure – I am not what you would call an “animal lover”. I do appreciate animals but have not been convinced about the joys of pet ownership. I will occasionally pat a well-behaved dog on its head but have never watched cat videos or forwarded memes of baby animals.
Yet, in the past few months, I have read three really great books featuring a stray cat, a Magellan penguin and a smart octopus. And I would highly recommend them to all animal lovers and on-the-fence readers like me.
The Traveling Cat Chronicle by Hiro Arikawa
Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Audio narration by George Blagden
The narrator of this Japanese story is Nana, an injured stray cat that is taken in by kind-hearted Satoru who lives and works alone in Tokyo. The name Nana comes from the Japanese word for the number 7 which is the shape of the cat’s tail. Having had a cat as a pet in his childhood, Satoru is happy to once again have a companion but soon enough the plot shifts.
We accompany Satoru and Nana on a long road trip across Japan and through the stops along the way, we are filled in on Satoru’s backstory in an interesting way. First we meet Kosuke, the childhood school friend who reminisces about Satoru’s first pet cat, Hachi, so named for the Japanese word for number 8, based on its markings. Through detailed accounts of the adventures of Kosuke and Satoru, we find out about the tragic death of Satoru’s parents and the reason why a heartbroken Satoru has to let go of Hachi.
The next stop on this pilgrimage through Japan reunites him with Yoshimine, a friend he makes in highschool after being taken in by his aunt Norike who is a judge and frequently gets transferred. We meet a couple, Sugi and Chikako, who run a pet-friendly hotel but know Satoru from their college days.
As Nana chronicles the trip, we understand the unique bond between the animal and his human and also what makes both Nana and Satoru special. The description of Nana’s first view of the ocean, majestic Mount Fiji and Satoru’s visit to his parents’ grave tug at your heartstrings as we finally get a glimpse of the reason why Nana needs a new home.
My opinion: A poignant book about humans seen through the eyes of a smart cat.
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell
Audio narration by Bill Nighy
A true story of the author as a young man from Sussex, UK who spends a few years in Argentina, teaching at a residential school for boys. On a holiday trip to Punta del Este, Uruguay, he finds an oil-drenched Magellan penguin, the only one that seems to still be alive on a shore littered with hundreds of others that didn’t survive. His impulsive decision to rescue the lone survivor puts his life on a trajectory that makes for a fun, entertaining as well as a meaningful read.
The funniest bits are right up with the earnest attempts by the author to clean up an oily penguin using a variety of home products. Keeping in mind that all this occurred in the 1970’s, well before you could google things like this. Since the rescue happens on the last night before Michell’s departure to his work place in Argentina, he decides to smuggle the penguin back to his living quarters. This results in several laugh out loud moments on the journey across the border to Argentina including the hilarious encounters at immigration and with the customs officer that reiterate the fact that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Although initially suspicious of his savior, the penguin, who is named Juan Salvadore, the Spanish version of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, forms a strong bond with Michell and follows him around the school campus. Soon the boys at the boarding school, and the staff members become part of the extended family that cares for the penguin. Yet, the beneficiary of all the attention and affection is not just the penguin but also the boys, many of whom find solace in the quiet company of the attentive Juan Salvadore.
Michell often wonders if he is being cruel by isolating a penguin in human company knowing how communal the lives of Magellan penguins are. While he is unable to find a suitable place to ‘rehome’ his penguin friend, he decides to take him to the school swimming pool. The most moving anecdote occurs in the pool where as a lonely school boy who seems to be unhappy and a misfit on land, comes into his own besides Juan Salvadore in the pool.
The book takes us to places in the continent of South America, introduces us to the political situation in Argentina during its tumultuous years and recounts the author’s own gradual growth and maturity and in doing so makes us feel for him and his penguin friend but also arouses in us a wistful nostalgia for our youth and the what-ifs of our life.
My opinion: An unusual memoir that unites man and animal and sheds light on how our life’s journey is impacted by the most unusual creatures and circumstances.
Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Audio narration by Marin Ireland and Micheal Urie
Marcellus McSquiddles is a Giant Pacific Octopus at Sowell Bay Aquarium in Puget Sound. Like others of his species, he has three hearts, the ability to change color to match his surroundings and survive without water for short periods of time, but he also has other talents. He knows how to escape from his living quarters and wander around for late night snacks, he can study the fingerprints on his glass tank and he can read the board outside his display. And just like humans who know of their ultimate demise, Marcellus is counting the last days of his approximate four year life span (as mentioned on the board), the bulk of which have been spent in captivity.
Enough about the brainy octopus? Okay, let’s meet the other characters in this heartwarming story that unites a seventy-year old smart, spry recently widowed Tova Sullivan, who hangs out with a bunch of her contemporaries in a group that calls themselves “the knit-wits” and cleans the aquarium at night. There’s Ethan, an elderly Scotsman who owns the local grocery store, has a soft spot for Tova, and is generally the person who knows everything about everyone in town.
The star character is Cameron, the young man from California who comes to Sowell Bay in search of the father he never knew, hoping to change the narrative of his life which has been nothing to write home about. Having been abandoned by his mother at nine and brought up by an aunt, Cameron hopes to turn his life around after he is fired from yet another job and another relationship ends.
Tova has a sad backstory but is a stoic and practical woman who knows what she needs to do as she faces a lonely future. Despite dating Avery, the stunning surf shop owner, Cameron can’t seem to move ahead from his tortured past. It is Marcellus who sees them both, senses their angst, deciphers the clues embedded in their faces and in fragments of their past to engineer a happier tomorrow for Tova and Cameron.
The audiobook was an absolute delight, with Marin Ireland narrating most parts, including the delightful Scottish accent and Michael Urie doing a fantastic job for Marcellus.
I was not surprised when I found out that Remarkably Bright Creatures was the most gifted book for Christmas 2023. It would make a lovely movie and even better, if there is a sequel to this beautiful story of how we can find love in the most unexpected places and in the most unusual way.
My opinion: If you are curious about how the author manages to weave the stories of a smart, independent septuagenarian, a lost 30-year old and an aging octopus into a beautiful narrative of love, loss and second chances, do grab this book.