(photo: wikimedia)

By Richard Schweid. The silver-blue cover, with its sophisticated type treatment was almost as alluring as the topic of this slim book. If you (or your kids or nieces and nephews) are fascinated by natural history and some special branch on the animal family tree, one of these Animal series books published by London-based Reaktion Books may be just the ticket. Lively biographies of 70 animals from Albatross to Wolf have been published so far—a diverse array that includes ant, cockroach, crocodile, gorilla, lobster, moose, parrot, and trout.

You’ll want to take a peek at them first though. I wasn’t surprised by my book’s many intriguing facts about octopuses, like about their decentralized brains, about how laboratory octopuses sometimes dismantle their tanks—suicide for them, actually—and outsmart their keepers, about how they are caught and processed and cooked, and about their millennia-long role in art and literature, as the malevolent force behind many fictional sea disasters.

What I did not expect to learn was that octopuses have a firm place in erotic art (Octopussy, anyone? The movie, regarded as one of the weakest Bond films, took its title if not its plot from Ian Fleming). This tradition was perhaps most prominent in Japanese art, including the famous woodcut, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which you can find out more about here.

“Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be the characteristics of this creature.” (Claudius Aelianus, c. 200 CE).