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Book Review of: Alex & Me

How a scientist and a parrot uncovered a hidden world of animal intelligence
--and formed a deep bond in the process

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Review of Alex & Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg (Softcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles. Review is below this video.

Rarely do I come across a book I just can't put down. This was one of those books. It arrived in the afternoon mail, and I finished it before going to bed that day. This wasn't because of any life-changing revelations or cliffhangers, but for other reasons.

Partly, it was because Dr. Pepperberg's writing style is clear and fast-paced, which is unusual for a PhD writing about anything. Though the book uses her clinical experiments as the setting for this story, it reads like a good novel rather than a jargon-laden thesis dragged down by passive voice and mind-numbing detail. Combine that solid writing with a highly interesting, engaging account of one person's experience with another living creature, and you get a book of this caliber.

Dr. Pepperberg takes us on a 30-year journey (with a side trip to her past) that she shared with a bird who did things that supposedly birds cannot do. Anyone who has spent time paying attention (in an intelligent, focused fashion) to a cat or dog knows that humans aren't the only animals with feelings, reasoning ability, language, and other cognitive abilities.

My yard is home to two robin families, who return to nest here every summer. Having interacted with them quite a bit over the years, I'm fully aware that birds can think and can express themselves. The degree of expression and thinking that Dr. Pepperberg discovered in Alex, however, goes beyond anything I have witnessed. And it's quite impressive.

It's also impressive that Dr. Pepperberg persevered through years of hardship, staying true to her commitment to care for and study this bird. Hardships included marriage problems, job changes, relocations, funding problems, and political issues inside the worlds of science, academia, and publishing. This aspect of the story is probably what made the book so compelling for me.

If you've ever dealt with a demanding cat, you can relate to various accounts of Alex's personality. He could be mean and bossy when it suited him. He could also be caring and empathetic. When he was bored, scared, excited, irritated, or happy, he let others know.

Dr. Pepperberg does the lecture circuit, and when she speaks about caring for a parrot, she is adamant that you cannot leave these animals alone in a cage all day. They are very social creatures. Locking them up in solitary confinement is cruel. And it damages them emotionally. You'll see the effects emerge in such behavior as chewing their tail feathers to a bloody pulp.

Parrots get bored, rather easily. To get statistically viable data on Alex, it was necessary to conduct the same experiments repeatedly. Dr. Pepperberg recounts several incidences of Alex's reactions to the boredom of doing the same simple things over and over. On the surface, some of these reactions were merely humorous. But they also provided further insight into his personality and abilities. Dr. Pepperberg explains what these are and what they mean.

On several levels, this book is captivating. The central story of it ends abruptly, with the unexpected death of Alex long before his time should have been up.

This book departs from the typical 10 chapter format of nonfictions books. It has 9 chapters, instead.

The first chapter is about the aftermath of Alex's death and it serves as a good introduction to the story that preceded those sad days. Prior to this book, I had no knowledge of Dr. Pepperberg or Alex. But they were quite the celebrities in some circles, had made several television appearances, and had been written about in major newspapers. They had even been mentioned by television talk show host Jay Leno (I've never seen his show).

Chapter Two explains how Dr. Pepperberg got interested in birds, and takes us through the definitely nonlinear path she took to becoming an avian language researcher (not the politically correct term for it). Chapter Three goes into detail about the early years and early research, taking care to be an easy read instead of some clinician's vocabulary test. In Chapter Four, Dr. Pepperberg mostly talks about her frustrating efforts to get published.

The next three chapters take us deeper into the research, revealing several gems along the way. It's probably here where the book seems to defy gravity. I kept telling myself I'd read "just a few more pages" and then put it down. And I'd put it down. But it wasn't long before I picked it up again to read "just a few more pages."

In Chapter Eight, Dr. Pepperberg is all done moving from lab to lab. She finds a home in Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she is an associate research professor (she also teaches animal cognition at Harvard). Things appear to move rapidly, here. Alex, who had refused to participate with another bird (Griffin) in training at the previous location, suddenly decided to be mentor and teacher. Well, except for the fact that he played out a devious streak to keep the other bird keenly aware who was Number One. The story ends with this chapter, as it's here when Alex dies.

The final chapter is titled, "What Alex Taught Me." And, it makes a fitting end because it builds on the previous eight chapters and draws from other resources to give us a sense of perspective. Just as importantly, it helps us obtain an accurate and meaningful sense of exactly what Alex accomplished.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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