Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book review: Alex & Me

It's difficult these days to make it through an entire movie, so although I made these great proclamations about restarting this blog, I realized that would be near impossible since my littluns don't allow me to sit for 1.5 hours undisturbed until they go to bed.  By then I'm so completely wiped out I have trouble making it through a TV episode without falling asleep, let alone a feature-length film.  But it's easier to get through a book in bits and pieces, as long as I can read it on my iPhone, because it's difficult to hold a book and a baby at the same time, and three year olds love to pull bookmarks out of real books.  So I thought, in the absence of movie reviews, I'd post this book review that I just put up on Goodreads.  Enjoy!

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process by Irene M. Pepperberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I came to this book after hearing Pepperberg's account of the story on The Moth podcast. She had me laughing with her fascinating story of this quirky and remarkable bird. At the end of the story, I was so caught up in it, I was moved to tears. I had to learn more. I heard about the book and immediately bought it on Kindle for iPhone.

This book is a quick and easy read. The anecdotes she tells about this bird will amaze you. But that's really what this book is: a collection of anecdotes. You could almost begin every other page with "This one time, Alex... ." I had hoped for more depth, and more science. Apparently she has another book which talks about the science of it all. But there's a disctinct absense of it here and this book could have benefitted from the inclusions of what exactly they did in those labs for all those years and how they learned what they learned from Alex, in layman's terms of course. It's almost as if, frustrated that she couldn't include these anecdotes in her scientific writings, she wrote a memoir so that she could finally tell the world about what Alex was really like. I just didn't feel like, by the end of it, I understood what he was really like. Or her for that matter. With the exception of how she came to be interested in birds, and how she felt after Alex's death, I didn't get a good sense of who she was.

Alex & Me also suffers from Pepperberg's decision to begin the book with Alex's death and the world's reaction to it. The reader doesn't have a connection to Alex yet, so it doesn't impact us the way she hopes. Besides, backtracking from the end doesn't make sense here. The reason to begin a story with its end is either so that we can hold this ending in our head throughout and it will somehow give us greater understanding through the rest of the book, or to intrigue us with some great mystery that will draw us into and carry us through the revelation of that mystery. Knowing about the loss people felt over Alex before we understand anything about Alex doesn't inform us more about his life. Instead it annoys us. I was saying in my head as I read, "Okay, okay lady. Get to the bird! Tell us what he did that was so special! Tell us how you taught him!" I found myself so impatient by the end of that section that when the next section began with Pepperberg's early life and how she developed her interest for birds, despite its relevance to the story, I was practically yelling at the book, "Oh! Come on!! The bird!!!"

In her version on The Moth, Pepperberg's telling was chronological and I think it truly benefitted from that. By the end of it, I understood why his loss would be felt so greatly, and then condolences she received became truly moving.

Also, Pepperberg has a tendency to repeat phrases like "bird brain" a few too many times. I really felt it was drilled into my head over and over (and over and OVER) that the world has it so wrong when we use the term "bird brain" as an insult. Not only does it make me feel like she doesn't think I'm smart enough to make the connection myself, but it makes the book feel frustratingly repetitive.

Having said all that, I still enjoyed the read. Yes, I didn't enjoy it as much as I could have, but the content is so astounding that it should hold the interest of almost anyone, despite by its unfortunate telling. Even if I don't think Pepperberg is a gifted writer, I do think she is a scientific genius for instinctively knowing how to teach true language to birds, bold to do it despite the scientific world's bias against the idea, and strong to have kept at it for all these years even when funding and support wasn't there.

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