Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg - 288 pgs

Book CoverIn this touching and eye-opening memoir, Irene Pepperberg reflects on the three decades she spent both teaching and bonding with the amazing African Grey Parrot, Alex. Pepperberg, a life-long bird lover, describes Alex's life in great detail, from the nervous first days of Alex's homecoming to the gradual instruction into the cognitive tasks that eventually become his hallmark. Alex is a bird like no other and shows that for a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, being a bird brain is not such a bad thing. In his amazing ability to label objects, his ability to add and his stunning demonstration of expressing the concept of zero, he begins to show the world at large that he is indeed an exceptional animal. This in turn begins to change the way that scientists and the average population view the intelligence and capability of animals in general. Along the way, Alex becomes a cultural icon and a much loved celebrity. But Alex's story is not only filled with his remarkable accomplishments, it is also full of his particular brand of humor and the displays of independence that truly made Alex one of a kind. Both riotously funny and blindingly sad, Alex & Me takes a peek into the life of a truly exceptional bird and the woman who shared and celebrated his life.

I love animal books, so I was really delighted to get a chance to read Alex & Me. I had previously seen Alex and Irene on television and thought that he was a simply amazing bird. But until reading the book, I had no idea just how amazing he was. From the very beginning of the book, the stage was set for Alex to come along and wow me, which he did. But the parts of the book I really enjoyed the most were the parts where Alex shot from the hip and became a comic genius. Like the time he told a very upset Irene to "Calm down," or when, failing to receive a treat after competing a task successfully, he phonetically spells out the name of the treat that he wants. Or the times when he admonishes another bird in the lab to speak more clearly. There were lots of really great moments like that in the book, and as I read it became harder and harder for me to see Alex as just a trained animal and easier for me to see him as a very intelligent and sentient creature of nature.

A lot of the page space in this book was given to describing the experiments that Pepperburg was working on with Alex. I thought this was interesting because it really highlighted the methodology and inventiveness of what Alex was being taught and compared it to the tests that had previously been run by other animal behaviorists. I was also surprised to discover that Alex always surpassed what was expected of him and that he sometimes taught himself new concepts. Though Pepperberg worked with several other birds, and speaks about them in this book, it is clear that Alex was her greatest success and the star of the show.

The book also explores some of the problems that Pepperburg had securing funding and lab space for her work with Alex, and her frequent moves across country in her attempts to find the right place for the continuation of her work. I was particularly fond of her descriptions of her stint at The Lab at MIT, a sort of geeky technological warehouse that hosted a smorgasbord of studies and a host of inventive departments.

Though most of the book was very informative and funny, the first sections deal with Pepperburg's tremendous grief at Alex's unexpected death, which occurred on September 6, 2007, and the huge public outpouring that the announcement of Alex's passing received. I think that it was very clever to start the book off this way, because it immediately drew me into Alex's story and really humanized him for me. It was also astonishing to see how much support flooded in for Pepperberg. Some people even included testimonials about how seeing Alex perform his wonderful feats had changed their lives in some way.

One thing that was very interesting was the fact that early in the book, Pepperberg mentions how she had really wanted to attempt to limit the personal bonding that she and Alex shared. She had been afraid it would taint the work she was doing with him and their attachment to each other would not enable her to see him in an objective light. I find this kind of funny, because it is clear throughout the book that Alex is not just another project to Pepperberg, and that despite her attempts, she and Alex had formed a very unique and special relationship that went way beyond anything that I have ever known with even my most beloved pets.

I really enjoyed this book and think it's a must-read for people who love animal stories. I have to admit that I laughed out loud a lot while reading this book, both at Alex's cleverness and at his inventiveness. It makes me sad to realize he is gone and that Pepperberg lost such a close companion and friend. The matter-of-fact tone of the writing coupled with the extraordinary story it captured was really a winner for me, as I think it would be for may others. A greatly engaging read.

TLC Book ToursI read and reviewed this book as part of a TLC Book Tour. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these sites:

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I LOVED this story. Happy to see that you enjoyed it as well.

trish said...

I'm so glad you liked it! I laughed out loud when you mentioned Alex would admonish other birds to speak more clearly. hahaha!! I wish we knew exactly what was going on their heads... :)

Thanks for being on this tour! Great review!

Suko said...

This book sounds so good! Animal intelligence may well be far greater than we know, and it takes "an Alex" to open our eyes to this.

Terrific review!

bermudaonion said...

I saw Irene and Alex on TV too and thought he was just remarkable. Now you've got me wanting to read the book. I'm adding it to my wish list.

Melissa said...

I love animal stories too, and my mom is a huge bird lover! Last year I got her Wesley the Owl and think I might get her this one for Christmas this year.

Aarti said...

I'm not a huge animal person myself, but I can see very easily how other people really adore their pets. And the research being done more recently that can track their intelligence and communication levels is really interesting. Not sure if this is my kind of book, but I feel like if it were made into a movie, I'd enjoy it :-)

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