Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Alex and Me by Irene M. Pepperberg

Alex, the precocious subject of Dr Irene M. Pepperberg's biography 'Alex & Me,' was unarguably America's most famous parrot.

Featured in newspapers, magazines, television and the Internet, Alex spent thirty years in the public eye, challenging our preconceptions about animal intelligence.

Last year, when Alex passed peacefully away, it hit the nation surprisingly hard. Even the Economist - one of the most respected political and economic magazines in the world - ran an obituary for the little fellow. Not bad for a bundle of feathers with a Boston accent!

Alex and Me is Dr Pepperberg's rich and personal account of her three decade relationship with Alex - a much more heartfelt and subjective account than her previous book, The Alex Files.

Partly autobiographical, Alex and Me begins with Pepperberg's lonely upbringing in the boroughs of New York. It follows her fledgling career in science, back in the days before women were taken seriously in the field.

Just a few chapters in, however, we meet the 'feature presentation' - Alex the African Grey - and Dr Pepperberg willingly takes a back seat to let her star pupil shine.

Brilliant, precocious and mischievous, working with Alex proved to be both a fascinating and frustrating experience. As sassy as he was smart, Alex tackled every challenge Dr Pepperberg threw at him with aplomb - and responded with a few challenges of his own.

Alex and Me gives a glimpse of his astounding abilities and how he developed them, marking each step in Alex's cognitive journey with funny anecdotes and personal insights.

Alex proved that the label 'birdbrain' is no longer an insult. More than that, he suggested that animals as 'brainless' as parrots are equally capable of 'human' emotions like empathy, humour, mischief and affection.

I whizzed through Alex and Me in a single day - it was an addictive page turner. More than that, it was a book that tugged at the tear ducts. Despite being a well-respected scientist, Pepperberg ensures there's nothing dry and academic to get stuck on.

When Alex's adventures finally came to an end, I'll confess my eyes were welling up. Dr Pepperberg did such a wonderful job of making Alex come alive on the page that you really feel a sense of loss when she shares the story of saying goodnight to him for the last time.

Alex and Me is a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary feathered friend. It's also a fascinating read for anybody interested in anthropology, psychology or language, as Alex offered remarkable insight into all three.

If I had any criticism, it would be the first chapter. Serving as a prologue, the first chapter is filled with emails and letters Dr Pepperberg received when Alex died. It makes for fascinating reading - but the chapter's very long and it would have been better suited as an epilogue.

As it is, I recommend skipping the first chapter and digging straight into Dr Pepperberg's evocative autobiography. Once she starts her story, it's a difficult book to put down. Only when you've finally reached the end of Alex's life is it time to flick to the front and read through the tributes people sent to her.

Alex and Me by Dr Irene M. Pepperberg is available in October.


Coffee Bean said...

How'd you get your hands on the book before it is available? Do you do book reviews?

Our little Paco, The Terrorist, is very smart. Supposedly, Quaker Parrots have the intelligence of a 7 year old. I'm not sure I completely agree, but he is definitely very smart. He loves our son and calls his name every afternoon at the same time. He also punishes us when we go on a trip by mumbling and turning his back to us when we try to talk to him when we get home.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Peppererg's first book is "The Alex Studies", not The Alex Files. I loved the first chapter and the entire book, I think it is necessary for people to start off reading about Alex's death.