Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg

Alex the African Grey parrot was justifiably famous in the scientific community. And when he died, unexpectedly, at a young age for a parrot, his obituary ran in the biggest newspapers and magazines of our time, highlighting his importance in our understanding of language formation and acquisition and in just far how our previous assumptions about human only language were incorrect.

Starting with Alex's death and the numbness Pepperberg, the scientist who worked with Alex for more than 30 years, felt afterwards, the narrative then shifts backwards in time to Pepperberg's childhood love of birds, her marriage, and education. And then Alex enters the story. He was a young bird whom Pepperberg chooses randomly to be the subject of her biological language studies. She makes the conscious decision not to bond too closely with Alex in order to maintain a needed distance in training and to ensure that her scientific results were unquestionable.

This memoir of Alex, his accomplishments, and the training he underwent to learn to speak and comprehend as well as he did is very definitely written for the lay reader. Pepperberg doesn't go into great depth about the training or the conclusions as a result of Alex's abilities but she does discuss them superficially. Instead she describes a parrot who is a major personality in his own right, transcribing bits of her notes detailing when Alex was intractable or uncommunicative or teasing. She details his accomplishments and the various labs in which he lived.

What she doesn't capture well though, is the great love that she must have felt for this smart, frustrating, amazing, challenging creature. And that is too bad, whether it is in an effort to maintain her original stance that she wasn't too attached to Alex so that her results remain scientifically significant or because she just couldn't open up about the emotional devastation she felt, because more transparency about that bond would have made this a stronger book. As it stands, it was an interesting and quick read even if, as an animal lover, I was already convinced that our critters have a lot more intelligence than we give them credit for. I do remember hearing about Alex after his death and I am glad that I had the chance to read this book. And I suspect I'll be spending some time browsing through The Alex Foundation website to fully satisfy the curiousity this book generated for me.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours for sending me a review copy of this book.


  1. I just loved the audio version of this book. It sounds like you were a bit disappointed, but still enjoyed the book.

  2. Interesting that you think Dr. Pepperberg's love for Alex didn't really come through.

    Other than that, I'm glad you liked the book! I agree, that animals are far more astute than we give them credit for. :)

    Thanks for being on this tour, Kristen!

  3. Hi Kristen -- I just finished writing my review for this memoir (due Monday) and was curious to read that you were a bit disappointed, too. I think you presented the gist of this memoir very well, though! I'm off to read other reviews on the tour :)


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