Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg is an inspiring read about: “How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence – and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process.” The story is about evenly split between Alex’s pioneering work in the study of avian intelligence – it was Alex who turned the phrase “bird brain” into a positive – and the relationship between the author and her pet. However, as Pepperberg makes quite clear, Alex – who died in early July of 2007 – was often The Boss of both the scientist and her laboratory assistants!
I found the writing style to be a bit rough and awkward in the first part of the tale. The writing also suffers from mixed tenses. For example, Pepperberg uses the current tense in describing events that occurred in the past, “Obviously, my students and I have no problem understanding the sounds Alex makes.”
But the author found her voice at the halfway point of the narrative, describing her arrival in Tucson:
“…Tucson brought tears to my eyes – literally, as I fairly quickly developed allergies… but metaphorically, too, because of its beauty, majestic in its mountains, deserts, and giant saguaro cacti, and in its details, the animals, the smaller plants and the birds. Oh, the birds!
For the first time in my life I felt deeply connected to nature, the rich diversity of the Sonora Desert fauna and flora… And in a part of the country where the Native American presence is palpable, I was very much aware of that people’s sense of oneness with nature.”
Perhaps this experience inspired Pepperberg to see Alex as a representative of Nature with a capital “n”. There are several cute and charming stories in this book that illustrate Alex’s keen intelligence, none of which I wish to give away here; they are better saved for the enjoyment of future readers.
This reader enjoyed the human-bird interaction sections more than the animal intelligence portions which sometimes bordered on the overly technical with words like “anticipatory co-articulation” (referring to linguistic analysis). And some will find that Pepperberg, who loved Alex, comes off a bit dry and reserved in tone when compared to authors of similar animal love stories like Stacey O’Brien (Wesley the Owl) or William Jordan (A Cat Named Darwin). Despite this, Pepperberg’s deep love and awe for Alex shows itself in the end.
Alex’s final words to Pepperberg – as she left the animal lab one evening – were, “You be good. I love you. You’ll be in tomorrow?”
Note: The hardbound version of this book was purchased by the reviewer. A trade paperback version (pictured) will be released on September 1, 2009.