Polly does NOT want a cracker until you address her in proper English!

I think most of the kids who grew up in my generation knew about the amazing talking parrot, Alex, who could not only talk, but discern.  I remember my first introduction to Alex.  It was in fifth grade during a “Science in our daily lives” sort of lesson (we had them about once a month), and we had broken into groups.  We were spending the afternoon on animals and how amazing they were (“animal intelligence” is probably what the lesson would be called now, though then the concept was still under fierce debate).  One of my best friends, Toni, told me about a Grey who not only could talk (WOW!), but had told another Grey, who was learning to talk at the time, to, “Speak clearly!”

This week’s book is Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process.  Yes, it’s something of a mouthful of a title.  But it’s a wonderful book.  Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the author of this book and trainer of the amazing Alex, manages a perfect balance of talking about the science in a way that is understandable to layman without talking down.  And she makes sure to talk about the science.  To her, there was no other purpose at the beginning of the experiment.  Animal, especially bird intelligence was a fact of her existence and she set out to prove it to all the naysayers in academia (who were many).  The book is a wonderful insight into the process of science and of a scientist and the emotions that we so often forget are involved.

Fittingly, Pepperberg starts with what brought her to write the book: Alex’s untimely death and huge response that it caused within her, who had spent thirty years remaining objective and detached from her subject, and the public, who had given their hearts to Alex without thought.  Her deep sorrow, so out of place in an experiment, allowed her to see her experiments from a new perspective.  They were no longer a crusade, they were successes.  Alex and Irene had changed lives.

But the first life Alex changed was Irene’s.  So, after sharing so many beautiful and sweet excerpts from the flood of letters that came in after his early death (Alex died at 31, most Greys live 50 or so years), she begins to share her story.

There is a chapter of her life before Alex, zooming from four years old to freshly graduated PhD.  It gives perspective and is perhaps a bit too long, but not unforgivably so.  It certainly sets a personal stage before jumping into a whirlwind of science and the positively medieval community of animal behavior research.  We’ve come a long way since the 80’s, thankfully.  (Factoid:  When Pepperberg began her experiment, it was industry standard to starve animal subjects to eighty percent of their body weight so that they would be more eager to work for food!  Pepperberg immediately dismissed this approach.)

It quickly becomes apparent that Pepperberg and Alex weren’t just breaking standards and the current notions, they were well on their way to setting the next generation’s standards and providing the basic assumptions that young scientists would approach animal behavior studies.  But the change did not come quickly.  It took decades.

The book is a quick read, thankfully.  There are no draggingly boring spots where the science feels unobtainable.  If you’re interested in more science, she’s written another book called The Alex Studies that more completely covers the science and less the emotion.

However, the emotion is why I liked this book.  I’ll likely read The Alex Studies, because the science fascinates me as well.  But!  Alex meant something to me when I was young, as he did to quite a lot of people.  I appreciate that Pepperberg, in her story, never forgot that he wasn’t just hers, but the world’s as well.  He impacted so many, and this book gives him the chance to do so once more.

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P.S.  If there was a fault to this book, it was a careless editor.  They let the title of a major book series/franchise slip through spelled incorrectly.  Augh!  It’s Doctor Dolittle.  NOT Doctor Doolittle.  Kind of important in a book about talking animals.  Some blame rests with the author, but also with a lazy editor who didn’t bother to double check.  There were a couple other things, too, but that one was the big, glaring annoyance.  Still, could have been a lot worse.

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Seven weeks in . . . well, seven books anyway.

Well, seeing as I’ve been doing this for about a month and I’ve caught up and am on a regular schedule with my reading.  I have finished seven books in the seven weeks of the new year and have decided it’s time to do an entry on what it’s been like thus far.  I’ve found that my reactions have been three-fold:

1) The simple fact that I am keeping my resolution just brings the most wonderful feeling of accomplishment.  Because of that, the reading isn’t a chore.  I fully expected it to feel like a chore for the first little while, but it hasn’t in the least.  There are books that I’ve been surprised how long they’ve taken me to read, but there’s never been a time that I’ve actually hated doing this.

2) My taste in books is far more eclectic than I’ve allowed it to be in recent years.  As you will find, I enjoy fantasy and classical mythology quite a bit.  However, historical fiction (historical anything, actually) and biographies have often been just as appealing.  I just don’t think about them that often.  My access and circle of reading companions aren’t as centered on those genres, so I’m not.  I also tend to gravitate toward authors, and that vastly determines what I read.  If I break out of these patterns, I find myself enjoying my books more.  Variety is the soul of delight.

3) This goal really is changing my attitude toward reading.  Reading isn’t about whipping through books.  It doesn’t take a genius to do that, just someone with a fast reading pace (though, I’m grateful that I have that).  This goal is teaching me that I don’t really know what reading is about.  What I do know is that I need to think more about what I’m reading and this is helping me to.  Though my “pleasure reading” is taking a back seat, I’m still quite happy with what I am reading for my “regular reading” through this goal.

I’ll check in in another couple of months!

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P.S.  I feel obligated to add a fourth reaction, but I think this has less of anything to do with my reading and more to do with me being me: 4) The blogging schedule is only a sort of thing.  I’m not happy with this, so I’m trying to learn to keep it better.  Not perfectly, but better.

The Enigmatic Mathematics of Language: Sentence Diagramming

Yes.  I most certainly DID read a book about sentence diagramming.  As many have expressed: only me.

But, despite the fact that I may be the only person of my generation to enjoy diagramming sentences, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey is something I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to show to the layman.  It is not a prescriptive grammar guide, nor is it an instruction manual (something my fellow Modern Grammar peers would be glad to note).  It’s exactly what it claims to be: a quirky history with lots of beautiful, complicated diagrams to satisfy any nut.  The diagrams, with study, can be very instructive, but this is no grammar course booklet.  It is simply the reminiscing of a woman who is the product of a 50’s Catholic school education.

Why I chose this book for this week was something of an accident.  It was supposed to be next week’s book (it arrived in the mail on Tuesday), but this week’s planned book (Atlantic by Simon Winchester) turned out to be a bit too much for me.  I don’t know if it’s because this week was so busy at work and at home or if it was because the style of his prose isn’t as fluid as it was in The Meaning of Everything or if it was an off week.  Of course, Atlantic did disappear on Wednesday and for most of Thursday, making the entire attempt more difficult than necessary.  Yet, I hadn’t made it a full fifty pages into a 400+ page book by that time, either.  So on Thursday, with many contributing factors, I made the decision to switch books.  I don’t like doing it, but considering that I managed to finish this coming week’s book already, I now have almost two weeks to finish Atlantic, which will give me any buffer room I feel I might need.

However, despite all that rigmarole, choosing this book was not an accident in any other sense.  I was introduced to sentence diagramming in seventh grade.  It is the first test I can clearly remember having an anxiety attack about (I can still remember that the sentence that killed me had an appositive and two prepositional phrases in it). One would expect this to be a black stain on my conscious, but by the time I got to my Modern Grammar course in college, anxiety attacks mid-test were so normal (I may have been a bit too serious about school) that I was able to approach sentence diagramming with a sense of whimsical fun.  I was the only one.

Thankfully, Kitty Burns Florey seems to have grasped the innate fun in diagramming a sentence as well, as the anecdotes she tells are games and competitions in a small Catholic school with a benevolent nun named Sister Bernadette (who is memorialized in the title).  In her class, diagramming was a game.  Or:

Florey takes the time to diagram quite a few gnarly sentences in the book, as well as the simple (as above, which I did).  The diagrams that take up two pages each thrill me to bits, and are probably the most instructive for those who wish to learn the art.

But, as I said, that is not the purpose.  The history of the art itself is fascinating (diagramming started out using oval bubbles abutting each other (much like overlapping speech balloons) rather than simple lines–it was “a mess, a medieval muddle”), as well as the history of the educational applications.  Right now, diagramming is in a half-awake, half-asleep mode.  Some teachers use it (though not always correctly–my teacher who managed to produce the anxiety attack atmosphere certainly didn’t go about it the right way), some don’t.

What I appreciated most about this anecdotal love letter to diagramming was the attitude.

Florey knows that it does not improve writing and may not necessarily improve a grasp of grammar.  What sentence diagramming can do is make grammar accessible.  To those who find logic (and/or math) appealing, diagramming can help make the vagaries of language logical.  To those who find compartmentalization the best way to learn, diagramming is helpful.  It can be made a fun competition for students who are struggling.  When used correctly, diagramming is a marvelous tool.

After a desperate two days with this book, I feel better about loving diagramming.  After all, I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Florey and I know the secret of diagramming.  It’s beautiful.


 

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***** It’s been a while with the diagrams.  I’m pretty sure these are correct, but please forgive any mistakes.  Click for larger, clearer images.

But how can mortal maids contend with Jove?

Zeus was a man-whore.

That’s pretty much what the majority of Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God by Tom Stone confirms.  The title of this blog comes Ovid’s Metamorphoses and was used as the introductory illustrative quote for chapter 10, “The Cretan Saga.”  It could have been used in several other chapters.  However, this commentary on Zeus’ prolific sex life is no new news to anyone.

As for the book itself, it’s an interesting read.  It’s pretty darn funny at points (if a bit unnecessarily euphemistic), as there is something innately funny about the randy King of the Gods.  Tom Stone opens by explaining that the whole reason for this trip in Greece was to take in the sights of the important parts of Zeus’ life: his birth, his death, his resurrection, his many affairs (that produced children), his oracles, and a few of his temples.  It left me a little disappointed that there was less of the “I was there” element, seeing as this was how the book began.

However, the pulling together of the convoluted mythic/religious and societal/cultural histories of  Zeus worship is impressive nonetheless.  It is amazing that this man can keep enough in his head just to be able to know to research everything in this book.  I was floored.  The few moments of “I was there” were enlightening and very well strung in.

The book is not, thankfully, hopelessly academic.  There are some very odd spellings of the Greek names, ones that I’ve never run across in my studies as a Classics minor.  However, I will admit that the Roman alphabet does not lend itself well to Greek words.  The sounds are just different enough to make the transition difficult.  I would have been quite happy to see the names in Greek, but I realize that’s not quite feasible.  It also would have stretched my brain a little bit and made the reading slow going.  (That’s it, I need to take more Greek classes.  Gee darn.)  So, other than the odd spellings, the academic aspects are quite wonderful.  The footnotes are well placed, there are fantastic notes in the back, deemed to be too long to be in the footnotes.  There’s also a topical index.  It was very handy when I wanted to review Dionysus’ addition to the Olympian pantheon.  In the front, there is a map and a chronology that–while I never felt the need to consult them–were fun to see and I can only imagine they would be helpful to those who get lost in the muddle that is the mythic history of Zeus.  The chapter introductory illustrative quotes were well picked.  And, when it came to communicating all the different legends that surrounded Zeus, I was extremely pleased that there were none I felt to be slighted.

One of the aspects I enjoyed was the Christian crossover.  In many ways, I feel as if Stone derides the Christians for the amount they stole from Classical mythology, but I can’t blame him either.  I ascribe to the school of world religion that feels all religions come out of the same wellspring and that it is a confirmation of truths that there are so many similarities.  I know this is not a popular worldview, though, and I understand how frustrating it can be to feel as if so much of today’s society goes mis-credited.  I certainly was not offended (Stone has nothing on Campbell’s digs) and there is much that is enlightening within the crossovers.

The book is divided into four parts.  The first is the establishment of the deity that came before Zeus, only called the Great Goddess.  This gives a rich context to the stories of Zeus, as well as a unique perspective to all of his many affairs.  Zeus spent the first several centuries of his worship fighting against the great goddess.  Much of his sexual conquest was establishing himself as the God of the World and the reigning power.  The second is his birth, death, and resurrection.  It’s a short section, but once again gives a vital context to his exploits in section three: The Father.  And are there ever exploits.  This part covers not just him, but his children/grandchildren as well, so a great many Greek heroes and the Olympians are well introduced.  It truly is a shame that Jason wasn’t born of a god’s line, I missed having him around.  Part four, The Holy Ghost, deals mostly with the Christian influence and how Zeus petered out of daily life into an almost monotheistic god, then finally was consumed in and adapted to the Christian tradition.

I was most entertained by Zeus, and would happily read it again.  This account of the mighty god is fascinating.  Yes, Zeus was an incredibly imperfect figure, but he lives on through the ages.  And this book gives just the slightest inkling of the grand scope of the life of a god.

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And the Tamest Jack the Ripper Award Goes to . . .

I will say that strange coincidences and strange combinations certainly come together in this book, although the coincidences had more to do with what I read last week than the writing itself, which is a good thing.

It just so happens that I read the story of the OED last week (well, two weeks ago) and one of the major contributors was a man who was in an insane asylum that also housed one of the first Ripper suspects (known as the Leather Apron).  So, naturally, the characters investigating the Whitechapel murders felt the need to go visit the suspect to get an idea for the psychological profile of the murderer, even if it had become more than apparent that the Leather Apron was not the Whitechapel murderer.  While there, the head of the institution felt that it would be of interest to the American psychologist to see a case where the avocation was therapy rather than destructive.  Here enters Minor, the madman of chapter seven of The Meaning of Everything, last week’s book.  Isn’t life wonderful?  Isn’t literature just astonishing?  It makes me want to break out into a rousing chorus of “It’s a Small World After All!”   For the sake of my readers (and those around me as I type), I’ll refrain.

This past week’s book, What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James & Jack the Ripper by Paula Marantz Cohen, was quite the engaging read.  I finished it within 24 hours of starting it on Monday the 31st (clearly reviewing it has been another matter).  While I’m hesitant to say I enjoyed the book–for reasons I’ll detail–I certainly engaged in it.  The character combination of an author I was forced to read in college (and didn’t particularly enjoy) and a serial killer who has always fascinated me proved to be just the sort of mix that made for the type of read I could delve into.

I was impressed by the use of art in the novel, mostly because it so very well echoed James’ own use of art in his books.  It was a subtle and very well-played device within both plot and style.  Props to Cohen.  Unfortunately, any examples would truly be spoilers, so I’ll have to just say: it was well done.  Also, to those familiar with the Henry James canon, there were several echoes that were fun to recognize.  For those who aren’t, the author does her best to point them out without stepping out of the narrative.

It was encouraging that the psychology used in the book wasn’t at all too modern, nor was it so antiquated that the reader was horrified.  Certainly it displays many of the flaws of the early attempts at psychological understanding.  One of the minor characters we meet is a man who comes from a different psychological school than William James (brother of Henry), and his marvelously narrow view is described thusly:

Henry Maudsley was a respected figure in the field of psychological research, someone allied with the materialist school, which believed that abnormal mental processes could be entirely explained by physical causes.  Although William faulted the materialists for refusing to consider nonphysical aspects of mental illness, he valued their work for supporting the connection of mind and body, albeit from one direction only.

This sort of observations can only make me thankful that I live in the era that I do.  For, while psychopharmocology is still more of an art than a science, it has progressed so far from these days.

I think, however, that the aspect I felt was most well done was the different mindsets of the Americans, British, and Americans-turned-British were distinct.  I loved that.  You could see the ideological struggles in Alice and James Henry, who were still Americans in many ways, though they had adopted England.  William, who remained American to the core, finds himself similarly set against the British mindset (especially the one within the police).  His conflicts are no less significant, though they span two people rather than the two mindsets in the one.  For example, in the quote above, William is able to appreciate the other man’s work while disagreeing.  It strikes a terrible blow to him that Maudsley is rather abrupt and critical of William’s work, rather than being similarly appreciative of the opportunity to work with another great psychologist.  If I have one complaint, it is that the American’s prejudices tended to the specific (certain people or behaviors), while the British prejudices were so very general (the Jews or prostitutes as a whole).  I do not believe this reflects the typical mindset, though the distinction was still there.

At one point in the book, I almost put it down.  Here is this piece that beautifully echoes the feeling and time and soul of one of the most important American Realists and what felt like an entirely unnecessary sex scene was inserted.  I will grant that I naturally dislike sex scenes as it is, but especially loathe ones that seem to have no purpose.  However, I was determined to give the author a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised.  I still feel like the scene was unnecessary, but it wasn’t a tawdry, bodice-ripping affair that felt like a cheap play to the audience, either.  Ultimately, the characters don’t have sex, which felt much more true to form.  I was very pleased.

There was a twist ending that leaves the reader with an answer as to who Jack the Ripper is, while still honoring the unsolved case.  It comes together quickly, and many of the little pieces in the book that seem so insignificant at the time fall neatly into place.  Perhaps too neatly.

Which brings us to the question, why didn’t I like it?  Jack was tame!  Jack the Ripper is not tame.  He has become an iconic fear in the heart of society.  He is all the terror of what mankind can do, not just to the strong, but to the weak.  All on an individual level.  At the end, despite Jack the Ripper being the man they are searching to find, I felt as if there had been no villain.

Also, in the book, there was this great deal made of the relationship between William and Alice.  I didn’t see it.  They were like any other siblings.  And the “trifocal vision” of all the siblings (which is much of the premise of the book, that What Alice Knew was that only she and her brothers were most fit to solve the case, together) was dim and unfocused at best.  I never felt like the three layers of knowledge and world perspective were so unique that only they could have solved the case.

Unfortunately, it was also obvious that the main man they concentrated on for most of the book was not the killer.  I kept wondering why the author insisted on sending her characters after a creepy, but clearly innocent man.  It felt like an insult to the intelligence of the reader, like Cohen HAD to spell out every reason why this man was innocent.

The romance budding between Alice and Sickert could have been realized more/better. Instead, it was a vague, passing fancy at best that Alice still reacted to with the frustration and vehemence of an fully realized and failed relationship.  The reaction, for such a little thing, seemed over-wrought.

The end came together so fast and too neatly, as I mentioned.  The epilogue was useless left as it was–leave it off or expand.  In many ways, I feel like the author was using it to justify a plot point that wasn’t particularly necessary.  In that case, the epilogue just stood out more like a sore thumb.

The police were incompetent at best and incredibly prejudicial but one man.  It was a horrific stereotype!  One that seems to persist no matter what genre or country or period of the book.  Considering the intelligence of the book, and–make no mistake–is was incredibly intelligent, I expected more.

While none of these things had me hating the book, they were barriers to liking the book.  I was intrigued throughout the entire story by the style and by the mystery of who the killer could possibly be.  By the end, I even understood–sort of–why the author dwelled so long on a person so clearly not the killer.  But it was disappointing all the same.  I wish more could have been done so the reader did not have periods of boredom.

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