One-Minute Book Reviews

January 3, 2012

Words Forbidden on SAT Questions / Quote of the Day From ‘Crazy U’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:13 pm
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Which is more of an ordeal: taking the SAT or writing the questions that appear on it? You might wonder after reading Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College (Simon & Schuster, 2011), a lively memoir of one father’s attempt to understand higher-education admissions rituals.

One of the most informative chapters in the book deals with the college-entrance exam that was originally known as Scholastic Aptitude Test and is now officially just the SAT. Ferguson learned that the authors of its questions must navigate a minefield of words or phrases forbidden because they might offend a test-taker or give one group an advantage over another. He summarizes some of restrictions imposed on the test-writers by the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers the test for the College Board:

“The term ‘hearing impaired,’ to describe people whose hearing is impaired, is discouraged in favor of ‘deaf and hard of hearing.’ Test writers must steer clear of the words ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal.’ ‘Hispanic’ should not be used as a noun, and neither should ‘blind’; ‘black’ can be used only as an adjective. ‘Penthouse,’ ‘polo’ and other ‘words generally associated with wealthier social classes’ are likewise off-limits; ‘regatta,’ too, needless to say, along with any mention of luxuries or pricey financial instruments like junk bonds. ‘Elderly’ is to be avoided in describing people who are elderly. ‘America’ can’t be used to describe the United States.”

July 7, 2009

What’s So Great About ‘Empathy’?

Filed under: Current Events — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:25 am
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“Empathy” has become the Portuguese water dog of the English language, something everybody seems to want – at least in somebody else. President Obama said that he wanted a Supreme Court justice who had it, and a lot of people have rushed to agree: In the New York Times, you see the word “empathy” almost as often as “transparency.”

But is “empathy” really better than detachment, or the ability to stand back and analyze a situation objectively? Mark Steyn argued that it isn’t in a recent issue of Maccleans, the Canadian weekly. Steyn is more conservative than I am on many issues, including some that he discusses in “What Price Our Pseudo-Empathy?,” but he writes with verve and intelligence about a form of language abuse that occurs at many points on the political spectrum and in novels as well as political speeches.

February 9, 2009

The Little Parrot That Could – Irene M. Pepperberg’s ‘Alex & Me,’ The True Story of a Lovable Bird That Could ‘Say Better’ Than Others

A scholar’s 31-year-experiment in avian learning had spectacular results

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. By Irene M. Pepperberg. Collins, 232 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Copycat titles like Alex & Me usually appear on weak imitations of the books that inspired them – in this case, the bestselling Marley and Me, John Grogan’s memoir of his wayward dog. Not Irene Pepperberg’s true story of her 31 years with an African Grey parrot that, on the evidence of this book, was the Einstein of the bird world.

Like Marley and Me, Alex & Me is an affectionate and entertaining portrait of a larger-than-life creature. But Pepperberg’s memoir is in some ways more interesting because it tells two stories at once.
The first tale involves the life and death of an extraordinary parrot who followed his owner to colleges from Tucson to Boston, where she did research on his ability to learn. Alex could recognize numbers from one to six and and do simple addition. He could identify objects by color, shape and material. He seems to have grasped concepts such as “smaller” and “larger” and the idea of object permanence (that a thing still exists when hidden from view), which children generally acquire during the first year of life.

Alex’s most endearing trait was that he learned to express his wishes in ways that were as forceful as they were colorful. He bombarded Pepperberg’s student assistants with requests: “Want corn … Want nut … Wanna go shoulder … Wanna go gym.” During lab tests, he corrected parrots who responded incorrectly (“You’re wrong”) or answered indistinctly (“Say better”). Yet he seemed to sense when he had gone too far, a realization he expressed by saying “I’m sorry.”

The second story Pepperberg tells – nearly as interesting – involves her efforts, beginning in the 1970s, to be taken seriously by her peers despite two formidable obstacles. First, she was a woman when recruiters still asked female scientists questions such as, “What kind of birth control are you using?” And she was fighting the prevailing scholarly belief that animals were automatons who lacked cognitive abilities.

Pepperberg parries inflammatory topics such as, “Did Alex have language?” and instead speaks of his ability to “label” objects. She also avoids some obvious questions – notably when she tells us that Alex would have an autopsy but not what it revealed about his walnut-sized brain.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter in the book. Pepperberg writes in a lively, conversational style as engaging as Grogan’s. Yet she provides enough scientific detail to persuade you that something remarkable happened during her work with her adored parrot. Alex’s last words to Pepperberg were, “You be good. I love you.”

Best line: “Alex became quite a fixture at the vets’, talking to everyone who had time to stop and listen. His cage was right next to the accountant’s desk. The night before I was due to take him to Tucson, the accountant had to stay late, working on the books. ‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
“‘No, Alex.’
“He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
“ ‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
“This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally, Alex apparently became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

Worst line: Pepperberg quotes a Guardian obituary: “Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31.” The evidence in Alex & Me doesn’t support the Guardian‘s claim, so it isn’t clear why it’s quoted. Alex could label numbers up to six. If the Guardian claim were true, the average U.S. president couldn’t tell you the address of the White House.

Sample chapter titles: “Alex’s First Labels,” “Alex Goes High-Tech,” “What Alex Taught Me.”

Published: October 2008

Watch a video of Pepperberg interacting with Alex on the HarperCollins site.

Furthermore: Pepperberg is an associate research professor at Brandeis and teaches animal cognition at Harvard. She also wrote The Alex Studies (Harvard, 2000).

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announced the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 9, 2008

Books the Candidates Need #3 – Barak Obama – ‘Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:30 am
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Barak Obama rose to fame partly on the strength of his eloquence as a speaker. So I was surprised to hear a couple of Democrats fault his grammar at a party last weekend. They said that Obama kept telling reporters that Rev. Jeremiah Wright “had married Michelle and I” instead of “Michelle and me.” Could it true?

I searched the Internet for “Obama” + “Wright” + “married Michelle and I.” Sure enough, the phrase popped up all over the Web www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24402983/. If Obama doesn’t want to lose the English-teacher vote, he’d better pick up Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English: Second Edition (Riverhead, $14, paperback) www.grammarphobia.com. This lively grammar book explains what’s wrong with phrases like “married Michelle and I”: The personal pronoun is an object in the phrase, not a subject, which requires me.

My edition of Woe Is I also has a nice analysis of the root of the error. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the seeds of the I-versus-me problem are planted in early childhood,” O’Conner writes. “We’re admonished to say, ‘I want a cookie,’ not ‘Me want a cookie.’ We begin to feel subconsciously that I is somehow more genteel than me, even in cases where me is the right choice – for instance, after a preposition.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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