Three true stories about life in three very different places -- Communist China, Poland and, hmm, a university lab with a parrot? During this dark, cold time of year, we can escape to other lives -- happy, sad, lucky, unlucky -- in places quite unlike the moonscape we call the Upper Midwest. MY NAME IS NUMBER 4 BY: TING-XING YE. PUBLISHER: ST. MARTIN'S, 240 PAGES, $11.95.
Her name, Ting-Xing Ye, means Graceful, Capable Leaf. But to her friends she was Ah Si, which is her position in the family -- fourth of two boys and three girls. Their father owned a shoe factory in Shanghai, but when the Cultural Revolution came, his business was nationalized. He and his wife died soon after.
As the revolution grew more powerful, Ah Si watched in trepidation. School was suspended for months, replaced by classes in political propaganda. Teachers were denounced and beaten -- sometimes to death. And night after night, the Red Guards marched, pounding gongs, chanting slogans, invading apartments, looking for evidence of counter-revolutionary activity. Almost anything qualified, and in one poignant scene, Ah Si and her siblings hear them coming and methodically destroy the only thing of value that their parents left them -- a set of treasured Ming Dynasty watercolors.
Eventually, Ah Si is banished to work at a prison camp, planting rice with other capitalist children who require re-education. She spends hours each day stooped over the paddies, her hands in icy water. "By the time the day ended, I could hardly straighten my back. ... My hands swelled and developed cysts."
Her book is remarkable for its tone -- both bewildered and somehow matter-of-fact, and never angry -- and for its intimate level of detail. She writes vividly of the freezing dorms, meager food and humiliation at the hands of her jeering peers. More than a document of the revolution, this memoir (abridged from her 1997 autobiography, "A Leaf in the Bitter Wind") is a fascinating look at how willingly people seize power when it's offered, and what evil can transpire when they do.
THE PAGES IN BETWEEN BY: ERIN EINHORN. PUBLISHER: TOUCHSTONE, 276 PAGES, $24.95.
All families develop a mythology, stories that have been told and retold so many times that the details are no longer questioned and the rough edges have been sanded away.
In Erin Einhorn's family, this was the story: Erin's mother, Irena, was born in 1942 in a Jewish ghetto of Nazi-occupied Poland. When her parents were sent to Auschwitz, Irena was smuggled into the care of the Skowronskis, a Catholic family. Irena's mother died, but her father eventually was reunited with his baby and took her to America.
Erin heard this story many times, though not from Irena, who brushed off her romantic and dangerous past. "I don't think it's particularly interesting," she'd say.
But Erin was fascinated, and in 2001, she went to Poland to find the family that had saved her mother's life. The story she uncovers is not the heartwarming one she had expected. Far from being magnanimous people, the Skowronskis make it clear that they are waiting for Irena's family to reimburse them for their trouble. They say they were promised a house, and they put enormous pressure on Erin to make good on her grandfather's promise.
Einhorn is a journalist, and a dogged one. She puts a budding romance on hold and stays in Poland for months, spending thousands of dollars conducting interviews, doing research, digging out documents and meeting with attorneys. She is not just after justice for the unpleasant Skowronskis; she is after the truth about her family.
Her memoir is a rich examination of tenacity, history and the responsibility that we share for the past.
ALEX AND ME By: Irene M. Pepperberg. Publisher: Collins, 232 pages, $23.95.
From the moment that Alex waddled onto the page -- cocking his head, smarting off, wowing the scientists -- I was captivated. And I'm not the only one; the African grey parrot was a bird of such renown that when he died he was written about in the New York Times and the Economist.
Irene Pepperberg is the scientist who worked with him for 30 years, exploring parrots' ability to understand language and other abstract concepts. "I chose the species as a study animal because they had been shown to be very smart; I wasn't choosing a pet," she writes. She cared so little about which parrot she worked with that she let the pet shop clerk pick one out for her.
He chose Alex, and it was fortuitous. Of all the birds she went on to work with, Alex was the smartest and had the strongest personality. "Give him a banana when he'd ask for a grape and you were likely to end up wearing the banana," she writes. "Alex was not subtle."
He was jealous, imperious, afraid of storms (soothed only by Haydn's cello concertos) and fond of neck scratches. (He'd bow his head and command, "You tickle.") He danced vigorously, lifting his legs and shaking his tail feathers, whenever anyone sang "California Dreaming."
The bond between Pepperberg and her parrot was strong (his last words to her were "You be good. I love you"), and the conclusions she came to in her research with him were groundbreaking.
Alex did not just learn to talk; he learned to identify colors, shapes and numbers. On his own, she says, he learned to add and subtract. Again and again she compares his abilities to those of chimps, and the chimps pretty much always come out on the short end.
Pepperberg has written a scholarly book about her research -- "The Alex Studies," published by Harvard University Press. "Alex and Me" doesn't aim quite so high. She does explain some of her research, but mostly this is the story of her relationship with one exasperating, inspiring, comical bird. It is, at heart, a love letter to the creature she fondly referred to as "bird brain." It's clear from his adventures that this was a compliment.