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Review: Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods

[ 3 ] June 25, 2011 |

Reviewed by Jennifer Jensen

Vanessa Woods had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Accepting an opportunity to work with her friend Debby’s chimpanzee orphanage in Africa was just the beginning in a series of events that would change Vanessa in ways she had never expected. First, Vanessa fell in love with a primatologist who worked with the chimpanzees on Ngamba Island. She accepted his quick marriage proposal, scared and excited all at the same time.

Brian Hare’s scientific research took him and his new wife to Congo, where he hoped to find the answer to one of the greatest questions of mankind: What makes us human? Hesitant about Congo, which has the highest rate of rape in the world, Vanessa did not anticipate how involved she herself would become in Brian’s testing. Unlike the chimpanzees they had both worked with before, the bonobos are a peaceful species. Instead of using war to resolve conflict, they used sex. However, bonobos are an endangered species. They have been hunted for their meat in times of food shortages, have had their body parts cut off for use in black magic, and have been abandoned once rich families are no longer amused by or can care for them as house pets. Bonobo Handshake is not only Vanessa’ story or the bonobo’s, it is also the story of Congo.

Out of any primate I learned about in my college anthropology class, the bonobo was the one with which I fell in love. Even in dry textbook language, this amazing creature stood out to me. I remember commenting to a friend at dinner one night that I wished we humans were more like bonobos. As I started explaining how touching each other’s genitals allowed for acceptance of a foreign bonobo into a new group, I lost my friend to his booming laughter. My face flushed, and I sank down into my seat. Reading Bonobo Handshake let me know that I’m not the only one who has seen the valuable lessons we could learn from the bonobos.

I learned even more than I did before about bonobos, as well as more of the history of Congo and why it is currently in such a devastating situation. The bonobos were so lovingly described. Certain passages made me smile and laugh out loud, while others broke my heart and caused tears to pool in my eyes. I now have a better grasp on the history of Congo and the leaders of that developing world who contributed to its state. Best of all, I loved the style in which this memoir was written. The prose flowed smoothly, and at times I found myself forgetting I wasn’t reading a beautifully detailed work of fiction.

Rating: 5/5

Jennifer graduated from the University of Utah with a BA in English. She occasionally dabbles with her own fiction writing, particularly with the Young Adult and Paranormal genres. She currently resides in Utah with her husband and daughter.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Gotham. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Category: Animals, Biographies, Mathematics/Science, Memoirs, Nonfiction

Comments (3)

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  1. 3
    Colleen Turner says:

    I don’t know much about the Bonobos but this sounds like a wonderful book to read! It really is fascinating to see and wonder what truly divides humans from their primate ancestors. I will have to keep this book in mind! Thanks for the review!

  2. 2
    Carol Wong says:

    Thank for your beautiful and insightful review. I paraticurly like the fact where you put this in bold: “Bonobo Handshake is not only Vanessa’ story or the bonobo’s, it is also the story of Congo.” I have read this book and I agree that people need to realize that there is horrific Congo history in this book. When I was reading it,
    I was so overwhelmed by the terrible killings in the Congo that occurred at different times that I had to put this book down, cry and get away from the book. This did not happen once or twice but through a lot of the book. I loved the bonobo monkeys, they were surprising and wonderful to learn about but be prepared for Congo history. I gave the book the same 5 star rating as you did.

    Carol Wong

  3. 1
    Jane Cook says:

    I’m looking forward to reading this. I learned a little about the bonobos from the fictional ‘Ape House’, but would love to read a non-fiction account of them.

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