Friday, June 18, 2010

Review: Bonobo Handshake

Summary: In 2005, Vanessa Woods accepted a marriage proposal from a man she barely knew and agreed to join him on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country reeling from a brutal decade-long war that had claimed the lives of millions. Settling in at a bonobo sanctuary in Congo's capital, Vanessa and her fiancé entered the world of a rare ape with whom we share 98.7 percent of our DNA. She soon discovered that many of the inhabitants of the sanctuary-ape and human alike-are refugees from unspeakable violence, yet bonobos live in a peaceful society in which females are in charge, war is nonexistent, and sex is as common and friendly as a handshake.

A fascinating memoir of hope and adventure, Bonobo Handshake traces Vanessa's self-discovery as she finds herself falling deeply in love with her husband, the apes, and her new surroundings while probing life's greatest question: What ultimately makes us human? Courageous and extraordinary, this true story of revelation and transformation in a fragile corner of Africa is about looking past the differences between animals and ourselves, and finding in them the same extraordinary courage and will to survive. For Vanessa, it is about finding her own path as a writer and scientist, falling in love, and finding a home.
-- Gotham Books

Like many of you, I love a good memoir. But I admit that the attraction of BONOBO HANDSHAKE: A MEMOIR OF LOVE AND ADVENTURE IN THE CONGO by Vanessa Woods wasn't really Ms. Woods' story at all. For me, it was all about the bonobos!

If you aren't familiar with the word bonobo (Microsoft Word doesn't even recognize it), a bonobo is ananthropoid ape of north-central Congo (formerly Zaire), having black hair and more arboreal habits than the common chimpanze. A bonobo is as closely related to humans as a chimpanzee (we share 98.7 % of our DNA), yet they are less aggressive than a chimpanzee. They are, however, much more sexual. I wasn't even familiar with the term before reading Sara Gruen's APE HOUSE a few weeks ago, but now I'm hooked on learning more about bonobos!

This is probably something you don't know about me, but I'm fascinated with primates; and I have been for as long as I can remember. I really recognized my interest when I was a freshman in college and took an intro Anthropology class. After my father told me he wasn't going to pay for me to learn about monkeys, I turned to a more practical Finance major. However, I still fed my interest in apes by reading books and visiting the Ape House at the National Zoo is Washington, DC.

I thoroughly enjoyed BONOBO HANDSHAKE and it did teach me more about bonobos. I admit that I did have a little bit of a difficult time getting into the book, but about a third of the way through, the book really took off for me. I think part of my issue might have been that I wanted to learn more about the bonobos' interactions with each other and with humans. I realize that this book is really Vanessa Woods' memoir (and not one for the bonobos), but I definitely enjoyed it more when she went into the details about the apes. Having said that, I do not think this will be the case with most readers!

I did enjoy learning about Ms. Woods and her adventures -- she is one brave woman. While I love learning about apes, I know my limitations. There is no way I have the courage, guts, craziness, etc. to head to Africa to study bonobos -- I won't even go camping! So I definitely give her kudos for giving up the comfort and stability of her life to work on a sanctuary in the Congo. Believe me when I say this couldn't have been an easy decision for her.

I also give Ms. Woods a lot of credit for her candor and honesty about her life and her relationships. I definitely felt more of an affinity with her as the book went along, and I even myself crying with her over some of the difficulties she encountered (especially as they related to the health of the bonobos.) I enjoyed seeing how Ms. Woods matured throughout this book too. When the book began, Ms. Woods' was a pretty normal young woman -- she was pretty content in the comfort of her life and she was also a bit immature when it came to relationship with her fiance/husband. Throughout her experiences in the Congo, she began to appreciate how fortunate she was in so many ways. She delved into learning about the the country's troubled history while at the same time truly sacrificing herself to save the lives of baby bonobos. This memoir really was an example of a touching coming-of-age story.

One of the things that I really appreciated about this book was how much I learned about the Congo's history. I think I'm hard-pressed to come up with a country whose people have suffered as much as those in the Congo. There have been more than five million people killed! What has happened to this country over the years is truly remarkable and incredibly unfortunate. While living there, Ms. Woods' became very caught up in the country's problems and I think she did a fabulous job of enlightening the reader to what has been going on over there. As I read this book, I was just so grateful that I was fortunate enough to be born in the United States.

Of course, some of my favorite parts of this book were about the bonobos. Bonobos only exist in the Congo and they are sadly almost extinct. Ms. Woods' gives details on Lola Ya Bonobo, a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos which I found fascinating -- thank goodness there are people who devote their live to saving these creatures. I was fascinated with how these animals behave (and sometimes shocked as well), but I couldn't help but fall in love with them.

I also really appreciated how Ms. Woods' explained her and her husband's studies of these animals. I find it incredibly interesting that by studying these animals' behaviors, scientists can learn about humans too. Bonobos are female-dominated and live in a peaceful environment where conflicts are resolved through sex. It was fascinating how different their minds seemed to work when compared to chimpanzees and humans. In fact, some of their behavior seemed more "human" than many of the humans I know!

If you are a fan of memoirs or love learning about apes like I do, then I recommend taking a look at BONOBO HANDSHAKE.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book.


Beth F said...

Little know fact about me -- When I went to the University of Oregon for my masters degree, I fully intended to get my degree in nonhuman primate behavior -- so we share something there. This looks like it has to go on my must-read list.

bermudaonion said...

You know how I love a good memoir! I can remember going to the pet store just to watch the monkeys as a kid. Now, I think it's cruel to put them in cages, but back then, I just thought they were fun to watch.

Anonymous said...

I started college studying to become a vet before switching to English and sociology. I still love learning about animals, but I don't really read books about animals that likely will make me cry. I'll have to give this one some thought.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Nah, I was a Finance/Accounting major from the very beginning. Still, my family always knows that they will end up leaving me standing by the monkey cages at the zoo. I'm fascinated with them.

Beth Hoffman said...

I'm one of those people that loves animals so much that I can't stand to read about them because if they get hurt or are abused, I'm a wreck. But interestingly, I like reading reviews of such books, and I certainly enjoyed yours, Julie!

Happy Friday!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

LOL - I had a similar thing happen to me. Ever since I read "In the Shadow of Man" I wanted to be the next Jane Goodall, but then it sort of dawned on me that living in the wilds of Africa would probably not work out for somebody who won't even camp in her own backyard!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

I love learning about animal behavior, and, coupled with the memoir aspect, this sounds like a good fit for me.