Summary and book reviews of Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods

Bonobo Handshake

A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo

By Vanessa Woods

Bonobo Handshake
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  • Hardcover: May 2010,
    278 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2011,
    288 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book 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.

Excerpt
Bonobo Handshake

I didn't always want to push my fiancé off a balcony. Twelve months ago I would have jumped off a balcony for him. But a lot can change in a year.

We met in Uganda at the house of Debby Cox, the founder of a chimpanzee sanctuary called Ngamba Island. Debby and I had been friends for years. I first met her when I was twenty-two and fresh out of college. I was volunteering for Taronga Zoo in Sydney when I heard about the chimp island she had started for orphan chimpanzees whose parents were killed by the bushmeat trade.

Part of Debby's conservation program was counting the chimpanzees in Budongo Forest. The world's biggest population of chimpanzees was in Congo, but they were rapidly being butchered and eaten. The Ugandans had traditional taboos against eating apes, and they had the second-biggest population. But no one knew how many chimpanzees were left or where they were. My job was to lead a team of Ugandans on a census, for which I had zero ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Do you think that, in general, humans behave more like chimpanzees or bonobos?

  2. In describing her relationship with Baluku, a chimpanzee, Woods writes: "He needed all of me…It was the first time I had to give myself so completely. But I didn't feel trapped or resentful because I never had a moment's rest or a solid night's sleep. Baluku's love was its own reward" (p. 5). Have you ever experienced this kind of love? How did it affect you?

  3. "At no point did [Brian] mention fondling bonobo penises" (p. 60). Yet, this is precisely what Woods finds herself doing to help her fiancé with his research. What would you have done in her position?

  4. When Mimi rejects her baby, Woods explains how "when apes are taken from their mothers at ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Bonobo Handshake is equal parts behavioral science, history, personal memoir, and coming-of-age tale. I often consider it a mistake when an author tries to cram too much into a book, trying to be all things to all readers, as the end result is often a work that does a poor job covering all aspects of the chosen material. Vanessa Woods, however, manages to pull off this balancing act in a remarkably satisfying manner.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (1232 words).

Media Reviews
Smithsonian

Woods gives one of the best accounts I’ve read of Congo’s history and the effect of that violence on the people who live there.

NOVA (PBS)

[A] window into the emotions and psychology of our nearest primate relatives, bonobos and chimps. But more than that it's a revealing look into the mind and heart of a young woman finding her way as a scientist and a conservationist... an appealing read even for people not usually drawn to science... and an eye-opening reality check for anyone interested in doing research with primates.

Indie Next List Pick

This memoir left me wanting to donate all my money to Friends of Bonobos. Vanessa has captured the spirit of an animal that so many of us now nothing about. Her writing drew me in from page one and the research about the civil war in the Congo region was just the right amount to not feel like you were reading a history book about the Congo, but enough so you could completely understand the impact that it has had on the Bonobo's. I can't wait for this to come out and for people to be made aware of her cause. I haven't read a non-fiction book before that I felt so drawn to be part of their cause. -- Sarah Galvin, The Bookstore Plus, Lake Placid, NY

Publishers Weekly

Woods's personable, accessible work about bonobos elucidates the marvelous intelligence and tolerance of this gentle cousin to humans.

Kirkus Reviews

A bright, informative memoir...The bonobos have found their advocate.

Booklist

This mostly joyous book is not afraid to talk about the terrible recent history of the Congo, but ultimately it comes down on the side of hope—for the Congo and the bonobos.

New Scientist

To read Woods's elegant and entertaining book is to share the experience of a soul realising there is something more - something mankind must learn. In that self-realisation is the secret of the bonobos.

Author Blurb Sara Gruen, bestselling author of Water for Elephants
Funny, adventurous, and heartbreaking, Woods takes us with her to darkest Africa to meet our nearest relative, the nearly extinct bonobo. This must-read book illuminates extraordinary courage in both people and animals.

Author Blurb Alan Alda
This is a startling book. Page after page astonished me. A beautifully written journey into the tangled jungle of the human mind, it also brings us movingly into intimate, loving contact with our extraordinary cousins. This is a compelling story, told with striking honesty, humor, and intelligence.

Author Blurb Adam Hochschild, author of the award winning King Leopold's Ghost
Don't think that this is just a book about apes. It's a love story, an adventure story, and a political education about a country that has seen more tragedy and inhumanity than you can imagine. Above all, it's an introduction to creatures who have every claim to being more human, in the best sense of the word, than we are.

Author Blurb Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human
Gain insights into both the darkness and altruistic sides of our own emotions by getting to know chimpanzees and bonobos in an African sanctuary. This book is both shocking and hilarious.

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Vanessa Woods with bonobos in a wildlife sanctuary
in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sydney Morning Herald

Bonobos (Pan paniscus) are one of the two species that make up the genus Pan, along with Pan troglodytes, the Common Chimpanzee. Chimps and bonobos are the closest extant relative to humans, sharing almost 99% of our DNA. They are also the least known of the great apes (which in addition to bonobos includes chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas), and remained unidentified as a separate species until 1933.

Bonobos are sometimes referred to as pygmy chimpanzees, but this is a misnomer, as on average they weigh the same or only slightly less than common chimpanzees (approximately 85 pounds for males ...

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