Summary and book reviews of A Primate's Memoir by Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate's Memoir

A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

By Robert M. Sapolsky

A Primate's Memoir
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2001,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2002,
    304 pages.

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About this Book

Book Summary

"I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla," writes Robert Sapolsky in this witty and riveting chronicle of a scientist's coming-of-age in remote Africa. Raised in an intellectual, immigrant family in Brooklyn, Sapolsky wished he could live in the primate diorama in the Museum of Natural History. He wrote fan letters to primatologists, started reading their textbooks at age fourteen, and even learned Swahili in high school, all with the hopes of one day joining his primate brethren in Africa. Finally, upon graduating from college, Sapolsky's dream comes true when, at age twenty-one, he leaves the comforts of the United States for the very first time to join a baboon troop in Kenya as a "young transfer male."

Book smart and naive, Sapolsky sets out to study the relationship between stress and disease. But he soon learns that life in the African bush bears little resemblance to the tranquillity of a museum diorama. He is alone in the middle of the Serengeti with no radio, no television, no electricity, no running water, and no telephone. His nearest neighbors are the Masai, a warlike tribespeople whose marriages are polygamous, with wedding parties featuring tureens of cow's blood. The victim of countless scams and his own idealistic illusions, Sapolsky nevertheless survives culinary atrocities, gunpoint encounters, and a surreal kidnapping, while witnessing the encroachment of the tourist mentality on the farthest vestiges of unspoiled Africa. As he conducts unprecedented physiological research on wild primates, he becomes evermore enamored with his subjects -- unique and compelling characters in their own right -- and he returns to them summer after summer, until tragedy finally prevents him.

Here is Robert Sapolsky's exhilarating account of his life in the bush with neighbors both human and primate, by turns hilarious and poignant. The culmination of more than two decades of experience and research, A Primate's Memoir is a magnum opus from one of our foremost scientist-writers.

Contents

Acknowledgments

Part 1. The Adolescent Years: When I First Joined the Troop

  1. The Baboons: The Generations of Israel
  2. Zebra Kabobs and a Life of Crime
  3. The Revenge of the Liberals
  4. The Masai Fundamentalist and My Debut as a Social Worker
  5. The Coca-Cola Devil
  6. Teaching Old Men About Maps
  7. Memories of Blood: The East African Wars

Part 2: The Sub-adult Years

  1. The Baboons: Saul in the Wilderness
  2. Samwelly Versus the Elephants
  3. The First Masai
  4. Zoology and National Security: A Shaggy Hyena Story
  5. The Coup
  6. Hearing Voices at the Wrong Time
  7. Sudan

Part 3: Tenuous Adulthood

  1. The Baboons: The Unstable Years
  2. Ol' Curly Toes and the King of Nubian-Judea
  3. The Penguins of Guyana
  4. When Baboons Were Falling Out of the Trees
  5. The Old White Man
  6. The Elevator
  7. The Mound Behind the 7-Eleven

Part 4: Adulthood

  1. The Baboons: Nick
  2. The Raid
  3. Ice
  4. Joseph
  5. The Wonders of Machines in a Land Where They Are Still Novel: The Blind Leading the Blind
  6. Who's on First, What's on Second
  7. The Last ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews
New York Times Book Review

One closes his book a lot more knowledgeable about plenty of baboon-related matters. But mostly one has already begun to miss the company of this sometimes cranky but always impassioned, learned and winningly irreverent man.... A Primate's Memoir is the closest the baboon is likely to come -- and it's plenty close enough -- to having its own Iliad.

Library Journal

He alternates tales of the baboons and their interesting social lives with his off-site adventures, which include a surreal kidnapping and an emotional pilgrimage to see mountain gorillas and muse on Dian Fossey's legacy.

Kirkus Reviews

A wild and wondrous account, filled with passages so funny or so brilliant that the reader wants to grab someone by the arm and demand, Hey, you just gotta listen to this.

Publisher's Weekly

While Sapolsky's primate observations are always fascinating, his thoughts on Africa and Africans are even more compelling. As funny and irreverent as a good ol' boy regaling his friends with vacation-from-hell stories, Sapolsky can also be disarmingly emotional as in his clear-headed tribute to late gorilla researcher Dian Fossey, and his final chapters, which reveal his rage and impotence as he watched his baboons succumb to a horrific plague.

Author Blurb Allegra Goodman; author of Kaaterskill Falls
A Primate's Memoir is witty, erudite, and full of baboons. What could be bad?

Author Blurb Pete Dexter; author of Paris Trout and The Paperboy
Mr. Sapolsky has been to the end of the road and come back with some of the best stories you will ever hear and, in the process, has put his finger on some vast, comic common denominator. What you have in your hands is the reason to read books.

Author Blurb Norman Rush; author of Mating
This engrossing account of Robert Sapolsky's life in science, set down with style and force, is brilliantly informative (baboons have long memories, and seek vengeance!) and heartbreakingly acute in its renderings of African lives, terrains, fates.

Author Blurb Caroline Knapp
At the end of A Primate's Memoir, I felt as though I'd been on a guided tour of Africa with a wise, soulful, funny, generous, and deeply intelligent guide. Loved him, loved his insights about these strange and distant cultures, loved his baboons.

Author Blurb George Packer; author of The Village of Waiting and Blood of the Liberals
The odds would seem long against finding a book by a writer who has the various skills to tranquilize wild East African baboons with a blowgun, explain the scientific implications of his work, negotiate treacherous primate power struggles (especially those of H. sapiens), and write about it all with great wit and humanity. But A Primate's Memoir is such a book, and Robert M. Sapolsky is such a writer.

Reader Reviews
Sarah

I would have given this book a better review if I hadn't felt misled. I thought I was about to read a book about baboons, instead I read a book about Africa. Although it is very well written, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. So, if you're ...   Read More

Treva

Fantastic, one of the best books i have ever read.

ndasny

It is such an excellent example of a humanized scientific perspective; in fact there's no other comparison in the way the lives of baboons, peoples and science, and of a individual life are intertwined. It is a optimal mixture of entertainment and ...   Read More

Shirley

Tremendously great. It kept me thorouhgly entertained throughout the entire novel. A definite add-on to anyone's booklist.

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