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The Sciences

Bonobo Handshake: A Review

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumJune 24, 2010 5:49 PM


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I begin with a full disclosure: As many readers know, Vanessa Woods is one of my very best friends. I love spending time with her because she's insightful, outrageous, brilliant, and funny. And I can sincerely say I love her new memoir, Bonobo Handshake for the very same reasons. But most of all, I'm recommending this book because it's so important.


At the start of Bonobo Handshake, we're introduced to Vanessa as she sets off rather haphazardly on an adventure to Africa with her new husband, Duke anthropologist Brian Hare. By the end, she--and we--are not the same. Woven in between is a beautiful and complex narrative about people and other primates that slowly unravels what's really at stake. There were times I laughed out loud reading about the challenges of working with a species that--yes--famously approaches sex as easily as humans would a handshake. But there is a lot more to bonobos than their sexual behavior. Just as Jane Goodall documented the unforgettable antics of chimpanzees like Flossie and David Greybeard, Vanessa brings us into the world of 'Empress' Mimi, mischievous and lovable Malou, and my favorite bonobo of all, sweet little Lodja. It's easy to fall in love with all of them as you're both charmed and heartbroken along the way. That's only one part of a very complex story. Bonobo Handshake also exposes a very tragic side of Congo. Throughout the book, Vanessa shares devastating personal accounts of war, murder, rape, and torture. She gives voice to people who are often forgotten and need desperately to be heard. You also realize how they are connected to all of us through our politics, as well as the limited resources that power our technologies. In other words, we are part of the story. I could go on and on about why I feel this memoir is so powerful and how it finally brought Congo to life for me in a way that all of the detached TV news stories over the years could never do. Or about how I'm inspired by heroes like Claudine Andre, who sacrifice so much to make the world a better place. Or about how incredibly well Bonobo Handshake succeeds in covering such a heavy topic, while providing reasons for hope. And of course, about how much I admire Vanessa for her courage, independence, and compassion. I could do all of those things... but instead, I'll keep it simple: I love this book. Go read it.

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