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Friday, June 18, 2010

Bonobo Handshake: A book review

In my new identity as a book reviewer, here’s a new one on bonobos, (formerly called “pygmy chimpanzees”) that I enjoyed very much. Not a mystery, but well-written popular science about a little-known great ape.

Bonobo Handshake, by Vanessa Woods. June 2010. Gotham Books.

This tale is a headlong scramble through Vanessa Woods’ experiences raising chimpanzees and bonobos orphaned by the bushmeat trade, her volatile romance with a scientist, the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and why her father was not a better man. This is not merely a sweet tale of saving little ape lives, although that is there in vivid detail. Through her life in Africa, the lives of the staff at Lolo ya Bonobo, and the lives of the bonobos, she draws us into the history of the Congo, and an ugly one it is. This is not a book for children. No book about the history of the Congo could be.

Woods leaps bravely off the deep end to show us why the mothers of the baby apes are dead, why the Congolese staff is intimately familiar with death, and why she has good reason to fear for her own safety and her husband’s. In vivid, self-deprecating, often present-tense language, she alternates between the grotesque atrocities that humans inflict on one another in this war-torn country and the everyday life of the sanctuary, where getting a starved and brutalized baby bonobo to giggle may be essential to its physical as well as emotional survival. A self-identified “chimp girl,” her comparisons of chimps and bonobos are fascinating and backed up by the research she and her husband accomplished at sanctuaries.

The quibbles: Her publisher erred in not providing a good map of the Congo. Photos would have been a great addition as well. Not much from long-term studies of wild bonobos is included, possibly because the papers aren’t yet available or else not in English. Also, our view of chimps changed radically between the early years of field studies and the decades-long studies that revealed far less appealing characteristics such as murder and warfare; the same could happen with bonobos. Woods goes rather “Joyce Maynard” on her husband, revealing an almost-violent incident that could be taken, by the cynical, as a set-up for emphasizing her point about how bonobos resolve male-on-female violence.

These concerns aside, in a land where millions died by violence in recent years, she asks what the sexy, friendly, relaxed bonobo can teach us. Plenty, I hope, if we can keep the species around long enough. If the apes aren’t enough for you, read it for the global politics, and weep. A powerful read.

Here's a link to the website of the bonobo sanctuary where Woods worked.

Thanks to Gotham Books (Penguin) for providing a copy of the book at the 2010 Public Library Association conference.

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