Guest Review: Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods

Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods -- Guest review by Nina of Grandma Ideas and

One of my blogosphere friends was in a jam. Could I help out? She needed a book read and reviewed. Could I do it? Sure thing!

She sent me Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods. Vanessa joined her fiancé on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary for bonobo ophans. Her book is a tapestry of stories woven together – a story of the bonobo apes orphaned because their parents were killed for bushmeat trade, about the people working at the sanctuary, and of Vanessa’s relationship with her husband, Brian.

The golden thread in this tapestry is the story of the bonobos. Bonobos are small apes found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo and are an endangered species with less than 50,000 alive today. They have pink lips, the hair on their head parts in the middle, and females tend to dominate the males. (Go, women!)

And, they share 98.7% of our DNA. Most interesting!

In the book you meet the human mamas – Mama Yvonne, Mama Henriette, Mama Esperance. The baby bonobos cling night and day to these mamas as the babies recover from the traumatic experiences that left them orphans.

You meet the bonobos — Mimi, Lomela, Semendwa, Isiro, Mikeno, Tatango, Max, and vulnerable little Kata. You laugh at their antics (hair pulling when jealous, posing like Rodin’s Thinker statue, or stealing pencils.), you cheer them on as they gain weight and their hair grows back in, and your eyes well up with tears when they die.

A dark thread woven in the story of Vanessa and Brian’s experiments with the bonobos is the bloody history of Congo. The killing between the Hutus and the Tutsis spill from Rwanda into Congo. Political strife rifles the country causing more murderous action. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, other countries of the world have brutally pilloried and exploited the precious commodities that are so abundant in Congo: the diamonds, copper, gold, tin – and now coltan. (Coltan is used in manufacturing smart phones, DVD players, and computers.)

(Does that mean because I own some of those electronic gadgets that I have contributed to the slave-like conditions of the workers in Congo, their brutal treatment, their deaths?)

And then there is the thread of the love story between Vanessa and her husband. You learn how they meet, the story of their engagement, and some of their struggles as newlyweds. Like the backpack incident. I don’t want to spoil the book and tell you what happened. Just let me say that I think Vanessa acted immature in this incident. Extremely immature.

I do have one bone to pick about this book. The first chapter starts off very dramatically. It ends with this line: “We’re supposed to get married and I’ve never hated anyone so much in my life.”

I kept expecting Vanessa to give a compelling reason why she felt this way. But it never came — at least to my satisfaction. Did Vanessa want to write such a compelling first chapter that readers wouldn’t want to put her book down? If so, that is good. She just needed to provide supporting evidence. (Where was her editor? Was she asleep when she read this part?)

Would I recommend this book? Yes. It is an interesting, easy read. One where you learn lots about bonobos and lots about Congo. Just don’t hold your breath for the hatred in the first chapter to be satisfactorily resolved.