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Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo Paperback – June 7, 2011

4.6 out of 5 stars 133 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Devoted to learning more about bonobos, a smaller, more peaceable species of primate than chimpanzees, and lesser known, Australian journalist Woods and her fiancé, scientist Brian Hare, conducted research in the bonobos' only known habitat—civil war–torn Congo. Woods's plainspoken, unadorned account traces the couple's work at Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary, located outside Kinshasa in the 75-acre forested grounds of what was once Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko's weekend retreat. The sanctuary, founded in 1994 and run by French activist Claudine André, served as an orphanage for baby bonobos, left for dead after their parents had been hunted for bush meat; the sanctuary healed and nurtured them (assigning each a human caretaker called a mama), with the aim of reintroducing the animals to the wild. Hare had only previously conducted research on the more warlike, male-dominated chimpanzee, and needed Woods because she spoke French and won the animals' trust; through their daily work, the couple witnessed with astonishment how the matriarchal bonobo society cooperated nicely using frequent sex, and could even inspire human behavior. When Woods describes her daily interaction with the bonobos, her account takes on a warm charm. Woods's personable, accessible work about bonobos elucidates the marvelous intelligence and tolerance of this gentle cousin to humans. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Woods was an Australian primate lover, flitting from job to job while she tried to decide what to do with her life. Brian Hare was a newly minted American PhD. They met at a chimpanzee sanctuary in Uganda, fell in love, and a year later were on a plane to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had suffered a decade-long war, fought over its vast resources of diamonds, gold, cobalt, and other minerals, and in which more than five million died. The human suffering had fostered a rise in the bush-meat trade, and one of the prime targets was bonobos, the “other” chimpanzee. The story of Woods’ and Hare’s research at the only bonobo sanctuary in the world mixes the intimacy of memoir with the science of behavioral research. As Woods comes to know her new husband, she also begins to know the resident bonobos. Bonobos share, use sex to settle arguments, and possess almost 99 percent of our DNA. 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. --Nancy Bent --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Avery; Reprint edition (June 7, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592406343
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592406340
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (133 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #526,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is fabulous! I got it last week and couldn't put it down - the first page grabbed me and the subsequent ones kept hold of me until I reached the back cover.

Bonobo Handshake is a wonderful mix of story-telling, science, and history melded together to become an engaging memoir. A lot of non-fiction falls into the "dry" category for me, but this book was anything but stodgy. I was able to learn while being entertained - literally laughing and tearing up at different parts of the story - about not only bonobos and chimps but also the DR of Congo, which had previously only existed for me via bloody images on the news.

While I'd hesitate in recommending it to my friend's kids (they're pretty young - I'm not sure I'd be up for explaining the "handshake" to them), I'd DEFINITELY add this to any of my friend's reading lists. FABULOUS!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This rare ability to combine three strong writing themes - politics, science and raw personal history - has never been so beautifully exhibited as in this memoir. The book leaves a reader breathless, with so much to absorb, so much to learn, so much to lament. It is a courageous book that gives us hope, hope that non-violence in the word 'humanity' is there for us to achieve.
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Format: Hardcover
I just finished reading Bonobo Handshake by Vanessa Woods. A triple story of her love life, bonobos lives, and the political situations in DRC. The research her husband conducted explained some of the nature of bonobos and their tolerance for each other and their sexual communications. The difficult part of the book concerned the politics of DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. I thought I was getting the picture about who was fighting whom but as the rebel groups increased I lost track of the reasons for the fighting and became horrified by what the assailants did to the villagers. I've known about such acts but this author tried to explain how the rebel groups formed and then how some turn against their own people. Even the author couldn't keep it straight. It is truly difficult to imagine humans acting so brutally. But the author also said that when you live among people who have jobs and a purpose she described the people as intelligent and caring. Do I think that our nature is any different than the rebels---I don't think so. But when you don't have food, shelter, water, education, and hope, we could all become brutal. The research pointed out the combative nature of chimps vs the tolerant nature of bonobos. That was the most interesting part of the book. Chimps see others as "them" and bonobos see others as "us". I'm afraid humans still see others as "them" although we can learn to accept others as "us". Bonobos truly seem to have a natural tolerance of strangers. I didn't realize that there are so few bonobos in the world and they live basically in a small area.
I looked up the website: [...] and saw the pictures of the people and bonobos in the book.
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Format: Hardcover
Dear Vanessa Woods, I've never written to an author before, but I just HAD to when I finished your book, The Bonobo Handshake. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this book! I read a lot of nonfiction, and have long held a fascination for bonobos. This book was a perfect read for a lay person like myself and I learned so incredibly much from it. There aren't many books out there about bonobos, but the way you combine their story with your personal story, and with the huge story that is Congo in Africa is just so impressive and informative. I will now be on the lookout for anything else you write as I do for my favorite authors that include Carl Safina, Rick Bass, Sy Montgomery, Doug Chadwick, Bernd Heinrich, etc.

I will share this book and its story with everyone and look forward to seeing you and your husband's name in print again and will do my best to support the bonobos. Best of luck with all the great work you and everyone in the book are doing!!
Sincerely,
Margaret
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Format: Hardcover
Woods has a distinctive style, and a quirky sense of humor. In fact, I had to go thirty or forty pages in before I got onto her flow, but from there it was non-stop. She's self deprecating, she kisses and tells (poor husband Brian!) but she also brings us all of the life she lived in the place she lived it with the bonobos of Lola ya Bonobo. This is what she did best, I feel, was to bring us the totality, of them, the wonderful people who care for them, the larger (and bloody) unstable political/economic situation that seems to have always shadowed the Congo. The people and the bonobos were as close in her telling as if I sat across a table from them. She has a very good descriptive talent, and an eye that picks up just the right details. It's a very loving, very sobering, very passionate look at our nearest kin (the bonobos) and highlights their precarious place in the future. I hope they make it, such wonderful relatives have so much to show us!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This short book is much more than a field guide to a species of great ape. It is better described as the personal memoir of a young woman who tries to find meaning in a life damaged by an alcoholic father. What makes her story unique and interesting is that she chooses to do this by marrying a primatologist and joining him to work in a refuge for orphaned bonobos.

At first I was a little put off by the striking self-absorption and immaturity of her perspective. Then I came to appreciate that her willingness to reveal this was part of her unflinching honesty, which is what makes her observations so vivid. Her writing style is certainly fresh and engaging. Even the choice of title is clever - an ironic reference to a certain bonobo social behavior that is explained in the text and which I won't spoil by revealing here.

The story is comprised of three intertwined themes: the volatile beginning of their marriage, the plight of the Congo where the bonobos have their only habitat, and the nature of the bonobos themselves. What makes them, and this book, fascinating is the portrayal of mankind's closest genetic relative as a species that is inherently and strongly caring of those around them, a trait previously thought unique to humanity. Their use of sex to prevent and resolve conflict is described in voyeuristic and comical detail. The author seems to hold up her idealized view of bonobo society as a mirror to her own and mankind's demons. Despite the enthusiasm of her convictions, I found myself wondering how much her observations may reflect that the bonobos she describes are exclusively traumatized orphans in captivity. This may not be an objective, scientific treatment of the subject, but it certainly is an entertaining and compelling introduction to a species and part of the world that deserves more attention.
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