Bonobo Handshake: A Review

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 24, 2010 8:49 am

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.

Vanessa Woods CoverAt 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.


Comments (2)

  1. Linda

    I had the opportunity to read most of this book, and I found it to be quite a wonderful adventure. A very human story about people and primate and the value of each.

  2. And for anyone who has the chance to see her promote her book at a bookstore (or other venue) along the way GO SEE HER! She’s a passionate dynamo on this subject (with an irresistable Aussie accent) — a slightly less-cerebral, more-animated Jane Goodall, not to be missed!!!


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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