Empty Hands, Open Arms : The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation go Viral – Denis Bechard

Halfway through reading this book I stopped what I was doing so that I could thank Deni Bechard for writing it.

The book begins as Bechard arrives in the Congo  after months researching of researching the Bonobos and The Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI). As Bechard brings the reader along his journey into the heart of the Congo, we are also brought deeper into the four main threads of his story : 1) The Bonobo apes, 2) The Congo, 3) BCI, 4) The future of effective conservation.

The Bonobo apes share about as much DNA with us as chimpanzees. They are considered to be the happiest apes on the planet.  There is little tension and none of the aggression found in chimpanzees.  Bechard was struck by the alternative that these gentle, caring apes might show us about humanity. The Bonobos are becoming extinct and they exist only in the heart of the Congo. They have suffered along with the rest of the population due to the instability of unending civil wars and the effects of the rest of the world pillaging the Congo’s riches.

Many know that the Congo is a place of unrest, mass rape and extreme poverty despite the wealth in minerals but we are not often presented with the more holistic history of the Congo – one that notes the Congo pre-coloniolism, or that the people of the Congo are a vibrant people who have a lot to contribute when they are empowered to do so.

The Bonobo Conservation Initiative approaches conservation by doing just that – listening to the people in an area, exploring the habitat that they wish to protect and seeing what they can do to empower the people so that their lives are better and so allow them to help preserve the wildlife around them.  In so doing they create a sustainable form of conservation that has been replicated by the peoples of the Congo throughout the region.

As Bechard writes, many people don’t have the time or patience (possibly understanding for the necessity) for this sort of holistic approach to conservation; the temptation is to go in and ‘fix’ a problem. It is an understandable choice, the idea of doing it any other way can seem overwhelming, but through Bechard’s book it becomes more and more obvious that approaching conservation in any other way is merely hubris.

There are countless times where it is demonstrated that our actions can have unintended negative consequences.  For instance – photographing “john” to show the extreme poverty in the area to raise money can be at the cost of “john’s” sense of self worth.  It is mocks him and leaves bad feelings.  When we go in and fix something we can create a lot of bad feelings, not just because we ‘mock’ without meaning to, but because we don’t take into account the importance or relevance of the people and life already there. If we focus solely on the Bonobo, we are only understanding 1% of what is going on.  Looking at the big picture brings greater understanding, and a greater ability to affect change.

Worse still, when we go in and ‘fix’ something, we generally leave and the people and things we ignored when we went in are left to clean up the mess.

I couldn’t help thinking about how that applies not just to conservation, but to our ‘diplomatic’ forays into other countries.

Through Bechard’s book, the importance and long-lasting effects of this more thoughtful and encompassing approach become so obvious that it seems a wonder that we have ever had the folly to try to create change in any other way.

“Empty Hands, Open Arms” is a well written, easy to read book.  The depth of Bechard’s research is obvious, the facts presented are absorbed as we follow along  Bechard’s journey into the heart of the Congo and back…the way a master storyteller delivers fables to enthralled audiences

I picked up the book on a whim , I’m interested in the Congo, I wanted to learn more about Bonobos, beyond that the choice was arbitrary, or so I thought. Sometimes books come to you when you need them, and I think fate came into play.  Bechard’s book helped me coalesce my thoughts about what I want the future of conservation to look like, and what kind of roles I want to play in society.

Deni Bechard’s Website

Book Trailer


Learning to Swim – Sara J. Henry

I participate in our library’s Adult Summer Reading progam, it’s a bit loosey goosey in that there are no required texts, you just have to read and are invited to share what you’ve read and what you thought about it with the rest of the community.  On the foot of a community member’s recommendation I picked up Learning to Swim and so had not idea until afterward that this book “has been called “an auspicious debut” by Daniel Woodrell (WINTER’S BONE) and “emotional, intense, and engrossing” by Lisa Unger. It won the 2012 Anthony Award and 2012 Agatha Award for best first novel and the 2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award, and was nominated for the Barry and Macavity awards. The sequel is A COLD AND LONELY PLACE, which bestselling author Julia Spencer-Fleming calls “a deeply atmospheric, seductive read and a captivating literary mystery” and award-winning author Howard Frank Mosher describes as “a character-driven thriller set in one of the coldest and loneliest places in the United States: the Adirondack Mountains in mid-winter.” (Henry’s author page on Amazon)

Troy Chance is a singular sporty young woman who lives an active minimalist life supporting herself by writing freelance articles for a number of magazines.  She rents a house which she shares with a lot guys (because with them she can have a bad day, go to her room, and not have anyone expecting her to sit down and talk about it).  Taking the ferry across Lake Champlain to visit her boyfriend she heads for the deck where despite the damp she feels more comfortable than in the lounge.  Peering out through the fog she sees another ferry traveling in the opposite direction and is surprised to see something (a child?!) falling overboard.  Before she even knows what she is doing  she has plunged into the water and begun swimming towards the last point where she saw the child. When she finds him, his arms tied in a large sweatshirt she gets him to the point of being responsive and starts to swim towards shore. “The swim to shore wasn’t dramatic, just grim…..This is the part of Rescue 911 you never see – the long, slow dreary stuff.  I did the crawl; I did the sidestroke.  In my head I sang a slow dirge from Girl Scout camp.”(p 5-6)

When she gets to shore she realizes that she had been expecting news crews and teary, grateful parents. not the empty parking lot that greeted her.  The question now is “What to do next that would be in the best interests of this child” who she has just learned only speaks French.

An excellent debut, the first few chapters of this book are tantalizingly suspenseful.  From this excellent beginning I was driven to finish the book within 10 hours of beginning it despite some weak storyline connections and relationships later in the book.

I have every reason to believe that Ms. Henry’s writing will only improve and look forward to her future in suspense.

What Do Women Want – Daniel Bergner

When I first heard about this book and saw that it was written by someone named Daniel I jumped straight into my grrrrrrrl!!! pants ready to rant and rave at this Daniel character, or at least his book.  I was ‘madly’ incensed….right up to the  point that I started researching the book (pre-publication) and what I found made me take my wallet out and pre-order it on Amazon.

(Fair warning – though I don’t think I am saying anything here that is offensive, if you would prefer not to read something that refers to sex or human genitalia read no further)

What Do Women Want : Adventures in the Science of Female Desire” brings together mountains of research by (mostly female) scientists and stories that represent the hundreds of women Bergner spoke with to create a book that completely re-sets the stage for how we talk about women and sex.

The study that I read that made me order the book referred to Meredith Chivers work at Queen’s University.  Chivers took male and female participants, gave them a device to click with their thumb when they felt ‘turned on’, placed a device on/in their genitalia to measure arousal and then showed them a variety of basic pornographic material.  She discovered that while there was a direct correlation between what men said was arousing (mentally through the thumb click), and the blood flow to their genitals, women were generally not so straightforward. Women were turned on by everything according to what the plethysmograph (the internal monitor) but their thumbs indicated minimal arousal and only when it came to men together with women. (or in the case of lesbians women with women.

Are we disconnected? Are the mind and body engaged differently?  Do societal mores influence us so deeply? I wanted to know.

When I read “Breasts : A Natural and Unnatural History” I was deeply struck by how the basis for science had been so male oriented.  The idea that the reasons women have ‘present’ breasts throughout their adult life (as opposed to breasts that only become engorged during breastfeeding as in all other mammals) was understood to be because ‘boobies made men happy’. (On a tangent check out Amanda Palmer’s video to the Daily Mail about her breast and their coverage of it)

It’s understandable we understand the world through our own prisms and as Dr. Wallen explains :

“When he thought about the way science had somehow kept itself oblivious to female monkey lust for so long, Wallen blamed not only preconceptions but the sex act itself.  When you look at the sexual interaction., it’s easy to see what the male is doing; he’s thrusting.  It takes really focusing o the entire interaction to see all that the female is doing – and once you truly see it, you can never overlook it again.” (45)

But there are things too that I could not understand at all.  I can’t blame scientists for understanding the world one way but I got a little upset when I realized that there were more than oversights.

“As we watched, Pfaus mentioned the anatomical oversights that had squelched our understanding of the clitoris – rat and human- until a decade before.  The organ has sizable extensions, lying internally in the shape of bulbs and wings.  These are positioned, in part, just behind the front wall of the vagina,.  Yet these nerve-rich formations had gone mostly unnoted by modern anatomists, who either left them undrawn or gave them no import” (p57)

When you are drawing an anatomical picture…you draw what you see not what you deem important.  Rats are such crazed sexual creatures a reference to them even came up in another book I’m reading  “Daily Rituals  : How Artists Work”.  The author Patricial Highsith once remarked that she was “rarely short of inspiration; she had ideas, she said, like rats have orgasms” (p10)

In the end he admits that there is a lot more work to do, we are a very long distance from understanding all of the levels of female desire but this book topples a lot of the old stereotypes so that we might begin the conversation again, more honestly.

Sisterland and Everybody Has Everything

I read these books at the same time and was not in the mood for either when I picked them up. Taking the chance was worth it.

Both books are an honest look on modern couples, parenting, and friendships, looking at these things in a way that I want to say is unique to a certain age group – but perhaps that is naive..after all, sex isn’t anything new. Nor are qualms of parenting and the many layers of a relationship between a man and a woman. Perhaps it is simply that the way that books are written that is new – fresh and honest and they do not always make for particularly comfortable reading.

But they are rewarding.

Everybody Has Everything by -Katrina Onstad tells the tale of  Ana and James, a couple that have (post-fertility treatments) given up on having a child, until a terrible accident makes them custodians of their friend’s toddler. What that means for James, through whom the tale is told, and Ana  is unpredictably different.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s story, Sisterland is also a story of parenting, and marital relationships with another couple and yet the central relationship of the story is that of of Kate and Violet – twin sisters who ‘have senses’.

While I am certain that you will find more information about each book from other reviews allow me to simply say I recommend that you come to them without knowledge, and enjoy their explorations into modern life.

You can buy Sisterland or Everybody has Everythingon Amazon, or if you are lucky at your local bookstore or borrow it from the library.

Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld

Random House (June 25, 2013)

446 pages

NYT book Review of Sisterland

Everybody Has Everything – Katrina Onstad

– 336 pages

– Hachette Book Group

– Grand Central Publishing

The Never List – Koethi Zan

Sarah and Jennifer had been friends for a long time and only became closer after Jennifer’s mother died.  To try and protect themselves from potential dangers in the world they began writing “The Never List” rules to keep them safe.  Of course, sometimes precautions just don’t pan out.

At university they always arranged to have a car to come pick them up so that they didn’t have to chance strangers vehicles, drunken friends, or being outside where they might be subject to any potential dangers.  After a slightly out of character evening with friends they jump into the car they ordered only realizing too late that their worst nightmares were about to come true.

Sarah spent three years chained to a wall in Jack Derber’s basement with two other women and her friend, Jennifer hidden in a box in the center of the room. Sarah escaped, but Jennifer didn’t.

The present day brings us to Sarah who has secluded herself in an impregnable fortress of her pristine, secure apartment building in NYC.  A doorman, triple bolts, and everything delivered to her door so that she can protect herself from any interactions with the outside world. Until her past forces her into action.

The FBI agent who helped to save Sarah and the other girls in the basement (Christine and Tracy) breaches her stronghold to tell her that Derber is up for parole and has written her a letter.

Sarah is forced to make some choices and is launched into a journey that will take her across the country and into her past to solve the mystery of where her friend is buried.

Jeffrey Deaver said “Throat clutching from the outset! The Never List stands as a sterling example of psychological thriller writing at its best.  Cancel appointments and give up on sleep.  It’s that kind of book”.

Koethi Zan was born and raised in rural Alabama, earned her JD from Yale went to work in entertainment law for more than 15 years and she has a lot of nightmares.  For more than 10 years here very worst nightmare was being kidnapped and held in a basement by her tormentor.  She has done mountains of research about all known cases and sees reading psychological thrillers as a way of managing her own fears.  If ‘abc’ happens then I can do ‘xyz’.  It is from these “perverse fixations” (her words) that “The Never List” was born.

If you want to add The Never List to your collection you can do so through Amazon, or if you’re lucky your local bookstore or borrow it from your  library.

Publisher Pamela Dorman Books (July 16, 2013)

Humboldt : Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier – Emily Brady

Beginning in the sixties a lot of people joined the ‘Back to the Landers’ in an effort to live closer to the earth and ‘be the change’ that they wished to see in the world.  For many in Humboldt County, under the beauty and grandeur of the Redwoods in the wilds of Northern California, this meant growing marijuana for a living.

Through a narrative of investigative journalism, Emily Brady illustrates the people and struggles of this relatively unique area through they eyes of its residents. While she interviewed hundreds (“some days it felt like everyone”) she offers a glimpse into life in Humboldt from the perspective of four representative people.  ‘Mare’ the older hippy woman and one of the original residents who grows only a few plants to supplement her income.  ‘Crockett’ who is second generation but works for others, grows and sells as much marijuana as possible.  ‘Bob’ the local police officer who is trying to do his job in the most respectful way possible considering that he is living in a county where most people make their money through an illegal industry that may or may not gain legality in the near future.  And Ms. Worldpeace, a girl who grew up in Humboldt, moved away, and realized that her childhood was very different from that of most other people she meets in Berkley.

Ms. Brady’s presentation seems to be a fairly honest representation of the lives of those living in Humboldt County and through their individual perspectives she captures a lot o the issues that are being raised about marijuana and the cannabis sales o both a national level and a (Humboldt) local level.

It as an interesting and quick read that will almost certainly shed light on a culture with which many are unfamiliar.

This book will be available on Amazon on June 18, you can order it now or make a note to ask for it at your local bookstore or library.

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (June 18, 2013)

Also, I have been trying to include fellow wordpress bloggers reviews for each book I write up and there weren’t any for Humboldt. If you want a flavor of the wide variety of activism in the upper northeast, please check out the Humboldt Activist.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Do yourself a favor and put this at the top of your fall ‘to read’ list.  Everyone is going to read this book.

Hannah Kent spent a gap year in Iceland 10+ years ago and that is where the seeds for this book were born.  She was not having a good time when she arrived and it wasn’t until she saw Agnes Magnusdottir’s grave and asked about it that her thoughts began to change.  This novel about the (not a spoiler I think but if you want to know nothing about the book don’t read further) the last person executed in Iceland.

Ms. Kent had originally intended to write a non-fiction book but after 10 years of research she decided that the best story that she could tell for Agnes was through the format of a novel.

From the first pages the reader is pulled deep into the Iceland of 1829. This might sound onerous, but it isn’t.  Some writers try to bring you into a time period by steeping you in details that shift you drastically from your own time period.  Kent’s art is far more subtle.  Every aspect of life is just different enough that somehow by merely telling the story,  there is no question about where and WHEN you are.  I say subtle but it is almost something more.  I am a vegetarian and yet as the preparation of a sheep from animal to food was described over the course of several pages, I wasn’t disgusted, merely…there.  I expect this might not make sense until you read it for yourself (as I am most certainly not Hanna Kent)

Agnes Magnusdottir stands accused of being part of the murder.  As there are no prisons in Iceland, she is remanded into the custody of a local Christian family.  Unsurprisingly, they are not particularly happy about being forced to house a murderess, but they have no choice..the man of the house has enjoyed certain privileges as a council member and housing criminals is one of the prices he must pay.

All those that convicted of murder must have religious council.  Agnes chooses a young priest names Toti.  Toti comes to understand that simply praying over her will not achieve what he sees as God’s will, he determines that he should *listen* to what she has to say.

Over the course of days as Agnes tells parts of her life story to Toti, the family who she lives with also listens as the room is divided only by a curtain. All who witness are changed.

On a side note, the editor admits that every time she has read the book she cries at the end.  Every. time.

Interspersed with historical documents and poetry from the time, Burial Rites is extremely compelling, humane, richly described yet in a way that is as sparse as the Icelandic landscape Burial Rites is destined for the top spots this fall.

While it waits to be seen if Kent’s genius comes from the story that needed to be told or innate ability, there can be no doubt that this book is worth all of the accolades being showered upon it.

Burial Rites will be available  September 10, 2013.  You can pre-order it now from Amazon, make a note to purchase it at your local bookstore, or put a hold (and it will be a long wait, I’m telling you this book is going to be one of the hottest things this fall) on it at your library