ElCicco #CBR5 review #50: Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks


Primates is a kid-friendly graphic novel about three powerhouses of anthropology who also happen to be women. Ottaviani has written several acclaimed graphic novels  related to science (including Feynman). Wicks’ illustrations are bold and crisp. Together, the two manage to weave together the three women’s stories in a solid, detailed and clear narrative of the scientists’ groundbreaking work among primates.

Each of these three women is fascinating in her own right and demonstrated a singleness of purpose and lifelong commitment to her studies. And each got her start thanks to eminent anthropologist and pioneer of primate studies Richard Leakey. Jane Goodall of England was a bookish child enthralled by the stories of Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle. Although she couldn’t afford to attend college, a fortuitous encounter with Dr. Leakey gave her the opportunity to become his secretary and eventually go out into the field to observe chimpanzees. Her patience and perseverance led to the discovery that chimps use tools and eat meat — shocking news in 1960. Goodall became one of the foremost researchers and lecturers in her field. The American Dian Fossey was an occupational therapist by training and deeply interested in gorillas. Thanks to her encounter with Dr. Leakey on a trip to Africa, Fossey was invited to pursue this interest. Her patience and passion for the gorillas allowed her to uncover the intricacies of their social and communication systems. Her work led her to push for conservation and also made her an outspoken critic and enemy of poachers, who murdered her in 1982. Canadian Birute Galdakis was actually formally trained as an anthropologist when she met Dr. Leakey and discussed with him her interest in the study of orangutans. These primates were so reclusive that almost nothing was known of them until her pioneering work, which caused her physical hardship and took a toll on her marriage

I think any kid (not just girls) would find the work of these scientists interesting. They lived in huts, studied poop and animal calls, and learned to get animals to trust them. They were patient and were able to pursue dreams that had seemed closed off to them. The story doesn’t shy away from the harsher aspects of their stories, referencing the murder of Fossey in addition to Galdakis’ divorce. It also shows Leakey as a very human man. While he was generous and took chances on women who had passion but little to no training, his reputation as a bit of a rake is also alluded to. Apparently, he had affairs with some of his female students, but not Jane, Dian or Birute. (It looks like Jane and Dian might have rebuffed his advances.)

All in all, a good story that could get kids interested in science, research, conservation and history. Also a nice follow up to my last review.

Alisonrt25′s #CBR5 Review #7: Blood River by Tim Butcher

blood riverBlood River by Tim Butcher is a true account of the authors journey through Africa via the Congo River in 2004. Butcher’s goal is to take the same path a fellow Telegraph writer, Stanley, took nearly 100 years earlier to see what’s become of the Congo River and neighboring towns since. Once bustling towns in the 1950’s and 60’s, they have become 3rd world communities with no running water or electricity since civil wars broke out in the 60’s.

The journey Butcher takes is filled with the constant danger of being attacked by rebels, yet his desire to complete this quest keeps him moving forward despite everyone warning him that he will never make it out in the bush. He encounters many interesting people along the way, from tribal chiefs to Catholic priests, all helping him piece together what exactly happened to the bustling towns that could be reached by train or port in the 50’s.

No one seems to be able to explain where it all went wrong and the future looks even more bleak as there is absolutely no control over the people in the region. Nothing to stop the rebels from entering towns time and time again, causing the people to flee to the bush, while they ransack their goods. The townspeople simply wait for the rebels to leave and rebuild time and time again. It definitely makes you appreciate their tenacity to keep going, despite these constant setbacks. I was left feeling the hopelessness of it all after reading the book and definitely wouldn’t say it’s a “light” read.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #26: Home of the Brave

It’s time for more turbo-charged book reviews. If you’ve missed one of my recent reviews you can cull through this website or see them all in one gorge-able package at my personal blog.

For those whose kids want to know about the world: Home of the Brave

At the start of the summer I attended a workshop on Somali immigrants in the midwest, and the particular cultural elements that affect their education. It’s a tricky business to consider the difference between African immigrants and African-Americans. How a state chock-a-block with the offspring of Nordic immigrants adjusts their long held traditions for their most recent immigrants, is even more interesting.

Home of the Brave doesn’t delve into these issues so much as it reflects one individual experience in trying to adjust to America. A sudanese cattle farmer who makes it to America on his own, young Kek has to learn about an entirely new culture, just as his classmates and other Minnesotans have to adjust to him. Minnesota’s legacy as a refugee have, the nurturing environment of an ESL classroom and the cold indifference of many frosty Midwesterners makes this work well.

It is occasionally awkward to hear in Kek’s voice echoes of Applegate’s most famous creation The One and Only Ivan. Though Applegate excels at giving voice to the voiceless and the culturally estranged, it’s slightly uncomfortable to see a young african boy and a gorilla so stylistically linked.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #18: Americanah

For more thoughts as I try to connect my fondness for Scotland, India and West Africa into one incredibly complicated post-colonial knot (and other more edifying writings) check out my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

You might recognize Adichie from her now famous TED Talk on “The Dangers of a Single Story”. She’s a marvelous raconteur, personable, sincere, and completely present amongst her audience. She knows what she’s talking about when she talks about an African’s experience in the modern world and the complex reactions to Africans in the west today.


AmericanahAmericanah serves as a platform for these observations. In chronicling the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze–as they do the business of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl and boy live abroad, girl and boy return to eachother–she lets the characters serve as mouthpieces for ideas, perspectives and beliefs (not unlike how Oscar Wilde used his). While that’s great for sparking a discussion about race, gender, class, identity, academia, profiting off of immigrants, and an array of other topics, it doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling story.


Instead Adichie seems to favor speechifying over storytelling. Her ideas are provocative and engaging, but might make better fodder for another TED talk or a serious blog (particularly since she occasionally includes blog-esque extracts from Ifemelu’s race conscious blog). The lengthy middle section of the novel (the part after girl loses boy), seems to almost lose the primary force behind the characters, leaving them to observe and opine rather than do much of anything. Maybe that’s the state of things for lovers in my generation–there are certainly fewer beasts to slay and grails to retrieve–but as interesting as the observations are they aren’t the same as a well honed story. Luckily, the beginning and the ends of the book are excellent expressions of young lovers, and every bit as engrossing as a dose of Downtown Abby drama.


I want to be part of a serious conversation about race, and I know that Adichie’s book can start one, I just hope enough readers aren’t so distracted by the lack of “plot” that they let Americanah fall to the ground unfinished. She’s a diamond-sharp-mind and an eloquent writer pursuing vital topics, whether or not this novel serves her goals of observation and story telling, I’m not sure.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #20 The No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

This one was on my to read list for a while so I’m glad to finally have a chance to read it. It jumps around in the beginning, in both a non-linear way and with narrators and so that’s a little jarring at first. Because of the format it took me a little while to get into it but once I got the rhythm and pacing I really enjoyed it.

Precious Ramotswe is a woman in Botswana set on making her own way. Quietly and with purpose, she is a woman who has lived life and really just wants to use what she identifies as innate female skills to solve mysteries and help others. The other main narrators include her closet confidant and childhood friend, and her father. I really thought this was going to be a mystery novel and while it is obviously about a detective agency, that’s really only one facet of the story. It is more about reflections of daily life in Botswana, and the connectivity of people and life. I’m incredibly naive about that corner of the world, so it was great to read about it and notice the similarities and differences to my own experiences. The mysteries are really a back-drop for telling the story, and add more layers. At the start, what may seem to be so black and white isn’t so easy because Ramotswe isn’t just interested in the mystery, at her core she is really interested in fairness and finding a satisfying conclusion for all parties. Her holistic approach leads the reader to think about the bigger picture, and not view detective work from the traditional victim/suspect angle.

I just love the story of a woman, breaking cultural barriers to follow her passion and make a happy life for herself. It is satisfying and sweet and filled with moments for quit reflection which makes it a great read for summer, or really, any time. I can’t wait to read the rest, and possibly check out the TV series.

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

Yeah! More Amitav Ghosh! I bought this new, in a bookshop, and paid FULL PRICE! That’s how much I love the man.

As with his other novels, there is a lot going on here, too, and not just geographically. On the surface, this is about the flight from India of a young man who is falsely accused of smuggling weapons and causing his aunt, uncle and neighbours to die in an explosion. Alu, who really only wants to be a weaver and be left in peace, hides with friends’ friends and random aquaintances, but is tracked down each time and leaves the country on a rickety smuggling boat. Hot on his heels is a young policeman looking for a promotion, although he is really only interested in birdwatching, sketching and being left alone. Again, on the surface, this doesn’t make for the most exciting novel, because if it were for those two characters alone, we might as well just look at a picture of India in the 1970s, and there would be more excitement in that.
BUT. If I had to sum up Ghosh’s writing in one phrase, it would be “There’s so much more to it”. There is. This novel is full of complex characters, ideas and stories. You could criticize the fact that characters that have dozens of pages of backstory are suddenly left behind once Alu is on the move, but that’s life. People come, people go, and knowing their story is never a bad thing. The Circle of Reason is a bit of a patchwork story, and the way is comes full circle in the end seems a bit unlikely, but the stories it tells are little masterpieces.
On the whole, the novel deals with the big idea of rationalism and the struggle to apply reason to human life. I know next to nothing about the theoretical framework, and I’m sure I could have read a lot more into the stories, but it still served as a nudge towards a few deeper thoughts and questions on my part. For me, it was the recurring theme of all of Ghosh’s novels that pulled me in: displacement. Although my life is a neverending party compared to the struggles of the characters in this novel, the story resonated strongly with me. Wherever Alu, himself an orphan, goes, he meets people who have left their homes in search of a better life. This continues all through the novel. From Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants living on the fringes of a wealthy Arab city state, to Indian doctors living in the midst of the Sahara, marvelling at the dunes, everyone has a far-away home that makes them who they are. They get on with it, and each one contributes to society in their own way. It’s not a story of persecution, racism or any of the big subjects that go hand in hand with migration. It’s really just the many stories of the many people living in Asia and Africa at a certain point in time. And as such, it’s much more powerful than any pamphlet.
Ghosh is a born storyteller, with a rich cultural background, and it’s hard to pick out individual paragraphs that sum up the feeling of his novels. But here is one that made me choke back a tear or two:

“As the plane came in to land, blinded by the glare of the sun, he forgot the Barbary falcon and the Saker falcon and the other birds he hoped to see, for he knew suddenly that al-Ghazira wasn’t a real place at all, but a question: are foreign countries merely not-home, or are they all that home is not?
He was already older.”

You should all go and read Amitav Ghosh now.