Books

in brief

‘The Bright Continent,’ ‘The Myth of the Spoiled Child,’ ‘The Thing with Feathers,’ ‘The Hippest Trip in America’

THE BRIGHT CONTINENT: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa

By Dayo Olopade

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

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288 pages, $26

Outsiders have misunderstood Africa since before Christ, Dayo Olopade writes (the Greek historian Herodotus sketched a map that ended at the Nile). Today’s non-Africans too often see the continent as a locus of misery, poverty, and war. Olopade, a Nigerian American, invites her readers to peer past the biases that inform western stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

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In this, her first book, she presents a remapping of the continent (focusing on sub-Saharan Africa) that looks at African successes in technology, agriculture, commerce, health care, and education. Olopade acknowledges that the region is characterized by a “lean” economy, unlike the “fat” economies in North America and Europe, but she argues that hardship has served as “an invitation to innovate.”

Much of the book follows Olopade’s research into the continent’s entrepreneurs, like Cameroonian Fritz Ekwoge, who learned to write computer code on a friend’s borrowed calculator and now owns a successful online marketplace, and the programmers at Baobob Health, who retrofit discarded computers so that clinics in Malawi can track their patients’ medical records. What works in a lean economy, often with weak or nonexistent government support, Olopade says, is “local talent and design,” along with the attitude she calls “kanju” — defined as “the specific creativity born from African difficulty.” It’s time for the West to stop sending Africans worn-out shoes and T-shirts (referred to as SWEDOW, for “stuff we don’t want”) and start looking for smart investments in the continent’s abundant pool of intelligence and energy.

THE MYTH OF THE SPOILED CHILD: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting

By Alfie Kohn

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Da Capo, 288 pages, $25.99

Kids today are so spoiled and undisciplined that they expect a trophy for every sports season and an A in every class. No wonder they’re destined for failure when it comes time to face real life, right? Not so fast, argues Alfie Kohn.

In this, his 13th book, Kohn sets out to debunk a set of beliefs that have coalesced around children and parents, specifically the idea that parents are destroying their children by, among other things, emphasizing self-esteem above competition. Headlines blare that “overparenting” is “epidemic,” yet articles detailing today’s little monsters tend more toward anecdotes than data; while they share the belief that children in the past were more obedient, hardworking, and independent, today’s warnings sound identical to those worried about kids 30 years ago, 50 years ago, and so on.

So why do we keep sounding the same alarm — with so little evidence — that our children are being damaged by parenting we regard as permissive? Kohn suggests that there’s a political angle at work. “Child rearing might be described as a hidden front in the culture wars,” he writes, “except that nobody is fighting on the other side.” Nobody except Kohn, that is. With his trademark blend of skepticism and idealism, he dismantles most of the hype surrounding motivation and competition, failure and success, and ends by suggesting that what today’s young people really need from us is encouragement to break some rules, to live life with an attitude of what he calls “reflective rebelliousness.”

THE THING WITH FEATHERS: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal

About Being Human

By Noah Strycker

Riverhead, 288 pages, $27.95

Like us, birds head towards home, seek inclusion in a community, and occasionally squabble over sex. They are sufficiently unlike human beings that we don’t tend to see ourselves in them; expert birder Noah Strycker suggests that perhaps we could.

In the social organization of chickens, he sees parallels to a round-robin tennis tournament; the snowy owls mysterious wanderlust reminds him of coming-of-age journeys in diverse human cultures, from “Australian Aboriginal walkabouts to Native American vision quests and Amish Rumspringa.”

In each chapter, Strycker explores one species in relation to a specific attribute or theory — from pigeons’ homing ability to the way Snowball, a cockatoo, danced his way to YouTube celebrity with an enthusiastic reaction to the Backstreet Boys. The science is interesting, of course. Most charming though are the delightful digressions into history and folklore, such as the proper response when confronted with a single magpie (thought to portend bad luck), which is to chant “I defy thee” and also “salute the bird, spit on the ground, and pinch whomever you’re walking with. Just in case.” Beautifully written, filled with strange and lovely details, “The Thing With Feathers” is a delightful read from start to finish.

THE HIPPEST TRIP IN AMERICA: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style

By Nelson George

William Morrow, 237 pages, $27.99

Although “American Bandstand” similarly featured young dancers and hot musical acts, “Soul Train” was different from the start; created in 1970 by a Chicago disc jockey, Don Cornelius, its roots were always proudly black. As soon as it started airing, Cornelius is quoted as saying about the show, “Every black person knew about it, and not because it was a wonderful show but because it was theirs.”

Just as soul music was born of gospel and rhythm-and-blues, so too did “Soul Train” create something transcendent sensual and also somehow spiritual; as author Nelson George says, “Don Cornelius would have been a spectacularly cool pastor.”

Like an old-school gossip columnist, George lets his subjects have their say — some go on a bit too long — but at its best, the book offers an insider’s look at a cultural touchstone.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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