The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Review

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and HopeThe Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story of William Kamkwamba brings to light a young man of obvious intelligence and humor, of resiliency and deep connection to his family and friends. Someone who rose above both self-doubt and others’ suspicions and ridicule, to inspire thousands of people across the world.

The famous TED Talk he gave in 2007 has nearly a million views now – I remember seeing it at the time and being struck by his presence, even as nervous as he was on stage. Re-watching the video now just after reading the book, with the backstory filled in, I am in even more wonder at his ingenuity, his perseverance, and that huge smile of his after years of famine and other hardship. Such an inspiration.

I also can’t help but keep returning in my mind to his visits at the library near his home, filling his mind with the knowledge in those books when his family couldn’t afford school for him. In this time of emphasis on cross-curricular activities, this book is a perfect reminder of the power of that very thing.

Thanks to my friend Dawn for the gift of this book and of William’s story.

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Blood, Bones, and Butter: Review

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant ChefBlood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gabrielle Hamilton has no patience for untruth. Not lies, exactly, but for the big and little dishonesties that everyone lives. In a different person’s memoir, the three main locations in this book — of a rural childhood home on the Delaware River, the forever gritty New York City, and an aristocratic family villa in Puglia, Italy — would be scenes of soft-focused, glossed-over idylls. But while those idealized locales are in evidence, they are counterposed with the real truth of each. A family falling utterly to pieces. Someone shitting on your doorstep. Picturesque ruins becoming more ruined than picturesque.

There is also no room for pretense when it comes to food. The celebrity chef, the bourgeois chain restaurant, the pretentious farmer’s market are all targets for Hamilton’s withering contempt. But she does not attempt to replace those counterfeit realities with sanctimonious capital-A Authenticity. Eating local and in season outside of a food paradise like California (where different things are available year round) means cooking the same eggplant for three weeks straight because there is nothing else available in the local market. Keeping true to yourself means fighting against Authentic Tradition doing things the same way for generations, even if the original reason behind doing them that way is no longer valid.

At the same time, the reader sees Hamilton fervently wishing those soft-focused locations were real, giving a taste of the theory that the worst curmudgeons are idealists who’ve had their dreams shattered. The thing that Hamilton says she most desires is a place where she can make those she cooks for (family, friends, customers) feel welcome, feel at home, feel part of the community. Where she can share her food experiences traveling around the world — not just the food and ingredients, but also the sense of place and time, the memories her dishes carry.

Near the beginning, there is a scene with the author as a girl, along on a family errand to the local butcher’s. A doorway to the back is opened briefly to reveal animal carcasses, some hacked into pieces, others hanging whole with filmy eyes and protruding tongues. She wishes she could be back there “with the meat and the knives and to wear the long bloody coat.” An apt metaphor for what Hamilton is doing to her own life, as it were paring back the meat to reveal the true soul of a reluctant chef.

I don’t know if Hamilton found catharsis for herself in this memoir. I also don’t know how her family and friends would feel about their portrayals in it. But I can say for sure that she wrote a helluva book.

As one of the most anti-sentimental and most sentimental books on food I’ve read, Blood, Bones, and Butter makes me want to stop eating and start cooking, reveling exuberantly in the death of ostentation. The simple complexity of real food cooked well, and the complex simplicity of our real, gory lives.

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