Monthly Archives: September 2018

I Am, I Am, I Am


9780735274112This is my first Maggie O’Farrell, an autobiography, when what she’s best known for is her novels. Simon (The Readers) loves and recently did a vlog with her at a reading. The subtitle “Seventeen Brushes with Death” was somewhat off-putting, but because this book was highly praised and got 4.05 stars on Goodreads, I forged ahead. The epigraph read: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am,” by Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar. Maggie’s heart is still beating in spite of 17 different opportunities for it not to be. The first story takes place at a holistic retreat where 18 year-old Maggie has a summer job as a chambermaid. When she’s finished tidying the rooms, she’s free to spend the afternoon hiking the mountain trails by herself. When she meets up with a man she had previously encountered, she knows that something is amiss, but keeps her cool, and finds a way to get safely back to the lodge. She has an incredible intuition, but she is not always able to convince others that what she intuits is really going to happen. The ending of this story was especially chilling. Maggie’s wanderlust takes her all over the world, including Hong Kong, Chile, India, Spain, China, Bolivia, and France. As Maggie reveals more about herself in each successive chapter, I began to see what a remarkable person she is, and to understand the aptness of the title. For Maggie, with her challenges and unique physical traits, the beating of her heart is the constant reminder that yes, she is alive: I am. The last of the chapters, number 17 where she writes about her daughter was so emotionally jarring, that when I reached the end, I had a strong reaction to this remarkable woman’s tenacity, and the power of a mother’s love.

THE BEAUTY: In the 16th chapter, Maggie explains how the brain is the communication center of the body, sending messages from neuron to neuron by the synapse that bridges the gap between them. I thought about how primal that is, and also, kind of magical. Think about 100 billion nerve cells sending electrical information in the control center of the brain to animate the human body. It’s an organic computer! I searched for images of this brain activity and was surprised at the beauty of the images as art. These images were produced by scientists at the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland in 2017.

IMG_4669The image shows the nanoscale movements of individual molecules that are critical in mediating communication between neurons. Knowing how these molecules are organised, and how they move, is at the heart of understanding the brain in health and disease. I chose this one because it looks like love to me.




Looks like fireworks! This image shows nanoscopic movements of single actin molecules. Actin is an essential protein found in all cells of plants and animals.




THE FOOD: Maggie had truly settled into her life in Hong Kong when she found herself eating a bowl of congee every morning for breakfast before heading off to work.


¾ C medium grained white rice
6 C chicken stock
1 inch length of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
chopped scallion and cilantro to garnish
white pepper to garnish
soy sauce to garnish

Wash the rice, drain and transfer to a zip lock bag. Freeze for at least 8 hours or overnight.

In a medium pot, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the frozen rice and ginger slices and bring to a boil again, stirring to prevent the rice from sticking. Reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover and cook for about 15 minutes, periodically stirring, as the rice thickens quickly. Remove ginger slices. If the porridge is too runny, simmer with the lid off for another 5 minutes. If you want the porridge creamy smooth, blend with an immersion blender.

Serve immediately. Garnish with the cilantro, scallion, white pepper and soy sauce, to taste.



We absolutely loved this. I would like to try it with sauteed mushrooms and chives. We couldn’t stop eating it!














The book began auspiciously with a lovely acknowledgement:
“Finally, thank you as always to Ben, who has never questioned the importance of my work to me, but who has built us a life into which it fits.”

In the first section, the unnamed protoagonist whom I shall call “P” from here on muses about whether or not she wants to have children. She worries that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a good mother, which seems to me like a logical thing to worry about, although, coupled with her own loss of her mother when she was just twenty-one, she takes the worry to an extreme. As she prepares her mother’s house for sale, the litany of things she doesn’t know how to do wears away at her confidence in herself, and causes a lovely reflection on grief, that universal from which no human can escape. “This is where grief is found, in these suddenly unfilled cracks, these responsibilities-minute, habitual-which have lain elsewhere for yeats and which, having failed amongst grief’s greater broil to be reapportioned, are overlooked in favor of the more dramatic, until even the ordinary starts to crumble. If I thought, all through those freezing months I spent alone in a house whose owner had abandoned us, that I did not grieve, then it was because I had been expecting something else-something both larger and lesser, a monument or a mountain, simple, scaleable, and not this seeping in of space to undermine the smooth continuance of things. I had thought that loss would be dramatic, that it would be a kind of exercise, when instead it was the emptiness of evertything going on as before and nothing working as it ought.”

Sight is mentioned repeatedly in the novel, in the context of truly seeing another person, their essence, their core. Juxtaposed wth P’s worrying about having children, grieving for her mother and trying to understand herself, the author gives us glimpses of historical figures who attempted in their various fields of expertise to illuminate something about being human. Wilhelm Rontgen, discoverer of x-rays, in exposing his wife’s hand to an x-ray, shows the bones of her hand, literally seeing inside her. Sigmund and Anna Freud attempt to understand human behavior through psychoanalysis, another form of “seeing inside.” Brothers William and John Hunter learn about human anatomy by literally peeling back layers to expose what lies underneath the skin. (That was a more gruesome discussion, that I admit, I skimmed!) At one point P. says that the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment, as in Rontgen’s wife’s hand.

There were so many times that I paused after reading a particular passage to think bout what I had just read. It’s a thoughtful book, that easily bears multiple readings.


Johannes suggested that P. spend a weekend by herself, so that she could really concentrate, really think, about whether or not having children was for her. She went to a tiny stone-walled cottage near Hay-on-Wye in Wales. When I googled it, it turns out that Hay-on-Wye is a book town! With more than 20 bookshops, it’s the world’s largest purveyor of second-hand and antiquarian books. There’s an annual book festival that Bill Clinton dubbed “Woodstock of the mind.” This year’s festival was heavy on politics, not surprisingly, with all the political books currently on the market. It took place May 24 to June 3, and has been added to my ever growing list of   places to go when we visit Scotland!



THE FOOD: Every year at Christmas, P’s grandmother, Dr. K., stayed with P and her mother at their house, for 10 days, from December 21 to December 30. P’s mother, ordinarily a a lazy cook, turned her attention to the kitchen, where she took refuge, making among other things, parkin, a traditional sponge cake from Northern England flavored with molasses, oatmeal and ginger. Now that the weather has cooled, and I can comfortably bake again, parkin it is!



This was really different, but delicious, and of course, everything tastes better with a little ice cream and caramel sauce on it! With all the books I’ve read set in England, I had never before heard of parkin.