This 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.
The 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!