Hidden Letters, One-Star Reviews, and Banana Bread
We have an interesting variety of reviews and recommendations for you this month! Books, tv, music, documentaries, even a favorite recipe. We’ll start with Hidden Letters, and Evelyn’s take on the PBS documentary on how modern women in China are keeping alive the tradition of Nüshu, a secret written language.
I recently watched PBS’ Hidden Letters documentary: Modern Women in China Keep Alive the Tradition of Nüshu, a secret written language.
For thousands of years in China, women were born to obey their fathers, husbands, and sons. The Confucian practice of the Three Obediences kept women confined to the home, their feet bound, and the only roles allowed to them were housework and needlework.
Unmarried women known as upstairs girls would gather in groups in upstairs rooms to embroider and sing. Nüshu means women’s song. Not allowed to read or write, to give each other hope women created their own way to communicate with each other—Nüshu, a language no man could read. It probably began during the Yuan dynasty in the 13th or 14th century.
The documentary is narrated by Simu a young woman whose mother sang a Nüshu song to her when she was a child. Because Nüshu meant so much to her, Simu wanted to tell the true story of Nüshu. He Yanxin, whose grandmother cried as she taught He Yanxin Nüshu, became an important teacher of the meaning of this ancient writing about sisterhood. He Yanxin had four brothers and when she carried footbath water for them she was not allowed to look up because it was impolite to look at them. In her telling, He Yanxin said women were slaves to men who bullied them. She was grateful women had Nüshu.
The film not only touches on the history of how women were treated hundreds of years ago, but how modern women still feel men’s control over their lives. One woman believes women should feel blessed if men don’t scold or beat them. Simu’s life is no different from any other woman living in China. She says her husband was king. Because they lived next to his cousin, he would not let her cry when he beat her, thinking she would never tell on him. Because of this, he avoided hitting her face. When she got pregnant with a girl, she aborted when she was six months pregnant. She felt as a woman, she had failed, despite her achievements. Such was the pressure she felt because her husband longed for a boy.
Another example of men thinking they know what’s best for women is the story of a woman whose fiancé, before and during their visit to his parent’s home to introduce her to them, suggested she help his mother and prepare a lunch for everyone while she visited; that it is expected. Once there, she tried to help but it was not needed. You could see she was uncomfortable for most of the visit even though she tried her best to follow his instructions. Later, when talking about their future, he insisted she drink a bitter brew to prepare her for pregnancy, even offering to taste it for her when she hesitated and giving her something sweet after she drank the concoction. When discussing her plans to work full time, he hit her with his logic. She was to work, not only full-time but also part-time so they could buy a house big enough for his mother to move in after she has a baby. She argued she wouldn’t have time for the family if she was always working. Because his mom worked on a farm and did her chores during the night, he thought it reasonable to ask her to work all the time. He advised her not to think too much. When she brought up Nüshu, he asked her how can she compare a hobby with a real job, thereby dismissing her passion. In all fairness, he did not yell, hit, threaten, or intentionally intimidate her. He listened to her concerns but made it clear his plans for their future was the only logical one.
In 1983 the public first became aware of this secret writing. Men quickly commercialized it, using the beautiful letters on not only fans and handkerchiefs, but gold chopsticks, belts, and clothing, to name a few. They reasoned Nüshu would not survive without commercialization, thereby trivializing centuries of women’s pain and suffering, turning a beautiful language into merchandise for tourists.
As I watched I kept thinking of that old refrain: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In June of 2022, the world of music was electrified by the remarkable, beyond-his-years talent of Yunchan Lim, an 18-year-old pianist from South Korea. Lim won the prestigious Van Cliburn Piano Competition with his performance of Rachmaninoff’s fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No. 3.
The “Rach Three,” as it’s sometimes referred to, is my most-loved composition. I’d loved the Second Concerto since my early teens and discovered the Third Concerto by purchasing a CD that contained both. The more I listened to the third concerto, the more I realized the depth of the music and how much it had to say to the listener. So, when I heard about Lim’s win and the piano world raving about his performance, I, fortunately, was able to find it on YouTube.
As many times as I had listened to the piece in the past…and that was at least in the hundreds…as well as I thought I knew the piece, parts of it were given more depth, more beauty, more emotion by young Mr. Lim. I heard an interview in which one of the judges for the competition, when asked at an after-party following the concert how someone so young could play with such emotion and depth, responded with one word: “Otherworldly.”
The Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto was an important part of my most recently released novel. It has great meaning for some of the primary characters. Hearing Mr. Lim’s performance—which I’ve listened to numerous times since first hearing it—revealed sections of the concerto performed as I had never heard them before. It brought me to tears more than once. As did most people, I marveled at this young pianist’s understanding of the work.
Young Mr. Lim played with remarkable respect for the composer and never got in the way. His love of the music shone through his entire performance. It was apparent he saw it as an arc—from the first note, he understood where the composer wanted to take his listeners: to a remarkable place where the universe opens and reveals its glory through the music, in a way nothing else can.
If you want to share this incredible experience, you can find the concert on YouTube. Look for the “remastered” video; the original video was remastered to give the listener a better sense of the experience those in the audience had that night. And watch as you listen, and you’ll completely understand why the audience’s reaction was overwhelming.
Lately, I’ve been re-watching the Inspector Lewis crime drama series. It is a spinoff from the wildly popular show Inspector Morse, and it follows the exploits of a police inspector, played brilliantly by Kevin Whately, as he solves mysteries and investigates cases in the Oxford area of England.
Inspector Lewis is the perfect show for fans of crime dramas. It is a bit of a throwback, as they stopped filming it in 2015, but the issues feel current. Each episode follows Inspector Lewis and Detective James Hathaway, played by Laurence Fox, as they investigate a case and try to solve it. The cases are often complex and require diligent detective work, but the journey is always intriguing and entertaining. I love the dynamic between to two lead characters, who often have a wry sense of humor.
Inspector Lewis is available on PBS Masterpiece and is a must-see for anyone who loves crime dramas. This show is a classic in its genre and features some really great performances by Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox. The show is smart and engaging, and the mysteries are creative and engaging. Inspector Lewis is a show that will stay with you long after it is over, and it is an absolute must-watch for anyone who loves a good crime drama.
Some of the books on my library hold list baffle me. I don’t remember why I put them there – who recommended them or why I wanted to read them. But these odd books are sometimes the best surprises. So, when No Exit showed up on my ereader one day, I dove in, ready to experience something new and different. I loved the book and though I regularly read mysteries and thrillers, I’d never read anything quite like it. The point of view felt fresh, the twists not so inevitable. The best part, though, was that I couldn’t stop reading until I got to the end. So when I saw Taylor Adams had a new novel out, The Last Word, I added it to my hold list with only a quick glance at the synopsis: a reader leaves a one-star review on Amazon and is subsequently terrorized by a stranger who might be the book’s author.
I read this book in a single day. It was that good.
Now, I would never stalk a reader for leaving a bad review. I don’t make enough money from my books to fund a cross-country trip for the purpose of… what? Revenge? No. Just no. But as a plot, it’s pretty compelling. Especially when Emma begins to suspect that not only is the author of the truly terrible Murder Mountain stalking her, but he’s cast her in the role of victim in his next novel: Murder Beach.
I’m not sure whether this book was meant to be funny, but the switch between points of view had me laughing out loud as Emma and her stalker envisaged the situation… differently. The twists were twisty, the turns a little shocking, and the final revelations (there’s more than one), were definitely worth the ride. My favorite part, though, was the last sentence of the last chapter. It brought a tear to my eye. Any book that makes me laugh and cry gets five stars.
I won’t clobber you with a long-drawn-out story about the bread, who made it first, and what it means to me because I know you don’t care. However, it’s a damn good, tasty, EASY recipe, so have fun with it. Embellish it, and make it yours.
Cooking time: 55-60 minutes Oven Temp: 325* or 350* in higher elevations
¾ c sugar
½ c vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup mashed bananas [ripe] about 2 real large or 3-small
1 ¾ c bread flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
ADD-INS: I like to add nuts [walnuts] and seeds: pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Approximately ½ c mixture of walnuts, sunflowers seeds, pumpkin seeds…and sometimes raisins or cranberries—or not. My GrandGremlins love chocolate chips added. (What can I say?) —Fold them in at the end, just before pouring your batter into a loaf pan. I also save a bit of whatever to sprinkle on top, but that’s just me. I’m extra like that. J
- In one bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg––whisk to mix
- In another bowl, add bananas, oil, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Beat until well mixed—not soupy.
- Fold in the flour mixture into the banana mixture and stir until moistened and well-blended. You can now add nuts, seeds, dried fruit, or chocolate pieces if preferred.
- Pour into a greased bread pan. I use glass but use what you have.
- Bake at 325* or 350* (see above) for 1 hour until brown. All ovens are different so keep an eye on it closely at 45 minutes. You can test to see if your bread is ready by inserting a thin sharp knife into the middle. If it comes out dry—you’re good to go.
- Let stand 15 min to cool before removing baked loaf from pan. The cooler the loaf, the easier to dislodge and slice. Enjoy!
Oh- almost forgot: Keep leftovers wrapped in the fridge for freshness. My family usually consumes it too fast for that, but it’s a good tip, nonetheless.
So, here’s the banana bread backstory.
Okay, I lied. Don’t be mad—I’m a fiction writer, after all.
I began making banana bread umpteen years ago for my family. It started off traditional, then embellished, and then beloved. My kids would share it with friends, who then would beg me to make them one. Their families would ask for the recipe, and soon enough, neighbors and friends. Why? Because it’s a simple, scrumptious, easy recipe that anybody can make, even us non-bakers. It’s pretty unscrewable. I’m not entirely sure if that’s a word, but again—fiction writer, hello, so cut me some slack or another slice of banana bread; I’m good with both.
I also think it’s because it’s also one of those loaves of bread that can be a nice dessert, breakfast treat, a diet-breaker, hostess gift, or something to add to another’s table.
Try it. You’ll like it.
And the best part: it’s homemade with super ripe bananas nobody will eat, so yeah, feel good about it! Don’t let anybody rain on your parade just because it’s pretty much a no-fail, slap-together recipe. Who cares?! Toss in a sprinkle of love, wrap it in wax paper and string, and you do you.
Writer of love stories. Bibliophile. Gamer. Hiker. Cat herder. Waiting for the aliens.