March 28, 2017

The Great British Baking Show on Netflix

Did you notice that many American home and food shows disappeared from Netflix at the end of 2016? Scripps Networks Interactive which owns HGTV, the Food Network, the Travel channel and DIY decided they could make more money elsewhere. Search the word “house” on Netflix and not much concerning design comes up.

Food and home reality show bingers, fear not. Netflix has countered by adding a few shows produced by British TV producers such as, Escape To the Country, Grand Designs, Hidden Homes and my surprising favorite, The Great British Baking Show.

It’s no secret that I am neither a baker or a cook, but there is something very compelling about this food reality show. Much like Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, thirteen amateur bakers compete weekly to avoid being the one sent home that episode. The one left standing at the end of the season is the winner and dubbed Star Baker.

Each show, the contestants are asked to bake everything from breadsticks, petits fours and baklava, to displays using multiple baking skills that must be artistic and highly edible. Two judges critique the culinary results: Mary, a very proper English matron who has impeccable manners and wicked baking skills along with Paul, a grey-haired, blue-eyed demon who can spot any baking flaws and points them out with acerbic precision. The proceedings are narrated by two goofy British ladies who throw in puns, foreign phrases, quips and an ever-varying pronunciation of the word “bake.”

Small wonder that I must have a snack handy while watching this show. Like my big dog drooling at our steak dinner table, the sight of all of these beautiful baked wonders gets the salivary glands pumping. Carrots and celery just will not do!

Three seasons of this show are currently available on Netflix. Paraphrasing Oliver Twist, “More, please.”

Mick Archer’s Piano Bar column featuring Elizabeth Doyle in Chicago Jazz Magazine

Mick Archer has written a lovely article about my encounter with late and great jazz pianist, Marian McPartland and included some of my recollections about playing in piano bars.

http://www.chicagojazz.com/piano-bar-elizabeth-doyle

News of the World: Instant literary classic

Every so often, I encounter a book that has all of the hallmarks of an enduring work of literature, with vivid characterizations, a plot with forward motion and elegant, depictive word choices. Such is the case with Paulette Jiles’ book, News of the World, a National Book Award Finalist.

As a poet and memoirist, as well as novelist, she writes beautiful prose. Her dialogue contains no quotation marks, so speech and narration seamlessly flow together.

We are introduced to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a military veteran who lost his printing business and very way of life during the Civil War. He now makes his living traveling from town to town in the northern Texas region reading the news of the world to people hungry for entertainment and knowledge. Armed with newspapers from New York, London, San Francisco and other points large and small, Kidd makes a meager but steady living.

Enter Johanna Leonberger, a six-year-old German girl who is captured by a Kiowa raiding party after they brutally kill her parents and sister.

Kidd is tasked with returning the now ten-year-old girl to her German relatives near San Antonio. After four years with the Kiowas, she speaks no English and has become native in her dress, behavior and in her very thinking.

Though the story of an older man on a quest with a young girl or boy has been a frequent novel convention, Jiles finds an unforgettable character in Kidd, plus an intriguing geographic setting and time in this outstanding, small, but potent work of fiction. The book format is indeed smaller than most hardcover editions and artfully tells the tale of their journey in just 209 pages. News of the World should deservedly find its way into high school and college literature classes.

The Night Manager on Amazon Prime

My new crush is Tom Hiddleston, the English actor who plays Jonathan Pine in the spy thriller series, The Night Manager currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Adapted from a 1993 John LeCarre novel, and updated to present day by David Farr, the six-episode series originally broadcast on the BBC, was aired on AMC for American TV audiences.

Not only did Hiddleston pick up a Golden Globe best actor award, but Hugh Laurie (House) and Olivia Colman won best supporting awards as well. Director Susanne Bier and music composer Victor Reyes garnered Emmys for the production.

The story is engaging, the locales glamorous (Cairo, Istanbul, the Alps, London, Mallorca) and the acting impeccable. If you like world political intrigue, this is the mini-series for you. And I vote for Hiddleston as the next James Bond.

Elaine Paige – Musical Theater Diva


You may not know the name of Elaine Paige, but she has made musical theater history in several iconic shows.
She made her 1968 West End theater debut in “Hair,” but it was originating the role of Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1978 musical, “Evita” that really put her on theater map.
She went on to be the first actress to sing the role of Grizabella in “Cats” which resulted in a top ten recording hit for her with the song, “Memory.” She was also in the original production of “Chess,” the musical penned by members of ABBA.
In 1996, she made her Broadway debut in “Sunset Boulevard.”
“The King and I,” “Nine,” “Anything Goes” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” are some of the other musicals that have benefited from her presence.
Having released 22 solo albums, she has also hosted a BBC radio program called “Elaine Paige on Sunday” since 2004. She celebrated 50 years in show biz in 2014. Happy birthday, Elaine Paige who turns 69 this week.

Elton John show in Las Vegas

There are any number of great shows on the Las Vegas Strip, but Elton John: The Million Dollar Piano is my vote for “not-to-be-missed” musical extravaganza. You have to like rock and roll, but familiarity with John’s song catalogue is not a prerequisite for enjoying this spectacle. He has a kick-ass back-up band with two of the members having played with him starting in 1969. There is definitely some age on this stage, but you wouldn’t know it from their energy and cool-factor demeanor.

Elton wows the audience with his brilliant playing and his powerful vocals (albeit amplified with lots of reverb), but he also talks with the audience about his friendship with John Lennon and his love of performing. When he speaks, you forget you are in a Colosseum with 4,297 other listeners.

A word about the stupendous electric grand piano Elton plays throughout the show, specially made by Yamaha, the instrument features over 68 LED video screens. The 120-foot-wide and 40-foot tall LED screen across the back of the stage adds to the visuals. Videos include shifting design images, a collage of Elton wearing unique clothing throughout his career and a touching white gardenia film tribute to John Lennon.

The audience is singing along during the show, jumping to their feet after numbers, and clapping along with the three percussionists in John’s band. A select few in the front rows are invited to the stage towards the end of the show for the opportunity of shaking the star’s hand.

If my ears did not deceive me, I believe Elton John said his two children, Zachary (age 6) and Elijah (age 3) were seeing their father perform in Million Dollar Piano for the first time that evening in Las Vegas. I bet they were mightily impressed. I certainly was!

Seven Magic Mountains outside of Las Vegas

Seven Magic Mountains

If you need a break from the casino culture on the Las Vegas Strip, consider a short trip outside of the city to view a special art exhibit, the Seven Magic Mountains by Swiss sculptor, Ugo Rondinone. The seven 30-foot brightly-colored totems are made up of large stacked boulders that give one the feeling of a psychedelic Stonehenge.
Ten miles south of Las Vegas, the art installation is near Jean Dry Lake and Interstate 15. The Mojave Desert becomes a free art museum with a short drive outside of Las Vegas well worth the trouble.
The installation opened on May 11, 2016 and will be viewable until May 11, 2018.

My niece, Maye and me

You can order Seven Magic Mountain prints by Gianfranco Gorgoni or “mini mountain” stone sculptures by Ugo Rondinone at:
http://sevenmagicmountains.com

Victoria on PBS

After watching The Crown on Netflix, I dove into the world of Victoria on PBS. Initially the Victoria production suffered in comparison, the first two episodes seeming a bit snoozy to me, but once Albert arrives in his red boots and military uniform, the drama takes off.

Don’t get me wrong, Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne and the queen’s first confidante is engaging, but the suggested emotional connection between the Prime Minister and Victoria seems to be a dramatic contrivance. The show is really about the wonderful happenstance that an arranged royal marriage could still contain romance and genuine sexual heat. Actor Tom Hughes as the serious but dashing German-born Prince Albert seems straight out of a fairy tale.

Some of the side characters (Victoria’s maid and other serving staff) have compelling story lines, but the true heart of Victoria is the queen herself, marvelously embodied by Jenny Coleman. At one point she wishes to be just an ordinary woman and not the monarch of multitudes of citizens. The tug of war between Victoria’s regal responsibilities and her personal wishes provides the drama in this series created by Daisy Goodwin, formerly an executive producer of The Apprentice and the author of a book entitled Victoria on which the current series is based.

Upcoming episodes in Season 1 show her holding firm against her husband and advisors, so I look forward to seeing her go from young queen to seasoned sovereign.

If you need car chases, guns and a fast pace to be entertained, this is definitely not your show. Victoria shines with splendid cinematography, impressive costumes, first-rate acting and well-crafted script-writing.
The series has already been renewed for a second season which is not surprising since Queen Victoria ruled for 63 years.

The Old Man by thriller penman Thomas Perry

Author Thomas Perry has knocked another thriller out of the park with The Old Man. Dan Chase, seems to be a retired man quietly living out his life in Vermont with two big black dogs. Little do the neighbors know that he is being hunted by military intelligence operatives from two countries. Having been accused by the Army of failing to transfer twenty million dollars to insurgents in Libya thirty-some years ago, forces are at play to discover his secret identity, retrieve the funds and eliminate him. This “old man” has kept his mental and physical abilities razor sharp as he eludes his pursuers and keeps those around him from harm.
Perry writes with muscular clarity and an urgency that pulls the reader from chapter to chapter.
Despite having worked as a park maintenance man, a commercial fisherman, a university administrator and teacher plus been a writer and producer for prime time network television shows, Perry has had time to write 23 novels. Winner of the coveted Edgar award for The Butcher’s Boy and voted one of NPR’s 100 Killer Thrillers-Best Thrillers Ever for Metzer’s Dog, he also created the Jane Whitefield crime series. Mr. Perry, please keep writing!

Dark Matter: Mind-bending book

Block out some time if you start Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, a science fiction tour de force that is set in Chicago. Book maven, Jenny Riddle suggested this mind-bending novel and it immediately grabbed me from the first chapter to the last. The prose is straightforward with major sections of dialogue so this is a quick read.  Chicagoans will recognize some of the settings: Logan Square, the Lake Michigan shoreline and the industrial South Side.

Although this is inventive science fiction, it is also a meditation on the choices we make in life, the trade-offs, the career pursuits and the importance of family. Throw in a dollop of wonky science talk and you have a thriller that seems current yet eternal in some of its themes.

Previous books by author Crouch have been made into the 2015 tv series Wayward Pines and the current tv show, Good Behavior on TNT starring Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame.

The cover design with the multiple images of the words Dark Matter will annoy your eyes initially, but get half-way through the novel and the graphics will seem perfect for this inventive book.