December 5, 2020

Anish Kapoor, Sculptor of Chicago’s “Bean”

In my quest to know more about my city, I have been noting public sculpture and what is more popular in Chicago than “The Bean,” or what is officially called “Cloud Gate,” in Millennium Park.

Anish Kapoor, sculptor, has a multi-cultural background. Born in Mumbai/Bombay, India to a Jewish mother and a Punjabi Hindu father, he spent time in Israel living in a kibbutz and studying electrical engineering. He had an artistic epiphany of sorts and moved to London where he has lived as a sculptor since the 1970s.

His sculptural work can be seen all over the world, most notably “Cast Iron Mountain” in Japan, “Simcoe Place” in Toronto, versions of his “Sky Mirror” in Nottingham, England and Rockefeller Center in NYC, “Earth Cinema” in Pollino National Park in Italy and “Cloud Gate” in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Kapoor also collaborates on projects with architects such as Arata Isozaki, Cecil Balmond, Herzog and de Meuron, Phhilip Cumuchdjian and David Connor.

Kapoor was knighted in 2013 and received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 2014. Chicago has bragging rights for having Kapoor’s “The Bean” be one of the artistic centerpieces of Millennium Park.

Cloud Gate

5 Major Works from Anish Kapoor’s Groundbreaking Career

Sophia Loren in “The Life Ahead” on Netflix

Netflix’s offering of the movie, “The Life Ahead,” is creating quite a buzz. Not only does it feature the iconic Italian actress, Sophia Loren at age 87, but the director is her son Edouardo Ponti.

Is it the greatest movie ever? No, but it has enough redeeming qualities to invest roughly 90 minutes of your time. Momo, a Senegalese-Italian orphan played by first-time film actor, Ibrahim Gueye, has a natural presence that makes up for his inexperience as a thespian. We have noble plot lines galore. Loren as Madame Rosa is a survivor of Auschwitz and a retired prostitute who has been a foster mother to the children of working girls. She provides daycare for Babu, the son of her transgender neighbor, Lola, along with a Jewish boy named Iosif who was abandoned by his mother.

The heart of the movie is the friendship that develops between Madame Rosa and Momo. The young orphan is pulled in the direction of drug-dealing for one man, and doing more honest work for a kindly Arab artisan who patiently introduces him to his birth family’s Muslim faith.

As a side note, the American film world tends to retire actors as they age, and the tendency is even more stark for actresses. Try to think of women who have had major roles in their 80s. Maggie Smith and Judy Dench (both 85) spring to mind, but the big screen tends to be geared towards more youthful appearances. Streaming productions, however, have opened up new avenues for senior actors. Witness the success of Jane Fonda (82) and Lily Tomlin (81) in “Grace and Frankie,” or Alan Arkin (86) in “The Kominsky Method” and the late Max Von Sydow who was 87 when he was in “Game of Thrones.”

TWO WOMEN, Sophia Loren, 1960

Back to a final word on “The Life Ahead.” It certainly gives you a slice of Italian culture. I would also suggest you watch Loren’s Academy Award-winning performance in Vittorio DeSica’s 1960 film, “Two Women,” not to note how she has aged in the intervening decades, but to see that she still has the vibrant screen presence that has made her an international screen treasure.

North Pond Path

North Pond is an urban nature treasure north of Fullerton and the Lincoln Park Zoo and south of Diversey. Initially a leisure area of Lincoln Park back in 1884, the Chicago Park District started a renovation of the pond and surrounding land in 1999, with the project ongoing.

The .8-mile path loops around the pond and makes for a relaxing stroll through scenes of native plants and trees, ducks and geese on the water and shore, plus dog-walkers and children playing. Chicago’s sky-scraping skyline is off in the distance making for a pleasant dichotomy between bucolic and urban.

North Pond is on a flyway for migratory birds and contains local mammals, amphibians and insects.
I used to live a block away and watched a beaver industriously build a structure along the banks one winter.

Attractions include North Pond Cafe on the north bank and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on the southeast.

Parking can usually be found on Cannon Drive, the street east of the pond. Lake Michigan is within short walking distance. North Pond Restaurant is a gem and bears a revisit when the times allow.

“Great British Menu” on Amazon Prime

I still have more cooking show recommendations to check out, but “The Great British Menu” series caught my eye on Amazon Prime. British chefs compete by region in Great Britain to win the opportunity to cook for a celebratory dinner at the end of the season.

Previous chef winners judge three chefs per region in their bid to represent Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and other areas of England. Two of the three contestants win the right to present four courses to three esteemed food experts (one of whom is Prue Leith, a current judge on “The Great British Baking Show”). The culinary victor goes on to compete against other regional winners.

Outside of the competitive twists, the viewer is exposed to British dishes and regional food items. We see the contestants meet the suppliers who provide the meat, fish, produce, dairy and beverages in their respective locales. Chefs are given points for sourcing locally.

I watched “The Great British Menu,” Season 5 from 2010 where Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, preside over a dinner honoring food purveyors from British National Trust properties.
“The Great British Menu” has 15 seasons with 45 episodes each, so one could have months of viewing ahead, if cooking competitions are your thing.

The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix

As a youngster, I learned the rudiments of chess, but never got good enough to truly understand the game.

“The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix has given me a much deeper understanding of the skills needed to become a Grandmaster, as well as introduced me to an unforgettable female character. Based on a 1980s book of the same name by Walter Tevis, episode one of the series reminds me of a Charles Dickens novel. We meet Beth Harmon whose mother has died in a car crash, leaving her to be raised in an orphanage. The children are given tranquilizers to keep them docile, thereby starting Beth’s life-long drug problem. She makes two friends there, an African-American girl named Jolene and Mr. Schaibel, the janitor, who introduces Beth to the “game of kings.” Being adopted as a teenager by a dysfunctional couple called the Wheatleys is a very mixed blessing.

Actress Anya Taylor-Joy gives a tour de force performance as the mercurial Harmon. Battling alcohol and drug addictions, as well as mostly male chess opponents, Harmon climbs the chess world ladder. Her few romantic relationships are vanquished chess players.

Her life indeed resembles a chess match: two steps forward as she wins another championship and three steps backward when she succumbs to little pills and vodka.

The soundtrack is especially engaging with classical piano music, pop rock songs of the era and jazz reinforcing the passage of time. The 1960s fashions and cars add visual interest.

The series builds to a climax at a chess tournament in Russia facing the grandmasters, including her nemesis, Borgov. If the series starts out as “Oliver Twist,” it ends up like the movie “Rocky.” The seven episodes took me to a place and time that I wanted to know more about, but didn’t know it!

“The Wild Blue” by Stephen Ambrose

“The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45” is the whole title of historian Stephen Ambrose’s account of this lesser known facet of World War II. The war was waged with men and women of all ages, but American men age 18 to 21 filled many crucial military roles on land, on sea and in the air.

Some of the bravest recruits were the pilots and crew members of the B-24 Liberators which bombed Axis weapons factories and fuel depots throughout Europe. Notable young pilots were statesman Stewart Udall, filmmaker Robert Altman, actor Jimmy Stewart and the focus of the book, former presidential candidate, George S. McGovern.

Each bomber had a crew of ten: pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, flight engineer and four gunners. They worked as a tight-knit team but all looked to the main pilot to get them to their target and safely back to base. Air servicemen were asked to fly thirty-five missions, with a fearsome number killed in air combat or captured as POWs after having parachuted from their burning planes.

I have to note that Ambrose was accused of plagiarism in copying some of the text from the footnote sources. (One of the sources is McGovern’s autobiography, “Grassroots.”) In response, Ambrose said he did give credit in the end notes and would issue a corrected version with more quotation marks. This might be a book for history-lovers only, but World War II buffs will find much of interest.

As some of you know, I am mightily interested in presidential history, including the also-rans for our top national office. I had the honor of knowing Senator McGovern as a family friend and South Dakota congressman. His bravery and rock-solid leadership in his early twenties give us a deeper understanding of the man who was trounced by Richard Nixon in 1972.

Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park

For years, I have made a mental note to check out the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park. These past few days of balmy fall weather seemed to be the perfect time to head to Skokie. From Dempster Street on the north to Touhy Avenue on the south, the path, completed in 1988, is east of McCormick Boulevard and runs along the west bank of the Chicago River.

I must admit I was a bit disappointed. The traffic noise coming from the busy street was an intrusion and view of the river is obscured by foliage. There was one riverside view, however, with a small amphitheater north of Touhy. (Please look for my duck photo taken on the banks of the Chicago River.) The Skokie Northshore Channel Park would be so much more inviting if the river were visible all along the two-mile stretch and if more trees could be planted to soften the street noise.

I saw joggers, bicyclists, casual walkers and children, however, so the park is well-used. It just could be even better with a little landscaping attention.

One word about the 60 pieces of sculpture. Amusing would be the predominant adjective. As a big fan of public art, I leave it to the eye of the beholder to assess artistic merit. Ultimately, this is yet another cultural and nature attraction within the Chicago area to put on your list.

Persimmon: the Unicorn of Fruits

In my local grocery store a few years back, I spotted dark orange pieces of fruit resembling miniature pumpkins in the exotic produce section. The sign said “Persimmons.” And they were $3 a piece which is fairly pricey for one small piece of fruit.

With a spirit of adventure, I opted for one that was plump, shiny and hard. I cut it open at home and was met with the worst chalky taste in my mouth. I spit out the fruit flesh with a “yecch” to punctuate my revulsion.

A friend who is much savvier than me about unusual food stuffs let me know that persimmons need to be so ripe that they look and feel like water balloons.

Back to the store I went and found one persimmon that was nigh on bursting with ripeness. As instructed, I pulled off the leaves on top and spooned the fruit out of the bottom part. What a delightful experience. The taste was sweet, but not cloying and the consistency was that of pudding. I had inadvertently found my favorite fall treat. This uncommon fruit is only available in autumn to early winter and only in select stores.

Unfortunately, many produce workers throw out what appears to be over-ripe persimmons. I literally bird-dog purveyors in hopes of catching staff before they discard this orange beauty. If you buy an unripe persimmon, it frequently never gets soft enough to eat without that awful chalky, bitter taste.

I have only found two varieties of persimmons in Whole Foods and Mariano’s (Kroger’s) stores: Fuyu and my preferred Hachiya, but I am still on the look-out for Sheng and Saijo types. Some refer to persimmons as the “apples of Asia.”

Besides eating persimmons by themselves, one can find recipes that use them in oatmeal dishes, persimmon chia pudding, persimmon bars and scones, cranberry persimmon salsa (Thanksgiving perhaps?), persimmon prosciutto grilled cheese sandwiches, persimmon chicken, kale persimmon salad, persimmon arugula pasta, sorbets, tarts, upside down cakes, puddings and persimmon corn bread.

Hurry before the all-too-brief persimmon season is over. A very ripe Hachiya persimmon is indeed the unicorn in the produce department.

20 recipes with persimmons:

“The Trial,” Italian Murder Mystery on Netflix

Originally airing on Italian television 2019, Netflix picked up “The Trial” for streaming spring 2020. The plot is improbable, but the Italian legal system makes for fascinating (albeit fictional) viewing.

The stand-outs are Vittoria Puccini playing prosecutor Elena Guerra against ruthless defense lawyer Ruggero Barone (actor Francesco Scianna). A young woman is found murdered outside a posh party and the likely suspect is the spurned wife of a businessman who had a relationship with the murder victim. Barone goes to great lengths to acquit his client, the beautiful, rich daughter of a local business mogul.

“The Trial” is on par with many of the BBC or PBS murder mysteries in terms of production quality. As an added benefit, you get to see Italian fashion and architecture, glimpses of the police and legal system and see if you understand any Italian.

Prego e grazie! Please and thank you!

Netflix Raising Its Prices – Is It Worth It?

Netflix is raising its monthly fees this fall 2020. The basic fee (one device at a time) stays the same at $8.99; the standard package (two devices at once) goes up to $13.99 per month, and the premium package (four devices, HDR image quality, 4K resolution) up to $17.99. The powers-that-be insist they need the money for increased programming costs.

Hmm…. Let me see. Although I have recently written about other notable Netflix shows, I am adding a few more to the roster.

It was with bittersweet emotions that I watched the sixth and last season of “Schitt’s Creek,” culminating in the wedding of David Rose and Patrick Brewer, with mother Moira Rose acting as officiant in bizarre white religious garb. I wasn’t always in the mood for the show’s strange humor, but I kept coming back for all 89 episodes.

The show made history by garnering seven comedy awards at the 2020 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Writing, Outstanding Directing (Dan Levy, Eugene Levy’s son) plus Lead Actress, Lead Actor, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress. It was definitely a family Levy affair with not only Eugene and Dan playing father and son Roses, but daughter Sarah Levy also getting in the act portraying Twyla Sands, the local diner waitress. The thing I will miss the most is seeing Moira Rose’s (Catherine O’Hara) wacky black and white fashion choices and her endless supply of amusing wigs.

“The Great British Baking Show” has been back on my radar as Netflix started rolling out new episodes every Friday. Contestants, judges and hosts supposedly have to quarantine for the duration of the show. Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall in the GBBS mess hall when they aren’t filming?

Netflix is carrying several versions of this popular British reality show: “The Beginnings,” “Master Class” and “Holidays,” as well as the regular seasons of “The Great British Baking Show.” I’m currently limiting my sugar and gluten consumption, so this show allows me to live vicariously indeed.

A brief mention of the Danish show “Borgen” which Netflix had the wisdom to acquire. If you want to see a bang-up dramatic series about Denmark’s first fictitious female prime minister, you may want to check out “Borgen’s” three seasons (30 episodes total). Politics is tricky business everywhere.

Another charming import, in English, is “Last Tango In Halifax” with the first three seasons streamable on Netflix. Celia and Allan (thespians Anne Reid and Derek Jacoby) rekindle romance after a 60-year hiatus. A quirky ensemble of family and friends adds to the humor and drama. (The current four episodes of Season Five are available on PBS Passport.)

In short, if Netflix keeps up a good mix of original programming, foreign shows, light reality fare and American hits both old and new, I am sticking with the service.