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Harvesting Paradise: My Two Favorite books of 2015

I don’t make it a habit to review a lot of books for my blog. When I do, there has to be something truly special about them than make me feel compelled to share. I am by no means what I would consider a professional book critic. I just love to read. Growing up, we didn’t live in traditional neighborhoods where we had access to a lot of friends. Quite often, books were our only friends, especially during the summer. My sister and I would beg our parents to take us to the library. Both of us often checked out the maximum of twenty books at a time, only to have read them all in a few short days and then we’d be begging to go back for more. This pattern went on into high school, when suddenly school and social lives had us putting books on the back burner.

At some unfortunate point later in life, I nearly stopped reading (for pleasure) altogether. Occasionally, I’d find myself in the mood again, or I’d have that vacation book to read on the plane or by the pool; but for the most part, I’d stopped reading altogether.

I’d always meant to start reading again, finish a book or two; and then find life as an easy excuse not to continue.

Earlier this year, I found myself out of excuses and accepted a challenge on the Goodreads website, committing myself to read twenty books this year. I believe that was back in March. Here it is now, August, and I’ve just finished reading my sixtieth book with no signs of stopping.

A good book takes you on a journey, unlocks your imagination and can empower your passion and desires.

I just finished reading the second of my two favorite books this year. Shortly after I started, I knew I wanted to review these two books together because they both had so much in common. In both cases the authors were young men… searching. Both searching for paradise of sorts; one in the form of the perfect pizza slice and the other in a deserted island. As a result, both happily found much more than either had bargained for.

HarvestSlice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza by Colin Atrophy Hagendorf

Simon & Schuster, Publisher

Pub Date Aug,11 2015

ISBN: 9781476705880

Available in Hardcover, Kindle, Audible & Audio CD Formats

New York and Pizza. Two things very dear to my heart. That’s all it took to draw me into this book. I try not to have too many expectations when I start reading but I’ll say I fully expected this to be more of a run down on pizza in NYC– more review based. Pleasantly, I discovered I was wrong. Slice Harvester is so much more. It’s part memoir, part history, part pizza critic…. mostly it’s a completely honest telling of one man’s unique journey to find his true self in one of the most amazing cities in the world.

While there are some short, mostly amusing tidbits of Hagendorf’s pizza reviews in the book, that’s only part of the whole. You can read all his critiques in their original blog form on his Slice Harvester site. I ended up spending hours there reading, after I finished this book– comparing opinions on places I’ve already tried and making notes on pizza I have to try on my next visit to New York.

This book isn’t a cheese slice– it’s an everything-and-more slice. All the ingredients are here in perfect amounts for a beautifully balanced, delicious read. I absolutely love this book.

Description from the Publisher:

Over the course of two years, a twenty-something punk rocker eats a cheese slice from every pizzeria in New York City, gets sober, falls in love, and starts a blog that captures headlines around the world—he is the Slice Harvester, and this is his story.

Since its arrival on US shores in 1905, pizza has risen from an obscure ethnic food to an iconic symbol of American culture. It has visited us in our dorm rooms and apartments, sometimes before we’d even unpacked or painted. It has nourished us during our jobs, consoled us during break-ups, and celebrated our triumphs right alongside us.

In August 2009, Colin Hagendorf set out to review every regular slice of pizza in Manhattan, and his blog, Slice Harvester, was born. Two years and nearly 400 slices later, he’d been featured in TheWall Street Journal, the Daily News (New York), and on radio shows all over the country. Suddenly, this self-proclaimed punk who was barely making a living doing burrito delivery and selling handmade zines had a following. But at the same time Colin was stepping up his game for the masses (grabbing slices with Phoebe Cates and her teenage daughter, reviewing kosher pizza so you don’t have to), his personal life was falling apart.

A problem drinker and chronic bad boyfriend, he started out using the blog as a way to escape—the hangovers, the midnight arguments, the hangovers again—until finally realizing that by taking steps to reach a goal day by day, he’d actually put himself in a place to finally take control of his life for good.

paradiseA Beginner’s Guide To Paradise: 9 Steps To Giving Up Everything by Alex Sheshunoff

Pub Date Sept 1, 2015

PENGUIN GROUP Berkley, NAL/Signet Romance, DAW

ISBN: 9780451475862

Available in Hardcover, Kindle

Pacific Paradise. This book sparked my interest because Michael and I are visiting the Pacific region later this year. I thought this book might give me some insight, or at least a point of reference on our trip.

Who hasn’t dreamed of giving up everything to live on a deserted island at some point in their life? Many of us long for, if not only the idea of Paradise.

As Alex Sheshunoff discovered and shares in his book, the search for Paradise may just turn out to be something entirely different than you’d expect. You may end up with much more than you bargained for; good and bad.

I loved so many aspects of this book. Like Hagendorf, Sheshunoff tells the story of his personal journey, honestly and unashamed. He also shares much of the history and traditions of the islands, taking readers on a full descriptive and visual journey in counterpoint to his personal one. It’s a beautiful story of life, love and exotic locales. In the end, he discovers that true paradise is in the heart.

Description from the Publisher:

So You Too Can:

– Move to a South Pacific Island
– Wear a Loincloth
– Read a Hundred Books
– Diaper a Baby Monkey
– Build a Bungalow

And Maybe, Just Maybe, Fall in Love! *

* Individual results may vary.

The true story of how a quarter-life crisis led to adventure, freedom, and love on a tiny island in the Pacific.

From the author of a lot of emails and several Facebook posts comes A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise, a laugh-out-loud, true story that will answer your most pressing escape-from-it-all questions, including:

1. How much, per pound, should you expect to pay a priest to fly you to the outer islands of Yap?
2. Classic slumber party stumper: If you could have just one movie on a remote Pacific island, what would it definitely not be?
3. How do you blend fruity drinks without a blender?
4. Is a free, one-hour class from Home Depot on “Flowerbox Construction” sufficient training to build a house?

From Robinson Crusoe to Survivor, Gilligan’s Island to The Beach, people have fantasized about living on a remote tropical island. But when facing a quarter-life crisis, plucky desk slave Alex Sheshunoff actually did it.

While out in Paradise, he learned a lot. About how to make big choices and big changes. About the less-than-idyllic parts of paradise. About tying a loincloth without exposing the tender bits. Now, Alex shares his incredible story and pretty-hard-won wisdom in a book that will surprise you, make you laugh, take you to such unforgettable islands as Yap and Pig, and perhaps inspire your own move to an island with only two letters in its name.

Answers: 1) $1.14 2) Gas Attack Training Made Simple 3) Crimp a fork in half and insert middle into power drill 4) No.

 Harvesting Paradise. It was a complete coincidence that I read these two books so close together. Both reaffirm the life journeys we all make– our passion and desire to find happiness and paradise; whether  it be on a deserted island or in an urban jungle. Paradise is within all of our reach. We can search the world and never find it. Harvesting the best of life and finding our own personal paradise can’t begin until we start the very personal journey of exploring within. Both of these authors found it, so can we.
I was very fortunate to receive advanced reading copies of both of these wonderful books from the publishers through NetGalley.

Photo Essay: Times Square Three AM

I shot these photos in Times Square, NYC, Monday May 26, 2014 at three AM—shortly before leaving New York to return to Chicago.











Photo Essay: Times Square Six AM

These photos were shot in and around Times Square in New York City at 6 AM, Sunday May 25, 2014.












NYC May 2014- Day Nine: Crossdressers, Creatives & Curmudgeons

The quiet solitude of Central Park.

The quiet solitude of Central Park.

Planning our trip, we originally narrowed our show list down to twenty three productions we were interested in seeing.

We initially thought we had fifteen slots open but with some of the changes in the performance schedule, we were able to book seventeen shows.

That meant Saturday was going to be a three show day.

Sheep Meadow on Central Park's west side.

Sheep Meadow on Central Park’s west side.

While we were trying to squeeze in all the other things we wanted to do in New York, we purposely left Saturday morning free, thinking it was already going to be a really long day.

As it turned out, Michael and I were up early and raring to go. So with our first show at Lincoln Center, we decided to head up that direction and took a walk in Central Park.

One of a number or bridges in Central Park.

One of a number of bridges in Central Park.

The sun appeared from behind the clouds, off and on and it turned out to be a rather nice morning.

Having been there many times before, we didn’t have a specific destination nor were we trying to see the whole park. We entered from the Fifth Avenue side and just started wandering.

Warm days like this, fill the park with tourists and New Yorkers alike; walking, jogging and bicycling through the many paths and trails.

The newly renovated and reopened, Tavern On the Green.

The newly renovated and reopened, Tavern On the Green.

We hadn’t planned on it but we had the time, so we found ourselves lunching at the recently reopened Tavern On the Green.

Closed in 2009, all the interior decor had been auctioned off and for a brief time the space was used as a visitors center.

We had eaten here twice before and enjoyed the gawdy decorating that included many Tiffany and crystal chandeliers.

greenAnyone visiting the historic landmark today will be in for a bit of a shock as the new operators have renovated the property, returning it to more of its original look and feel. It is a warm, open and inviting atmosphere that features a contemporary and reasonably priced, gourmet menu that features delicious offerings that are also beautifully plated. It was one of the best meals we experienced this time in New York.

Act-One-Playbill-03-14Act One This production actually didn’t make our first cut but since the show we had scheduled closed early, we decided to see it, influenced by its five Tony nominations.

Lincoln Center’s production of Act One isn’t without its merits. The acting is good, the revolving, sometimes dizzying set, moves the action quickly between locations and the direction is good.

Based on Moss Hart’s best-selling autobiography of the same name, Act One would probably have benefited from some serious cutting and more humorous moments. (The show runs nearly three hours.) James Lapine both adapted and directed this piece. That, though interesting, was a little too slow paced for my taste. Combine that with uncomfortable seats and it made for a slightly less than enjoyable afternoon.

Coming out of the show there was a sudden downpour. Luckily, there was a subway entrance less than a block away. We only got minimally drenched. We went back to our place, threw our clothes in the dryer and got changed for our next show.

Mothers-and-Sons-Playbill-02-14Mothers and Sons Tyne Daly stars in this touching drama about love, loss and connecting.

Terrence McNally has skillfully crafted a play that explores the lingering and devastating effects that AIDS has left on families affected by the disease.

Difficult conversations between a mother and her deceased son’s lover, ignite this play, questioning what was and what is.

It reminds us that though huge steps have been taken toward Equality in the past ten to twenty years, people essentially have not changed. Prejudice, pain and fear still overshadow the lives of so many.

Hedwig-and-the-Angry-Inch-Playbill-03-14_THUMBHedwig and the Angry Inch Neil Patrick Harris is filling the house to capacity in this first Broadway production of Hedwig. You might say, this is the current hot ticket show. It has certainly generated a lot of media buzz.

Hedwig has a cult following that has grown over the years from the 1998 Off-Broadway production and the 2001 film adaptation. It has been performed all over the world.

Harris does a fine job inhabiting the role of Hedwig, an East German transgendered (albeit a botched operation) singer –probably singing the best in his career.

The show is flashy, trashy and full of special effects. It’s more of an event than a musical. There is a story that develops through the songs and updated dialogue. Still, there’s not a book-story, even by contemporary standards. It’s the equivalent of attending a very loud punk rock show. We enjoyed it but it definitely has a specific audience that is not traditional Broadway by any means.

It’s one of the most Tony-nominated shows (eight) this year, although I don’t real understand why.

NYC May 2014- Day Seven: Everything Old Is New Again

We walked over to Pier 88 to meet Michael’s Mom & Dad and then went to lunch with them at Pom Pom Diner. They were sailing from New York on a long cruise leaving Thursday, so we were lucky enough to spend some time with them, having not seen them in over a year. It was overcast and we had a little rain but we somehow managed to avoid it.

Phantom-Of-Opera-Playbill-12-11The Phantom of the Opera I saw Phantom twice in New York just after it opened in 1988. First, starring Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman and the second time with Timothy Nolen and Patti Cohenour.  I’ve seen other productions since then, including the more modern (technically) Las Vegas version and have always found it to be entertaining.

When it originally opened (less than a year after Les Miserables), it was part of the British Invasion of Broadway and the mega-musical phase. Much like Disney’s entrance on the Broadway stage, many in the theatre community resented it and were unfairly critical. The fact is, Phantom has been running for 26 years on Broadway and with the exception of a few years prior to the movie version’s release, when attendance dipped, it has consistently sold at 85-100% of capacity.

Michael and I have both seen Phantom multiple times. I never considered it one of my favorite shows, yet I never fail to be thrilled and swept away by it. There were two reasons we chose to revisit it on this trip. First, It was one of only a few shows with a Thursday matinee. Second, we found out Norm Lewis was stepping into the role of the Phantom and that’s the real reason we bought tickets. We met Lewis last summer on the Broadway On the High Seas 3 cruise and were instantly enchanted. He is not only an amazing performer but a sincere and gracious person.

So the verdict? I can happily report that Phantom, with it’s current cast, looks and feels as fresh and electric as any show currently running on Broadway. The sound was excellent and the lighting tech and special effects, which remain pretty much unaltered, work flawlessly. (There are no intelligent (moving) or LED lights evident as there are in all the newer productions.)

Norm Lewis (Phantom), Sierra Boggess (Christine) and Jeremy Hays (Raoul) probably sing the show better than any previous cast. Both Lewis and Boggess bring so many more layers in vocal styles to their performances than I’ve heard from others assuming those roles. I have to be honest and say I’ve never liked the Raoul character in past productions. Now with Hays in the role, I finally did. Hays brings Raoul to life in a fully-rounded, brilliantly sung performance.

Lewis is not duplicating Crawford’s Phantom character. This is a departure from the way it is usually done when a replacement goes into a currently running show. I think Lewis’ character could be a little better developed– but I’m confident he will continue to grow in the role. He’s making it his own. Lewis’ Phantom is more a romantic and less the control-seeking victim of his predecessors. The same can be said for Boggess as Christine. This is not the weak victimized Christine of past seasons. Boggess makes her fresh, more confident and has full command of the stage. Boggess’ Christine seems to be more in control and makes choices, as opposed to being the victim of circumstance.

If you’ve never seen Phantom on Broadway and want a sure-thing– this is it.

Bullets-Over-Broadway-Playbill-03-14Bullets Over Broadway I have to sum up Bullets with one sentence: It’s been done before. Based on the Woody Allen movie, Bullets is just a plain fun, old book, entertainment. There is nothing new or fresh here and it’s been done  better, dozens of times before. It has a thin plot (complete with gangsters) and a score comprised of familiar catalog songs. The charm of the film doesn’t translate to the stage in this production.

I didn’t find anything unique in the staging or choreography and found that though all the actors give strong performances, they weren’t able to rise above the material. Don’t get me wrong, the show is enjoyable. It just isn’t something I’d go see again.

I didn’t expect a revelation here. I did expect that I would laugh, or at least smile a lot more than I did.

Last comment: How could anyone think that the song, Yes, We have No Bananas was a good way to end the show?

It’s beyond me.

New York 2014: Broadway Here I Come!


Times Square, December 2012.

If you know me really well, then you know that New York is my city. We try to get there at least once a year and this will be Michael’s and my longest stay yet. Ten days in the Big Apple… tickets to 17 shows and lots of other exciting activities planned. We started booking our trip a couple months ago, looking for the best deals on rooms and show tickets.

This year, in addition to visiting friends that live in NYC, two of our friends from home will also be in New York– part of the time– and joining us on some of our excursions, adding a different dimension to our trip.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum My most anticipated event this trip is attending the  National September 11 Museum on the official opening day, May 21st. 2014. I’ve been to the memorial twice before but anticipate that the museum will be a heightened emotional experience. I’ve already contributed a few images to the museum’s Artists Registry and hope to add more after this visit.

Broadway & Off Broadway Shows I know it sounds insane, 17 shows in 10 days…. but this is what we do. We always try to get a mix of plays and musicals, throwing in a few Off Broadway shows as well, if our schedule permits. This year’s line up includes: A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder, Of Mice and Men, Rocky, The Bridges of Madison Country, Under My Skin, The Cradle Will Rock, All the Way, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Casa Valentina, Phantom of the Opera, Bullets Over Broadway, If/Then, Act One, Mothers and Sons, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Violet, and Heathers the Musical.

Something Old, Something New Each time we come to New York, our main goal is to see lots of shows and I think a lot of our friends think that’s all we do. But, we always try to experience as much of this amazing city as possible– time and weather permitting. Of course, we have a few restaurants and neighborhood destinations (sights) we try to visit every year, like Central Park— but we always try to add at least one new destination each trip and mix new restaurants in with a few old favorites. This year, we’ll be visiting The High Line for the second time, and will be venturing to the far north reach of Manhattan to visit The Cloisters and  its surrounding Fort Tryon Park.

We’re also hoping to make it to this year’s edition of the annual Stars in the Alley concert, several street festivals and a (new to us) historical sight or two.

I hope to be blogging daily about our NY adventures– that is, if we’re not too busy out doing.

Lower Manhattan.

Lower Manhattan. December 2012.