sunday salon: on giving authors second chances

The Sunday Salon

I’m not always a forgiving reader.

By this I mean that if I don’t like the first book I read by a certain author – or even if I think it’s just okay – the chances are very slim that I’ll read anything else by that same person. I don’t always consciously not choose to read their other work – it’s just that, when given a choice of an author who has given me a lukewarm reading experience versus trying someone new, I’ll usually go for the new.

I realize that this is a somewhat judgmental, unfair and rather high standard, not to mention coming across as being kind of hypocritical. I mean, I think my short story “Extractions” is pretty decent and I happen also to think that I’ve written better stuff and hopefully, I’ll continue to do so.

I’m thinking about all this because both the book I’m reading and my audiobook are by two authors whose previous books I read and wasn’t all that enthusiastic about.

And I’m really enjoying these two.

The Paying GuestsUnder Magnolia

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is for a getting out of the house and doing something fun book club discussion/get-together with local writerly-type friends this Wednesday. That is, assuming I finish this in time, which is looking quite doubtful because I’m only on page 70 and my understanding is that one really should have this finished in order to talk about it.

Regardless, I probably wouldn’t have picked this up at all because I was in the minority of book bloggers for not liking The Little Stranger (you can read my review here) but at 70 pages into The Paying Guests,  I cannot put this down. What bugged me about The Little Stranger (I really didn’t like the characters) is quite the opposite here, not to mention the writing itself. The innuendo, the subtleties in the sentences, the foreboding, the symbolism … it’s absolutely fantastic. I am riveted. Love this one and I have a whole new appreciation for Sarah Waters now.

As emotionally-intense as The Paying Guests is, I needed something a little lighter and on the nonfiction side as an audiobook. I’m not sure if Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir fits the “light” qualification, but I’m enjoying this much more than Under the Tuscan Sun, which, as you can tell from my review, I found pretentious and patronizing in places.

There are some choppy and sometimes hard-to-follow sections of Under Magnolia, but I’m appreciating Frances Mayes’ reflections about memory, family and place. For whatever reason, I can relate to this one a little more than Under the Tuscan Sun.

Or, maybe it’s just the fact that a book set in the South is making me feel warmer – although I know that some Southern states have been getting some snow and colder than usual temperatures, too.  We are in the midst of yet ANOTHER snowstorm here in Pittsburgh – expecting a total of 4″-7″ by tomorrow morning, oh joy – so there will be some reading time this afternoon.

What are YOUR thoughts on giving an author a second chance?
If you find a book to be just meh, how likely are you to try another book by that author?
And tell me some examples!

 

 

 

glitter remains / for kelly corrigan

Bird's nest

When you lose your father, you don’t do certain things.

For starters, you don’t read memoirs about father-daughter relationships, because regardless of what your relationship with your dad was like, it is still too sad – yes, even 30 years later – to Go There.

Until you pick up The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan, who shares in her gorgeous, heartfelt memoir the story of her relationship with her gregarious, larger-than-life dad as both of them experience cancer at the same time.  There, in the first few pages, Kelly Corrigan writes about her father, who is called Greenie by everyone he’s ever said hello to in his life.

“He does that for me too. He makes me feel smart, funny, and beautiful, which has become the job of the few men who have loved me since. He told me once that I was a great talker. And so I was. I was a conversationalist, along with creative, a notion he put in my head when I was in grade school and used to make huge, intricate collages from his old magazines. He defined me first, as parents do. Those early characteristics can become the shimmering self-image we embrace or the limited, stifling perception we rail against for a lifetime. In my case, he sees me as I would like to be seen. In fact, I’m not even sure what’s true about me, since I have always chosen to believe his version.” (pg. 3-4)

Four pages in and you are right back to where you once belonged, remembering what it was like, once upon a time. And perhaps, what could have been.

*
The first Facebook post I saw this morning was from Kelly Corrigan.

Somehow, the best person I ever knew slipped away from me tonight. I tried like hell to keep him, my Greenie, but it turned out he was just human after all. Such love. Such love love love. Lucky me.

*

Several years ago when I finished reading The Middle Place, the first thing I did was – this is sort of embarrassing and crazy-sounding, but what the hell – was to embark on a Google search to see how Greenie was doing in his own fight against cancer.

I fully realize this makes me sound a little off-kilter. Exceptional books do that to you; the words become something more as they make you feel as though you are inside the pages themselves.

Maybe part of that can be attributed to the “reader’s response” theory that Kelly recalls from one of her literature class (“more often than not, it’s the readers – not the writers – who determine what a book means. The idea is that readers don’t come blank to books. Consciously and not, we bring all the biases that comes with our nationality, gender, race, class, age. Then you layer onto that the status of our health,  employment, and relationship and our particular relationship to each book – who gave it to us, where we’ve read it, what books we’ve already read – and that massive array of added spices has as much to do with the flavor of the soup as whatever the cook intended.” Glitter and Glue)

Kelly Corrigan’s writing style is absolutely superb, completely engaging and heartfelt. I’m not surprised at how much I love her books (The Middle Place, Lift and Glitter and Glue) because, like me, Kelly is a Philly girl. Much of her books takes place on Philadelphia’s Main Line, a part of the area that I’m very familiar with and very fond thereof. I’m partial to well-written books that take place in my city.

Whether it’s the reader’s response theory or damn good writing, Kelly Corrigan has a way of making her reader feel like you are an honorary member of the Corrigan family for the duration.

And although I never met the man, what I read about him makes me believe that her dad Greenie wouldn’t have it any other way.

*
Published last year and newly released in paperback, Glitter and Glue takes its title from Kelly’s mother, who is as much the focus of this memoir as Greenie was in The Middle Place.

“Your father’s the glitter but I’m the glue,” Mary Corrigan had said, meaning that it takes both the sparkling effervescence of a Greenie and the practical, keeping-everything-together nature of a Mary to have a successful marriage and family. It’s the yin and yang of how parents relate to their children and to each other.   

It is that substance – the symbolic glitter and glue – that is the tangible and intangible stuff that makes us the people we are.

Glitter also never quite disappears. If you’ve ever used glitter in a craft project with kids or gotten a greeting card adorned with the stuff, you know it is here forever; always with you. It is the ultimate permanent record. It is the shiny specks of that  “shimmering self-image” that those we love give to us and that we carry, always, made all the better for their gift and ready to pass the love on.

Yes, faith, hope and love remain.

And glitter.

May it be so with Greenie. Your dad’s spirit was larger-than-life, Kelly, with more than enough for everyone and then some. Thank you for sharing him with your readers.

 

 

 

sunday salon: winter of our book blogging discontent

The Sunday Salon

There seems to be a theme of discontent running through today’s Salon posts, as more than a few folks seem to be musing on the pressures of book blogging or talking about being overwhelmed with life in general.

If we’re not feeling obligated to review the newest books or every single book we’ve ever read, we’re feeling guilty because we’re not reading or reviewing enough books.  We’re fretting over our stats and worried that we’re not as good as That Other Blogger – while That Other Blogger is comparing herself to Some Other Blogger. We’re cringing every time we Mark All As Read in our feed reader or skim posts or apologize yet again for not writing, not reading, not commenting, not reviewing, not not not ….

We are stewing in one big pot of negativity. We are taking ourselves way too goddamn seriously.

Those of us who have been doing this for a number of years are no strangers to this. We’ve seen this before. We know that a rampant case of the blogging blues happens to the best of us. And sometimes, it is enough for some of us to quit blogging altogether, as just today two mainstays of the book blogger community (Michele from A Reader’s Respite and Sandy from You’ve GOTTA read this!) announced today that they were closing up shop.

Let me be clear: I’m not minimizing any of these feelings or reactions. They are very real because we do take ourselves goddamn seriously. We’re real people with real lives behind these blogs and we put so much of ourselves into every word we write in this space.

So how do we change this? How do we let those who are wrestling with these issues know that we are listening and that we understand?

We talk about it. And we are. Andi’s post (“Getting Real: We’re Not WonderWomen”) is excellent, as is “On How to #BlogHonest and #BuildCommunity” by Becca of I’m Lost in Books. 

We take the pressure off, starting with ourselves. Give ourselves some slack if we don’t blog for three weeks or if we write a three sentence review or no reviews or take a blogging break or whatever works best for our lives.

We make book blogging fun again.

 

 

 

 

Listening to Our Better Angels: 1000 Voices for Compassion

1000Voices_zps11edff99

“One blogger shares a sentiment of compassion that resonates with another blogger. That blogger has a vision of more bloggers joining together as a whole to flood the internet with compassion much like tiny drops of water causing a ripple effect across the internet, across the world. Within two weeks over 1,000 bloggers make the commitment to share compassion individually yet together as a force so strong it takes on a life of its own because so many of us crave acts of good, positive deeds, a spark of kindness, empathy and good will that has been missing for some time.”
~ “Compassion Is In Our Nature,” as published on 1000Speak for Compassion

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” ~ Abraham Lincoln, Inauguration Address, March 4, 1861.

I’m blogging today as part of 1000 Voices for Compassion, a worldwide initiative to get a thousand bloggers to write posts about compassion, kindness, support, caring for others, non-judgement, care for the environment etc, and to publish these posts on the same day – today, February 20. The goal? To promote good.

It took me about two nanoseconds to sign myself up for this project. Blogging about compassion?  Easy.

Among the things I strive to do as a blogger is to use this small forum as a place to share with you what I care most about. Most of the time, that’s a good book or a new-to-me author I’ve just discovered. I enjoy sharing what I’m reading with you and I love talking about good books, especially with like-minded people.

Maybe it’s the been-doing-this-for-too-many-years nonprofit professional in me, but what I am most compelled to write about here are the stories of the people and the issues and the causes I care most about, such as:

the need for acceptance and greater understanding of people with autism and other special needs;

domestic violence and how it can leave a family shattered;

our country’s deeply flawed foster care system that allows a four-year-old girl to be all but forgotten and ignored by the Wisconsin child services agencies and professionals whose jobs are to protect her legal rights – and whom a judge has bounced from one, two, three foster homes in her four years after she was taken away screaming from the adoptive parents who loved her in their home;

the still-present reality of long-term unemployment and my belief that it will alter our country’s workforce and our economy forever;

the loss of so many creative, inspiring and loving souls to the epidemic of AIDS while our country’s leaders turned a blind eye, and why our legacy to those lost too soon must be continued striving for equal rights and protection for those identifying as LGBTQIA.

All of these topics have something in common.

Yes, they’re all ones that I have written about here.

But they are also subjects that tend to bring out the worst in people.

People with AIDS? “They deserve it.”  People who are unemployed and can’t find a job? “You must not be trying hard enough.” People who are abused by those they love? “Why don’t you just leave?” People who have a child with special needs? “You wanted to be a parent, so stop complaining.”

This is tame compared to what you’ll find on the comments section of certain websites or blogs or newspapers.  The haters are rabid – and becoming even more so. I’m not sure why people feel the need to be so nasty. Whether it’s the sanctity of feeling safe behind a computer screen under the cloak of anonymity or whether we’re just so hyper-stressed that we need to vent and take our anger out on some unsuspecting person or whether we are just so desperate to be heard, I don’t know.

So what do we do? I don’t know the answer but one thing I’ve started doing is not reading the comments – or, trying not to, anyway. Mainly my reasons are that it’s a time vacuum and also unhealthy for one’s soul. Even a few minutes spent with the comments makes one bereft of feeling – or, at the very least, numb. Not reading the comments is not feeding the beast, and it isn’t polluting my sense of compassion toward others.

(Edited to add: I need to clarify this based on, ironically, a comment from earlier today: I read all the comments here. What I’m talking about are the comment sections in the online editions of the newspaper or certain websites or whatever that just seem to fuel the crazy. With the exception of certain posts – mostly the adoption ones  – this isn’t much of an issue here on my blog. .)

I admit, there have been several posts where I’ve wondered if I should “go there.” I’m not a big-time blogger. I’m not going to change the world.

But deciding not to post about certain controversial issues doesn’t help with awareness and genuine healing. Because it’s a collective effort that starts with one person realizing a different perspective and gaining understanding.

We won’t get there if we don’t address the negativity and the snark that is so prevalent while re-committing ourselves to turn outward – not inward – toward others. And the good thing is, it’s easier to do than we think.

Notice those who are struggling and those who have suffered. As the quote (attributed to many people) goes, “Be kind, for we are all fighting a hard battle.”

Extend a hand or a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.

Be proactive in asking someone how you can help, or … just help.

Only then will we be able to fully hear the still and emerging voices inside us:

The song of our better angels.

To read links of #1000Speak Compassion posts from bloggers all over the world, click here.  

 

 

What We Can Learn from Rwandan Women on President’s Day

 

WomensLives

As we celebrate President’s Day here in the United States, I’m reflecting on how countries like Rwanda, Cuba, and Nicaragua have a higher percentage of women in political halls of power than we do.

At least, that’s the takeaway from a National Geographic story shared last week with those of us, including myself, who are blogging as part of the #WomensLives campaign. (“Women in Post-genocide Rwanda have helped heal their country.”

I know. Rwanda isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of women in leadership roles, right?

Yet it is. The genocide was 20 years ago. Since then, women have made significant strides in Rwanda. Consider the following, from the National Geographic piece:

The most famous example of strides for Rwandan women came in 2008, when Rwanda became the first country ever to have a female majority in parliament. That same year, the legislature adopted a progressive law making domestic violence illegal and mandating harsh prison terms for rape.

“We don’t want to just make a law,” Judith Kanakuze, who led the bill’s drafting, said in a prescient 2005 interview. She wanted to change behavior—to stop men from beating their partners and stop women from tolerating the beating. Kanakuze saw the law as one element in a larger strategy to change cultural expectations that were dangerous for women.

In years prior, Rwanda’s parliament had passed pivotal laws enabling women to own land and daughters to inherit property. The legislature’s newly formed Forum for Parliamentary Women played a central role in both bills.

It’s easy to dismiss this as something endemic to 2008 or the byproduct of some horrific history, but the trend (that sounds too trivial a word for what is truly groundbreaking and amazing work for women’s rights) continues.

In subsequent elections, female members of parliament widened their margin. Last September they picked up even more seats and now hold 64 percent of them. Thirty percent is a given—the quota set in the post-genocide constitution to boost women’s representation throughout the government. Credit for pushing the percentage beyond that minimum goes primarily to the political parties, which placed women prominently on their candidate slates. Most influentially, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by President Paul Kagame, mandated that its lineup be 50 percent female.

Take a look at this chart to see how Rwanda fares against other countries, including the United States.

Women in Government

Eye-opening, isn’t it?

Of course, changing societal attitudes isn’t without challenges – and the article highlights those, too.  As is to be expected, there are difficulties in reaching rural Rwandan women, which could be a factor in participation on the local level being at a much smaller percentage.

But overall, I see this as encouraging and – dare I say – perhaps as inspiration to those of us who may have become weary of wondering if we ever will see more women holding political office.

Especially that Oval one.

sunday salon: hibrrrrrrrrrrnating in pittsbrrrrrrrrrgh

The Sunday Salon

A disclaimer of sorts for you, dear blog reader:

I’m trying to emerge from somewhat of a funk this Sunday, caught up in a maelstrom of frustration and disappointment. In the scheme of things – and especially, compared to some of the life-changing, truly serious major issues some of you reading this are dealing with – my crap is petty, indeed.

I’ve reached that point of the winter where I am beyond annoyed at the weather. I mean, I just hate it.  If we’re being honest, I’ve been at that point since sometime before Christmas. (Again, here in Pittsburgh – which is more like Pittsbrrrrrrrrrrrgh, with wind chills as low as -26 degrees today – we certainly don’t have things as bad as other places but it is making me miserable.) I haven’t even bothered shoveling the driveway anymore with these pesky 1-2″ of snowfalls every day. What’s the point?

Fueling all this is the fact that I was scheduled to audition for Listen to Your Mother yesterday afternoon.  From my living room window, most of the day the weather looked like this:

Snow - 2-14-2015

Valentine’s Day 2015, Pittsbrrrrrrgh, PA. There’s no love for winter here.

I drove to work in a surprise snow squall last month and it is not an experience I care to repeat. So, I decided to …well, actually listen to my mother’s voice (and my own) in my head and be better safe than sorry and forego my audition slot. Of course, since this was just an audition, there was no guarantee that I would actually be cast in this show, but I’m annoyed at the weather (as irrational as that sounds) for fucking this up. I’m trying to look at this as this wasn’t meant to be this year, for whatever reason, and that there will be other opportunities for this essay to be improved upon and to find its right home.

As with most things, we move on.

Letters to a Young PoetFor a bit of literary salve in all this, last night I started Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. This is one of those books that is on my “I-really-should-read-this-someday” list that I somehow never get around to reading – except, in this case, I saw it at the library a few weeks ago and picked it up.

It’s helping to lift my mood. So is the sun streaming through the window this afternoon. Letters to a Young Poet is short enough to read in one sitting, although I’m going to need two. It turned out to be a good Valentine’s Day read, too. What’s surprising to me about this is that it delves into more than just writing. It’s very introspective, providing much to reflect on regarding solitude and love and more.

The Good Lord BirdThis week I finished listening to the audio of The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. You can’t go wrong with either the print version or the audio book, but I can tell you that Michael Boatman’s narration is fantastic. He really brings to life these characters, especially abolitionist and religious zealot John Brown as well as 12-year-old Henry Shackleford, who pretends to be a girl named Henrietta during the three years that Brown and his men fight slavery, give speeches, and prepare to raid the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

#WomensLives
I’m a little behind on the #WomensLives project, but hoping to get back on track this week, both in reading all the stories as well as writing some posts in response. In the meantime, these stories resonated with me this Valentine’s Day weekend and I wanted to share them here:

Before reading these, I was being a bit snarky on Facebook last night about Valentine’s Day – specifically, the half-assed dinner that I was preparing.

Valentines Day 2015

I mean, we didn’t do a damn thing for Valentine’s Day. We might have wished each other a Happy Valentine’s Day but other than that? No cards, no flowers, no gifts, nothing. In my cranky state, I may have even tried to pick a fight with The Husband – on Valentine’s Day, yo – about how he wasn’t being more sensitive to my disappointment over the audition.

But, there’s something to be said for being together, safe and warm in a comfortable house. I’m not going to jail for loving (still, after nearly 22 years) my funny Valentine who treats me pretty damn good.  All reasons to keep everything else in its proper perspective.

(However, I’m still hibernating with my books and laptop today. Not because I’m wallowing in my funk but because it still feels like -19 and there’s nothing to be grateful for about that.)

 

Review: Dinner: The Playbook: A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal, by Jenny Rosenstrach

I confess … I’m in a dinner rut.

Again.

Perhaps you are too.

Our family tends to eat the same meals, every single week. Our repertoire is some variation of Taco Night; Breakfast for Dinner; Soup and Bread (Or Sometimes Salad) Night; Pasta with Sauce; Macaroni and Cheese, and pizza on Friday nights.

Complicating matters are our various dietary requirements and picky tastes:

Me: gluten-free and pescetarian. While the rest of the family tolerates the occasional GF pasta, they really have no interest in converting.

The Husband: a vegetarian who dislikes (but tolerates in small quantities) vegetables, beans, greens, and some fish. If such a thing as a pasta-tarian exists (i.e., a diet that consists mostly of pasta, cheese, and tomato sauce), that’s him.

The Boy:  total carnivore. The more meat on his plate, the better. He’s the one ordering the Meat-Lovers Everything whenever we go out to dinner. Steaks, burgers, chicken – he loves it all.

The Girl: eats white meat and fish, but is strongly leaning towards being a pescetarian, too.

So, yeah, cooking for our crew is no small feat.

I try, though, and generally I succeed. It usually involves a meal with at least one variation. I often say I am going to make more dinners in advance and to plan ahead better. Doing so would help the increasing frustration I feel when it comes to dinnertime.

Dinner The PlaybookWhich is why I was curious about Dinner: The Playbook: A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal, by Jenny Rosenstrach.

Rosenstrach, who blogs at Dinner: A Love Story and who has recorded in a Dinner Diary every dinner she has cooked since February 22, 1998, was in a similar dinner rut nearly ten years ago.

“Even though we had built a pretty solid archive of dinners as (childless) kitchen enthusiasts, it suddenly seemed as if all those years had been for naught. Where we’d once approach dinner by asking, ‘What are we in the mood for tonight?’ (or, even more luxuriously, ‘What’s good at the market today?’) now it was, ‘What can we make for the girls tonight that won’t ignite a revolt?'” (pg. xv)

“If you took one look at my dinner diary during that long stretch in 2006, you would notice a lot of one-word meal descriptions:
Cutlets, BURGERS, Pizza
Then the week following:
Cutlets, BURGERS, Pizza

Then …….. BURGERS, Cutlets, Cutlets
Then …….. Pizza, Pizza, BURGERS
Then …….. BURGERS, BURGERS, Cutlets.”

Reading this, I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about my family’s lineup. We’re practically culinary connoisseurs!

Rosenstrach set out on a mission to make 30 new dinners in one month. Most of these included familiar ingredients that her family enjoyed, but there were new elements as well.  The project was, obviously, successful – hence, the blog and the books. She also implemented several strategies, which I was interested in – because, frankly, I’ve read a lot of these types of cookbooks and after awhile, they do tend to give the same “tips” and “hints.”

That said, I’m a firm believer that what works for one family is not going to work for another. For example, there’s no way in hell that the four of us are doing the grocery shopping TOGETHER. (Rule #4 in The Playbook.) You want to talk recipe for disaster? Grocery Shopping As a Family means end times for us. We had to do it for a month out of necessity – when I was recuperating from gall bladder surgery last year – and if we have to do so again, I’m convinced my family will not eat.

What I can do is “gather my recipes” (also known as Step 3 in the book, selecting 30 recipes for my family to try within a month). Out of all the cookbooks I have and all the newspaper and magazine clippings, there’s plenty to pick from – even with our four respective food peculiarities. The caveat for our family is that there will have to be some predictability in there; this can’t be a month of surprises. And again, like the grocery shopping, I’m flyin’ solo. The Husband and I delegated the food preparation and all things thereof to me when we got married nearly 22 years ago and nobody’s interested in changing things up now. (And yes, I’ve tried to enlist the kids’ participation in selecting menus, in shopping, in cooking. They don’t give a damn. They just want to eat.)

Speaking of the kids, what I have tried with resounding success is Rule #6 “Memorize the Phrase ‘I Don’t Know Yet.'”

“You know how your kids are hardwired to ask you what’s for dinner every night? It seems like an innocent question, but trust me, it has the potential to make or break your entire evening. If you tell them what you are cooking, and if what you are cooking sounds remotely weird (and anything brand new is bound to), then your kid has a good thirty to sixty minutes to ruminate about how weird it truly is.  A good thirty to sixty minutes to figure out a way to complain and beg for pizza. A good thirty to sixty minutes to start dreading his dinner instead of looking forward to it.

“That’s why a key strategy in your playbook is the “I Don’t Know Yet” move.”

Now this – THIS is brilliant. This seems to be having some limited success in our house. I’m going to continue this practice, for sure. Other tips I’m planning to try: assembling the non-perishable ingredients on the counter before leaving for work, prepping for the week on the weekend (I always say I’m going to do this, but don’t), and a “kitchen dump” (i.e., looking through what’s left of the produce and vegetables at week’s end to see what can be pureed, frozen, added to soups, etc.)

Rosenstrach provides her reader with several meal plans (My Idea of a Perfect Week; Flexitarian; Winter Warm-Your-Bones; Family Faves) as well as two recipe collections (Go To Weeknight Meals and Keep the Spark Alive Dinners).  These aren’t meant to add to our already-existing to-try recipes, but rather to provide inspiration.  Most of them won’t work for our family, but there are a few that will.

As I said, that’s how I approach most cookbooks. I think the key is about flexibility and making dinnertime work in a way that’s enjoyable and easy for you.  Getting there takes some practice and some planning. Dinner: The Playbook offers practical advice with a side of humor that makes you feel that indeed, the daily family dinner challenge can be something even the most frustrated of cooks can (most days) count as a win.

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