Lady Banks' Commonplace Book is a blog for people interested in Southern literature, sponsored by booksellers who are members of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) and featuring the latest literary news and events around the South from Her Ladyship, the Editor.

 

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Outside her ladyship, the editor's library window, the season has changed. Her ladyship has watched the signs: The first hard frost has killed the late morning glories, which were lavender-blue the previous evening, and have crumpled, sodden, in the cold wet morning. The painted buntings that graced her ladyship's feeder right through a warm October have disappeared and left the field to the chickadees, cardinals, and Carolina wrens. There are apples, oranges and pomegranates in bowls on the table instead of the peaches and blueberries she is never without in the summer. There is a large pot of vegetable soup simmering on the stove and her ladyship no longer leaves her bedroom window open at night, even though she likes to listen to the owls.

Instead, she has spread her electric blanket on the couch, added to the stack of books she keeps in arm's reach and curled up with a pot of coffee to read away the dark evenings while her four cats and two dogs systematically inch their way onto the warm blanket and onto her lap. Her feet will fall asleep under the weight but her mood is one of contentment.

 

Read independently, and shop local.

Southern Book PrizeWhen her ladyship, the editor, sat down to write her letter for this week's newsletter, she began with "Another beloved Southern voice has fallen silent..."

And then she stopped.

"A voice lost" is the phrase her ladyship habitually uses when she has to write about the passing of a beloved author. She has used when remembering Kay Byers. She used it to talk about Harper Lee and Maya Angelou. She used it earlier this year when writing about Charles F. Price and Toni Morrison. So when her ladyship read, with deep sorrow, the news that Ernest J. Gaines had died she opened her laptop and almost automatically typed "Another beloved Southern voice has been lost..." and then something in her rebelled. It's not true, she sat there thinking. Gaines's voice is not lost. He is not silent. His books are right there, on your shelf, and they are still speaking to you. You only have to look at them to bring up the memory of stories they tell, the landscape and the images of people they describe so ruthlessly and so lovingly. Just the sight of them on the shelf evokes the force of what you felt reading them. Ernest J. Ganies will never be silent.

"Even before visiting False River, I knew this landscape held a holy place in Gaines’s heart, but after that morning in the cemetery, I understood that it also held a holy place in his fiction. I was standing on the land where the century-old Miss Jane Pittman had talked to oak trees, where the hardened schoolteacher from A Lesson Before Dying had decided that even a condemned man is worth saving" -- Wiley Cash, remembering Ernest J. Gaines.

Wiley Cash, the 2020 Conroy Legacy Award recipient and author of The Last Ballad,
once described a similar feeling when he wrote about his long friendship with Gaines, which began when he dug up a copy of Bloodline as a college student: "Two decades later, when I think about the book, an early passage from the story “The Sky Is Gray” still comes to mind." That serendipitous story set Cash on the lengthy path that would result in his breakout novel A Land More Kind Than Home -- a story that in large part exists because of what he learned from Gaines: "Write what's true, not what's pretty."

Ernest J. Gaines will never write another book, and we are the poorer for it. But he is still with us, in the voice of Jane Pittman, Tante Lou, Candy Marshall, Jefferson, Grant Wiggins. His voice is not silent and it is not lost.

A Lesson Before Dying A Gathering of Old MenThe Autobiography of Miss Jane PittmanCatherine CarmierOf Love and DustBloodlineThe Tragedy of Brady SimsIn My Father's House

Teen Reads at Turning Pages BookshopOne of the things her ladyship, the editor, does miss from her days working in a bookstore is the store displays. The displays are one of the places where the ostre staff really get to express themselves.

And no, she isn't just referring to the occasional window display where the store goes all out on the decorations to create something stunningly beautiful. Those are wonderful, naturally, but her ladyship has always found that the more meticulously beautiful the display, the less willing she is to disturb it in order to pick up a book and look at it.

Her ladyship is, rather, inordinately fond of the more mundane bookshop displays -- the tables with piles of books covering every square inch. The shelves of faced-out titles, often crammed a little more full than they were designed for. All the little unclaimed spaces in the shop that have room for a bookstack and a little easel to hold the top one upright.

Modest, perpetually slightly askew from customers picking books up and putting them back slightly off-center -- for these displays inviting the passerby to stop and look and touch and pick up and open -- the table displays in a bookshop are usually collections of books that the store staff itself likes or thinks their customers will want. 

New Releases at Bookmarks

Or they want their customers to want. When her ladyship worked in a bookshop she used to regularly place favorite books on display next to some bestselling title, her own subliminal suggestion to the customers that her favorites "belonged" with the bestsellers.

There isn't a bookseller anywhere on the planet who hasn't done something similar with the displays in their shop. And regardless of whether the sign on the display says "New Releases" or "Gifts for Mom" or "Beach Reading" there isn't a table display in any indie bookshop ANYWHERE that doesn't have, whatever its ostensible theme, a couple books on it that the store staff made excuses to include just because they wanted people to find and buy and read them.

It's her ladyship, the editor's rule number 1 about independent bookshops: Always check out the displays.

 

Read independently, and shop local.

Solitary

After years in prison and solitary confinement, I'd experienced all the emotions the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections wanted from me--anger, bitterness, the thirst to see someone suffer the way I was suffering, the revenge factor, all that. But I also became something they didn't expect--self-educated. I could lose myself in a book. Reading was a bright spot for me. Reading was my salvation. Libraries and universities and schools from all over Louisiana donated books to Angola and for once, the willful ignorance of the prison administration paid off for us, because there were a lot of radical books in the prison library: Books we wouldn't have been allowed to get through the mail. Books we never could have afforded to buy. Books we had never heard of. Herman, King, and I first gravitated to books that dealt with politics and race--George Jackson, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko, Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, J. A. Rogers's From 'Superman' to Man. We read anything we could find on slavery, communism, socialism, Marxism, anti-imperialism, the African independence movements, and independence movements from around the world. I would check off these books on the library order form and never expect to get them until they came. Leaning against my wall in the cell, sitting on the floor, on my bed, or at my table, I read.”

 

by Andrea Bobotis,
author of The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt

MiddlemarchTo the LighthouseThe WavesThe Complete PoemsRemains of the Day
GileadElizabeth StroutCall of the Wild and White FangCold MountainUnderground Railroad

Middlemarch by George Eliot
At heart, I’m a Victorianist. Give me a baggy nineteenth-century British novel any day. This classic taught me how to apply a sympathetic imagination to characters (and people), even the loathsome ones.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The emotional eloquence of this novel can’t be overstated. I learned how to grieve from Woolf’s masterpiece.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf
When I started to write seriously, in my twenties, I was writing poetry exclusively, but I had the itch to write fiction. Woolf’s book, with its extended and evocative descriptions of light and shadow, showed me that I didn’t have to choose between the two genres.

The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 byElizabeth Bishop
Bishop’s poems are dazzling in their range. Bishop evokes a guarded woundedness while electrifying us with her formal stamina. Her poem “The Filling Station” taught me more than most novels have about how to work with narrative voice.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This novel sparked my enduring love of first-person narration. Ishiguro masterfully employs the mechanics of first person so that the narrative itself teaches us how to read Stevens, the voice guiding us through the novel.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
For me, this novel is tied with Robinson’s Housekeeping, but my mind drifts to Gilead again and again because of its first-person narrator, Reverend John Ames. This was the first novel I read in which I fully understood that, while villains might be fascinating and instructive, there is much to be gained by following the path of a virtuous mind.  

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
In this book, in all her books, Strout showed me it was possible to elevate characterization to a form of grace. Her scrupulously observed details about her characters reveal her deep and abiding compassion for them.  

The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London
As I child, I loved adventure tales. These two London books were childhood favorites. I wanted to live inside of them, to be those characters, human and animal alike. These books marked the first time I understood how transporting literature could be.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
About every month or so, I think about the moment when Ada Monroe scoops her two fingers into a jar of blackberry jam and dips them into her mouth. And while Frazier’s use of language is captivating and swoon-worthy (he might just be a genius with metaphor), I admire how the novel is also suspicious of its own luscious language, how words can paper over violence.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This novel has most recently changed the way I look at both fiction and the world around me. I’m still processing its brilliance, especially the reach of the book’s narrative voice, in which allegory and realism coexist and the sweep of history makes room for the intimate. Whitehead has such formal command of his novel that his gorgeous prose doesn’t mitigate the horrors of slavery, but instead sears that horror onto the page.

Andrea BobotisAndrea BobotisAndrea Bobotis was born and raised in South Carolina and received her PhD in English Literature from the University of Virginia. Her fiction has received awards from the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and her essays on Irish writers have appeared in journals such as Victorian Studies and the Irish University Review. She lives with her family in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches creative writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is her debut novel.