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.
"Every family history includes such stories of survival, of prevailing against great suffering and despair. Perhaps these family histories, small as they might be and utterly invisible to the world, hold the key to facing our larger worries, too, and showing the way through.." —Margaret Renkl
"Most of my childhood memories are happy. My dad hunted. Birds mostly, so whenever we go out and quail or dove is on the menu, I immediately order it because it tastes like my childhood. That makes me feel warm and content" —Joshilyn Jackson
Her ladyship, the editor, spent the Thanksgiving holidays visiting with her parents and perhaps inadvertently launched both her mother and father on a long, bewildering, and unintended journey by helping to start a family tree on one of those online genealogy websites. Everyone concerned was immediately plunged into a wonderland-world of swirling birth records, county marriage licenses, federal census data, and reprinted obituaries from which her ladyship has only just managed to disentangle herself with great difficulty.
There is a rather delightfully addictive quality to family trees. Not that one expects to find anybody famous (highly unlikely) or "royal" (certainly not, her ladyship's antecedents were Mennonite farmers). But there is something rather fantastic in discovering that one's great-great grand uncle was a grocer in Pennsylvania, or that a great-great grandfather spent a year or so in Brooklyn as a librarian.
It is the "story" of family that is interesting. The "how did we get here for there?" that makes up the bones of every plot in every novel: why did a great aunt get on a ship in La Havre bound for New York with her six children but no husband? Why did a great great uncle enlist to fight in the Civil War if the family was pacifist? Why did a grandmother shorten her name when she started working?
Two things that made it into her ladyship's "commonplace book" last week echoed this longing for family story: Jon Mayes interviewed Joshilyn Jackson (Never Have I Ever), who spoke about growing up in a military family that moved frequently. Lacking any real memories of a specific home place from when she was a child, Jackson says she made up her own: "My memories are tied to either taste and smell or to my own obsessions. I can tell you that around seven I had created a whole cat planet with a system of government and a religion and a huge rotating cast of characters."
Margaret Renkl (Late Migrations), on the other hand, has long memories, and carries the memories of her mothers and grandmothers as well, which she writes about in a beautiful essay, "Why I Wear Five Wedding Rings." Faced with a seemingly endless book tour and a crippling burden of stage fright, she remembers, "one day it finally dawned on me that their wedding rings would make the perfect talismans against fear....it worked."
Both Never Have I Ever and Late Migrations are both finalists for the Southern Book Prize. You can vote here at www.southernbookprize.com
- Published: 01 December 2019 01 December 2019
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.
- Published: 16 November 2019 16 November 2019
When 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.
- Published: 06 November 2019 06 November 2019
One 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.
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.
- Published: 22 October 2019 22 October 2019
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.”
- Published: 06 October 2019 06 October 2019