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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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.

What to read next: The forthcoming books that Southern booksellers can't wait for

After the Flood Layla's Happiness Dominicana Hungry Jim She's the WorstAmerican Royals 

After the Flood (September, 2019)
"The issues of trust, family and loss were powerfully drawn and made for riveting read!" -- Stephanie Crowe, Page & Palette, Fairhope, AL

Layla's Happiness (September, 2019)
"This story of family, community, love & happiness reads beautifully and leads to wonderful, important conversations"-- Cristina Russell, Books and Books, Coral Gables, FL

Dominicana (September, 2019)
"Dominicana offers a wonderful glimpse into the universal story of risks and love and the powerful pull of family and traditions." --Laura Taylor, Oxford Exchange, Tampa, FL

Hungry Jim (September, 2019)
"A little bit WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, a little bit MR. TIGER GOES WILD, but wholly it's own" -- Hannah DeCamp, Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA

She's the Worst (September, 2019)
"a sweet, fun book about sisterhood" -- Jennifer Jones, Bookmiser, Roswell, GA

American Royals (September, 2019)
"American Royals has the juiciness of Gossip Girl with the excitement of Princess Diaries." -- Deanna Bailey, Story on the Square, McDonough, GA

 

"We have it in our power to begin the world over again." -- Thomas Paine


Bookstores Against Borders

Independent bookstores across the country have come together under the banner of "Bookstores Against Borders" and pledged to donate a percentage of their sales from July 5- 7 to RAICES, the Texas nonprofit organization which provides low-to-no cost legal services to refugees and immigrants currently being held at the US border. 

The initiative was launched by the Madison, Wisconsin store A Room of One's Own, whose staff wanted to do something constructive for immigrant children detained in border camps with few, if any, basic necessities. After researching their options the store selected RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services as the recipient for their fundraising efforts, calling it "one of the most effective organizations" providing aid immigrants detained at the border.

A Room of One's Own launched the fundraiser with a pledge to donate at least 10% of their sales from July 5-7 and a call to their fellow bookstores to join the effort with their own fundraising campaigns. As of July 5, over 65 bookstores and publishers have joined the official fundraiser, with countless others supporting the effort in others ways.

In the South, the following stores have active fundraising efforts:

Check with your local bookshop, as many are holding independent fundraisers:

#bookstoresagainstborders | RAICES

1987 was a banner year for the residents of Brunswick Country, Virginia. After 160 years of dispute, Brunswick, Georgia at last conceded that the Virginia county was the mostly likely place of origin of that humble yet ubiquitous Southern dish known as "Brunswick Stew."

A tad ungracious in victory, the Virginia General Assembly promptly issued a proclamation and hosted a cook off at the state capital. Virginia residents claimed that the stew had been invented by an African-American camp cook named Jimmy Matthews in 1825, and the primary ingredient was squirrel. But Brunswick stew soon became a standard fare at hunting camps, church picnics, community celebrations and firehouse barbecues. "Stewmaster" became a hallowed honorific, a title that took years to earn and was rather more rigorous than training to be a sommelier. The stewmaster that served up the best Brunswick Stew on that day was volunteer fireman John Clary with his "Proclamation Stew Crew." (It did not include squirrel). They still travel serving Brunswick Stew at community gatherings all around Virginia.

One Big TableThe Proclamation Crew's Brunswick Stew -- and the attendant history of the dish --is one of the recipes included in Molly O'Neill's cookbook One Big Table, one of her ladyship, the editor's most-loved and most-used cookbooks in her kitchen. So loved and used, in fact, that the pages containing her favorite recipes have long since come loose and are now held in place by paper clips, the book itself held together with twine when not in use. Several years ago, her ladyship purchased a back up copy, just in case the originals fell to pieces beyond repair.

Molly O'Neill passed away this week, a loss her ladyship feels acutely. A food journalist and chronicler of New York City's neighborhoods and burroughs, she can hardly be called a Southern cook. But she had this in common with a Southerner's approach to food and table: it may be the food on the plate we eat, but it is the hands that serve it that are really important. Cooking is about people.

That was the inspiration behind her..."quest" does not seem too small a word...to document the great home cooks of America in an era when fast-food and franchise restaurants suggested that Americans no longer bothered to cook.

One Big TableOne Big Table was O'Neill's ringing, definitive answer to that spurious assessment. And while it is indeed a book that travels all over the country, the South is well-represented in both historic and modern ways. Kahn Pearson's Indonesian Tuna Salad from Key West, Elizabeth Wilson's "Three-Generation Olive Salad" from New Orleans, Bubbba Frey's Famous Rooster Stew, from Frey Louisiana, Thomas Jefferson's Vanilla Ice Cream, Jill Sauceman's Appe Stack Cake from Johnsonville, Tennessee. Every recipe has its story -- some traditional, like the history of Brunswick Stew, and some personal, like Louise Etoch of Fayetteville, Arkansas, learning to cook Lebanese food for her new husband under the watchful eye of her mother in law.

Molly O'Neil was not "a cookbook writer" -- she was a chronicler of America's, well, soul.