Commonplace Book

Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward

Men We ReapedWhenever my mother drove us from coastal Mississippi to New Orleans to visit my father on the weekend, she would say, “Lock the doors.” After my mother and father split for the last time before they divorced, my father moved to New Orleans, while we remained in DeLisle, Mississippi. My father’s first house in the Crescent City was a modest one-bedroom, painted yellow, with bars on the window. It was in Shrewsbury, a small Black neighborhood that spread under and to the north of the causeway overpass. The house was bounded by a fenced industrial yard to the north and by the rushing, plunking sound of the cars on the elevated interstate to the south. I was the oldest of four, and since I was the oldest, I was the one who bossed my one brother, Joshua, and my two sisters, Neissa and Charine, and my cousin Aldon, who lived with us for years, to arrange my father’s extra sheets and sofa cushion into pallets on the living room floor so we all had enough room to sleep. My parents, who were attempting to reconcile and would fail, slept in the only bedroom. Joshua insisted that there was a ghost in the house, and at night we’d lie on our backs in the TV-less living room, watch the barred shadows slink across the walls, and wait for something to change, for something that wasn’t supposed to be there, to move.

--Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped: A Memoir (Bloomsbury, 2013) 9781608195213

Doris Betts, “All that Glisters Isn’t Gold” The Astronomer and Other Stories

Lady Banks' Commonplace Book


Noteworthy poetry and prose from her ladyship's bedside reading stack.

The Astronomer and Other StoriesThe lost pond, found.

The pond had been lost until the first time I came to visit miss Carrie. It had entirely vanished under a matting of vines and weeds and old lilies. I would never have guessed a pool was there had she not shown me the place. “Don’t fall in there,” she called in her cracked voice. I poked through the leafy net and my fingers fell into the shock of cold water.

“Used to fish,” said Miss Carrie. “Kept my minnows there.”

I knew it was impossible she had ever been young enough to fish! But, after the first discovery, the deserted pond was mine. Between visits it would often grow shut again, and I would have to feel among ivy and honeysuckle for the stones and the sharp edge of the burred barrel. The hottest summer sun failed to reach this place. Privet hedge on one side had grown thick and tall as the eaves of the house. There were trees and shrubs-which-had-turned-to-trees crowded on the other side.

On nearly every visit I had to twist off vines or bite them free with my teeth until I could locate the top of the pond, then pull up those lilies turning brown or which I thought had lived long enough. Very rarely one of them would bloom and float on the dark water like a boat which had been carved out of a white star. This one and surviving lilies for which I still had blooming hopes would be held back while with the edge of one hand I skimmed off the green scum and wiped it on the grass. I can close my eyes now and be there again--leaves making a dapple of black shade and gray shade across my wrists. My fingers remember how the stem of the lily gives and pops off underwater; it comes up slow and brown and slimy. I can still feel the ridge that top stave of the sunken barrel left on one palm and the patch of slicky scum on the other. All that…and yet I cannot remember hearing the song of a single bird.

--Doris Betts, “All that Glisters Isn’t Gold” The Astronomer and Other Stories (LSU Press, 1995) 9780807120101

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The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen by Ted and Matt Lee

Lady Banks' Commonplace Book


Noteworthy poetry and prose from her ladyship's bedside reading stack.

Lee Bros. Charleston KitchenHenry’s Cheese Spread

Makes 1 1/2 cups, enough for 6 to 8 people snacking time: 10 minutes

When Henry’s opened in 1932 at 54 N. Market Street, it served only beer and deviled crabs, but by the 1940s, it had evolved into Charleston’s most ambitious restaurant: waiters in white jackets, steaks trucked in from Kansas City, and the house’s own fanciful turns on local fish and shellfish. Of all the elegant touches at Henry’s, which survived until 1985, our favorite was the iced crudité dish with this stellar cheese spread. The son of Henry’s founder, Henry Shaffer, loaned us the recipe, which we adapted for household use.

10 ounces Cheddar cheese, grated (3 cups)
2 ounces (1/4 cup) lager or ale (optional)
Juice of 1 lemon (3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish, drained
2 teaspoons hot sauce, such as Tobasco or Crystal
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 garlic clove, minced

Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the mixture is smooth and spreadable. Transfer to a small bowl to serve.
-Ted and Matt Lee, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen

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Thrall: Poems by Natasha Trethewey

Lady Banks' Commonplace Book


Thrall: PoemsNoteworthy poetry and prose from her ladyship's bedside reading stack.


As long as I can remember you kept the rifle--
your grandfather’s, an antique you called it--

in your study, propped against the tall shelves
that held your many books. Upright,

beside those hard-worn spines, it was another
backbone of your past, a remnant I studied

as if it might unlock--like the skeleton key
its long body resembled--some door I had yet

to find. Peering into the dark muzzle, I imagined a bullet,
as you described: spiraling through the bore

and spinning straight for its target. It did not hit me
then: the rifle I’d inherit showing me

how one life is bound to another, that hardship
endures. For wars I admired its slender profile,

until--late one night, somber with drink--you told me
it still worked, that you kept it loaded just in case,

and I saw the rifle for what it is: a relic
sharp as sorrow, the barrel hollow as regret.

--Natasha Trethewey, thrall: poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) 9780547571607

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American Ghost by Janis Owens

Lady Banks' Commonplace Book


Noteworthy poetry and prose from her ladyship's bedside reading stack.

American GhostHow to sell live crickets and bait minnows
Lena had caused a stir the moment she set foot in town, for reasons of her personality, which was effervescent, and her looks, which were extraordinary. She was northern Italian on her mother’s side and had inherited all the attendant excitability a Milanese DNA might imply, along with copper-blond hair, olive skin, and charming, pointed-chin smile. If made for a potent package, and added to the general astonishment of her beauty was the small matter of her dress. Her father’s last berth had been at Homestead Air Force Base outside Miami, where Lena had adopted a casual, seminaked personal style: bikini string tops and frayed  jean shorts; pink toenails and well-worn flip-flops.

To say that it was a compelling combination would be a great understatement: when she went to work for her father at the counter of the concession stand at fifteen, she’d inadvertently caused a countywide run on live crickets and bait minnows. Jolie’s brother, Carl, was among the stampede of local men wanting to make her acquaintance. Being an unrepentant skirt chaser and a fine sampler of local female flesh, he made it his business to hard-sell Lena on salvation and bring her to his father’s church, El Bethel Assembly. Ostensibly this was to save her soul, though Jolie surmised that he was really looking for a place to keep her in semi-virginal storage while he finished sowing his wild oats.

--Janis Owens, American Ghost (Scribner, 2012) 9781451674637

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Holly Goddard Jones, Girl Trouble: Stories

Lady Banks' Commonplace Book


Noteworthy poetry and prose from her ladyship's bedside reading stack.

Cannonballing into the deep end

Girl TroubleI had a daughter. When she was eleven, my husband and I took her to Spring Acres, the local pool park, for swimming lessons. She wore a purple bathing suit, the bikini I allowed over Art’s grumbled protests, and she bounced on the diving board a little, and leaped, and cannonballed right into the deep end. The splash of blue-tinted water made a fragile shell around her, gorgeous, and then she went under. She was fearless. There was that moment a mother feels when the heart pauses and the throat goes dry, that fear of--or desire for, maybe--the moment of crisis, when everything changes and you have to change too, to make sense of it all. That’s a strange word: desire. But it’s there. When your wheels catch water on a rainy day and your brakes are suddenly useless, the pedal under your foot mush; when you’re a few swats away from spanking your child too hard, and the coldness in your heart both terrifies and delights you. It’s unexplainable, that desire, and perhaps it should also go unacknowledged, but I’ve decided that the desire is useful, not shameful. Because it keeps you sane when the worst happens. And the worst does happen.

Holly Goddard Jones, Girl Trouble: Stories (Harper Perennial, 2009) 9780061776304

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The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Lady Banks' {Book} Trailer Park: The Warmth of Other Suns


The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns“I looked at it as the biggest under-reported story of the twentieth century.”

From 1915 to 1970, this exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves.

With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who in 1937 left sharecropping and prejudice in Mississippi for Chicago, where she achieved quiet blue-collar success and, in old age, voted for Barack Obama when he ran for an Illinois Senate seat; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling, who in 1945 fled Florida for Harlem, where he endangered his job fighting for civil rights, saw his family fall, and finally found peace in God; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career, the personal physician to Ray Charles as part of a glitteringly successful medical career, which allowed him to purchase a grand home where he often threw exuberant parties.

Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an "unrecognized immigration" within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic.

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