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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"Even aimless journeys have a purpose." --Tony Horwitz

 

Confederates in the AtticLike anyone else who admired his work, her ladyship, the editor was profoundly shocked to hear of the sudden and unexpected death this week of Tony Horwitz -- one of this era's most beloved historians and journalists. It is perhaps no good testament to the times we live in that when she first saw the notice her ladyship immediately checked the hoax websites, so incomprehensible and unbelievable was the news. Alas, it was no hoax.

Although Mr. Horwitz already enjoyed a laudable reputation for his journalism -- he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his Wall Street Journal series on working conditions for low wage workers -- he first came to her ladyship's attention, along with everybody else's, with the release of his runaway bestseller, Confederates in the Attic, over twenty years ago. It has the distinction of being one of the first books her ladyship sent to her mother unsolicited, just because she wanted her to read it, and thus started a tradition wherein they traded book recommendations back and forth that has continued to this day.

It is also, her ladyship admits with some shame, the book that began their habit of calling each other weekly to talk about books when her ladyship interrupted her mother's impressions to ask "did you get to the part where they pee on their buttons?"

Despite this somewhat inauspicious demonstration of her ladyship's critical thinking skills, the conversation continued on for the better part of an hour, as both she and her mother declaimed over Mr. Horwitz's eye for detail, empathy for his subjects, and general even-handed manner in situations that would have tried less hardy souls. Or, has her ladyship put it less coherently to her mother on the day of that first phone call -- "Boy, he will talk to ANYONE."

Spying on the SouthMore to the point, he wanted to talk to everyone. In a recent piece he wrote for the New York Times on the occasion of the publication of his latest book, Spying on the South, he wrote about the travels he made through the rural South, following the footsteps of Frederick Law Olmsted from dive bar to local watering hole:

"I’ve been met affably, by drinkers open about their views and curious to know mine, as a visiting writer from 'Taxachusetts.' Often I hear opinions I don’t expect, like self-described right-wingers dissenting from Trumpian orthodoxy on health care or a border wall."

He writes of his concern over the divisive rhetoric that passes for political discourse in our current culture, unable to see people as "red" or "blue": "I conjure instead the three-dimensional individuals I drank and debated with in factory towns, Gulf Coast oil fields and distressed rural crossroads," he notes, "And I hope they occasionally remember me. Not as a Fox-induced boogeyman on the bar TV, one of those “coastal elites” dripping with contempt and condescension toward Middle America. But rather, as that guy from “up north” who appeared on the next bar stool one Friday after work, asked about their job and life and hopes for the future, and thought what they said was important enough to write down." 

Read independently, and shop local.

The Book Woman of Troublesome CreekThe Santos women never go to the sea.

Once upon a lifetime ago a pregnant woman escaped Cuba with her husband by climbing into a boat he had built in secret with nothing but scrap and desperate hope. They left an entire life in the dead of night. They were still too late. The storm was sudden and violent, and the baby could not wait. As he fought a raging sea, she screamed into the angry winds and pulled her wailing daughter from her body.

When Milagro Santos reached the other side, it was only with her newborn baby.

My mom grew up in a new land and despite warnings, dared to love a boy who loved the sea. But the day before her eighteenth birthday, a spring storm formed out in open waters and shattered another dream. My father’s boat was found but never his body. Mom waited at the dock, her screams etched into the town’s memories as she clutched her middle, me growing inside.

That was the sea for us.

Don't Date Rosa Santos, (Disney-Hyperion, 2019) 9781368039703

"One benefit of summer was that each day we had more light to read by." --Jeannette Walls

It is officially summer at her ladyship's house on the North Carolina coast. She knows this not because her sugar snap peas have died back, not because her sunflowers have started to bloom. Not even because Memorial Day weekend looms and the evenings are filled with the crashes and bangs of over-eager neighbors too impatient to wait to set off the truckload of fireworks they purchased for the occasion.

No it is summer because of one indisputable sign: her ladyship, the editor, was at last driven to turn on the air conditioning in the house.

It is a step she defers as long as possible, preferring instead to have open windows and ocean breezes. But when the temperatures climb towards the 90s she caves to the resigned drooping looks of her dogs and cats and her own insufficiency of fans, and thus she closes the screens and the windows, shuts the back door propped open to let the four-footed residents of the house come and go, and flips the thermostat from "Off" to "Cool." "Cool" being something in the mid-70s.

Book PileThe flipping of the thermostat switch has an unlooked-for and curious effect upon her ladyship's reading. Her "reading spots" have changed. No longer able to endure the heat of the sunny back deck (even under the deck umbrella), she has been forced indoors. But her usual reading chairs -- situated by windows to take advantage of cross breezes, are no longer as inviting. The closed windows offer no breezes and the windows themselves, her ladyship freely admits, could do with a wash and are not at the moment very nice to gaze through dreamily in between chapters.

Instead her ladyship finds herself settling to read in parts of the house she tends to avoid because they lack sunlight and windows. Her large library table is once again stacked with books she has been meaning to get to. The living room couch, normally of use only for watching television and providing the dogs a soft place to sleep, is now a place to stretch out and read in the evenings, as it happens to be the room with the thermostat, and thus the coolest room in the house. The dogs are not unduly put out by this new habit, as they are as perfectly willing to sleep on her ladyship's legs as the couch itself.

All this shuffling around of reading spots has also resulted in several new stacks of "books to read" in new locations -- interestingly enough more nonfiction on the library table, whereas the coffee table by the couch has piles of novels. Books piled by former reading chairs have remained where they are, waiting for the day her ladyship can turn off the air and open the windows again. Sometime in October, most likely.

 

Usually, when authors go on tour they visit bookshops, libraries, and schools, not to mention the occasional bar, coffee shop, and restaurant along the way. Last year Mr. Robert Macomber augmented his own book tour with something extra, and extra fun: he made a point of visiting Little Free Libraries in all the towns he passed through on his tour.

As might be imagined, the Little Free Library tour was wildly successful on social media. What is it about little houses filled with books that is so appealing? Because let's be honest, it's not just that the books are free. A plastic crate of free books wouldn't evoke the same enthusiasm, even if the books were all pristine editions of the week's bestsellers. No there is just something about the little houses, with their little windows and doors, and their shelves filled with a random and unpredictable selection of books that calls to readers. Little Free Libraries aren't just boxes of books, they are a little reading adventure on a post.

Macomber conceived of his tour because believes that having a literate electorate is a cornerstone of democracy. To that end, he wanted to support the Little Free Libraries organization so for one year, in every town he passed through on a book or lecture engagement, he donated one of his Honor Series books to a Little Free Library, then posted a photo on Facebook and on his website to promote awareness of the library and the movement. The tour kicked off on July 4th, Independence Day in 2017 and ended one year later. Within each donated book, he wrote an inscription to that particular LFL so whoever used the books or wherever the books traveled, people would know that each was dedicated to a Little Free Library, emphasizing how literacy matters.

Some of the tour highlights*


Bokeelia, Florida
“I kicked off my one year quest at a LFL on the north end of the island where I live, celebrating Independence Day and the principles of democracy and literacy for all.”

Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, Florida
Within two hours of leaving the LFL at the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Bushnell, a couple, who are readers of my work, emailed me that they missed me at that LFL by an hour! They were traveling to historic sites around FL and were using LFLs to find reading material, then leaving finished books behind.

Optimist Park in Tallahassee, Florida
I found a great LFL at Optimist Park near a serene nature trail. Perfect place to read a book!”

Murphy, North Carolina
“In Murphy, NC to witness the Total Solar Eclipse and do some writing, I discovered this popular LFL tucked away on a winding road in a mountainous region."

Nashville, Tennessee
After speaking at the Southern Festival of Books, I spotted a LFL while leaving the city and just had to stop.


Robert N. Macomber is an award-winning and internationally recognized Florida author, lecturer, and TV commentator. He is best known for the "Honor Series" of naval thrillers centered around the life and career of "Peter Wake" an American naval officer in 1863. The most recent book in the series is Honoring the Enemy, published in March, 2019.

*Photo credit Nancy Glickman

"I didn't know there were people of such heart, and of such power." --Rick Bragg on Pat Conroy

 

Her ladyship, the editor, admits that she is not overly fond of YouTube -- a bewildering galaxy of America's Got Talent auditions, tutorials for changing the tires on one's car, and clips of animals doing strange and yet odd cute things. All very endearing, but her ladyship rarely has the time and her own cats provide enough private "youtube moments" to keep her satisfied.

There are exceptions, however. Such as Ms. Virginia Mae Schmitt reciting the first verse of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," which her ladyship bookmarked and revisits whenever she feels depressed.

and recently the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance posted a short video of Rick Bragg talking about his memories of Pat Conroy. Last September, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance selected Rick Bragg as the recipient of the 2019 Conroy Legacy Award. Created in honor of the example set by the beloved Southern author Pat Conroy, the Conroy Legacy Award was established in 2017 to recognize writers who have achieved a lasting impact on their literary community, demonstrating support for independent bookstores, both in their own communities and in general, writing that focuses significantly on their home place, and support of other writers, especially new and emerging authors.

Surely, if there was ever a writer who "achieved a last impact on their literary community," it would be Rick Bragg. His books are simply "great writing," they are great writing that somehow invites the reader in -- a welcome part of the writer's world. Everything Bragg writes is infused with a sense of connection and community -- a quality embodied in Pat Conroy, as anyone who has ever met him has attested.

Including Mr. Rick Bragg:

 

"We were all kind of under his protection when he was alive. And now, he really does, as much as any human I've known, live on in memory." -- Rick Bragg on Pat Conroy