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Lady Banks Pick of the Week

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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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 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.

The TravelersJust as an historian of medieval France must keep in the front of her mind that in the Middle Ages there was no France, only a smattering of feudal lands that would one day become France, so a student of Reconstruction must be cognizant that the firm racial binary Americans accept to this day is a result of Jim Crow, not a cause of it. The one-drop rule--the concept that any trace of African ancestry at all makes an American "a negro"--was not even conjured until the 1850s and was not widely accepted until the early twentieth century. It is only bcause mixed-race activists were defeated in their valiant effort to stop a regime of race-based rights that contemporary Americans view society through the racial blinders that we do. Today, decades after the dismantling of Jim Crow, Americans still see our society and ourselves in binary terms of "white" and "colored." That our racial system is second nature to us but incomprehensible to the rest of teh world--even to people from other New World societies that once practiced slavery but never instituted Jim Crow--should highlight for us how peculiar it is.

--Daniel Brook, The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction (W. W. Norton& Company, 2019)

Under the Cold Bright Lights Swipe Right for Murder The Passengers American Royals Grace Goes to Washington 

Under the Cold Bright Lights by Gary Disher (July)
"This book is like riding a roller coaster: there's a leisurely build up to the top, but once the heads start rolling it's a wild ride." -- Lizy Coale, Copperfish Books, Punta Gorda, FL

Swipe Right for Murder by Derek Milman (August)
"Quirky, murdery, and fast paced!. . . Chock full of death rays, drone attacks, and Daft Punk looking assassins, Swipe Right for Murder is the definitive dark comedy of the summer!"-- Kate Townsend, Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA

The Passengers by John Marrs (August)
"I would say this is absolutely one of the best books I've read in a long time. I read it so quickly that my husband wanted to read it right after." --Courtney Dziadul, Gottwals Books, Macon, GA

American Royals by Katherine McGee (September)
"A ridiculous, effervescent joyride of a novel. " -- Cristina Russell, Books & Books, Coral Gables, Florida

Grace Goes to Washington by Kelly DiPucchio (September)
"Gorgeous illustrations full of life back up an interesting story about leadership, citizenship and compassion. I'd love to see this in school libraries!!" -- Dwan Dawson-Tape, Sundog Books, Santa Rosa, FL


The Travelers"You drinking that Coca-Cola like you have to be somewhere?"

The year was 1966. Agnes Miller was nineteen, a majorette in her first year at Buckner County College. She wore a powder-blue shirtdress and a bubbly bouffant in the fashion of Diana Ross and the Supremes. To be a majorette, you had to have nice legs, Agnes's legs were so long they could skip across the Nile. Her hemline was modest. She worked part-time in the college library. Whenever anyone asked Agnes what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell him or her automatically that she wanted to be a teacher. It did not matter of Agnes liked the profession. The answer was suitable and pleasing.

"I happen to have a busy schedule." Agnes smiled at the dark brown, well-dressed man sitting on the opposite end of the counter at Kress Five & Dime. Really, she had no place to go but home and nothing to do but homework.


Watching the events and lives of one family intertwined come together so beautifully in one novel is an absolute treat, and Regina Porter does not disappoint. "The Travelers" builds and weaves the story of family, strife, love, and frustration and encapsulates what it means to become and to remain a family. This story is absolutely gorgeous as it moves through time and experience and leaves its reader feeling like a part of the family rather than just an observer. --Delany Holcomb, Bookmarks, Winston-Salem, NC

--Regina Porter, The Travelers, (Hogarth, 2019) 9780525576198

"Passages from books are part of my passages across ocean and land, moving me, tying me into a culture and place, into friendships distant and close." -- Karen Elizabeth Gordon, The Ravenous Muse

Like many avid readers, her ladyship, the editor has a particular attraction to books about books. Indeed, there is an entire section in her library that might be labeled "bibliophilia" -- books about other books, about book people, about the worlds-within-worlds of the book-mad.

And, like many of those book-mad people, her ladyship's own book obsession is not limited to accounts of other people's book-hoarding. Like them, she also finds it impossible to resist stories about books, real or imagined. They don't exist on the bibliophilia shelf, but nevertheless, her ladyship can, at any given moment, put her hands on at least a dozen novels wherein the theme is most definitely books. The Shadow of the Wind, The Name of the Rose, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, The 351 Books of Irma Acuri, The Bookman's Promise, The Eyre Affair, Fahrenheit 451, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, The Thirteenth Tale, Alif the Unseen...the list goes on.

And on, and on. Here are some bookish stories for summer:

The Book Woman of Troublesome CreekThe Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (May, 2019)

"This novel combines history and fabulous storytelling to convey the history of the Kentucky Pack Horse Librarians and the blue people of the same state. Cussy and her family have skin that is tainted blue. They sharply feel the prejudice of the people in their community of Troublesome Creek. Cussy's job is taking books on loan to the people in the isolated mountains. Through reading, these people start to find purpose to their lives, and Cussy starts to learn that even she can be loved." -- Linda Hodges, Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC

"I loved this wonderful story about Cussy Mary, a pack horse librarian in eastern Kentucky in the 1930's and one of the last of the blue-skinned people of that area. As Cussy faces pressure to marry and difficulties maintaining her arduous book route through the twisty and dangerous mountain passes, she earns the respect of the mountain people she serves to faithfully. Beautifully written and heartbreaking at times, this is a story I will never forget." --Mary Patterson, The Little Bookshop, Midlothian, VA

The Bookish Life of Nina HillThe Bookish Life of Nina Hill (July, 2019)

"A sweet and lovely story about books, love, and family. The perfect summer read!" -- Faith Park-Dodge, Page 158 Books, Wake Forest, NC

"Nina Hill is an all-too-organized, overscheduled bookseller who loves routines and doesn't accept change with the greatest of ease. She loves her friends, her job, her planner, and her trivia team, but when she inherits an unknown family at the same time a romantic interest appears in her life (a trivia competitor nonetheless!), life becomes frazzled and messy for Nina. The end result is a super fun read about adapting to change, accepting people for who they are, and learning to love yourself. I want Nina Hill to be my new friend!" -- Beth Seufer Buss, Bookmarks, Winston-Salem, NC

The Book CharmerThe Book Charmer (July, 2019)

"If an inanimate object has to talk, books are a great choice. The story takes place in Dove Pond and centers around Grace, a woman who has to leave a well-paying job in Charlotte to become the caregiver for both her thirteen-year-old niece and her foster mother, Mama G who is suffering from Dementia. Grace brings her small family to Dove Pond because the little town is where Mama G grew up. The story is also about Sarah Dove who is the town librarian and is also the person books talk to. This is a charming & whimsical story and is a great read if you are looking for something on the light side." --Pam Craw, Bookmiser, Rosewell, GA

"I adored this book. It is so charming and the characters are people you wish you met. From the magical Dove family to still recovering foster children the aspects of the story are so vivid you feel you are watching events unfold. Sarah Dove is trying to save her town, she believes that is her destiny. So what if she is a little quirky, who is not? Grace has more sudden responsibility than a driven and controlling loner could imagine. Only adding to the challenge is that the responsibility is for a parentless eight-year-old and her aging foster Mother who has Alzheimer's. How can they possibly unite for the greater good? Read this book, enjoy every minute and hope for a sequel." -- Jackie Willey, Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC