December 2008

Celia GarthI’ve been singing Gwen Bristow’s praises a lot lately; she’s a wonderful historical fiction writer who seems to have slipped from popular recognition. Keep an eye out for her books, published from 1926 to 1980, at garage sales, thrift stores, and used book stores.


Gwen Bristow, a child of the south, got her start as a journalist. Born in Marion, South Carolina, in 1903, she studied journalism at Columbia University in New York and took a job in New Orleans at the Times-Picayune after graduation. Bristow is best known for her historical fiction, and her first work in the genre was the Plantation TrilogyDeep Summer, Handsome Road, and This Side of Glory. The trilogy traces two Louisiana families from pre-Revolutionary War to World War I. Bristow has been profiled in Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Book Review, and Times Literary Supplement. Only two of Bristow’s books are currently in print — Jubilee Trail and Celia Garth.

More, including pricing and a bibliography.


A Cultural History of RussiaMcLaughlin’s Used Books
512 Terry Pkwy.
Terrytown, LA 70056
(504) 367-3754

Okay, so I lied a little bit in the title of this post. McLaughlin’s isn’t actually in New Orleans, it’s on the westbank in Terrytown. But if you’re located in the New Orleans metro area, I highly recommend it.

My mom’s been coming here for a long time to trade her used books for “new” reads. I’ve gone along a few times. This time, I went with an eye to checking out the first edition selection. This is not the place to look for first editions of titles from the 1990s or earlier. The books at McLaughlin’s are largely recent titles. That said, the selection of literature is fantastic, and the books are in consistently excellent condition — the best I’ve seen overall at a bookstore.

So if you buy or trade for books here, you’re probably not going to discover a diamond in the rough anywhere — the books you buy will be worth what you pay for them. But it’s a great place to find interesting reads that look like new, and who knows? — maybe years down the road you’ll see a nice return on your investment.

So having traded in some nice but used paperbacks and making a cash outlay, here’s what I got (you can tell I was in a historical nonfiction kind of mood):

I’m sure you’re wondering, as am I, how I will ever get to all these books I’ve accumulated. The jury’s still out on that one.

Oprah's library in california

Having been formerly in the employ of Oprah (not that she ever knew my name), I was especially excited to see an issue of O, at Home dedicated to books and libraries — and promising an inside look at Oprah’s personal library.

I’m building my own little fledgling “library” of first editions, gathering favorite books that I will always have at my fingertips and can share with loved ones. But my library consists of three shelves, hardly a room filled with 1500 volumes.

oprahslibraryOprah has some help, of course — she’s hired a consultant, a rare-books dealer who builds private libraries for wealthy clients. That might be nice, but what about the thrill of the hunt? And if you’re too busy to gather your own books over time, I wonder if the books in Oprah’s library will ever actually come down off the shelves?

Maybe not all of them, but I’m sure the autographed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and the first edition of John Steinbeck‘s first novel Cup of Gold have made it down a few times. Quite the rare pieces!

Read the article about Oprah’s library at

Historical fiction is my favorite genre of literature. There’s nothing better than reading a great story while soaking in some of the culture and events of a place removed both in time and space. I’ve read a lot of the stuff, and these ten titles round out my favorites. I’m always looking for new suggestions; if there’s something you think I should read, leave a comment!

It’d also be nice to get first editions of these novels, but for some of them — like Gone With the Wind — that just ain’t happening.

  1. Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
  2. The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
  3. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
  4. Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
  5. The Eight, by Katherine Neville
  6. Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden
  7. Jubilee Trail, by Gwen Bristow
  8. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  9. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  10. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Here’s my latest round-up of interesting news in the book world:

    Chuck Robert's 54,000-square foot book warehouse

    Chuck Robert's 54,000-square foot book warehouse

  • Should bargain hunters be blamed for the doomed book business? One bookstore owner claims that buying used books deprives the authors of their deserved income. [The New York Times]
  • More bad luck for Oprah. Yet another memoir she selected has turned out to be fabricated. This time, the author lied about meeting his wife at a concentration camp — he claimed she threw food to him over a barbed wire fence. In fact, they met in New York years after the war. James Frey breaths a big sigh of relief. [ABC News]
  • “[T]he web book business is literally the Wild West.” An independent bookseller with an online bookstore and a stock numbering in the tens of thousands talks about his booming business, in stark contrast to the troubles facing brick-and-mortar bookstores. [The Washington Post]
  • Get nine free e-books. Free books you say?! Yep. Absolutely free. And some nice picks too, all with at least 4.5 stars on Amazon. I haven’t read The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss yet, but I’ve heard it’s good, and I just may download it. []
  • London’s The Guardian has come out with a list of not-to-miss books in 2009. One title, 2666 by Robert Bolano, came out in the US in 2008. The rest of the list is largely comprised of British writers, and it offers an interesting perspective for those of us on the other side of the pond. [The Guardian]

Beckham's Book ShopBeckham’s Book Shop
228 Decatur St.
New Orleans, LA 70130

Walking into Beckham’s is like walking into a huge attic full of books. Slightly dusty and dark, as any good used bookstore should be. Beckham’s is a lot bigger than McKeown’s, though the literature section may be commensurate or smaller. The difference is in the much more extensive selection of nonfiction — an area I’m admittedly less than expert in, since I generally read literature. There are two floors in the bookstore, and climbing the creaky staircase to yet another large room of books is a delight.

The prices at Beckham’s can’t be beat. The shopkeeper told us they have the lowest prices in town, and it looks like that’s the case. I bought first editions of The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon for $6 and Scarlett, by Alexandra Ripley for $5 (the latter is a sequel to Gone With the Wind, of course written by a different author).

I’d read Scarlett before (like when I was 12) and thought it’d be a fun book to have, given that Gone With the Wind is one of my all-time favorites. Sure, The New York Times may have called Scarlett “cultural cannibalism,” but I think that’s unfair. Any reader of Scarlett likely is a huge fan of Gone With the Wind, and knows what he or she is getting into — a sequel that’s not written by the original author, could never come close to being as good as the original, but offers an interesting interpretation of what might happen to the characters later on.

The Shadow of the Wind is a book I’ve been trying to hunt down for awhile. I love historical fiction; it’s my favorite genre — especially novels set in Europe. I devoured the book. It’s set in Barcelona from the 1930s to 1950s, and it’s got everything I want — horror, intrigue, political history, love stories. Carlos Ruiz Zafon is an excellent writer; the novel’s Fermin Romero de Torres is one of the most humorous and amusing characters I’ve encountered in awhile.

McKeown's Books and Difficult MusicMcKeown’s Books and Difficult Music
4737 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA
Open 12pm-8pm daily

Even though this is the third used bookstore I’ve visited in New Orleans, I just got back from a trip there today so thought I’d write about my experience while it’s fresh in my mind.

From the get-go, I appreciated the accessibility of this bookstore. Free street parking, no French Quarter craziness to worry about (though the French Quarter does have its perks). The shop’s located on Tchoupitoulas, and it comprises two large rooms packed with books.

The shop is well-organized and roomy. There are chairs and small tables scattered about the place; it sort of feels like you’re in someone’s large, quirky personal library. A very large collection of literature; I found a quantity and variety of older books sitting in the regular fiction section that I hadn’t seen elsewhere (early le Carre, Doris Lessing, and Dos Passos). Lots of hardcover fiction, and most were priced from $7 to $9.

The shop also has substantial sections devoted to the usual suspects — science, mathematics, philosophy, history, etc. Usually I skip right on past some of these areas (read: mathematics), but whether it was the layout of the store or the selection, I found myself browing every single shelf. Lots of books caught my eye. It seems like McKeown’s has a better-edited selection of books than some other shops.

All in all, McKeown’s was fun. I appreciated the roominess, and I wasn’t tripping over other customers, either — only one other person was browsing the shelves while I was there.

I’m not thrilled about the books I got, but I had a tough time deciding. I ended up purchasing first editions of Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand; Paris in the Terror, by Stanley Loomis; and The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold.

I also bought what I thought was a first edition of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, but alas, I fooled myself. Even though there was a “1” in the number line, the true first edition has a number line that begins with a “2” and states “First Edition,” which mine did not. Shame, because first editions of that book are quite a find, apparently. Oh well!

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