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Beacon Recommends: Highlights from a Year in Reading

Ask a publishing professional what they're currently reading and you'll often get one of those harried, annoyed-yet-apologetic looks that speaks to the great gap between ambition and actuality. The tragedy of publishing is that we're all drawn to the profession from an innate love of reading, yet have precious little time of our own to read as much as we'd like to. Or so the thinking goes.

To test the theory, we recently asked our colleagues for a list of their favorite reads from 2013, a kind of alternative to the definitiveness—and startling sameness—of the “Best of” lists that clutter our newsfeeds at the end of every year. Expecting apologies, we instead got a diverse, vibrant list of books that spans genres and sensibilities, and brings together the kind of richly imagined, evocative elements that remind us why we fell in love with reading to begin with: A professional cyclist kicked out of the sport, a cigar smoking dragon, a Greek chorus of gay men lost to AIDS, a boyhood marred by abuse, a bullying presidency, Albert Einstein, the poetry of quietude, and so much more. Who could argue with a list like that?

We hope you enjoy these highlights from our year in reading as much as we enjoyed reading the books they came from.


Helene Atwan, Director

In addition to the books I mentioned from my Miami trip—and all of the books Beacon published this year!—I read three outstanding story collections this year: Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders; Joan Wickersham's The News from Spain, and Jennifer Haigh's News From Heaven. I might have been one of the last people to read these two monumental works of nonfiction, but I deeply admired Walter Isaacson's Einstein (though he failed to teach me the general theory of relativity…) and Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns. I also adored Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic, which is saying a lot since I have no interest at all in reading biographies of American Presidents—but this book is so much more. And Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars just made me apoplectic (but in a good way). And two novels that I read this year, among many I really, really loved, completely knocked me out: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (and don't even think of watching the movie if you haven't read the book; it's like watching a Romanian film without subtitles) and Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. Just started James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, and it's good so far… Can't wait to see what 2014 brings.

Tom Hallock, Associate Publisher

I’ve been excited about publishing Richard Hoffman since I first read the proposal for what would become Love & Fury, which we’ll publish this spring. When I had the chance to meet Richard at AWP, he graciously gave me a copy of his first book, Half the House, which has been reissued by New Rivers Press. I think it’s one of the best books about men in America that I’ve ever read. It’s a memoir of a boyhood marred by abuse but also a loving, courageous and finely crafted portrait of his family and community. The book culminates in a remarkable conversation with his father in which Richard reveals his long-kept secret. That dialogue and this book have stayed with me all year.

I also several read several good books about publishing and bookselling including Hothouse, The Everything Store, and Daniel Menaker’s My Mistake. I read Menaker’s book after Carla Gray of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Steve Fisher of NEIBA both recommended it to me. It’s wonderful as a memoir of a life in publishing—first at the New Yorker, then at Random House. There’s one particularly hilarious and memorable scene where Ann Godoff teaches Menaker about a trade P&L. More than all this, though, I was charmed by Menaker’s wry acceptance of the life he’s lived.

Beth Collins, Production Coordinator

I spent a good portion of my year cornering people and forcing them to listen to me talk about how EPO effects hemocrit levels. That’s because I read The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton with Daniel Coyne. Hamilton, a former pro cyclist on Lance Armstrong’s team and a Massachusetts native, confesses in riveting and gritty detail about how he used performance enhancing drugs for years…until he tested positive, got kicked out of cycling, and lost his Olympic medals. In the end though, it’s not about cycling—it’s an American story of excess, the drive to succeed at any cost and what happens when you can’t outrace your past.

Will Myers, Assistant Editor

One of the best non-fiction books I read this year was the third volume of Robert Caro’s ongoing LBJ biography, Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. It’s a warts-and-all look at how Johnson charmed, cajoled, threatened, and bullied a recalcitrant Senate into passing historic Civil Rights legislation. For a brief period, LBJ was able to force our most undemocratic institution to function. In these democratically challenged times, it reads like a fantasy novel. My favorite real novel of the year was Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, a techie detective novel that takes place during the waning Wild-West days of the Internet. Pynchon’s unflagging energy, giddy sense of humor, and gift for snappy dialogue sent me back to his more recent work, so over the holidays, I’ll be reading Against the Day and hoping it never ends.

Lyn Phillips, Business Operations Assistant

As a graduate of Mercer University’s Great Books Program, I’m used to reading a lot of heavy literature (my favorite books off all time are the Iliad and The Brothers Karamazov), but I’m also a sucker for a good love story set in a beautiful world of magic and fantasy. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is one of those books I was sad to finish simply because I didn’t want to leave the world Morgenstern created.

I read an essay by Kameron Hurley about the challenges of writing women even though she is a woman, and I could relate. Curious, I sought out her Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy just to see if she’d figured it out. What I found in God's War, the first book of the trilogy, was definitely an author taking risks and playing around with the ideas of several social norms—not just the representation of women. It was cool to see what she came up with.

Nicholas DiSabatino, Publicity Assistant

While categorized as YA, for me, David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing was the most powerful depiction of LGBT life I’ve read this year. The book features four interlocking stories: a young couple trying to set a new Guinness World Record with a 32-hour marathon of kissing, another couple (one of which is transgender) going on a first date, another young couple navigating the stress from their families (one supportive and the other not) and a lonely young closeted gay man perusing online hookup apps in hopes of finding a real connection. Set against these stories is a Greek-style chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS, looking down on the characters and commenting on how society as a whole has changed since they were alive. Levithan’s book is a must-read for young LGBT children and teens, and a call to be grateful for what the previous generation went through and struggled against (AIDS, civil rights, etc.) so that the current generation could grow up in a more accepting, still evolving environment.  

Jenah Blitz-Stoehr, Marketing Associate

For books published in 2013, I’m going to use a technicality to my advantage and say the paperback version of Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. It’s the second installment of her historical fiction trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. As a former grad student who focused on early modern literature, I was extremely excited to discover that Mr. Cromwell was going to be a protagonist rather than villain. He’s always been unfairly treated by popular fiction, which I’ve never understood. Maybe it’s because I’m an American but I just love the idea that the son of a blacksmith in the sixteenth century defied the rigid social structure of the times and managed to rise into the Peerage of England. He became an earl! The mercurial Henry VIII took everything away and had him beheaded in the end, but still! Cromwell’s journey is remarkable all the same.

If I had to pick from all the books I read in 2013, I would absolutely go with Bone by Jeff Smith. It’s been around for about a decade and a half but I only read it for the first time a few months ago, partly because the book is HUGE. I have a nice long train ride to and from work but the idea of lugging around this massive volume was a little intimidating. I needn’t have worried, however, because it took me exactly three train rides and one full weekend of non-stop reading to finish. I couldn’t put it down! It’s set in this fantastical world with things like stupid, stupid Rat Creatures, talking animals, a cigar smoking dragon, and a tough-as-nails cow racing grandma. What more could you want from a book? 

 Rob Arnold, Digital Marketing Associate

Sometimes it feels a little cramped in our newfangled, networked world, with everybody (myself included) competing for some minutiae of attention from the evermore ephemeral ether-awareness. It's like the opposite of meditation. Which is why I turn so often to poetry, not because I think that poetry is our sole salvation from the clickbait dystopia that awaits every time a laptop creaks open, or one's finger glides over the glass. But the right poetry, for me at least, can slow it all down, bring the world's shimmering into focus again, if only for a time. The poet I'm obsessed with right now is Jack Gilbert, who died shortly after his Collected Poems was released toward the end of last year. His are deep, wondrous poems, poems of a world unlaced from anything as petty as a social feed. They are, by a good measure, the most remarkable poems I've read this year. There is nothing tricky or ironically self-aware in them. There is no positioning, or intellectual affect, no attempts at unearned grandiosity. The effect is simple: You read these poems, and your heart quickens. It's not what everybody wants from poetry. But, more and more, it is what I want.