Best Books of 2011

It’s that time of year again…the time for best-of lists! Luckily, I kept this one short: one book per medium. Enjoy.

Short Story Collection: Burning Bright by Ron Rash
Rash might be the best Appalachian writer alive, and certainly my favorite. His latest collection of short stories, one of which was immortalized in last year’s Best American Short Stories, deftly cuts through stereotypes of what it means to be a “man of the mountains.” Rash’s precise awareness of the natural world colors each melancholy tale with hues of earth and sky and water. These stories are a major progression from the more impressionistic fables in his earlier work, where his lush descriptive spandrels sometimes hid shaky narrative foundations. Burning Bright is a more mature exploration of his (and my) native hills and coves of Western North Carolina, with characters ranging from nineteenth-century soldiers to modern-day fugitives.

Novel: The Passage by Justin Cronin
Part literary, part genre. Part present-day mystery, part post-apocalyptic quest. It’s been compared to The Stand, but I found it infinitely more engaging and well-drawn than any of King’s epics. Essentially, we follow an immortal child across centuries and across the continent, after the phenomenon that transforms her also destroys modern civilization. Cronin’s vision of a future where human survivors battle an inhuman force is cooler, fresher, and more emotionally involving than Cormac McCarthy or Richard Matheson’s bleak nightmares. This one’s got heart.

Nonfiction: Bossypants by Tina Fey
As an avid fan of Saturday Night Live (even with its current 20% skit-success rate), 30 Rock (even with its fourth season doldrums), and entertainers from Chicago (even though Fey spent her childhood in Pennsylvania), picking up a Tina Fey memoir was a no-brainer. But here’s the thing: it was good. As in well-written. It’s easy to forget that much of Fey’s success stems from her abilities as a writer when she’s constantly in the spotlight for her performances as Sarah Palin or Liz Lemon. Bossypants, in addition to providing great insights on the minds and lives behind SNL and 30 Rock, is also an incredibly encouraging read for any writer. Fey is human. She is one of us. She worked hard, and she was rewarded. Not because of a lucky break, but because she did what she loved and she didn’t give up.

Poetry: Like Shining from Shook Foil by Cathy Smith Bowers
When I read poetry, I typically want two things from it. To be grounded in a special place through imagery (in this case, my own Blue Ridge Mountains), and to be challenged. Bowers’ poetry does that, but it also does something I don’t typically look for in poetry (though perhaps I should). It engages you on an emotional level; not manipulatively or sentimentally, but organically and genuinely. You simply feel better after reading Cathy Smith Bowers. This collection takes the best of her previous chapbooks and combines them with new material.

Best Book About Chicago and/or Hiking: Best Hikes Near Chicago by Adam Morgan
Duh.

Cover image via Amazon
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