Joe O'Connell's Top Reads of 2016

Top Books to Make Our Lone Star Shine

Five works of fiction and nonfiction reveal new depths of humanitity in their Texas characters

Joe O'Connell's Top Reads of 2016

A.G. Mojtabai may be the best Texas author you've never heard of, and her Shine on Me (Northwestern University Press) tops my 2016 reading list. The short novel is a new take on fertile American Dream ground covered first in S.R. Bindler's 1997 documentary film Hands on a Hard Body about an endurance contest that awards a shiny new pickup to the last person to remove his/her hand from it. The story also sparked a Broadway musical (and buzz of a Robert Altman film just prior to the director's death). Mojtabai goes dark in brief chapters shuffling viewpoints between often-desperate contestants and a grizzled newspaper man who seeks to find the "truth" in the event after spending years writing about prison executions in Huntsville. It isn't the truck; it's the "intensity of wanting" that attracts the reporter to the story.

Karl Jacoby's The Strange Career of William Ellis (Norton) changed the way I think about race and was my top nonfiction read. Jacoby researched a flashy entrepreneur who dreamed of bringing freed U.S. slaves to Mexico as sharecroppers. The dreamer was himself born a slave in Victoria but later moved to San Antonio, where he transformed into Mexican businessman Guillermo Eliseo to escape post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and compete as a truly "free" man. The book reveals race as often more about perception than reality.

Other faves: Stephen Harrigan's A Friend of Mr. Lincoln (Knopf) humanizes the future president by focusing on his early gawky years of unbridled ambition. Carol Fox's Ask Me Nothing (Circleville Fox) delves into the mind of a seemingly ordinary rural Central Texas woman to reveal the true nature of a sociopath. Houston's Kayt Sukel offers a scientific yet fascinatingly human take on fear junkies in The Art of Risk (National Geographic).

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Top 10s
Steve Davis’ Top 10 Films of 2017
Steve Davis’ Top 10 Films of 2017

Steve Davis, Dec. 29, 2017

Kimberley Jones’ Top 10 Films of 2017
Kimberley Jones’ Top 10 Films of 2017

Kimberley Jones, Dec. 29, 2017

More Fiction
Bookmarked
Joe O’Connell’s Top Reads of 2017
These three novels and one memoir are all memorable for the ways they plumb the depths and mysteries of memory

Joe O'Connell, Dec. 29, 2017

Bookmarked
Rosalind Faires’ Top Reads of 2017
Uncovering literary gems in areas such as historical fantasy, suburbia melancholia, female-centric speculative fiction, and more

Rosalind Faires, Dec. 29, 2017

More Arts Reviews
Capital T Theatre's <i>The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?</i>
Capital T Theatre's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
This production of Edward Albee's playshows that hubris and catastrophe are as much a part of America now as in ancient Greece

Robert Faires, Sept. 14, 2018

<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

More by Joe O'Connell
UT Professor on the Making of Texas Film Epic <i>Giant</i>
UT Professor on the Making of Texas Film Epic Giant
Don Graham's Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film

April 13, 2018

SXSW Film Review: <i>If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd</I>
Review: If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd
The highs and lows of one of the most iconic Southern rock bands

March 14, 2018

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Top 10s, Fiction, Nonfiction, A.G. Mojtabai, Shine on Me, S.R. Bindler, Hands on a Hard Body, Karl Jacoby, The Strange Career of William Ellis, Stephen Harrigan, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, Carol Fox, Ask Me Nothing, Kayt Sukel, The Art of Risk

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle