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
Reviewed by Joe O'Connell, Fri., Dec. 30, 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).