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).

READ MORE
More Top 10s
Top 10 Movies of 2016
Top 10 Movies of 2016
The Chronicle film staff's overall winners of the year

Josh Kupecki, Dec. 30, 2016

Josh Kupecki's Top 10 Films of 2015
Josh Kupecki's Top 10 Films of 2015

Josh Kupecki, Jan. 1, 2016

More Fiction
<i>I’ll Take You There</i>
I’ll Take You There
Wally Lamb's novel spotlights a spirit of early Hollywood, but its Metabook edition gives her a 21st century showcase

Robert Faires, Dec. 2, 2016

Review: Emma Cline's <i>The Girls</i>
Review: Emma Cline's The Girls
This seismic literary debut tracks a California girl drawn to a dark cult in 1969

Tim Stegall, Aug. 12, 2016

More Arts Reviews
The Hidden Room Theatre's <i>Henry IV</i>
The Hidden Room Theatre's Henry IV
Beth Burns' latest foray into Shakespeare will school you on how to present plays penned by the Bard

T. Lynn Mikeska, Sept. 22, 2017

Paper Chairs’ <i>Catalina de Erauso</i>
Paper Chairs’ Catalina de Erauso
Elizabeth Doss’ latest plays with history in a way that serves its feminist hero, and it’s also a comedy that knows its stuff

Elizabeth Cobbe, Sept. 22, 2017

More by Joe O'Connell
<i>The Son</i> Rises With Philipp Meyer
The Son Rises With Philipp Meyer
Austin author on adapting his award-winning novel for AMC

April 7, 2017

SXSW Film Review: <i>David Lynch – The Art Life</i>
SXSW Film Review: David Lynch – The Art Life
Doc excavates the creative mind of the eccentric artist

March 14, 2017

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
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2017

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)