book review: An American Marriage


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Algonquin Books| February 2018| 320 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-134-0

RATING: 4.5/5*

“Ours was a love story, the kind that’s not supposed to happen to black girls anymore.”

As its title suggests, this is a novel about marriage. About an American marriage. about the institution of marriage and how it fits or does not fit individual aspirations and dispositions. Recently married couple Celestial and Roy have promising careers in Atlanta—Celestial as an artist and Roy in business. Celestial earned an advanced art degree in New York. She’s focused and determined to excel in the art world. Both she and Roy graduated from historically black colleges. Growing up with weatlhy parents affords Celestial the ability to pursue her creative endeavors. Marriage often doesn’t align with a creative spirit.

“Celestial was a tricky woman to figure out; she almost didn’t marry me although I never doubted her love. For one thing, I made a couple of procedural errors with my proposal, but more than that, I don’t think she planned on getting married at all. She kept this display she called a “vision board,” basically a corkboard where she tacked up words like prosperity, creativity, passion! There was also magazine picture that showed what she wanted out of life. Her dream was for her artworks to be part of the Smithsonian, but there was also a cottage on Amelia Island and an image of the earth as seen from the moon.”

While visiting Roy’s parents in a small Louisiana town, Roy gets arrested and he’s sent to prison soon after. Celestial turns to Andre, her oldest and closest friend, for emotional support. Andre actually introduced Roy to Celestial during college. Celestial becomes immensely successful creating dolls.

Roy argues his innocence and remains focused on a return to Atlanta. He and Celestial exchange letters at least initially. Being in prison fuels Roy with self-doubt about the tenacity of his marriage. It’s difficult to maintain a relationship through letters and limited visiting time. Roy helps other prisoners write letters/emails to earn a bit of income and respect. The sections which focus on Roy’s prison time prove to be at turns upsetting and frightening. Roy meets his biological father in prison. After several years, Roy’s conviction finally gets overturned and he returns to Atlanta.

“A dozen of us were released that day. For a young cat, no more than twenty, a family waited with metallic balloons shaped like Christmas ornaments; a little boy wearing a red rubber nose squeezed the bulb on a bicycle horn, somehow causing the nose to glow. Another dude didn’t have anybody. He didn’t look left or right but walked straight to the gray van that would carry him to the bus station, as though pulled by a leash. All the rest were picked up by women; some mamas, others wives or girlfriends.”

At its core it’s a novel about the black experience. About what it means to be black in America. According to the NAACP, African Americans comprised 34% of the 6.8 million correctional population in 2014. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 5 times that of white Americans. It’s a reality that black Americans will be more likely to know someone in prison or be personally affected by the criminal justice system. It’s a reality that black men get targeted and get wrongfully accused or generally screwed over by the system.

As the novel progresses, the strong, vibrant writing allows readers to become absorbed in Celestial and Roy’s marriage and relationship as well as their relationship to their friends and family. Through these characters, author Tayari Jones explores family and love by delving into step-parenting, wandering biological fathers, fidelity and abandonment. How does the type of family the characters grew up in affect them as adults.

This is a beautifully written and thoughtful novel that should elicit some fascinating discussions. Oprah recently named An American Marriage her next book club pick. Tayari Jones will be at Harvard Book Store on Monday, February 12 at 7pm.

–review by Amy Steele

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new music and tour dates: Kate Nash

kate nash

Enviably accomplished at 30, Kate Nash is not merely a fantastic musician, she’s also a feminist activist and stars as Rhonda Richardson on Netflix’s GLOW, one of my favorite new shows. It’s brilliant, inspirational and female-centric. Her fourth studio album, Yesterday Was Forever will be released March 30, 2018 and she will be on tour this spring. Her bubblegum pop music with smart and thoughtful lyrics seriously helped me through some brutal times. Empowerment with infectious beats. The first single– “Drink About You” is out now.

About the new single, Kate explains: “’Drink About You’ is about breaking up with someone and becoming obsessed with an idea of who they are, to the point you can’t think of anything else or move on. It’s an unhealthy obsession, you imagine things are better than they are and latch on to whatever you can about the relationship that could be turned to good. And you deal with the pain in an unhealthy way too.”

04/04 – Vancouver, BC – Imperial
04/05 – Seattle, WA – The Showbox
04/07 – Portland, OR – Hawthorne Theatre
04/09 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
04/10 – Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda Theatre
04/12 – Santa Diego, CA – The Observatory – North Park
4/13 – Santa Ana, CA – The Observatory OC
04/14 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom
04/16 – Salt Lake City, UT – The Depot
04/17 – Englewood, CO – Gothic Theatre
04/19 – Minneapolis, MN – Fine Line Music Cafe
04/20 – Chicago, IL – Park West
04/21 – Detroit, MI – Majestic Theatre
04/23 – Toronto, ON – Mod Club
04/24 – Montreal, QC – Theatre Fairmount
04/25 – Boston, MA – Royale
04/26 – Philadelphia, PA – Theatre of Living Arts
04/28 – Atlanta, GA – Buckhead Theatre
04/29 – Charlotte, NC – The Underground
04/30 – Washington, D.C. – 9:30 Club
05/02 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza

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on tour: K. Flay


If you like Lorde, you’ll definitely like K. Flay. If you’re into smart, moody songs with kicky beats and attitude, definitely check out K. Flay.

K.Flay was nominated for two GRAMMY Awards® for Best Rock Song (“Blood In The Cut”) and Best Engineered Album, Non Classical (“Every Where Is Some Where”). In this male-dominated industry, she was the only female artist nominated for Best Rock Song for the 2018 GRAMMY Awards®. Wouldn’t it have been cool if she (as well as Lorde) had performed? Enough of these male-dominated awards shows. Times Up!!!

She recently released a special Deluxe Version of her GRAMMY® nominated album, Every Where Is Some Where, including the ‘Seattle Sessions,’ 5 brand new orchestral versions [string, horn & choir sections] of album tracks, “Blood In The Cut,” “Giver,” “Black Wave,” “High Enough” and “Mean It.” Check out this new live version of “Blood In The Cut.”


Jan 31 – Milwaukee, WI – The Rave*
Feb 2 – Chicago, IL – Concord Music Hall* – SOLD OUT
Feb 3 – Nashville, TN – Cannery Ballroom*
Mar 12 – Washington, DC – 9:30 Club+
Mar 13 – Buffalo, NY – Town Ballroom+
Mar 14 – Detroit, MI – Magic Stick+
Mar 15 – Toronto, ON – Danforth Music Hall+
Mar 16 – Montreal, QC – Corona Theatre+
Mar 18 – Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer+
Mar 19 – New York, NY – Irving Plaza+
Mar 21 – Boston, MA – The Royale+
Mar 23 – Charlotte, NC – The Underground+
Mar 24 – Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse+
Mar 25 – Cincinnati, OH – 20th Century Theater+
Mar 27 – Tulsa, OK – Cains Ballroom+
Mar 28 – Dallas, TX – Granada Theater+
Mar 29 – Austin, TX – The Mohawk+
Mar 30 – Houston, TX – White Oak Music Hall Downstairs+
May 3 – Kansas City, MO – The Truman^
May 5 – Denver, CO – Summit Music Hall^ – SOLD OUT
May 6 – Salt Lake City, UT – The Complex^
May 8 – San Diego, CA – Observatory North Park^
*Sir Sly supporting
+YUNGBLUD supporting
^Rescheduled date



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book review: The Days When Birds Come Back


The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| January 2018| 272 pages | $24.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-81735-7

RATING: 4.5/5*

“Happiness had confused her ever since. It pulled like an adhesion across her chest, had no give, and burned. It made her anxious and fazed, and only afterward, when some distance was afforded her, could she feel pleasure in the form of relief. Joy was no better, coming for her with a deep roiling in the gut. The idea that she was not entitled to anything good had taken hold.”

After her recent divorce and loss of her grandparents, June returns from living abroad to the Oregon coast. Being back in the house in which she grew up elicits memories and regrets. June hires Jameson for restoration work during the summer. They’re connected in unexpected ways (because expected ways wouldn’t make for a compelling read). Jameson lost his twin boys in a random shooting. He and his wife currently foster a child they hope to adopt. June is a writer and an alcoholic and has been unable to write for quite some time. Author Deborah Reed writes about June, “She had lived a fairly solitary life since childhood, and grew up to spend her working life alone, yet a sense of loneliness seemed attached to everything now. She felt small, vulnerable, as if the world had expanded without warning, everything exposed and raw, distorted, like looking through a crooked aperture that was meant to remain closed.” I relate to June and this solitary existence. But as much as we might choose to be alone that doesn’t mean we want to relinquish connections to others.

When June was young, her father killed himself and perhaps that’s why June turned to alcohol? There must be a reason why people became alcoholics and addicts. It’s not simply liking something or liking the taste of something. It’s more about numbing one’s thoughts and feelings or forgetting something. There’s both romanticism and tragedy associated with drinking: “She imagined shelves of liquor down in Wheeler, all those beautiful glass bottles, such lovely works of art, every one filled with a promise, a story, gifts to be opened and shared in celebration of love and life, holidays filled with peace and joy. How pretty they were, how delightfully they kept company with each other in those colorful rows. The darker stories they housed, like genies, had not been let loose, and at first glance were nowhere to be seen. Where were the blackouts and bruises? Where was the infidelity and depression? Show me divorce and broken bones and lost careers, June thought. Show me the troubled children at the bottom of every bottle.” Powerful and astute. The carefree, celebratory times people relate to drinking become easily eclipsed by horrendous tragedy and loss. It’s impossible to move beyond addiction and tragedy without addressing its core. By expressing her vulnerabilities and weaknesses and recognizing her faults and flaws, June becomes an empathetic character. As Jameson knocks down walls he finds things which make June re-examine her relationship with her late father and grandparents. As June remembers, Jameson also delves into something which has burdened him for a long time. They slowly find connection and empathy in each other. This is a gorgeous, quiet and melancholy novel about understanding and belonging.

In addition to presenting these complicated characters and their budding friendship, Reed writes lovely descriptions, such as: “Hydrangea, lavender, and euphorbia encircled the immediate area of the house, and out to the sides of each property spread a thick cluster of trees, acres of conifers casting long shadows from the sun. The familiar, acidic scent of pine reached him in waves, the way it used to every morning when he opened the patio doors and stepped out with a cup of coffee to watch the juncos and towhees vie for the feeder.” What a clear, pretty picture that paragraph conjures. I’ve never been to Oregon yet this novel and the brilliant writing transports me there.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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new music: Robert Earl Thomas


robert earl thomas album

–“What Am I Gonna Do” is a beautiful, wistful song from Widowspeak guitarist Robert Earl Thomas. The song sets a particular mood of options and choices with its dreamy and winding melody and soothing vocals. This song reminds me of “Watching the Wheels” by John Lennon. The vocals also make me think Daniel Ash of Love and Rockets. The new black and white video finds Robert wandering alone around lower Manhattan at night, the vast skyline flush with opportunity behind him.

Robert said: “’What Am I Gonna Do’ is more about an era of my life than any particular relationship, although some really concrete endings had me scrambling during that time. I was sort of lost without any obvious sense of self, either as a lover or as the person I thought I moved to New York to become. The song’s central question still dogs me, but what am I gonna do? I mean everyone has those moments of doubt. For the video, it made sense to shoot in lower Manhattan because a lot of those memories are set against that part of the city; and to do it with Otium who has been a friend since I was that other me.”

His solo debut, Another Age [Captured Tracks] will be released on February 16, 2018.

Another Age

Track listing:

1 – Another Age

2 – I Remember

3 – Cryin’

4 – The Weather

5 – Wednesday Morning

6 – Winona Forever

7 – My Fault

8 – What Am I Gonna Do

9 – Word of Mouth

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STEELE PICKS: Best Albums of 2017

I’m not on as many press lists as I used to be, so I do the best I can as the C-list music critic that I am. here’s my list of the best albums of 2017, in modified alphabetical order.

Adna, Closure


Alvvays, Antisocialites


Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest


Chelsea Wolfe, Hiss Spun

chelsea wolfe

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice


Cults, Offering

Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up

fleet foxes crack up

Gary Numan, Savage (Songs from a Broken World)


Juana Molina, Halo

juana molina_halo
Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life

lana del rey

Laura Marling, Semper Femina

semper femina laura marling

The Mountain Goats, Goths


The National, Sleep Well Beast

sleep well beast album cover

Real Estate, In Mind


Ride, Weather Diaries


Saint Etienne, Home Counties


Slowdive, Slowdive


Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm

Zola Jesus, Okovi

zola jesus

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STEELE PICKS: Best Books of 2017

As always I’ve read lots of wonderful books this year. At this writing I’ve read 88 books: 72 by female authors; 16 by male authors; 19 by people of color/ diverse books. Not a bad year in reading. Now if only I could get a paid gig reviewing books.


All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
–Andrea Bern gave up her dreams to be an artist to take a salaried position in advertising. She lives in an apartment in New York. Her friends are getting married and having children. She rotates through lovers. She does drugs. She feels pain while living somewhat messily and unapologetically. She’s in a safe spot professionally and socially which fits her goals and interests. Her work isn’t challenging but it’s steady and consistent. She isn’t committed to any one man and maintains her independence. She’s coping and she’s living a life that makes sense to her. In the meantime, everyone she knows seems to be changing their lives or moving around and doing new things while she remains in the same place doing what she’s pretty much always done. Her brother and sister-in-law move to rural New Hampshire to care for their terminally ill child. Andrea’s mother moves up there to help them leaving Andrea feeling abandoned. This brilliantly written novel features deft characterizations and dark humor. full review.


A Catalogue of Birds by Laura Harrington
–set in 1970, the novel focuses on the aftermath of the Vietnam War for the Flynn family. Gorgeous writing. Nell and her brother Billy are fascinated with birds: “How they wanted to ride the thermals coming off the water, drift in the currents, creatures of the air. These were the visions that filled their dreams, waking and sleeping. Aloft without the encumbrance of harness and armature, a bird with a boy’s body and sight and consequences, a girl with the skill to dive through the air, skim the surface of the lake, rise with a single wing beat, roll, and play in the sweet pine scent lifting off the trees.”


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
–A beautiful, thoughtful novel about refugees that couldn’t be timelier. Using mystical realism, Hamid tells a potent and poetic story of love and freedom in this potent novel. Lovely reflections on connectivity and choice and circumstances. Hamid beautifully contemplates very human desires to achieve, to thrive and to share oneself in order to make sense of often nonsensical, violent and cruel world.  full review


Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
–“The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.” A suberb novel about identity, race, religion, identity, community and family. Isma is a PhD student in Western Massachusetts. She’d put her education on hold to care for her sister Aneeka and brother Parvaiz after their mother’s death. Isma fears that the missing Parvaiz may be following their jihadist father’s path. Into the mix comes the charming and handsome Eamonn, the son of a powerful London politician. Despite their religious differences, Eamonn and Aneeka fall in love. Parvaiz’s religious fanaticism may threaten their relationship. The novel explores the love affair, the radicalization of Parvaiz and how Parvaiz’s religious fanaticism as well as the bond between twin siblings affects the relationship. Beautiful writing from numerous angles.


Impressions of Paris: An Artist’s Sketchbook by Cat Seto
–A lovely adult picture book. The perfect gift for someone who appreciates art and beautiful things. Cat Seto sketches her way through museums, cafes, gardens, bookstores and the streets of Paris. Recalling her time in Paris through watercolor illustrations, she divides the book into four chapters: color; pattern; perspective and rhythm.  review here.


The Leavers by Lisa Ko
–An intense mediation on race, culture, identity, sense of place and belonging, The Leavers by Lisa Ko is a gorgeous and thoughtfully written debut novel that should resonate with progressives and allow others insight into the struggles of undocumented immigrants. It’s not that they don’t want to follow protocol. It’s often that they have few choices. It’s the story of what happens when Deming Guo’s mother Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, fails to return from her job at a nail salon. She just vanishes. full review here.


Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee
–Yadin Park once had a budding career as an alt-country/Americana musician. While talented, his career never took off due to his insecurities, lack of charisma and stage presence and then Meniere’s disease, a debilitating hearing disorder. Being a musician, an artist of any kind isn’t an easy profession. The music industry and the entertainment industry subsist mostly on the youth. It’s easy to age out of the music industry as it places a premium on youth and beauty and not always talent. Of course to maintain longevity one must possess talent. The entertainment industry can afford to be fickle as support then drop artists that don’t pull in money. How long does someone want to scrape by in hopes of quitting the day job? It’s infrequent that someone can do that. As author Don Lee stated at a recent book reading at Newtonville Books: “You have to have a certain amount of luxury and leisure to pursue those arts.” It’s true. While the starving artist sounds romantic, in reality it’s not comfortable or feasible for most people long-term. read my full review.


Made for Love by Alissa Nutting
–So much to love about this novel. It’s smart, a bit bawdy, immensely clever, introspective and observational. Hazel recently left her tech billionaire husband, Byron Gogol, and moved in with her father at a trailer park for senior citizens. Her father, who just received his mail-order sex doll Diane, isn’t all that thrilled to have a new roommate. Hazel wants to start over but Byron isn’t going to make it easy. read my full review here.


Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
–It’s amazing sometimes that you read the right book at the right moment. In reading you might feel connected with and find solace in characters on the page. It’s comforting to read relatable characters. Although I’ve never been married and don’t have any children I felt a kinship with Eve Fletcher. She’s figuring out what she wants to do next. Me too. She’s taking a class. Me too. She works as executive director at the senior center. I’ve worked in elder care. read my full review here.


A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline
–In the gorgeous and mysterious 1948 masterpiece Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth depicts a woman crouching on a hill looking toward a weathered farm house. Looking at the painting, one might wonder whether the woman is coming or going. She seems far away and in such a twisted, crouching position with her hair blowing a bit in the wind. I never knew that Wyeth painted this on a farm in Maine. Author Christina Baker Kline creates a riveting story of the artist’s muse. Christina Olson lives a rather solitary, quiet and isolated existence in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine on her family’s farm with her brother. When young painter Andrew Wyeth asks if he can paint the farm, Christina and her brother welcome the distraction and attention. This masterful work of historical fiction—told through first-person narrative– allows readers to feel Christina’s pain, disappointment and glimmers of hope throughout. read my full review here.


This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin

–phenomenal memoir. many moments and thoughts to which I could relate.


What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
–stunning novel about loss. “I thought about how every place on Earth contained its tragedies, love stories, people surviving and others failing, and for this reason, from far enough of a distance and under enough darkness, they were all essentially the same.”

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