Posts Tagged best of the year

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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STEELE PICKS: Best Documentary Films of 2016

strong documentaries expose you to subject matter in a novel and enlightening manner. it might be a subject of which you know very little or a subject with which you’re familiar. the best documentaries make you want to read and research, discuss and debate. that’s why I’ve belonged to a documentary film group for five years. I tend to favor biographical, political, social justice and music documentaries.


directed by: Ava DuVernay
written by: Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay

–our criminal justice systems needs serious reform. this documentary painstakingly delves into our prison system. It’s a moving, upsetting and infuriating call for change.


Oasis: Supersonic
directed by: Mat Whitecross

–while I classify myself a Blur girl, I also love Oasis. I love Britpop and alternative music.  I didn’t know all that much about how Oasis formed or how brothers Liam Gallagher and Noel Gallagher grew up with an abusive father. I know music was a way out for many British bands in the 90s. The film documents the band’s meteoric rise to fame and its collapse. There’s a moment on tour when Noel quits the band in Los Angeles and takes off to a female fan’s place in San Francisco. He ultimately re-joins the band and ends up writing a song about it. Being a long-term music critic this film hit all the right notes and all the right emotive spots. I laughed. I cried. I stood in the theater lobby with four strangers discussing it all.


Amanda Knox
directed by: Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn
written by: Matthew Hamachek and Brian McGinn

–going into this one I definitely had an opinion. it’s like the OJ Simpson case, how can you not? I’d read Amanda Knox’s riveting memoir and still learned quite a bit about the Italian judicial system and being locked up abroad (don’t do it) watching this documentary. Nearly a decade ago in 2007, Amanda Knox and her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were arrested, charged and convicted of the murder of Amanda’s roommate Meredith Kercher. Remember the supposed orgy and its aftermath as well as Knox’s nickname “Foxy Knoxy.” Because of course if someone’s sexually open she *must be a murderer. Amanda serves prison time until the conviction is overturned but then there’s another trial. While the United States criminal justice system remains a mess the Italian one seems outrageous. It’s not what one expects in a European nation. There are so many flaws in the investigation and numerous questions about the process that this documentary attempts to address.


The Beatles: Eight Days a Week– the touring years
directed by: Ron Howard
written by: Mark Monroe

–it’s always cool to learn something new about music legends. while I’m familiar with the music I don’t know as much about the band’s history and specific historic moments. There’s an excellent cross-section of fans interviewed from Whoopi Goldberg to Sigourney Weaver to Eddie Izzard. It’s a sweet love letter to a band from a genuinely sincere Ron Howard. It’s not messy or scandalous or a sexy film but wholesome family fun that one expects from Ron Howard.



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STEELE PICKS: Best Albums of 2016

here’s the music in heavy rotation or that intrigued me or moved me in 2016. we need music and the arts now more than ever. music heals.




Chairlift, Moth [Columbia]
–the duo aptly describes its music as “25th-century folktronica.” infectious beats, sweet vocals. the Brooklyn band just announced its break-up on Twitter.


Bat for Lashes, The Bride [Parlophone]
— concept album. all the songs on this album= perfection. dark humor, dark melodies with gorgeous arrangements, provocative lyrics and lilting, rich vocals.


Warpaint, Heads Up [Rough Trade]
–the all-female Los Angeles indie band plays soothing, swirling, pretty, contemplative, dreamy, free-spirited music. Warpaint is Emily Kokal (guitar, vocals), Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass, vocals), Stella Mozgawa (drums, vocals) and Theresa Wayman (guitar, vocals). The new album sounds a bit more pop, a bit more loud and loose without departing from the loveliness that makes up Warpaint’s current musical catalogue.


Daughter, Not to Disappear [4AD]
–haunting vocals, swirly moodiness and thoughtful lyrics


Tindersticks, The Waiting Room [City Slang]
–sexy, dark music. Singer Stuart Staples oozes romance with that brooding baritone and the varied instrumentation of violin, keyboards, percussion and guitar leads to gorgeous layered arrangements.


Band of Horses, Why Are You OK [Interscope]
–this band makes me feel slightly warm and fuzzy. also one of the best shows this year.


Julianna Barwick, Will [Dead Oceans]
–this album soothes and calms. I often listen to it while I’m at acupuncture. my review.


The Julie Ruin, Hit Reset [Hardly Art]
–edgy brilliance. The spectacular album bursts with a tangible emotiveness, unapologetic lyrics and a collective embrace for individual truth and identity.


Basia Bulat, Good Advice [Secret City]
–there’s an earthy loveliness in the Canadian folk singer-songwriter’s vocals. her captivating and honest lyrics get buoyed by layered melodies.


James, Girl at the End of the World [BMG]
–one of my favorite 90s Britpop bands. this electronica/ indie-rock album does not disappoint. my review.


Suede, Night Thoughts [Warner Bros.]
–another one of my favorite British bands from the 90s still at it.

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Steele’s Picks for Best Films of 2008

1. Slumdog Millionaire

A magical film and so, so, so brilliant. It’s about dreams and love and never giving up hope. The film, directed by Danny Boyle, is absolutely original, special and imaginative from beginning to end. It is thrilling and lovely and romantic, all wrapped up with a spectacular Bollywood ending.

2. Happy-Go-Lucky

This reminds me a lot of Voltaire’s Candide except that Poppy is [Sally Hawkins] less naive–she knows about the world and its darkness, she just chooses to ignore the evils most of the time– and ends up with less scrapes. She is the ultimate optimist and regardless of the situation she finds herself in she sees it positively.

3. Milk

A moving, inspirational film. Sean Penn [The Interpreter, Mystic River] portrays Harvey Milk in a powerful, profound, commanding performance. He is ebullient and convicted to the end result and wins you over from the first frame. He makes you love Milk right off. He also makes you feel like you are watching a documentary at times. He has the mannerisms and affectations down. And when he’s with his lover, played by the talented James Franco [Pineapple Express, Spider-Man 3], the sex appeal oozes. The duo has smoldering and intense chemistry.

4. Rachel Getting Married

The screenplay, by Sidney Lumet’s daughter Jenny, combined with direction by Jonathan Demme makes this a strong, insightful glimpse into a flawed weekend of one family. Anne Hathaway’s layered performance is dark, moving, unapologetic and brilliant.

5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Loved it! Just fantastic. The neuroses, the craziness, and the cast of Scarlet Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall is divine.

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>6. Wall-E

The messages of caring, compassion, and environmental awareness do not overwhelm the viewer but are clear throughout this heartfelt, inspirational film about a futuristic recycling robot with a penchant for old song and dance films and collecting odd objects like Rubik’s cubes and light bulbs.

7. Mongol

Very, very well made film with wonderful cinematography, fanastic fight scenes and an intense love story. It’s all about the rise to power of Genghis Khan in Mongolia. He overcomes tremendous adversity including losing his father as a young boy, enduring slavery, torment by those in his father’s trust, being betrayed by someone he considered to be a “blood brother,” and numerous prolonged separations from his wife.

8. The Secret Life of Bees

Lovely film with wonderful cast: Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Dakota Fanning, Alicia Keys and Sophie Odeneko. It’s the 60s and a young girl escapes her abusive father to live with a group of independent minded women in South Carolina who support themselves by making honey.

9. Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind is a love story to film. It’s also a commentary on the state of big business. We all know how hard in can be to find a copy of a particular, somewhat obscure film and wonder why there are 25 copies oLif something really banal on the shelves. Be Kind Rewind is a gem amidst a lot of mediocrity.

10. Doubt

Shades of gray. Did he or didn’t he? Guilt, right and wrong, convictions, circumstances, hunches, and the hierarchy or the Church all come into play in this powerful, brilliant film based on the Broadway play. In 1964, Sister Aloysius Beauvier [Meryl Streep] and young, naive Sister James [Amy Adams] are rather dutiful sisters in the congregation, while Father Flynn [Phillip Seymour Hoffman] is the priest running the show. Things seen and heard can be easily misinterpreted and who knows who to trust or to believe?

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Steele’s Picks for Best Reads of 2008

Dream When You’re Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg

A group of sisters write to guys during WWII (either boyfriends or just guys who need letters). I cried at the end of this book and promptly got online and adopted a U.S. soldier in Iraq. I wrote to SGT Michael Spaeth for the bulk of this year [and sent quite a few care packages] and his tour recently ended. I just requested a new soldier.

The Great Man by Kate Christensen

Fabulous read about an artist as told, after his death, from the viewpoint of four women: his wife, his lover, the lover’s best friend and his sister, also an artist. The women are all in their late 60s and early 70s and they have vastly different memories and relationships with this man and with each other. When two biographers come around to interview the women it forces them to speak to each other and for a long-standing secret to be revealed. Masterful writing by Christensen.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Told in a series of letters this is a charmer. Well-researched and planned, the book covers the period of German occupation of the British Island of Guernsey during WWII and the group of residents who created a book club to thrive and remain active.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

A remarkable, fluid, enthralling book about WWII written by a French Jew (who ended up being shipped off and killed in a concentration camp). It was published some 50 years posthumously. She paints a detailed portrait of the villagers when the Germans invade as well as the mass exodus from Paris. It is funny, sad and quite sympathetic at times toward some of the German soldiers. She seemed to be able to see the situation from all angles and get it down in exquisite prose.

The Cure for the Modern World by Lisa Tucker

Clinical trials, medical research, Big Pharma, medical ethics, children’s rights and much more are explored in this easy-to-read book. It’s a real joy to read it. Perfect weekend read.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Heartbreaking and beautiful. So well-written. Striving for that “perfect” life in suburbia in the 50s can destroy you.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Brooks puts you in Sarajevo and London and Venice at all times as she describes the exciting discovery of an ancient Hebrew manuscript with clues as to its travels and its use over time. While based on real events, Brooks creates fantastic characteristics and writes this love story to books and reading and history. I love her style, her research and journalism skills and want to write books just like her when I finally do.

The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus II

Once I got into this book, I just could not stop reading. It is about the fictional final days of one of the 9/11 hijackers as he spent them in Florida at a stripclub. It also involves the stripper and some other clubgoers and how their paths cross that evening.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

A haunting, majestic book of epic proportions. Its about the occupation of Sarajevo in the 90s. A cellist decides to play for 22 days honor those who died from a mortar attack. A man travels to collect water. A woman works as a sniper. Another man walks across town to get bread. All risk their lives. Galloway tells their stories with truth, beauty and honesty. One of the best books I’ve read, ever.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller

Fantastic read. Miller is quite the storyteller and wordsmith. She creates this characters that you can imagine knowing, that are so vibrant and complex and real. Her chosen topic fits the times and our nation’s landscape. It’s not what you expect either.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Pretty amazing piece of work. Writing about an unimaginable event.

The Condition by Jennifer Haigh

This is a page turner about a family from Concord, Mass. who summer on the Cape like so many other well-to-do Massachusetts people. The author weaves together secrets involving Turners syndrome, apoptosis, homosexuality, MIT, the scientific community and families in general. It is so well done.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Who would think that a fictionalized book about Laura Bush would be this good and this hard to put down? I really sunk into this book and didn’t want it to end. Sittenfeld did her research and fleshed out her character and made it an enjoyable, wonderful book. I then saw the film W a few weeks later and it made it all that much better for me.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Now I know why everyone has been reading this book—from girlfriends to my step-grandmother– and raving about it. Engrossing and imaginative. I read it in one night.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

In this lyrical collection of stories, Lahiri weaves together families and couples and single people and Indian traditions along.

Dewey by Vicky Myron

Delightful and memorable story about a cat and a little library in Middle-America. The cat touches many people in the libary and the community but the book will also enlighten you about Iowa and its people as well as libraries in general.

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Steele’s Picks for Best Music of 2008

Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs
poetic, romantic. my favorite band right now

Juliana Hatfield, How to Walk Away
sweet and moody tunes.

Keane, Perfect Symmetry
smooth and deliciously melodic

Goldfrapp, Seventh Tree
trance. ethereal. The stuff I love and cannot listen to enough.

Alanis Morrissette, Flavors of Entanglement
less angry, still edgy

Dido, Safe Trip Home
great comfort in Dido’s voice and her songwriting for me. as if she gets me or she’s been through similar things.

Conor Oberst, Conor Oberst
brilliant singer/songwriter with something about his voice. I like to listen before I go to bed. it’s so sexy and soothing.

Sia, Some People Have Real Problems
impressive range. intuitive, creative, eclectic arrangements.

Stereolab, Chemical Chords
the mix of the electronica and french vocals always sounds cool for them.

Amy MacDonald, This is the Life
catchy and moving. great voice.

She and Him, Vol. One
Swirly bittersweet.

R.E.M., Accelerate
a cross between Green and Life’s Rich Pageant.

Coldplay, Viva La Vida
the band doesn’t disappoint with exquisite ballads and sweeping guitar crescendos

Paramore, Riot!
catchy, crisp

Alicia Keys, As I Am
so talented. a strong girl with glorious vocals

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Real Emotional Trash
pure poetry. Stephen Malkmus has a beautiful, world-weary yet hopeful voice.

Snow Patrol, A Hundred Million Suns
still one of my top fave bands. a bit haunting, a bit dreamy, somewhat hypnotic at times.

The Submarines, Honeysuckle Weeks
harmonizing peace and love

The Weepies, Hideaway
mellow and a bit casual, “down home” feel

The Raveonettes, Lust Lust Lust
upbeat and gloriously propelling

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