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Hannah Sternberg

Hannah Sternberg is a writer and cocktail conquistador operating out of Washington, DC. Her second novel, Bulfinch, is now available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle formats. Relieve your itchy fingers and click here to buy it now.
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‘Don’t Go to the Movies with Strangers’

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reviewing Lisa de Pasquale’s memoir of life and love in Washington, D.C., Finding Mr. Righteous.  Her honest, sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking tell-all about dating life in the conservative world struck a few chords with me, so I asked her some follow-up questions. Keep reading to find out how she’s dealt with people trying to figure out who’s in the book, the current status of her dating life, and the latest steps in her spiritual journey.

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Meet the Knight Who Was Misplaced in Time

Monday, August 18th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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We’ve talked about a lot of things together, here. What to read, how not to date jerks, why the internet loves to hate Lana Del Rey, that time I dodged bears in West Virginia, and much more. I’ve really enjoyed the heck out of sharing these episodes with you, and I look forward to continuing to do so. If you’ve enjoyed the heck out of following my adventures, it’s time to join me in my latest big one: the launch of my second novel, Bulfinch.

Bulfinch is a whimsical tale about a history student whose imagination is so powerful that the knight from the book she’s reading pops out of her head and into real life. But he’s no fairytale visitor — he’s a very medieval fellow indeed, and our heroine Rosie is forced out of her reclusive bubble as she sets out into Baltimore to track him down and put him back into history where he belongs. Bulfinch is appropriate for readers aged 14+, and entertaining for all. By turns funny and tender, it’s a book you won’t be able to put down.

Bulfinch was released last Friday, to my delight! Don’t miss another day in ordering your copy, in paperback or Kindle formats. Buy it here.

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5 Life and Relationship Lessons from Finding Mr. Righteous

Thursday, August 7th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Lesson #5: Everybody’s human. Very, very human.

I once heard a guy tell a story about a disastrous first date he went on. He was ultra-liberal, and didn’t realize the girl he’d asked out was a libertarian. They discovered their differences soon enough, and their debate was so fierce she left in tears. It didn’t end there, though; he followed up with links to articles and documentaries she had to see, to correct her point of view. She participated as well, sending him material from her own side. But it was clear there was no romantic possibility between the two of them — instead of finding love on a blind date, they found hate.

He asked, “What do you do? When you meet up with these DC vampires who are just dead set on destroying the world?”

I told him the first thing you do is stop denying their essential humanity by calling them monsters. Then, give them the benefit of the doubt by assuming they hold their views because they want to make the world a better place, too — or, at the very least, not because of some desire to burn it all down. I wish now I could have just given him a copy of Finding Mr. Righteous, the romantic memoir by conservative activist Lisa de Pasquale.

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Enter an Enchanted World

Monday, July 28th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Hi gang! I’m releasing my new novel, Bulfinch, this August, and in the weeks leading up to it I’m sharing one free short story per week online. If you’re in search of a fun and short read this week during your lunch hour, check out one of these:

Belle” is an inventive retelling of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast. Belle is a struggling single mother who feels like a prisoner of circumstance — and of her heavily tattooed landlord, whom she calls The Beast. But their unlikely attraction may have the power to change both their lives…with some help from Mrs. Teapot.

“Bridal Sour” is a quirky twist on the zombie genre. When all the recently engaged women in town start turning into zombies, one girl thinks she knows the cause — and its unlikely solution.

Click the titles to download either story at NoiseTrade!

 

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8 Things I Learned Running a Ragnar with No Training

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

I was bored and restless the Wednesday I saw a friend post on Facebook that he knew a Ragnar Relay Race team that needed an extra member. That Friday, I was in a van full of camping equipment on my way into the mountains of West Virginia, wondering what the hell I’d just gotten myself into. I was about to break one of the cardinal rules my mother gave us in childhood: “If you can imagine William Shatner talking about it on Rescue 911, don’t do it.” My only comfort was that if I blogged about it, I might be able to write the trip off on my taxes as a business expense.

By Saturday night I had run 14.8 miles in three parts. I learned a lot about myself and bears that weekend. I also learned about the glory of human endurance, though I still haven’t learned exactly what foam rollers are for. And now, in the name of tax deductiblity, I will share those lessons with you.

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5 Ways to Avoid Dating Jerks

Sunday, July 20th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg
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I’ve heard it plenty of times before: friends tell me all men are jerks and they just can’t seem to find and keep a good guy. Maybe part of it is fate, but a much bigger part is your picker — your internal sense of who’s a suitable companion for you. If more of my friends (and anyone else out there who bemoans the infestation of jerks in their dating lives) followed these simple rules right at the start of a relationship — in the choosing phase — they’d discover that the problem isn’t that all men are a**holes, but simply that too many of us choose to date someone who’s wrong for us for too long, making ourselves unavailable when the right guy comes along, and building resentment and bad feelings toward each other along the way. These rules go both ways — any man can (and should) follow them if he feels he often dates women who don’t behave well toward him. Since most appeals for advice on this subject that I’ve received have come from straight women, I’ve assigned gender pronouns accordingly — but the ideas are universally applicable. Check out these five mind-bogglingly simple steps to avoid your next dating disaster.

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10 Easy Ways to Make Your Apartment Look Grown-Up

Thursday, July 17th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

Millennials are growing up fast, but are their apartments? There’s a certain point in your life when you wake up and realize you don’t want your home to look like a college dorm anymore. But sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on exactly how to make a place look grown-up, while still retaining your unique sense of style. Having a grown-up looking place doesn’t mean you have to lose all of your own flair; there are a few general ideas that you can put your own twist on, whatever your taste. It all boils down to having an apartment where you can make people comfortable. Here are ten steps to get started.

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10 Realities of Freelance Life

Thursday, June 26th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

As I’ve previously discussed, I recently made the transition to freelance work and I’m loving it. Many people have a romanticized view of freelance life, though, and there are a few hard realities I’ve encountered in my first few weeks that I thought I’d share with anyone considering taking the plunge.

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The 10 Rules for British Period Dramas on TV

Monday, June 23rd, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

From Downton Abbey to Call the Midwife, British TV has been on fire lately — and American audiences are burning for more. If you’re an incurable addict like me, you’ve probably noticed a few trends, however. In my mind, they contribute to the comfortable familiarity of the British period drama — you might not know where the next plot twist will take you, but you always know where it’s all going in the end. I’ve cracked the code so you don’t have to. Probably a verbatim copy of the rules handed out to producers and writers once they pass their British TV No Spoilers Security Clearance, here are my 10 Rules for British Period Dramas on TV.

Be warned: that means pretty much every piece of this blog post is a spoiler.

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5 Items of Lingerie That I Don’t Understand

Friday, June 20th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

It’s wedding season, which means my roommate and I have been shopping for gifts to give our female friends at their bachelorette parties. It’s a fine line to walk — you want to give her something racy that everyone can giggle at (and that she might realistically wear), but not SO outrageous that it makes her and everyone around uncomfortable. We’re not prudes, but we’re not getting anyone a ball gag, either.

Fortunately it’s also the season of the lingerie sale (probably not coincidentally) so we’ve had ample browsing opportunities. A few items, though, just made me scratch my head. How do you put it on, or get it off? How is that remotely comfortable, or sexy? What does it mean?! I invite you, dear readers, to investigate each case with me. Can you explain this lingerie to me?

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10 Things Hannah’s Pants Did Without Her

Saturday, June 14th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

Hi lovely readers! I’m so happy, I wanted to share the news with all of you: I’ve just entered freelance life. Yes, I actually chose this — worked quite hard, in fact, to earn this freedom. My mom has been sharing with me the lessons she’s learned over several decades of freelance work: don’t undersell yourself; create a schedule for your day; put your clothes and makeup on every morning to make yourself feel focused and ready to work.

So no, I haven’t been living the pants-optional life. Okay, I’m wearing shorts most days. Sometimes yoga leggings. This has raised the question among some of my brilliant colleagues here on the blog: what do Hannah’s business pants do without her?

Rather than leave their curiosity unsatisfied, I present the world with the following list. Think of it as a day in the life of Hannah’s pants.

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5 Literary Villains You Love to Hate

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

It’s easy to write a passable hero. No, not an interesting hero or a complex one, but if all you need is someone to stand shining in the radiance of his righteousness with a sword in his hand, a journeyman writer can whip one of those out with her eyes closed. A great story doesn’t always need a great hero, or even an especially memorable one. It needs a fantastic villain.

A fantastic villain — a villain you love to hate, a villain that you almost, just a little bit, want to root for, a villain whose very name makes your skin crawl — is incredibly difficult to write, which is why fantastic villains are very rare. It’s often the villain who makes an adventure especially delicious and suspenseful; it’s the villain who elevates an interpersonal drama into an epic. A great villain makes a great story — and a great story makes great summer reading. Follow the villains to your summer reading list — and start with these if you want to know what a good villain looks like.

5) Hatsumomo, Memoirs of a Geisha

I’m only about halfway through this one, but already Hatsumomo has made the book for me. A vicious beauty, Hatsumomo is the working geisha at the okiya where Chiyo, the narrator, works as a maid and trains to become a geisha herself. From the instant Hatsumomo sets eyes on a nine-year-old Chiyo, she smells a potential rival and sets out to destroy Chiyo’s life. Hatsumomo’s main competitor, Mameha, takes Chiyo under her tutelage when she learns how much Hatsumomo hates her, and the young girl becomes a pawn in the established geishas’ social war.

There are no depths Hatsumomo won’t sink to to try to prevent Chiyo’s rise to prominence, or damage Mameha’s reputation. Planting stolen goods, spreading disgusting rumors, and driving up the debt Chiyo must repay before she can become a free and independent woman — Hatsumomo practically crackles with insane energy every time she enters a scene, and I find myself turning the pages not just to cheer Chiyo on, but in a sick fascination to find out what Hatsumomo will do to her next.

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Tumbleweed Philosophy: The Desert Thoreau

Thursday, May 29th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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I just finished Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, which oddly enough I found much more comforting breakup reading than all the books out there about breakups. Abbey mines wisdom — and churns up insanity — from the contemplation of nature. Reading his book I felt I’d found a new friend, someone who wouldn’t ask me how it’s interesting or comfortable to sit and stare at the trees and sky for hours on end (a question I get from those who haven’t really tried it). He’d understand the need to bask in nature, the healing and invigorating qualities of letting your mind roam free; and as a complement, the meditative aspect of scrambling over rocks, up mountains, through bushes and streams — few things sharpen the mind to the beautiful, intricate, rich present moment.

If you were to read just one chapter from Desert Solitaire, pick “Down the River,” the story of Abbey’s rafting trip down the Colorado, a poignant journey taken just before the construction of the Boulder Dam. It can never be replicated; the canyons and grottos he describes are now all flooded under Lake Mead.

The crystal water flows toward me in shimmering S-curves, looping quietly over shining pebbles, buff-colored stone and the long sleek bars and reefs of rich red sand, in which glitter grains of mica and pyrite — fool’s gold. The canyon twists and turns, serpentine as its stream, and with each turn comes a dramatic and novel view of tapestried walls five hundred — a thousand? — feet high, of silvery driftwood wedged between boulders, of mysterious and inviting subcanyons to the side, within which I can see living strands of grass, cane, salt cedar, and sometimes the delicious magical green of a young cottonwood with its ten thousand exquisite leaves vibrating like spangles in the vivid air. The only sound is the whisper of the running water, the touch of my bare feet on the sand, and once or twice, out of the stillness, the clear song of a canyon wren.

Is this at last the locus Dei? There are enough cathedrals and temples and altars here for a Hindu pantheon of divinities. Each time I look up one of the secretive little side canyons I half expect to see not only the cottonwood tree rising over its tiny spring — the leafy god, the desert’s liquid eye — but also a rainbow-colored corona of blazing light, pure spirit, pure being, pure disembodied intelligence, about to speak my name.

If a man’s imagination were not so weak, so easily tired, if his capacity for wonder not so limited, he would abandon forever such fantasies of the supernal. He would learn to perceive in water, leaves and silence more than sufficient of the absolute and marvelous, more than enough to console him for the loss of the ancient dreams.

Take Desert Solitaire with you on your next camping trip. Or better yet, read it before your next camping trip and them spend the trip bending your mind and soul to nature.

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Yo Ho Ho and My Bottles of Rum

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

Hi PJ gang! I’m back from an adventure-filled trip to St. Croix, where I helped a friend capture and study America’s rarest lizard, and met some interesting characters along the way. You’ll hear those stories another day soon; for now, let’s talk about the TSA.

On my last morning on island, my friend took me to the Cruzan rum factory. While Cruzan was acquired by Jim Beam several years ago, it’s still operated by the same local family that has run it for generations. You can tell locals are very proud of their brand; the other rum factory on the island is Captain Morgan, which has only been operating from St. Croix for two years, and if you walk into nearly any bar, you’ll see rows upon rows of delectable Cruzan rum varieties, and perhaps one or two bottles of Captain Morgan stuck in the corner.

I had just enough time to squeeze in a factory tour before heading to the airport. At the gift shop, I was bummed that I couldn’t pick up any nice large bottles to take back, because I wasn’t checking my bags. The tour guide told me I could buy the 18-bottle variety pack of airplane bottles in different flavors, and then dump them all into my TSA-mandated clear plastic toiletries bag. Sounded clever; other people had done it!

My 18 airplane-sized bottles of rum fit neatly into my plastic bag. I hugged my friend, and prepared for the journey home. However, in the TSA line, I was stopped.

Agents informed me that the scanner told them I was selected for additional screening. My bags were hauled onto a table for examination. The agent assigned to me held up my plastic bag and said, “Too many.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Everything fits in my bag. All the bottles are the correct size. I thought I was allowed to take whatever I wanted that would fit.”

The TSA agent told me my bag was too large. That confused me as well; I told her I fly frequently, and I’ve always used that size bag, often full to the brim (I have a beauty regimen, okay!), and I’ve never been stopped or informed it was incorrect.

“You come from the big cities,” she told me. “They’re too busy to stop you, they have too many people. We have plenty of time here, so we enforce all the rules.”

Now came the reckoning. Do I ditch my cosmetics, or the rum?

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Who Has Better Home Improvement Shows: HGTV or PBS?

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

Apparently I’ve been receiving most of my cable channels in error, and my carrier graciously corrected the situation with a terse letter and an abrupt cutback in service. Among the fallen were Food Network and HGTV, which were pretty much all my roommate and I watched.

Since then, I’ve turned on our local PBS station many times when I want some background noise. I joked with a friend on Saturday that WETA hit me with a trio of shows to keep me on the couch happily catnapping — a Julia Child followed by two! America’s Test Kitchens — and she was lucky they didn’t air an episode of This Old House right after, or I would never have dragged myself out of the house to hang out.

All those public television shows bring back strong memories of childhood, when that was pretty much all we were allowed to watch. I started watching out of nostalgia, but I kept watching because…well, it was refreshing to watch a cooking show that was actually mostly about cooking, and not the host’s oversized personality. There’s something less desperate — almost absurdly genuine — about PBS cooking and home improvement shows.

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The Bible of Buffy

Monday, May 12th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Dave challenged us to debate which fandoms contribute the most, and least, to our spiritual well-being, as individuals and as a culture. His two examples were Star Wars and Star Trek, but I have to admit, despite being raised by a Trekkie, neither of those fandoms resonated with me the way the shows of Joss Whedon did, growing up. But did Whedon’s shows nurture my spiritual and intellectual growth? Or were they my form of “pop culture polytheism,” as Dave calls it, a form of escapism and adoration bordering on idolatry?

My adoration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly definitely gets intense. But I’d argue, Dave, that there are two ways to participate in the fandom of franchises like Star Wars and Firefly – the idolatrous, and the perceptive. A lot of fandom definitely turns into a form of worship; but alongside that tendency is another way to fangirl shows and movies, which combines admiration and enthusiasm with a dose of skepticism and spiritual seeking.

Worshipful fandom is the sort we’re used to talking about. But perceptive fandom is a good description of the behavior of fans who may (or may not!) participate in the worshipful aspects of fandom, but who also see their favorite TV shows and movies as texts that can be studied like literature. That includes a healthy dose of skepticism toward the creators of those texts, too. Some fandoms are better set up for perceptive fandom than others. Star Wars practically exists to be worshipped — its larger than life figures and the hyperbolic distinctions between the bad guys and the good guys sets us up easily to adore one, and revile the other, almost unquestioningly. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other Whedon creations are different because their good guys, and bad guys, are flawed and relatable without sliding the shows into moral relativism.

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10 of Hannah Sternberg’s Greatest Hits

Sunday, April 27th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Editor’s Note: Hannah Sternberg is one of the most promising Millennial writers I’ve worked with over the years. Check out her debut novel Queens of All the Earth, an elegant, sensitive, coming of age story. (See my review here.) The roots of Hannah’s literary skills are evident in her lifelong reading and film consumptions and the deep thinking they’ve inspired. This assortment of 10 of her most popular and engaging articles show some of the ideas and influences that inform her fiction. I can’t wait for Hannah’s next novel and her future creative endeavors. Also check out the previous collections published this weekend: 10 of Walter Hudson’s Greatest Hits and 10 of Kathy Shaidle’s Greatest Hits.

 - Dave Swindle

1. October 1, 2011: Literary B-Sides: Five of the Most Under-Rated Books from Famous Authors

It’s time to get over the trauma of high school English class. These wonderful novels won’t bite.

2. February 6, 2012: Five Comic Books You’re Waiting, Wanting, Begging, Longing to See on TV

We’re tired of dreaming for a proper adaptation of Sandman.

3. January 21, 2013: I Hear You Like Bad Girls Too

A good girl takes Lana Del Rey’s relationship advice.

4. May 10, 2013: The Five Most Surprising Movie Adaptations

Screw the book, these were better.

5. May 5, 2013: Likes Long Walks on the Beach, and Porn Goddesses

What happens when husbands demand their wives meet the XXX-rated style in the bedroom?

6. May 15, 2013: Stop Expecting Your Friends to Show Common Decency

Flaky friends. No, they’re not great.

7. May 29, 2013: Advice for Grads: Stop Working So Darn Hard

Get over yourself, get a job, and stop caring so much about everything.

8. June 6, 2013: Four Childhood Activities You Should Never Give Up

Acting like a kid could make you happier, healthier, and smarter.

9. July 17, 2013: Bad Advice: Slaying Facebook Trolls

How to silence people who refuse to be defriended.

10. March 15, 2014: Five Secret Emotions Only E-Reader Addicts Understand

Diagnose your affliction; seek support in fellow sufferers.

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Does Admitting You Might Be Wrong Make You Right?

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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I just finished reading Freakonomics for the first time. I know, I’m behind the times. I picked it up out of curiosity (I’ve heard so many things about the book, its authors, and the subsequent podcast) and convenience (it was left by a previous employee in the office I just moved out of, and while I was packing up unwanted books to donate, I set it aside).

One thing that struck me is how often economist Steven Levitt’s self-deprecation is cited as proof of his sincerity and trustworthiness. Everyone is fallible (even economists!) but you can probably trust the guy who’s wise enough to admit it, right?

I won’t play a guessing game on whether Levitt uses self-deprecation cynically, to manipulate readers, or whether he really is that humble a guy. The thing is, either way, there’s just too much of it. My relief and pleasure at discovering an economist who admits he may be wrong was quickly dampened by irritation at the way self-deprecation is used to excuse whatever happens to come next.

It’s possible I’m wrong, and there are a lot of variables involved that are nearly impossible to scientifically measure, and you should do your own research and think critically before making up your own mind, but…I’d posit that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is actually a documentary. Cats are secretly in control of the White House. And we all live in a computer program called The Matrix.

Obviously, admitting my potential error before I drop these theories makes them no less ridiculous. But the example above illustrates how self-deprecation can really be a rhetorical device to persuade someone into hearing out your outlandish theory (“Well, if he admits he might be wrong, he can’t be that nuts — what’s he got to say?”) and also a verbal insurance policy (“You can’t hold me to that, I told you up front I might be wrong!”).

My question is: does that verbal insurance policy really cash out? Is “I told you I might be wrong” actually a good defense for sharing a theory that may not be completely sound, but may spread disinformation or encourage bad policy? (I’m done picking on poor Levitt now, and just wondering generally — though some of his more famous theories may be grouped by some readers in that category.) It’s actually a close cousin to an infamous tabloid journalism trick — start a statement with “rumor has it” and you’ve admitted the following report may not be totally factual, but most readers who remember it will just remember the claims in the story, not the qualifier that they may not be true.

I still enjoyed Freakonomics for its refreshing and unusual take on a variety of interesting subjects. I hope Levitt continues to do his work of overturning common wisdom and examining topics other economists consider beneath them. I just wonder if he, and other fans of his favorite rhetorical device, realize there are limits to a “I might be wrong” insurance policy.

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Will Binge Watching Change How We Tell Stories on TV?

Friday, April 18th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Television has finally taken its place alongside film as a widely-acknowledged art form. For the last several decades, many shows have started telling the kind of complex, meaningful, well-crafted tales that are often found in film and literature. When Netflix and other streaming services transformed binge watching into a national pastime, TV critics and technology writers started asking how it would change the business model for shows. But another interesting trend is emerging: how it can transform storytelling.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the beginning. While this show pre-dates streaming video, it was an instant cult classic, and fanboys and girls have been binge watching before binge watching was cool, with VHS and DVD sets. As I rediscover Whedon’s most popular and well-known series, I’m also seeing for the first time how cleverly it’s set up to reward two common fan activities: multiple viewings of a single episode, and binge watching. Whedon sets up jokes in the first season that are subtly paid out in the second and third; he rewards attention to detail with little Easter eggs for the careful watcher; and he takes a low-and-slow approach to character development, as Willow grows bolder, Spike grows more sympathetic, Buffy becomes more jaded, and much more. Plus, all of Whedon’s shows display an impressive attention to continuity, another way to reward fans for paying careful attention.

As binge watching becomes more and more popular, more shows are using the storytelling techniques Whedon’s been a master of all along. But other shows prove to be less perfectly suited to binge-watching. Every week for the last several months, I’ve also been watching Lost with family and friends. While the multiple storylines and nail-biting cliffhangers make it addictive enough to watch episode after episode in a row, other aspects of the storytelling are much better suited to spreading out, one episode per week. Many episodes retread the same ground, which is necessary when seven days pass between episodes; but it can get a little wearisome when you saw the same thing just a few minutes ago. Many fans have also complained about the lack of resolution in some of Lost‘s mysteries. From the level of outrage I remember when the show ended, maybe spreading it out didn’t help a lot, but I can see how it’s easier simply to forget some of the mysteries that go unresolved when the last time it was mentioned was months ago, instead of hours.

Binge watching is hard on inconsistency and repetition (without variation). It rewards attention to detail, subtle character development, and ironclad continuity. As binge watching continues to influence new shows (and change our perception of old ones) it will be fascinating to see how TV storytelling evolves in these directions.

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Look at Lana

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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The first thing I thought when I saw this announcement of Lana Del Rey’s new single “West Coast” off her upcoming album Ultraviolence, was, “Oh, wow, she’s brunette now. I wonder where she’s going to go with that.”

I’ve written before about the importance of Lana Del Rey’s image in her music, and how that image has also inspired waves of internet hate. “Lana Del Rey appeals to good girls because she’s the quintessential romantic bad girl: sultry, pouty, with thin white tee shirts and tiny denim shorts, the kind of girl who’d be leaning up against her boyfriend’s hot rod in the school parking lot,” I wrote about her first album.

Why is Lady Gaga praised for her careful cultivation of an image, while Lana Del Rey is consistently derided for it? A few reasons. Gaga has proven herself a masterful performer, bringing her image to life. Del Rey’s live performances are frequently described by those who have attended as low-energy, somewhat awkward and unpolished. That creates the impression that her image is just that — an image, not a living force. Lana Del Rey’s persona exists in a photograph; Lady Gaga’s exists on a stage, in a taxi cab, on the street, on the catwalk.

I think there could be another factor at play, though. Lady Gaga’s image is built on high fashion, decadence, sophistication.  Lana Del Rey claims a trailer trash origin story and a blue collar aesthetic. She infuses romance into seedy, rundown places and unlike Taylor Swift (another carefully cultivated pop-image with a blue collar, small town origin story — despite being the daughter of a banker), Del Rey doesn’t make them cute. In Swift’s high school fairytale, the tomboy falls in love with the football star and pines for him from the bleachers while he hangs out with his cheerleader girlfriend. In Del Rey’s fantasy high school, the heroine is getting pregnant under those bleachers, and the football player still doesn’t love her.

Maybe some people just prefer the glamour of a Lady Gaga (or the tamer glamour of a Taylor Swift) over Lana Del Rey’s trashy bad-girl image. Maybe some people resent that she claims a hard-knock reputation that she didn’t really “earn.”  But maybe there’s another factor at play: Del Rey is singing about things people like to sweep under the rug. No, not in a big social-change way; it’s probably hardly intentional. But look at her early videos, which frequently starred tattooed model Bradley Soileau — he looks like the kind of guy you’d see in a parking lot, who’d make you want to get to your car a little faster. And then there’s the rumors (and derision) surrounding Del Rey’s supposed plastic surgery — sometimes I wonder if she wants people to wonder. Her songs are so often about the things women do to seem attractive and desirable in a world that expects flawless beauty. Del Rey would be far from the first singer to get plastic surgery to fit a popular image — but she would be one of the first mainstream artists who used it to make people feel uncomfortable about beauty standards.

I have to admit, “West Coast” doesn’t have me excited for the new album — it’s very repetitive, and it doesn’t have the drama of “Blue Jeans” or “Born to Die,” or the sweet sadness of “Video Games.” But I’m excited for the collaborations with The Black Keys’s Dan Auerbach, and I’m interested in where Del Rey is going next.

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The Brains of Brawn

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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If you’re a skeptical gym rat — someone who likes to stay fit, but raises an eyebrow at flash-in-the-pan fitness trends — your curiosity will be piqued by a new book on the history of fitness and exercise in America.

Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History by Jonathan Black is a fascinating whirlwind tour through fitness history, starting with a brief review of ancient Greece and the first Olympics before fast-forwarding to the Chicago World’s Fair.

I went into this book expecting to learn many damning things about gurus who offer false promises of health and pleasure with one hand while taking all your money with the other. What surprised and encouraged me, as I read, was that many fitness pioneers seemed genuinely interested in making people healthier, and helping them to feel more confident and empowered. Mixed with that impulse was, of course, the desire to sell something to those people, and pressure to achieve body image goals — for the bulk of fitness trends, that meant simply fitting into fashionable clothes, but for some of the larger than life (literally) it meant sculpting a body that would make a Greek god quake in his sandals.

The most rewarding strands of the book told the stories of the great bodybuilding pioneers — men (and a few women) who took big muscle out of the circus ring and onto the beach. The personalities that created the American bodybuilding scene were as epic as the muscles they grew. The feuds between lifters, posers, dopers, and hopers is as thrilling as the rush of endorphins after a heavy lift (at least, I think so, remembering that one time I tried it).

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Revenge of the False Nostalgia

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

I was born in 1988. I do not remember the 80s. I was alive for two years of them, and the only (VERY faint, possibly imagined) recollection I can dredge up from that period is when my family moved to Vermont in 1990, and I sat on my parents’ bed watching the movers place our furniture. But that might also have been a dream.

In fact, I only have fuzzy memories of elementary school as well. I’m no Jean Shepherd. I spent most of my youngest years so firmly ensconced inside my own imagination that I remember the stories I read more vividly than many things that happened in reality. By middle and high school, I was finally participating in the world around me, forming a wide circle of friends in drama club, going to the (small, ratty) mall, driving around at night with the windows down singing along to the radio with my pals. That was in the late 90s and early aughts.

Today, most people who remember being a middle- or high-schooler in the 80s are now in, or nearing, their 40s. Even someone who is 30 this year was only in elementary school by the time the 90s dawned; they weren’t having Breakfast Club coming-of-age experiences in the 80s. So why is it that the people who seem to feel the fiercest, loudest nostalgia for the 80s — college kids who throw 80s-themed parties, twenty-somethings who voraciously consume Buzzfeed listicles on 80s nostalgia — either didn’t live through the 80s, or were too young to remember or care about pop culture at the time?

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You’ll Never Guess What This Post is Ranting About

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

Is anybody else as fed up as I am by the trend of ultra-vague headlines and subheads on online articles? Upworthy made the format extremely popular; nearly all of their headlines or subheads are some variation on:

…will make you laugh, then cry

You’ll never believe #7!

What happened next will blow your mind

They didn’t exactly invent the idea of teasing the audience into reading more, but they definitely put their own unique stamp on the form and optimized it for social media sharing. Vague, but personal, headlines and subject lines were also popularized by the 2012 Obama campaign, which had unprecedented success rates with its email campaigns. The marketing world was slavering to learn what the Obama campaign did to generate such fantastic open rates, and part of the answer came down to their short, personal subject lines: “Hey,” “Check this out,” etc; the kind of subject line you’d write in an email to a friend.

Now nearly every marketing email that fills my inbox (and spam box) has a subject line like “Hey,” “Thought you’d like this,” or “For you.” Meanwhile, my Facebook feed is choked with articles whose meta-descriptions (the short block of text that appears below the headline) range from terse to nearly non-existent: “This will blow your mind,” “I couldn’t stop laughing at #4,” or  a simple “Heartbreaking.” And the more I see this, the less I click. Obviously the technique still works (or I wouldn’t still be seeing it everywhere) but it makes me wonder how long this trend will keep up before over-saturation renders it completely useless.

I used to click vague headlines like that because I wanted to find out what the article was about. Now I don’t click, because I’m tired of winding up on articles I have relatively little interest in. A good headline should tease the contents of an article, leaving something up to the reader’s imagination, to tantalize him into continuing reading. But a good headline should also give enough information to let the reader know what to expect — am I about to click through to a foreign policy expose or a video about baby pandas?

Writing an excellent headline like the one described above takes a lot of hard work and skill. It’s admittedly a skill I’m still working on — as my editor could tell you, after my numerous pleas for help. It’s especially difficult to write one for your own piece, which is why, within magazine, newspaper, and blog staffs, many times one person will wind up writing the headline for another person’s story. Vaguelining is a clever, and effective, trick, but maybe part of the reason I resent it so much is because it’s so easy. Anyone can write a vagueline. Maybe I just hope it goes out of style so I won’t feel so alone in the crowd of writers who struggle to craft good headlines.

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No Man, No Cry

Friday, March 28th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

In reading this Atlantic article on The Good Wife‘s big twist, this jumped out at me:

And television characters, especially women, often make decisions that keep them in the orbit of their love interests, even when it doesn’t make sense to what we know about them. For example, would a savvy political fixer like Olivia Pope on Scandal really risk her career to keep working on her lover Fitz’s presidential campaign? In the Veronica Mars movie, would Veronica—who spent three seasons of her show plotting how to escape her corrupt hometown of Neptune—really give up a stable life in New York City to return home and rekindle a romance with Logan? While “Olitz” and “LoVe” fans get to enjoy seeing their favorite couples together, it comes at the cost of diminishing Olivia and Veronica as believable characters.

I understand the bigger point that, in the context of these characters’ established desires and priorities, it’s jarring for them to change course for romance. Except that I’ve seen, first hand, the way that love can inspire people (male and female!) to dramatically revise their life plans. In that sense, the ability to adapt to a new emotional landscape (or simply shift priorities over time) is a realistic trait for a character.

While I agree with the article’s premise that TV needs more female characters whose lives don’t revolve solely around romance, I don’t think the answer is to gradually eliminate romance (or romantically-motivated life decisions) from female characters’ lives. Every time I see a debate about this, I heave a sigh and think wistfully of Joss Whedon’s two greatest creations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Even their secondary female characters are complex and interesting women, while other shows often reduce secondary female characters to nothing but their romantic story lines (or role as best friend).

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