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Hannah Sternberg

Hannah Sternberg's first novel, Queens of All the Earth, is available on Amazon, BN.com, and bookstores near you.
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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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Get Fit or Die

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg
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Do we work out for health or beauty? Yes.

I’m in the middle of reading Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History by Jonathan Black. (Full review to come.)

So far, it’s enormously entertaining and enlightening, and I’m recommending it to friends already. Interestingly, it focuses more on the clash of personalities (and marketing styles) than on the fitness methods themselves. But what stood out to me is how so many marketing campaigns for fitness regimes, dating all the way back to the nineteenth century, played on fear and shame. Apparently every era of American society has teetered on a crisis of emasculation and/or unhealthiness. And that crisis also happens to necessitate buying lots of new equipment, accessories, and specialty food, so we can fit into the clothes that exalt the body type that the fitness trend tells us we must have.

Another thing that stood out to me was the changing shape of the “ideal” woman. One of my favorite stories from the book so far (and a welcome note of positive, encouraging marketing) was that of Pudgy Stockton. Pudgy’s nickname originated in her chunky teen years, but she shed the pounds and gained a very different reputation on Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach. A smiling, playful fitness icon, Pudgy is credited with demonstrating to women of her generation that females can lift weights without losing their femininity — and that lifting can even enhance their womanly curves. It was refreshing to see a female fitness icon who didn’t look like she could fit through the eye of a needle — but was still healthy, attractive, and feminine.

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4 Classic Novels Perfect For Your Spring Reading List

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg
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Spring is coming, and after a long, hard winter, I think that qualifies for a celebratory Spring Reading List. You know what summer reads are — beach books, thrillers, all the genre books you love to relax into. And winter reads are the kinds of books you curl up with, under a blanket next to a fire — deeper, darker books that take you away on the cold howling wind. So what’s a spring read? A book about awakening, a delicate but powerful book, a book full of the magic of transformation, tinged with slight sadness. Here are my four spring reads for this year:

4) A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

A moving romance and wry social commentary, A Room with a View takes place in the spring and summer, in Edwardian-era Italy and England. This book begs to be read by an open window.

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Were the Mayans Off by 2 Years?

Monday, March 17th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

Snow. Earthquakes. Political upheaval. Missing airplanes.

Do you need any more proof the end is near? I don’t — I just need to find my fireproof umbrella in the back of my coat closet.

My advice? Don’t be part of the screaming hordes. I know you want to be prepared, and there’s a lot of information out there for people who have their priorities straight: survival, and looking badass in a leather motorcycle jacket they tanned in their backyard. But I have a few lesser-known tips that could completely change your quality of life after the world economy collapses and the electrical grids go dark…

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5 Secret Emotions Only E-Reader Addicts Understand

Saturday, March 15th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg
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I love my Kindle, and my Kindle cloud account, which allows me to read books I’ve purchased on any device (for the times when I forget my Kindle, have to take an unexpected Metro ride, or carry a ridiculously small purse to match my outfit). I used to be that person who never went anywhere without a book. I still am that person — but instead of having to tote around a paperback, reading the same book I read at home, from the same page I left off, is as simple as whipping out my phone. My name is Hannah Sternberg and I’m an eReader Addict.

You, too, may be an eReader Addict, if you’ve experienced one or more of the following:

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The Spritz App: Now You Can Waste Time, Even Faster

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Like all passionate readers, I sometimes feel anxious about the number of books I’ll never be able to read. A single lifetime is just a blip when you consider all the delicious literature out there, waiting to be consumed.

That was the first thing I thought of, after my mild horror subsided, when I heard about the new hyper-speed-reading app Spritz. Spritz promises reading speeds of over 500 words per minute; at its fastest, it can allow users to read the Bible cover to cover in 13 hours.

Why the mild horror? Well, it’s another byproduct of being a passionate reader: I’m torn between the desire to read as many books as possible, and the pleasure of lingering in each one. There’s no lingering in the magic of a scene at 500 words per minute.

This Atlantic article makes a great point that the app’s greatest utility may be sifting through the pages and pages of online articles many people feel socially and professionally obligated to read. If your goal is to be able to say you read it, that’s fine. Maybe eventually we’ll evolve to be able to comprehend at that speed, as well.

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A Book About Fairies… That Boys Will Love Too

Friday, March 7th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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This week, I cheated. I know I promised you guys last week that I’d start a blog series on adventure books for young boys, to encourage reading — and for men and women of all ages who yearn for an old-fashioned swashbuckling yarn. I went through my bookshelves and pulled out some classics, to kick things off. And then, instead of reading any of those selections, I got pulled into a fantasy tale set in fairyland, published by Harlequin Teen.

The good news is, I think your boys should read it, too.

I know there aren’t a lot of teen boys who would want to be caught reading a Harlequin book, especially one featuring pixies and fairy magic and sparkling gowns. But in both the land of fairies and real life, appearances can be deceiving, and Julie Kagawa’s The Iron King has enough adventure, action, gore, surprise twists, creepy creatures, and sly humor to keep girls and boys alike rapt for hours. I haven’t finished a book in two days in a long, long time, but The Iron King made me feel resentful of any time I had to spend not reading it until I managed to turn the last page.

Protagonist Meghan Chase is an average high schooler and a bit of a tomboy. But her humdrum life is overturned when fairies exchange her little brother, Ethan, for a changeling — a vicious monster who has assumed Ethan’s features, if not his sweet personality. That night, she also learns that her best friend Robbie is actually Robin Goodfellow — more commonly known as Puck, the mischievous fairy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck leads Meghan into the land of the fairies, where she seeks her little brother and in the process becomes embroiled in the political schemings of the Summer and Winter Courts. She and her companions encounter a stunning array of creatures along the way, from ogres and goblins to dryads and satyrs.

Author Julie Kagawa has a prodigious imagination and a knack for clever action and suspense scenes that reminds me of The Princess Bride, another seemingly “girly” tale that has captured the imaginations of thousands of young boys. The Iron King hits all the right notes that I listen for in an adventure tale: fast-paced action scenes, cleverly choreographed; wry banter between friends and enemies alike; a diverse host of companions and foes, with entertaining quirks and foibles; a journey through a variety of landscapes; and a good mix of physical challenges for the heroes, and mental ones, such as riddles and bargains.

If you, or your boys, loved The Princess Bride, tales of Robin Hood, or The Hobbit, Kagawa’s The Iron King will hit the spot.

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5 Reasons I Don’t Want to Travel Back in Time

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Pretty much every nerd and misfit, sometime during adolescence, wishes he could travel to a time and place where he’d fit in. Maybe it was an entirely separate fantasy world, like Narnia; maybe it was a secret world-within-our-world, like Hogwarts; or maybe it was a fantastic, steampunk version of the past.

I lived in those fantasies as a teen so much so that I remember stretches of my high school years more for the stories my friends and I concocted than for anything else that happened in the real world. That yearning came to life in Bulfinch, my second novel (due to be released this summer), in which a medieval knight and his monk chronicler travel through time into the attic study of a modern-day scholar.

But as my roommate and I spent this week’s snow day watching Pride and Prejudice (1995), I realized I might finally have grown out of my wish to live in the past — at least, the realistic past. All I seemed to notice were the things I wouldn’t have been able to stand about Lizzie’s world. Here are the top five reasons I’m thoroughly, solidly glad to be living right now:

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Why Ed Wood is the Most Discouraging Movie Ever

Friday, February 28th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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While it’s not as famous as Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before ChristmasEd Wood is an early film by Tim Burton beloved by many fans. Its quirks abound: it’s shot in black and white, using camera angles and lighting techniques to tip the hat to classic movies; Johnny Depp appears in drag and talks about parachuting into Normandy wearing women’s underclothes; and Bill Murray, Martin Landau, and Vincent D’Onofrio all give memorable performances as Hollywood legends Bunny Breckinridge, Bela Legosi, and Orson Welles.

Ed Wood tells the true story of its eponymous hero, known as one of the worst filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age. Ed Wood’s most famous creation was Plan 9 from Outer Space, which came back into the public consciousness when it was lambasted on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Burton crafts an entertaining and heartbreaking film in which you find yourself cheering for Ed despite his obvious incompetence and total lack of self-awareness. The final scenes depicting the making of Plan 9 play out triumphantly despite their absurdity — you’re only reminded that the rest of the world isn’t on Ed’s side when the cast and crew arrive at the premiere and get booed out of the theater. That’s when the cold, heavy truth settles on you, as the end titles roll: Ed Wood was irreversibly, passionately devoted to his art, and he completely sucked at it.

A friend and I watched Ed Wood together once when we were in college. Afterward, we laughed nervously and looked at each other and said, “I’m not Ed Wood, am I?”

I was going into the arts; my friend was then a pre-med student, and this spring will graduate from medical school. But we were both haunted by the same fear, after that movie: am I absolutely terrible at the thing I love doing, and everyone around me is just too nice to say so?

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Bring Back the Intermission

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Movies are getting longer and longer, especially in two categories: epic sci-fi/fantasy, and Big Serious Films. At the very least, audiences can start to feel like they’re getting their $18′s worth, at least in volume, if not always quality, of material.

This isn’t the first wave of super-long movies, though. The epics of the ’50s and ’60s could put our super-long movies to shame. But there’s a big difference between Avatar and Ben Hur: the latter had an intermission.

I was watching Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) this weekend, and as usual, TCM charmingly played the intermission and entr’acte music with the original title screens, demonstrating their commitment to showing films as close to whole as possible. As I used the intermission for the same purpose that decades of theater goers before me have — to make a quick pit stop — I realized that the intermission wasn’t such a silly anachronism after all. In fact, it was a sign of respect.

People just aren’t comfortable sitting for three or more hours straight (at least, I hope not). We need to get up, stretch our legs, hit the restroom, get another glass of water. Movie intermissions are a win-win: audiences get to take a quick break without missing anything, and theater-owners have an extra opportunity to push more popcorn and soda on them.

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5 Adventure Books for Reading-Reluctant Boys

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

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Recent research has demonstrated that young boys are falling behind girls in reading comprehension and that part of the problem may be that they are less enthusiastic recreational readers. There are lots of theories on why this is, and how to correct it, but one of the most common solutions is simply to provide more reading material targeted specifically to boys. Of course, that’s a political-correctness minefield (after all, if we “gender” things like adventure and science, are we now excluding girls from those things?). But the way I see it, there are also plenty of young girls who also crave traditionally “boyish” reading material who are also left adrift in search of their next adventure fix, so everyone wins if more of that material is produced or brought to light.

I was one such girl — as a middle schooler I loved few things more than Indiana Jones, The Mummy, and the swashbuckling tales of C. S. Forester. As a grown-up, I often feel nostalgic for those yarns as I slog through the drier, more nihilistic literary offerings that will supposedly enhance my mind. So, for the next few months, I’m going to review some forgotten gems of adventure fiction. If you have a reluctant reader, maybe curling up with him (or her) and one of these books will inspire the same love of reading that I found in my first fictional adventures. Here’s a list of classics to kick it off.

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Winter Isn’t Going

Thursday, February 13th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

I’m going to the grocery store tonight, not to prepare for the upcoming snowpocalypse but just because I haven’t been to the grocery store in weeks and my dinner choices have been getting pretty grim.

Okay, and maybe to pick up a few things in case the power and/or roads go out. But darker than the skies outside are the moods of my friends and coworkers. We’re all tired of the inconveniences of missed work, closed schools, dangerous sidewalks and roads, and worse — loss of power or water or a shortage of food. Those are all very serious concerns, but you know what we could all grouch a lot less about? How cold it is. How long this winter feels. (It’s only February, people! That’s still technically winter!) How the weather is practically a personal affront – how dare the weather be bad?!

CARNAGE!

CARNAGE!

When’s the last time your grouchiness managed to stop a winter storm from overtaking your city?

I’m sick of people being sick of winter. It’s not my favorite season, and I grew up in Vermont, where winter lasted from October through April. But I discovered, through extensive testing, that the cold feels a lot less awful when you stop moaning about it (or at least try to cut back). And since you’re stuck in this winter anyway, why not focus on the enjoyable moments?

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Andrew Bird’s Flights of Fancy

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

The first poet I fell in love with was E. E. Cummings. In elementary school we read his poems about springtime and childhood. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered his poems about love and sex, mortality, war, and much more. There aren’t many recent poets who have captured my imagination like E. E. Cummings does. Part of the problem is the difficulty of finding good contemporary poetry — fewer and fewer magazines carry it, and only a few specialty publishers collect it into books. I haven’t tried very hard to look for it, though, because my new favorite poets are working somewhere else entirely — the stage of a local music venue.

My new favorite poet is Andrew Bird. I’ve been following him for five years now. If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably been as a violinist and alternative musician.

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Bird’s lyrics roam from ancient civilizations to a whimsical post-apocalyptic paradise. Some of his songs hint at a story that ended just before he started singing; others sound just like Bird is enjoying playing with words, the way an abstract artist explores form and color. Like the poems of E. E. Cummings, Bird’s lyrics spring to life when the listener learns to focus less on meaning and more on atmosphere.

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Andrew Bird is one of those rare artists who doesn’t just write music — he creates worlds. But despite his lyric-writing ability, I have wonder if calling him a poet fully sums him up. If I only read his lyrics, I might have been reminded of E. E. Cummings but I wouldn’t have been swept away in quite the same way. The music is part of the poetry. He builds delicate castles with piccolo and rhyme — the sum is greater than the parts. I can’t call him a poet because he’s more than that.

So, my hunt for great contemporary poetry is still frustrated. But I can’t say Andrew Bird has let me down.

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Play It Yourself: Tabs and Lyrics

Tenuousness

Scythian Empire

A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left 

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Green Up, Chill Out

Monday, February 10th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

This week’s gardening music:

For Part 1 of this gardening series, sprouting seeds, click here.

When I was searching for seeds on Amazon, I noticed that the same companies that offered the highest-rated herb variety packs also sold “survival garden” seed packages. These packs contain a selection of hardy vegetables that provide a range of important nutrients, the perfect addition to your survival bunker. Of course, they aren’t much help if you don’t know how to grow them.

A simple herb garden won’t sustain you in case of a global disaster, but it is a good way to learn basic gardening skills. Most common herbs go easy on the gardener — Mediterranean herbs like thyme and oregano don’t require a lot of water, so a day or two of forgetting your new calling won’t kill them. Woody herbs like lavender and rosemary are difficult to start from seed, but once they’re well-established they’re extremely hardy. Leafy herbs like basil take minimal tending — just put them in a sunny spot and they’ll fill your garden or kitchen with beautiful fragrance even when you’re not cooking.

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Careerzillas Are Bad for Women

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

You know that article that’s been going around, about how we should stop throwing bridal showers and baby showers, and throw more parties to celebrate women when they get promotions, travel somewhere cool, or pass an educational milestone?

If you’re asking “which one?” it’s because that seems to be all the internet can talk about lately: the Non-Traditional Female Achievement Shower, or how women should be celebrated more often for all the stuff they do before getting married and starting a family.

The argument is, roughly, that women have been feted for centuries for getting married and having babies, but if we want to encourage female achievement, we should throw women Promotion Showers and New Job Parties instead. One blogger even argues she should get a party for backpacking across Asia.

This is in the name of equality (because, as you know, men have been getting special parties all along). Oh, you haven’t recently attended a party to celebrate the fact that one of your male friends completed a backpacking trip? Maybe because that’s not a thing. Okay, it is a thing, and that thing is called a “welcome home party,” and I’m only going to throw you one if I haven’t seen you in, like, five years. I’ve successfully returned from vacation many times without mourning the lack of a party to greet me.

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If Fatherhood Falls in a Forest…

Monday, February 3rd, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

TheParisReviewFatherhood has been undergoing a dramatic redefinition in recent years, amply covered by journalists, scientists, and sitcoms. That’s why the Tweet I saw today (“Do fathers make good writers? Do writers make good fathers?“) was clickbait I eagerly lapped up.

The article I wound up reading, “The Pram in the Hall,” revealed more about its author, Shane Jones, than it did about writing or parenthood. Jones is admittedly image-obsessed, and that’s evident when he spends most of this article talking not about the unique challenges parenthood poses to writing, but about the challenges it poses to his carefully cultivated personal and professional image.

He writes, “In our culture, fatherhood means baggy khakis and cars with side-impact airbags—it’s something of a joke.”

I don’t see how that’s something of a joke — I just see a comfortable man in a safe car. And people in the book world aren’t known for their glamorous good looks and fashion sense, either, so I’m not sure how any of that is a threat to his career. Have you been to a publishing trade show lately? Clint and Stacey would have a heart attack.

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I Love that J. K. Rowling Wants to Break Up Ron and Hermione

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

Harry Potter fans were outraged this weekend to learn that author J. K. Rowling regrets pairing up Harry’s buddies Ron and Hermione. She told readers that she stuck with the pairing because it was part of the plan all along, but looking back at how the characters evolved, she realized that Ron and Hermoine might not be the best for each other’s long-term happiness.

I love this news.

For an author, having two characters end up in a mismatched or potentially unhappy romance shouldn’t have to be a cause for regret. After all, fiction would be very dull if every character made the right choices and loved the right people. In fact, many authors gleefully torture their characters for their bad decisions, or just for plain fun (I’m looking at you, George R. R. Martin). Making bad things happen to your characters is necessary to advance an interesting story, no matter how painful writing those things might be for the author. And they can make for a deliciously addictive tale (I’m still looking at you, George R. R. Martin).

But I like how, despite that, J. K. Rowling still wants the best for her characters. She admitted that Ron probably wouldn’t be able to make Hermione happy. I don’t think that’s the credibility issue she says it is (people wind up in mismatched, unhappy pairings all the time in real life) but I do think it’s refreshing that she seems to care about whether her characters will wind up happy.

It reminds me of Stranger Than Fiction, the movie in which an author’s fictional creation fights to defend himself from the author’s plans to kill him at the end of her novel. More recently, Cabin in the Woods seemed to be Joss Whedon telling horror-movie creators, “How would you feel if the horrible things you did to your characters happened to you?” Both movies imply, at least a little, that some creators are getting tired of stories that treat characters like props to make The Author’s Big Point, or objects that exist to titillate.

Why is this important? Because audiences do want to engage with characters as if they were real. And when creators dehumanize characters, that attitude gets carried away from the theater or reading chair, and contributes to the dehumanization of people in real life. The more callous we become about the unhappiness inflicted on characters, the more callous we become about real people’s unhappiness.

Thank you, J. K. Rowling, for caring so much about your characters, even when it lets down a few fans. Treating characters like real people can introduce some much-needed positivity into a pretty nihilistic arts landscape.

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Music for My Dad’s Guitar

Friday, January 31st, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

monstersandmen

This Christmas, my brother and I were stumped. My gift ideas for our dad had fallen through, and I’d run out of gardening stuff to give him. (He’s the kind of guy who only really needs a trowel and a bucket — and after feeling clever, giving him a wrap-around-the-bucket trowel carrier last year, I realized I’d exhausted the only possibility in that field.)

But then I saw my dad pick up the guitar I’d brought home with me, and realized that he remembered more from when he played 30 years ago, than I’d learned in nine months of studious* practicing. My brother and I impulsively bought him a guitar just before the holiday overtook us.

Now my dad has added a songbook of classics and is asking me to send him tabs for more current songs that he could play along with me when I visit home. My parents often remind me I’m their conduit to the hottest new music, while I try hard to pick PG-50 tunes for them.

So, I’m opening the field. So far, I’ve sent him the tab for “Mountain Sound” by of Monsters and Men. If you read my gardening post yesterday, you know of Monsters and Men is my jam this week.

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Meanwhile, I’ve been practicing my left-hand agility with the introduction to Muse’s “Plug-In Baby,” which sounds like a baroque practice piece when played on an acoustic guitar.

What are your recommendations for good beginner’s rock songs on an unplugged guitar?

 

*I apply a very generous definition of “studious” here.

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How Not to Turn Into The Shining This Winter

Thursday, January 30th, 2014 - by Hannah Sternberg

Tonight’s Gardening Music:

It’s just about the time of year I start to get the desperate, painful feeling that I’ll never see a green growing thing again. The Polar Vortex isn’t doing much to help my cabin fever — I used to get through long winters in Vermont by imagining that somewhere in the continental US (a limit that made the place seem more geographically accessible) it was warm. Now I live below the Mason-Dixon line, my postage stamp front yard is covered in snow, and I heard it was freezing in Florida. Get me out of here.

My roommate and fellow contributor Becky Graebner has been tackling her cabin fever by cooking her way through Ina Garten and documenting it here. I thought I’d contribute some fresh herbs to her cause by pursuing one of my favorite hobbies, gardening. I’m fighting the Polar Vortex Blues by getting a head start on my annual kitchen garden. Follow me, step-by-step, in the coming weeks as I provide garden tips and inspiration — and let me know what you’re planning on growing this season!

Day One: No Gear, No Fear

I got my seeds today.

I know that for a lot of people, a big part of the pleasure of a hobby is acquiring all the paraphernalia — just talk to an amateur photographer and you’ll probably spend more time discussing accessories, upgrades, and programs than you will the actual photographs. But my usual approach to new hobbies (or the restart of old ones) is to keep it simple, and let the results guide my acquisition of more gear.

So tonight, I have three glasses of water and three packets of seeds.

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