The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

gretawellsFrom the first sentence (“The impossible happens once to each of us”), I was completely drawn in, ready to be enchanted, and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells delivered. I read it in one great gulp, and it’s already on my “to reread” list; because the time period changes, a slower (or second) read could help keep all the details and different storylines straight.

The book begins with Greta in late October of 1985. Due to her twin brother Felix’s death of AIDS and her longtime lover Nathan’s leaving, she is suffering from depression, and is undergoing a course of electroconvulsive therapy. And then: “That is how magic works. It takes the least likely of us, without foreshadowing, at the hour of its own choosing. It makes a thimblerig of time. And this is exactly how, one Thursday morning, I woke up in another world.” This “other world” is Greta’s own, but in 1918: she lives in the same apartment New York, her aunt Ruth nearby, her brother Felix still alive.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that there are three different Gretas, cycling through each other’s times and lives: 1918, 1941, and 1985. We follow only the original 1985 Greta, though the other Gretas leave traces of their activities behind, little things changed where they have left their own mark on each other’s lives. (“I was not borrowing these other Gretas; I was becoming them.”) In each time, the same characters appear: Felix, Ruth, and Nathan, as well as Felix’s love interest Alan and Greta’s love interest Leo.

Each of the Gretas is receiving her time period’s equivalent to electroconvulsive therapy, so that the three Gretas rotate times on a schedule (a day in 1918, a week in 1941, etc.). However, when one Greta misses a treatment, the other two switch places (instead of cycling through all three) until she returns. As the original 1985 Greta nears the end of her treatments, she must decide where she will be happiest, and where she is most needed – in the present, or in the past.

Greer’s writing is beautiful but not showy; without it, the story would be spare. When one pauses, there is so much to wonder about and untangle. Greer, however, seems less interested in the details of how a woman from 1985 would fit into a life in 1918 or 1941, and more concerned with the personal relationships in each era, and the different versions of Greta and everyone around her – of how people are shaped by their time. As Greta reflects, “A shift in weather, and we are a different person. The split of an atom, and we change….It takes so little to make us different people.”

Ultimately, Greta comes up with a question that is also her answer: “What is a perfect world except for one that needs you?”

Those who enjoy the writing style of Simon Van Booy (Love Begins in Winter, The Illusion of Separateness) and the mind-twisting intricacies of time travel literature will delight in Greta Wells.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz

beingwrongI spent about a week reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. It had been on my to-read list for some time, and I’m so glad I finally got around to it. It felt like I bookmarked something on nearly every page (and indeed, I ended up taking eight pages of notes), and my review stretched to three pages.

Full review on Goodreads

Full review including quotes (link to Google doc)

I first heard about the book in a New York Times Book Review interview with Drew Gilpin Faust (President of Harvard University), who recommended it as a book all incoming freshman should read. The book is in four parts: The Idea of Error, The Origins of Error, The Experience of Error, and Embracing Error.

Schulz is a gifted writer in the way she weaves together ideas from across several disciplines, provides illustrative examples from many sources, quotes experts from different fields, and builds a cohesive and powerful model – the “Optimistic Meta-Induction” (to counter the Pessimistic Meta-Induction*).

Although the ideas and theories in the book are substantial, the writing is accessible and personable, even funny at times. Though it’s awkward to recommend this book in person (“I just read this book called Being Wrong, I think you’d love it!”), it’s well worth reading; I found it to be an incredibly rewarding book that will, I hope, help me think and feel differently about the experiences of being right and wrong, and have more compassion and empathy for those who see things differently than I do.

*Schulz defines the Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science on page nine: “…because even the most seemingly bulletproof scientific theories of times past eventually proved wrong, we must assume that today’s theories will someday prove wrong as well.” She extrapolates from this and expands it: “No matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything.”


ALA Chicago

I didn’t get to attend ALA’s Annual Conference in Chicago this year, but I followed along virtually on Twitter (#ala2013) and through others’ blog posts and articles.


On June 27, Maureen Sullivan announced the launch of the “Authors for Library eBooks” initiative. A District Dispatch blog post, “Bestselling authors call for library ebook lending,” quotes Jodi Picoult: “Whether it’s a digital file or a paper copy, I want readers to find my books—and all books—in their libraries!” (As readers of this blog know, not all publishers make all their ebooks available for libraries to purchase.)

My friend Brita, who attended the conference through the Student-to-Staff program (the same way I did in 2011), wrote this great piece on Ann Patchett’s PLA President’s Program: “Ann Patchett, Readers’ Advisor Extraordinaire.” She also created a Bibliocommons list of Patchett’s top ten recommendations.


YA Authors Decode Dystopia“: I would have loved to have been in the audience for this author panel on dystopian fiction, featuring Lois Lowry, Cory Doctorow, Veronica Roth, and Patrick Ness. The authors identified “an important component of dystopian fiction that makes it so appealing: the ability to place oneself intimately in the action. The ‘what if’ factor draws readers into dystopian fiction, making them imagine how they would react if faced with calamity.”

I would have loved to sit in on PLA’s “Long e-Overdue” panel as well, which featured Jamie LaRue of the Douglas Country (CO) Libraries, Mary Minow of Library Law, and Michael Porter of Library Renewal. The idea of “library-managed e-content platforms”  as an alternative to middleman-style vendors such as OverDrive and 3M is a great goal to aim for.

I also followed along with the “New Adult: What Is It & Is It Really Happening?” panel on July 1 via Twitter (#ala13na). The panelists provided a huge list of “new adult” resources, including articles, blog posts, and booklists. Depending on who you listen to, “new adult” is either a “hot new category” in publishing, or a useless and annoying marketing ploy; it’s either fiction that features main characters in the 18-25 (ish) age range, bridging the gap between YA and adult, or it’s typical YA but with sex scenes. It’s definitely an emerging niche, though, and there’s lots to discuss.

Finally, from American Libraries Magazine, there’s a list of “10 Steps to a Better Library Interior.” The first step (“fresh perspective”) even includes one of my favorite cleaning/de-cluttering tips, which is to take everything out, then only put back the things you really want to keep. (Or at least imagine you’re doing so: obviously it’s impractical to move computers, furniture, and tens of thousands of books out of the library and into the parking lot.)

Conferences are both exhausting (travel, long days, rushing from one room to another, meeting lots of new people) and energizing (meeting new people, encountering new ideas, thinking about how you can bring those ideas back to your own library or workplace). I’m glad I was able to follow along virtually this year, thanks to those who wrote, tweeted, and linked.

Edited to add: My friend and fellow Student-to-Staffer (2011) wrote a great recap of all the programs, panels, and roundtables she attended at ALA 2013, including sessions on young adult literature, graphic novels, ARCs, and the New Adult panel. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re a YA librarian and/or a school librarian.

Password creation and user experience (UX)

File under: Something is Wrong on the Internet.

We have passwords for everything. We have passwords for e-mail, for online banking, for social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest…), for our phones, for our debit cards, for photo sharing sites, for online magazine and newspaper subscriptions, et cetera. Every company with a website wants you to create a login and password, so they can (a) start collecting information about you, and (b) inundate you with tailored advertising.

But I’m not writing about the necessity of these multiple login/password combinations (or lack thereof); I’m writing about the annoyance and frustration that results from each company and service having different requirements for creating a password. You know: it must be between 6-15 characters (or 8-12, or 6-20), it must be a combination of letters and numbers (or letters, numbers, and special characters), you can/cannot use spaces, it is(n’t) case sensitive…and so on.

Obviously it’s wise to use different passwords for different sites. That way, if (for example) your Facebook account gets hacked, the hackers don’t automatically have your password to your Amazon account, your bank, etc. However, remembering dozens of passwords is tricky, and writing them down or saving them someplace online presents problems too (though I’ve heard good things about the password manager LastPass).

My current approach is to use a “stem,” a combination of letters and numbers, and attach a different prefix or suffix that is easy for me to remember, depending on the site or service I’m using. Inevitably, though, a set of password requirements comes along that causes me to have to tweak my formula in a way that ensures I will not remember it in the future, and so I’ll have to send myself a password reminder and re-set it the next time I want to log in.

UNLESS, before prompting me with the “Forgot your password?” link to send that reminder, the site simply provided its password requirements (e.g. the “Password Tips” image above, which is from the Starbucks website). Then I’d be able to remember, or at least make a very good guess, as to how I’d modified my usual password, and not have to go through the process of re-setting my password again and again.

This is a tragically simple fix that would improve user experience so much, and yet almost no website does it. Yes, The Internet, that’s a challenge.


Image from Tumblr via Google Image Search. Copyright most likely held by the estate of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) or Random House. Obviously I neither created nor hold the rights to The Lorax, the publication of which preceded my birth by at least a decade.