Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho

altheaoliverSometimes it’s easy to remember why you picked up a certain book: a friend recommended it, or you read a great review somewhere, or you liked the cover or the title. Sometimes one recommendation or review isn’t enough, and it’s not until you hear about a book a few times that you’re motivated to pick it up. In the case of Althea & Oliver, I first heard of it in a Booklist review, then it showed up in my e-mail through Penguin’s First to Read program. I liked the names in the title; I liked the fancy ampersand. Was that all?

If it was, it was enough. Taking place in the pre-cell phone 1990s, Althea & Oliver reminded me of some other excellent YA novels, including John Green’s Paper Towns, Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility, Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us, and Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now. Set in Wilmington, NC, Althea & Oliver has a few things in common with these books: the focus is close on two characters; it takes place in the South (mostly); and while parental supervision isn’t entirely absent, Althea’s dad Garth and Oliver’s mom Nicky aren’t helicopter parents, either.

Althea and Oliver have been best friends for ten years, but just as Althea begins to see Oliver as more than just a best friend, Oliver falls asleep. Not metaphorically, and not just for a nap: Oliver falls asleep for weeks. While Oliver is asleep, he has episodes – an incident at Waffle House, for example – that he can’t remember when he wakes up. When he wakes up for real, he wants everything to go back to normal. But when it happens again, his mom Nicky begins to do some research, and discovers that Oliver isn’t the only one; what he has is called Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS), and there’s a study going on in New York.

Oliver doesn’t tell Althea about the study and his imminent departure, at first because he doesn’t know how, and then because of something that happens between them during one of his episodes. When Althea realizes that Oliver is gone, not just asleep, she finds out where he went and goes after him, launching herself into a new phase of life, alone. Althea arrives at the hospital in New York just minutes after Oliver falls asleep again; she winds up in Red Hook, in a house with a bunch of other young adults, and astonishingly – after being friends with no one but Oliver for years – Althea makes friends with them.

Oliver wakes up just before New Year’s, escapes the hospital with another boy in the study, and goes in search of Althea. Improbably, he finds her. He tells her about a possible solution to his KLS, but even if it solves his sleep problems, it won’t solve what went wrong between them. They can’t go back to normal – they can only go forward.

Unconventional and utterly, convincingly real, Althea & Oliver is full of well-rounded, believable characters. No one is a prop, no one is one-dimensional; from Wilmington punk friends Val and Howard (a.k.a. Minty Fresh) to the Red Hook house full of dropouts and vegans, every character in this book could be the center of his or her own story. But it is Althea who is the heart of this one; Althea who is angry and violent, heartbroken and determined, scrappy and searching; Althea who realizes, at last, that neither she nor Oliver are going to get what they want, but that there is something else out there for them both.

I received an e-galley of this book through Penguin’s First to Read program. Althea & Oliver will be published in October 2014.

“Netflix for books” already exists: it’s called the library

Even in a profession where we interact with the general public daily, it can be tricky for librarians to assess how much other people know about what we do, and what libraries offer – which is why it is so delightful to see an article by a non-librarian raising awareness of a service libraries offer. In “Why the Public Library Beats Amazon – For Now” in theĀ Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey A. Fowler praises public libraries across the country, more than 90% of which offer e-books (according to the Digital Inclusion Study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services).

Noting the rise of Netflix-style subscription platforms like Oyster and Scribd, Fowler observes that libraries still have a few key advantages: they’re free, and they offer more books that people want to read.

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Graphic designer Aaron Tung’s idea for the Penguin – Random House logo

Librarians have been working with publishers for several years, negotiating various deals and trying out different models (sometimes it seems like two steps forward, one step back), but finally all of the Big Five have come on board and agreed to “sell” (license) e-books and digital audiobooks to libraries under some model. (The Big Five were formerly the Big Six, but Random House and Penguin merged and became Penguin Random House, missing a tremendous opportunity to call themselves Random Penguin House, with accompanying awesome logo.)

Thus, while Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU for short – has the University of Kansas made a fuss about this yet? They should) touts its 600,000 titles, the question readers should be asking is, which 600,000 titles? All books are not created equal. The library is more likely to have the books you want to read, as Fowler points out in his article. It may be true that Amazon, Oyster, and Scribd have prettier user interfaces, and it may take fewer clicks to download the book you want (if it’s there), but library platforms – including OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, and others – have made huge strides in this area. If you haven’t downloaded an e-book from your library recently, or at all, give it a try now – it’s leaps and bounds smoother than it used to be. You may have to wait for it – most publishers still insist on the “one copy/one user” model, rather than a simultaneous use model – but it is free. (Or if you’re impatient and solvent, you can go ahead and buy it.)

Readers' advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Readers’ advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Another way in which the library differs from for-profit book-rental platforms is that, to put it bluntly, the library isn’t spying on you. If you’re reading a Kindle book, Amazon knows how fast you read, where you stop, what you highlight. Libraries, on the other hand, have always valued privacy. The next time you’re looking for an e-book, try your local library – all you need is your library card number and PIN.

Everything you think you know

A version of this post can also be found on the Robbins Library blog.

 

The squares marked A and B are the same shade of gray.

The squares marked A and B are the same shade of gray.

Humans are amazing. But we are very often wrong when we think – when we know – we are right. The example above easily illustrates how our powers of perception can mislead us. (Click on the image to see the proof and explanation.) This example is cited in the book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schultz, but there are hundreds of other examples, and optical illusions are only one way in which our perception of a thing can be inaccurate. We can be wrong – even when we think we’re right – in hundreds of ways, dozens of times a day. Comforting thought, isn’t it? It could be, if we accept Schultz’s assertion that “errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.”

“That our intuition could lead us astray is troubling in direct proportion to the degree of trust we place in it.” -Leah Hager Cohen, I don’t know

If Being Wrong disturbs you, try Leah Hager Cohen’s book I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t). At just over a hundred pages, it gives a great return for time spent; in fact, I could easily see it becoming required reading for students entering high school or college. Cohen writes about learning to admit when we don’t know something, and goes further, asking, “but what about all those times we don’t know we don’t know?

Both Schultz and Cohen warn about the danger of belief hardening into certainty, and emphasize the importance of doubt. Cohen writes, “Real civil discourse necessarily leaves room for doubt. That doesn’t make us wishy-washy…We can still hold fervent beliefs. The difference is, we don’t let those beliefs calcify into unconsidered doctrine.” She continues, Fundamentalism of any kind is the refusal to allow doubt. The opposite of fundamentalism is the willingness to say ‘I don’t know.'”

For a quick, high-energy take on the same material, Hank Green (brother of John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, etc.) has a four-minute video entitled “Towering Mountains of Ignorance.” He says, “I’m glad that we have the desire to understand the world, that results in all sorts of great stuff. We want to know everything, we’re curious….But I think a lot of the time we end up mixing up thinking something with knowing something.”

Watch the whole video by clicking below.

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“I think that I know a lot of things…but the vast majority of things, vast majority, I don’t know.” -Hank Green

Hank Green: “Now, I know that I don’t know, but somehow everyone else seems to know. They all know differently from each other, but they all seem to know. When you look at all deeply at this, you realize that people aren’t basing their opinions on what they think is the best course of action or the actual best explanation, they’re basing it on their values.”

“What I’m saying is nobody’s opinions are correct…and yet it’s impossible not to tie your opinions to your concept of self.” -Hank Green

In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schultz puts it this way: “The idea of knowledge and the idea of error are fundamentally incompatible. When we claim to know something, we are essentially saying that we can’t be wrong. If we want to contend with the possibility that we could be wrong, then the idea of knowledge won’t serve us; we need to embrace the idea of belief instead.” Call it what you want – knowledge, belief, opinions, values – it/they are “inextricable from our identities,” which is “one reason why being wrong can so easily wound our sense of self.”

"I DON'T KNOW!"

“I DON’T KNOW!”

The two books mentioned above, Being Wrong and I don’t know, are nonfiction, and I highly recommend them both to anyone and everyone. But fiction, too, can be useful, in that it allows readers to see from the point of view of someone different. The link between fiction and empathy is real (Scientific American, New York Times, this blog), and reading fiction, especially books where the narrators or main characters are very different from us, can help us break down what we think we know – especially what we think we know about other people.