Wrong-Headed: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

NogginNoggin by John Corey Whaley

Published: April 8, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hours and 45 minutes

I wanted to like Noggin more than I did. It has a clever premise, it’s definitely funny, and it delivers on more than one genuinely touching moment. Unfortunately, despite everything the book does right, I just wanted to wring the main character’s neck after a certain point. During one scene late in the book I actually grimaced in horror at his stupidity.

Travis Coates starts out with a lot of sympathetic qualities. Noggin opens as he awakens from a surgery to attach his severed head to a donor body. In his former life, Travis was a sixteen-year-old kid with inoperable cancer. When it became clear that he was going to die, he volunteered for an experimental program with a chance to save his life.

The program worked, but that catch is this: five years passed while his head was cryogenically frozen. He’s still mentally sixteen, but his friends are in college and his parents lived with the grief of his loss for years.

That mental age ends up being Travis’ biggest obstacle. Everyone else has grown up and moved on, but he’s still petulant and selfish and unwilling to let go of the past. When he discovers that his best friend and girlfriend didn’t wait around for him to come back, he proceeds to blow up their lives and friendships with his behavior.

Travis spends most of Noggin trying to win back the love of his former girlfriend, Cate, who is now five years older than him and engaged to another guy. It’s obvious from the start that Travis’ quest is a huge mistake. He’s going to fail, and when he does, he’s going to ruin his relationship with someone he claims to love.

There’s probably a way to tell this story that would make it feel like Travis and Cate are star-crossed lovers, but I never found myself sympathizing with his wish to win her back. He just seemed like a pathetic asshole. His self-delusion lasts for so long and goes to such extremes that I lost all patience for his idiocy.

Travis is exactly the sort of “nice guy” who just won’t take a hint, and the Cate is so forgiving that she just keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt. When Travis makes a completely boneheaded “grand gesture” near the end of the book, Cate actually forgives him… and then a few chapters later he ignores her feelings yet again. I groaned aloud.

Honestly, I’m not sure I believe that Travis learns anything over the course of the book. Instead, it feels like he just decides to blame everyone else for not understanding what he’s going through.

Although I might be willing to give John Corey Whaley’s books another chance, I’m glad I’m done spending time with Travis Coates.

DISLIKED IT

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Millennials Love “Real Books” and Other Generalizations

millennials love books

Over at Mashable, MJ Franklin declares that he is “a millennial, and (he) will never give up reading real books“. If you were wondering, he defines “real books” as the paper-and-glue sort, not those filthy ones-and-zeroes people keep locked up in their e-readers. Audiobooks don’t even enter the discussion, so his post is already inadequate as far as I’m concerned.

At the heart of Franklin’s thesis is a study of “300 university students in the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Slovakia” that reveals how millennials, the internet’s favorite generation, say that they prefer physical books to digital ones by an overwhelming margin. The study focused on the students’ medium of choice for textbooks, but Franklin repurposes the statistic as a generalization about the state of books, and not for the first time.

I’m technically a millennial, although I’m at the top of the cut-off, so I exist in that uncomfortable middle-ground where I’m old enough to side-eye the newest whine/rant but young enough to get lumped in with bullshit trends. Even still, from an anecdotal perspective, I feel like I’ve definitely seen evidence of this particular trend in my life. My parents love their e-readers, but many of my peers seem to prefer physical books. Also, I won’t deny that I love physical books. Anyone who has seen my apartment knows that for a fact.

When Franklin says that he recently bought a new shelf to house his “to-read” collection, I had to laugh, because I have five bookcases full to overflowing with “to-read” books. I keep buying physical books even though I ran out of space years ago. I don’t think the demand for hardcovers and paperbacks will go away any time soon.

It’s fair to say that I agree with some of the sentiment behind Franklin’s post, but I don’t agree with his conclusions. He portrays the choice between physical books and ebooks as a pitched battle, as if only one format can survive and Your Loyalty Will be Tested. It’s a strangely petulant and exclusionary stance.

It doesn’t help that I’ve never been able to relate to people who like to write in the margins of books. I shudder at the thought of ruining a book by writing in it, and I thoroughly hate it when I buy a used books only to discover writing in the margins. I’ll admit that Franklin’s love of marginalia didn’t really improve my opinion of him, but I suppose if that’s how he likes to read, who am I to stop him?

That’s really the main point, though, isn’t it? How does my enjoyment of audiobooks and ebooks interfere with Franklin’s appreciation for the printed page? The answer is that it doesn’t, not one bit. Every reading format has positives and negatives, and they can (and should) co-exist.

Audiobooks are great for times when I want to keep my brain occupied during a mindless or repetitive task like driving, exercising or washing the dishes. I love audiobooks, but I would never sit down on the couch and listen to one unless I was doing something else at the same time.

I definitely love physical books as objects, especially when they have a cool cover design. I also feel like reading the printed page  transports me into a world of my imagination like nothing else. Problem is, I hardly ever have the time to sit down and do nothing but read for more than half an hour or so. I can maybe squeeze in a chapter or two of reading during my lunch break, but I finish books faster if I listen to them during my commute.

Ebooks are by far the most convenient medium. I’ve read books on my iPhone while waiting for the subway, and my Kindle is crucial when I travel. I also love that I can put my Kindle or my iPhone in my pocket and carry hundreds of books with me wherever I go. The biggest downside, though, is that it is incredibly easy to forget about all of those ebooks I’ve impulse-purchased for $1.99 over the years. I never look at them, so they might as well not be there.

As I grow older and my life becomes fuller, I have to squeeze in reading for fun when I can. Focusing on the “realness” of a physical book over more practical considerations like storage space, free time and convenience is a luxury I can no longer afford. It’s the kind of lesson you can only learn by growing older and understanding how your priorities have changed.

I’ll probably never stop buying physical books because I have terrible impulse control, but that doesn’t mean I think they’re any better or worse than other mediums. I want books in every format so that I can read as much as possible.

Treacherous Parts: You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine

You Too Can Have a Body Like MineYou Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman

Published: August 25th 2015
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Surrealism
Format: Audiobook
Length: 9 hrs and 17 mins

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a catalog of the mundane made nightmarish and surreal. Eating an orange is a visceral act of destruction and consumption. Applying makeup is an absolute negation of the self.

Sex is dissociative and alien, a study of individual body parts joining and separating in feverish dispassion. Commercials are bizarre tragedies populated with gruesome cartoon imagery.

Your favorite game show ruins lives and breaks up marriages. The neighbors dressed themselves in bed sheets with holes for their eyes and checked out of society to join a new cult. Your roommate wants to become you so thoroughly that you might no longer exist.

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a bit difficult to summarize in any kind of concise fashion, but the back copy certainly tries. The main thing you need to know before reading it is that it isn’t particularly plot-driven and the characters aren’t much more than archetypes.

The first three-fourths are an episodic, anxious meditation on body image, consumerism and food issues. The last quarter changes gears a bit when the main character decides she has found a solution to her general malaise, and the book loses a bit of its odd, surrealist charm. That last quarter also suffers from a sudden influx of jargon, but the end still mostly sticks the landing.

My favorite parts were Kleeman’s descriptions of terrifying commercials for a chemical-filled brand of snack cakes. Imagine an existentialist Wile E Coyote who doesn’t just fall but breaks at a spiritual level thanks to the machinations of sentient dessert, and you’ve got the general idea.

I also appreciated the author’s horrifying descriptions of food and eating even as they made me cringe. Eating is basically never pleasurable in this book; instead, it’s an act of violence against both food and eater.

I’m honestly not entirely sure why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. I’m not usually patient enough to read weird, arty books, and it was definitely a bit pretentious and overwritten. It’s possible that listening to the audiobook was a big part of why I liked it; in fact, I’m pretty sure I would have gotten bogged down trying to read it in print.

Accordingly, I’d rate this one as a qualified recommendation. If a rambling, slim story about body image and food issues sounds like it might be worth your time, you’ll probably get a few laughs and/or shudders out of Kleeman’s début.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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Awesome Authors Who Are Also Fantastic Narrators

I recently started listening to H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald. The book is a rare experience, both because I don’t read many non-fiction books and because the author is a fantastic narrator. Her recitation is both deeply personal and carefully, perfectly enunciated in the exact sort of British accent that makes for a pleasant listening experience. In fact, listening to a clip of her narration is a big part of what sold me on the book.

Listening to her read made me think of other authors who are also great narrators. In my experience, the combination is extremely rare. The sort of person who is willing to spend endless hours writing in solitude tends not to enjoy public speaking. Of course, it also doesn’t help when your favorite authors turn out to have weird nasally voices and a tendency to drone.

Thankfully, when an author is good at reading out loud, they are oftentimes very, very good. I’ve listed a few notable examples below.

Neil Gaiman – One of the most obvious examples of a great author-narrator is Neil Gaiman, who has a way with words and an excellent sense of pacing and intonation. Many of his stories feature thinly veiled versions of the author himself, so hearing them read aloud is crucial. I wasn’t a huge fan of his most recent collection of short stories, but Gaiman is still one of my all-time favorite authors thanks to his novels. Hearing him read anything aloud is wonderful.

David Sedaris – The weird thing about David Sedaris is that his voice is so bizarre and off-putting, but his stories just aren’t the same without it. When I first listened to Sedaris’ short stories, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get used to his voice, but a few short hours later I was weeping profusely at his story about his family’s history with dogs. His work is very much a case where the performance is an important part of every story, and if you’re just reading his words on the page, they don’t have the same effect at all.

Catherynne M. ValenteValente narrates several of the books in her Fairyland series, and although she isn’t as polished as some of the other authors on this list, her reading of September’s adventures in Fairyland gives it a unique character that I missed when another narrator took over for book two.

Mary Robinette Kowal – I actually haven’t read any of Kowal’s books yet, but I’ve listened to her narration on a number of books by other authors, and I really enjoy her voice. She’s actually a fairly prolific narrator, and I’ve also listened to many episodes of her work on the Writing Excuses podcast. I’m sure I’ll get around to reading one of her books someday soon!

Romance By Any Other Name

We’ve been watching the Starz adaptation of Outlander recently, and it got me thinking about how I’ve never actually read a “romance” novel, but I’ve read plenty of stealth romance sold as other genres. I’ve actually owned Outlander on Kindle for a while – it was free at one point and I thought I might as well find out what all the fuss was about – but I never actually got around to reading it.

Now we’re just over halfway through the first season and I’m definitely enjoying the show. Jack Randall, the villain, steals pretty much every scene he’s in, and the episode where he describes flaying Jamie’s back is simultaneously mesmerizing and horrifying. The show does have its problems here and there, however. The first episode spends a bit too much time in Claire’s head; she narrates most of the episodes, but that first one feels like it’s half an hour of her staring out a window thinking pretty thoughts. The narration does get better from there, however.

Sexual violence is also a pretty common trope on the show so far. I do think they’re making an effort to give Claire some agency when these moments occur, but I have to wonder if she’s going to face the threat (or reality) of rape literally every other episode. Additionally, there are a few particularly controversial scenes (one of which we just watched) that I know completely turned people off on the experience. I can’t really compare since I haven’t read the book (yet), but I get the impression that the show might be doing a better job with some of the more borderline material. Your mileage may vary?

In any case, I’m enjoying Outlander, but that wasn’t really a surprise. I’ve known for a very long time that I’m a huge sucker for cinematic romance although I normally stick with comedies. Outlander is oftentimes a very funny show, but it’s mostly dramatic. Luckily it generally avoids melodramatic or soapy plot twists (unlike Downton Abbey, for example), so that helps with my enjoyment.

So, here’s me: a sucker for romance, but I’ve never read an actual Romance Novel. I’ve enjoyed reading romantic books sold as fantasy or literary fiction – books like The Night Circus, Kushiel’s Dart, Soulless, Attachments, A Little Night Magic and Firethorn – so why haven’t I taken the plunge and picked up a flat-out romance?

The short and most obvious answer is: marketing. Romance novels tend to have covers that don’t appeal to me and summaries that don’t catch my interest. I haven’t figured out how to interpret the packaging to find the books I would actually enjoy the way I can with a genre novel. My rule for SF&F was that I wouldn’t read a book with a spaceship or a shirtless dude wielding a sword unless I was already familiar with the author, but I don’t know what rules to follow in the romance world. My best guess is that I should avoid books featuring Fabio on the cover.

For now, I’m going to follow Sunil Patel’s lead and pick up a book by Courtney Milan. His article over at The Book Smugglers makes a compelling case for why guys should give romance novels a chance. It’s kind of amazing to think about how much mental inertia I must have in place that I can thoroughly enjoy romantic movies and TV shows as well as blatantly romantic novels but I still hesitate at the thought of picking up a Romance Novel.

Turn Overcast Into an Amazing Audiobook App

overcastOvercast is one of the best podcasting apps on the market, but I decided that I wanted to use it to listen to audiobooks. The only problem? Overcast only works with podcast feeds.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t a simple way to manually load in MP3s or point the app directly at a file. However, I didn’t let this limitation discourage me; instead, I came up with a convoluted solution that probably isn’t for the faint of heart.

Update, March 2016: As of Overcast 2.5, patrons can upload DRM-free audio files for their own personal use. When you upload a file, it goes directly to storage hosted by Marco Arment, the app’s creator, so you don’t have to do any further setup. I’m still using the home-grown podcast configuration I explain below, but if you want to skip all that, it’s as easy as becoming an Overcast patron.

There are two really good reasons I went to so much effort: Smart Speed and Voice Boost. Smart Speed is a killer app for listening to the spoken word – it automatically speeds up podcasts and audiobooks by dynamically snipping out pauses, all without distortion. As for Voice Boost, it automatically equalizes the volume in your file, when comes in handy for too-quiet books.

Overcast also tracks how much time you’ve saved thanks to Smart Speed, and it’s kind of astonishing. I’ve used Overcast to listen to two books so far – Funny Girl and The Library at Mount Char – but it’s already saved me six hours of time. When I tried to listen to Funny Girl at normal speed as an experiment, the pauses were excruciating.

How did I manage to pull this off? I installed Podcast Generator, an “open source podcast publishing platform”. It runs in PHP and doesn’t need a MySQL database, so it’s very easy to set up. Once you’ve installed it on a server, you can use an FTP program to upload M4A or MP3 files and Podcast Generator will automatically add them as new episodes in your feed.

Here’s my current workflow for transferring audiobooks into Overcast:

  1. Download an MP3 audiobook from places such as Downpour, SYNC or your local library’s Overdrive collection.
  2. If your audiobook comes in parts, you’ll probably want to convert it into one combined file. I use a program called Join Together, which generates an M4B file and automatically adds it to iTunes.
    • If you do create a combined M4B, you’ll need to change the file extension to M4A before you upload the file into Podcast Generator.
    • This doesn’t work with extremely long books (anything involving George R.R. Martin), which will need to remain broken into smaller parts.
  3. Upload your audiobook into Podcast Generator’s media folder.
  4. Go into the Podcast Generator Admin console and choose “FTP Feature (Auto Indexing)” to refresh your feed. Your audiobook should now appear in the list of episodes.
  5. I like to edit the metadata for new episodes so that they have proper descriptions and author information, but this isn’t strictly necessary. If you want to change the order of the books in your feed, you’ll need to edit the date of the episode.
  6. Once you’ve finished adding audiobooks, go to the main page of your Podcast Generator installation and click on the RSS Feed button. This should give you your feed url, which will look something like http://example.com/feed.xml. Open Overcast and  use the “Add URL” option to subscribe to that link.

You can now stream or download audiobooks in Overcast to your heart’s content!

A Bloody, Surreal and Hilarious Trip to The Library

The Library at Mount Char by Scott HawkinsThe Library at Mount Char

Published: June 16th 2015
Publisher: Crown
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror
Format: Audiobook
Length: 16 hrs and 47 mins

The Library at Mount Char is a fantastic book, but it’s almost impossible to summarize. Part of the problem is that a lot of the book hangs on misdirection. The main character knows a lot of things that she isn’t telling us, so we have to work with what little the author provides.

This means that to summarize the book past the first few chapters is to spoil some really great surprises. On the other hand, some of the bat-shit weirdness that occurs in later chapters is what made me truly, madly, deeply love this completely insane novel. It’s a bit of a quandary, because I want to recommend this book to everyone I know.

It doesn’t help that the book’s cover looks like the sort of thing you might find on a remaindered thriller in the bargain bin. The design doesn’t really grab you by the face and insist that you start reading the book RIGHT THIS INSTANT.

The basic summary is as follows: Carolyn and her adopted brothers and sisters are apprentice librarians in a massive, strange Library full of books that include all the knowledge in the world. When they were young, all of their parents died suddenly and a mysterious man they call “Father” adopted them. Father is viciously cruel, incredibly dangerous and infinitely powerful… but he’s gone missing and now none of them can get back into the Library. When they discover what actually happened to Father, it may change the fate of the entire universe as we know it.

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The Private Eye is Weird Neo-Noir for Luddites

The Private Eye: Deluxe EditionThe Private Eye: Deluxe Edition
Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Art by: Marcos Martin
Color by: Muntsa Vicente
Published: December 17th, 2015
Publisher: Image Comics / Panel Syndicate
Genre(s): Sci Fi, Crime, Graphic Novel
Format: Hardcover
Length: 300 pages

Brian K. Vaughan might be one of the busiest writers in comics, and every new project he announces is weirder than the last. The Private Eye was the first series published through Panel Syndicate, a digital-only, DRM-free, pay-what-you-want imprint that releases comics designed specifically for tablets.

The Private Eye’s 10-issue run was so popular and well-regarded that Robert Kirkman from Image Comics convinced Vaughan to let them publish a deluxe hardcover edition of the series. This all-in-one edition is probably one of the best ways to enjoy this limited series.

The year is 2076, and it has been decades since the “cloudburst” leaked everything stored in the “cloud” to the public and secret search histories ruined lives. There is no internet, no wi-fi, and iPhones are forgotten relics of the past. In another twist, the press handles law enforcement and is known as the “Fourth Estate”.

P.I. is an unlicensed paparazzi – a private investigator by another name – who keeps an office in the Chateau Marmont and spends his time trying to photograph adulterers despite the fact that everyone wears masks and uses pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

When a young woman hires P.I. to investigate her past and she almost immediately turns up murdered, the killers and the press target P.I., and he soon finds himself roped into an investigation into her death. He eventually uncovers a conspiracy that will change the state of the world as he knows it.

At its heart, The Private Eye is a fairly traditional murder mystery. The bizarre trappings – hologram tiger-heads and Luddite tendencies – are what make it stand out from the crowd, as does Marcos Martin’s kinetic art style. The Los Angeles setting is carefully drawn, with a number of details that make it feel believable and lived-in, which only adds to the noir flavor of this book.

However, the story doesn’t always make sense. For example, I’m still not entirely sure why the villain felt the need to murder the woman who sets off the main plot. I also never quite bought into the villain’s motivations in general; it felt more like Vaughan was trying to say something about the present day through a sci-fi lens and molded his bad guy to fit that narrative and not the other way around.

Overall, The Private Eye is a fast-paced and entertaining read. If you’re curious about the story and aren’t quite ready to drop big bucks on a collected hardcover, you can always buy digital copies very cheaply from the Panel Syndicate website.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: Although I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, I also purchased my own copies as they came out.

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Horrorstör Was Assembled From Generic Parts

HorrorstorHorrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Published: September 23rd 2014
Publisher: Blackstone Audio / Quirk Books
Genre(s): Horror, Satire
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 16 mins

Anyone who has ever shopped in an IKEA knows that it is the ideal setting for a horror story: a vast, maze-like structure filled with an infinite number of uniform objects designed to frustrate the sane mind. Not to mention all the screeching children jumping on mattresses in the bedding section.

In an ideal world, Horrorstör would deliver that perfect combination of surreal horror and retail satire. Unfortunately, although there are clever touches throughout, the book falls flat.

Amy works at Orsk, a US-based IKEA knockoff that is identical in everything but name. She’s disaffected, burnt out and sarcastic, mostly because she hasn’t lived up to any of her potential. When her straight-laced boss, Basil, asks her to stay after work to help him investigate some strange goings-on in the store, they discover something far more sinister than smelly goo in the furniture aisle.

For a book billed as a horror comedy, Horrorstör is relatively laugh-free. The satire of retail drudgery feels non-specific, and as soon as the supernatural elements come to the forefront, the rest of the story is humorless bordering on bleak. The only sustained joke are the fake product listings, but they’re only mildly clever.

The horror aspect of the book relies on well-worn tropes, and after a certain point it feels like the events could be happening in any enclosed space as opposed to specifically inside a big-box furniture store. Hendrix introduces the idea of the characters getting lost in Orsk’s seemingly endless showroom, but it’s quickly dropped in favor of more traditional supernatural horrors. I also thought it was a huge missed opportunity that none of the characters assemble an improvised weapon out of random kitchen-ware and furniture pieces.

The main character spends most of the novel avoiding responsibility, reacting to horrible events or giving up entirely. Following her was frustrating, and she only develops as a character very late in the story. The conclusion is open-ended enough that Hendrix could write a sequel, but it definitely feels like he saves all potential character development for another book.

Ultimately, Horrorstör is underdeveloped and forgettable. The book’s design was by far the best part of an otherwise disappointing package.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I listened to an audiobook version from the library.

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A Portrait of Two Difficult Books

8d15823f74e0f98c95f9941d90e22063I’ve already blown past my reading goal for the year on Goodreads1, so I thought it was time I started reading something that would offer a bit of a challenge.

I’ve done this in years past with books like Anna Karenina, Middlemarch and The Count of Monte Cristo, but I was in the mood for something more modern this time around, so I picked up House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. Also, those books were only really a challenge because of their length and subjects.

Even in paperback, House of Leaves is a massive tome. My backpack feels about twice as heavy when I bring it to work with me. I haven’t made much progress, but so far the book is relatively straightforward, consisting mostly of faux-academic articles with digressive footnotes that occasionally ramble on for pages at a time. I keep flipping to the later pages where the formatting starts getting really weird, and I wonder what happens between here and there.

One thing that surprised me about the early chapters is that the most grounded part of the story is about a found-footage horror movie. It probably felt a bit more surprising and new back in the day.

I’ve also joined a book club at The Hatchery, a shared writing space that I was a member of for a while this year. So far it isn’t anything like my long-time club back in Austin, which was equal parts book discussions and hanging out with friends. The discussions at The Hatchery’s club are far more academic, and the book selections have trended towards Important Literature2.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManThe most recent book we read was A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, which I’d picked up once or twice but never actually tried to read. I managed to read it over the course of a week thanks to a cheap audiobook, but I didn’t really enjoy it much. Although I definitely respect the craft involved throughout, and I did enjoy a few scenes here and there, I was alternately frustrated with the stream-of-consciousness storytelling and bored by the excessive focus on religion3.

My disappointment is perhaps a little ironic, because I’m sure that House of Leaves is only building on literary styles and techniques that Joyce pioneered. Maybe it’s just that Danielewski eases you into the experimental parts with a long introduction. By comparison, the first chapter of Portrait is oftentimes completely random and disassociated without much prelude.

I’m definitely drawn to books with experimental narratives, so you’d think I’d be all in on a seminal work by one of the forefathers of literary experimentation, but it just didn’t work for me. My best theory is that I’ve read too many books that build on Joyce’s techniques, so what seemed revolutionary at the beginning of the 20th century just felt dated today. Also, maybe I’m just not a fan of disjointed narratives about the religious doubts of Irish schoolboys?

No matter what, I probably won’t pick up Ulysses any time soon. Instead, I think I’ll focus on getting to the weirder parts of House of Leaves.