Sunday, February 9, 2014


It's our third day of snowed-in here in the beautiful (and usually not snowy) Pacific Northwest. I haven't been at work for three days, but I'm not at the crazy state yet ... since I ventured out both Friday and Saturday. But today we are at the freezing-rain part and it's a good one to stay in and catch up on things like this blog!

Three posts ago, I shared my intention to return to the world of reading for youth by making my way through all the 2014 Youth Media Awards. I barely wasted a moment in downloading my first audiobook, Clare Vanderpool's Navigating Early (Printz Honor). This committee took its charge to award books for ages 12 to 18 very seriously, because this one is definitely on the 12 end.

Like Vanderpool's 2011 Newbery Award-winning first novel, Navigating Early is historical fiction. World War II has just concluded, but Jack Baker couldn't do what his naval officer father instructed him to do in his absence: Look after his mother. Just before the war ended, Jack's mother dies of a cerebral aneurysm. Because Jack's dad is stationed far way from their home in Kansas, he's enrolled his son in the Morton Hill Academy for Boys in rural Maine. Although Jack tries to fit in by learning how to row crew and run the steeplechase route made famous by Morton Hill's most illustrious alumnus -- the Fish -- he's as much of an outsider as "that strangest of boys," Early Auden. Early rarely attends class, listens to particular music on particular days (Billie Holiday when it's raining), organizes his jelly beans by color, and believes in the epic journey of a boy named Pi.

A math teacher at Morton Hill has shared with his students evidence that the numeral pi is nearing its end (as it appears to be running out of ones); this terrifies Early who wants to contact Pi to warn him.  On a school break when Jack finds himself at loose ends, Early convinces Jack to come with him on the quest into the Maine woods to find Pi.

As the boys became friends, Early told Jack the epic of Pi and the boys' quest soon shows an eerie resemblance to it. It also looks a lot like the Odyssey (which I have never read). On this odyssey, of course, both boys are seeking more than Pi. To say more would be to spoil it.

I'm of two minds about this book. I was both annoyed and enchanted by the boys' journey -- really, the coincidences were ridiculous, but the way that Vanderpool brought the "reality" of the quest in line with Early's fantastical relating of Pi's story was deeply entertaining. There are moments of genuine terror and of profound poignancy, and for a young reader the ending can't be anything but deeply satisfying. The Maine woods (and its characters) are a vivid character. However, the literary trope of the nothing-but-the-truth-telling Early, clearly (to our 21st century eyes) on the autism spectrum, became tiresome. And the whole thing -- leading up to the quest and on the quest -- felt long.

A new-to-me narrator, Robbie Daymond, reads most of the novel, which is related by Jack. He has a nicely youthful, occasionally breaking husky voice that is pretty perfect for this story. He infuses his voice with Jack's sorrow from which he slowly emerges over the course of the novel. Daymond paces the novel beautifully, lingering over the descriptions of the wonders Jack and Early encounter, while never losing the journey's tension. When he reads Early's dialogue, Daymond raises his voice in volume and lowers the affect as instructed in the text. As Jack reacts to Early's obtuseness, his frustration is clear in Daymond's delivery.

[I now realize that while I was listening to this novel and it was featured on the right side banner I misspelled Mr. Daymond's last name. Argh! Preserved forever on the internet! My humblest apologies to the narrator.]

Mark Bramhall reads the Pi epic in a very stentorian, bard-ic manner. It is actually shocking when he first begins speaking as it is so different from Daymond. Bramhall's resonance and deliberate pace lends majesty to the adventures, but it feels all wrong to me. It's Early who is telling the tale, after all, and while his loud monotone would no doubt have been difficult to listen to, I would have preferred a more youthful reading here. Not necessarily Daymond, but not the obviously adult Bramhall.

The book's after matter, an epilogue and an author's note, is read by Cassandra Campbell in a straightforward, appropriate style. I confess, this mystifies me as well, as Daymond would have sufficed in this role. I'm pondering multiple narrators, and it occurs to me that I've had less and less to complain about lately as publishers are meeting the needs of each book with the appropriate number of narrators, but three seems excessive here.

To end on a positive note, there is a musical squib, lovely to listen to and evocative of a magical journey, that underlies the intro and outgo of this audiobook.

As for pi, I just don't get it (literally). What is important about the fact that a circle is a little more than three times its width around? Why do I care that it is irrational? What does that even mean? What is the point of writing it out to 100,000 digits much less a million? What is with the Greek letter? Why pi?

[Jack and Early do encounter a one-eyed man on their odyssey, as did Odysseus on his. This painting of Polyphemus is by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein and it hangs in the Landesmuseum Oldenburg.

[Anonymous uploaded this photo of the sculpture Pi Monumentum to Wikimedia Commons. The sculpture was possibly a temporary installation on the Harbor Steps in Seattle, Washington in 2008.]

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
Narrated by Robbie Daymond with Mark Bramhall and Cassandra Campbell
Listening Library, 2013. 7:20

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