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Ms. Hempel Chroniclesby Sarah Shun Li Bynum
Synopses & Reviews
Ms. Beatrice Hempel, teacher of seventh grade, is new—new to teaching, new to the school, newly engaged, and newly bereft of her idiosyncratic father. Grappling awkwardly with her newness, she struggles to figure out what is expected of her in life and at work. Is it acceptable to introduce swear words into the English curriculum, enlist students to write their own report cards, or bring up personal experiences while teaching a sex-education class?
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum finds characters at their most vulnerable, then explores those precarious moments in sharp, graceful prose. From this most innovative of young writers comes another journey down the rabbit hole to the wonderland of middle school, memory, daydreaming, and the extraordinary business of growing up.
"A National Book Award finalist in 2004, Bynum returns with an intricate and absorbing collection of eight interconnected stories about Beatrice Hempel, a middle school English teacher. Ms. Hempel is the sort of teacher students adore, and despite feeling disenchanted with her job, she regards her students as intelligent, insightful and sometimes fascinating. Bynum seamlessly weaves stories of the teacher's childhood with the present — reminiscences about Beatrice's now deceased father and her relationship with her younger brother, Calvin — while simultaneously fleshing out the lives of Beatrice's impressionable students (they are in awe of the crassness of This Boy's Life). Though there isn't much in the way of plot, Bynum's sympathy for her protagonist runs deep, and even the slightest of events comes across as achingly real and, sometimes, even profound. Bynum writes with great acuity, and the emotional undercurrents in this sharp take on coming-of-age and growing up will move readers in unexpected ways. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
It just shows what context can do. Part of "Ms. Hempel Chronicles" was recently published in the New Yorker, in the issue with the infamous Obama cover. For me, I guess, that cover stained the contents of the magazine like ink in milk. I confess I found the excerpt to be smirky, supercilious, superior to its characters — detestable, in fact. But when I opened this utterly charming... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) novel, I fell in love with it, as one is meant to. (It must have taken me half an hour to realize that the excerpt I had read was part of this larger work.) Ms. Hempel teaches in middle school, and she's crazy about her students. It's easy to see why: They're vulnerable, darling, gentle souls just beginning to learn to occupy their fleshly selves. On the very first page, one of her seventh-graders attempts to describe the ballet solo she'll be performing in this evening's talent show. "'Just imagine!' she said to Ms. Hempel, and clapped her hands rapturously against her thighs, as though her shorts had caught fire. The bodies of Ms. Hempel's students often did that: fly off in strange directions, seemingly of their own accord." It's true, that's what junior high kids do. For the reader it's like going off to the South of France and seeing that van Gogh didn't make that stuff up; it really does look like that. It just took an artist to be able to see it. So Ms. Hempel presides over this flock of gangly, excitable, touching goofballs, including a morose little boy who, on a beach field trip on a raw, cold day, allows himself to be buried in sand and comes perilously close to being buried alive. And she runs a club of minority children who meet together glumly on Affinity Day and complain that Mr. Meachum, the white history teacher, thinks that the past is made up only of white history. Which is how we learn that Ms. Hempel is of mixed blood: Her father has the standard Caucasian Scotch-Irish-etc. mix going on, but her mother is Chinese. Her beloved dad died only a couple of years before, and Ms. Hempel is in her own kind of "middle school." She must make the transition from unformed adolescent — her father's favorite child — to something approximating a grown-up. She herself is aware of this. She's still young enough to understand the lyrics of the eye-poppingly explicit songs her students listen to. She herself, in high school, was an extreme Goth, with piercings and dye jobs, who idolized the heaviest of metal garage bands (or kids just out of someone's garage). She keeps all the memorabilia of this era in her old room at home; her mother asks her sardonically if she intends turning it into a shrine. Actually, she would like to. She hates giving up her youth, when she was adored by her perfect dad. But she's going through the motions. She has her own apartment, her own fiance. She's already had her very own wedding shower. (Her two best friends gave her a pair of crotchless underwear.) She's doing her best to fake her way into the adult community. She takes risks: She assigns Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life" to her seventh-graders, and when a proverbial pill of a mother objects to the strong language on Parents' Night, Ms. Hempel stands up for truth and authenticity in literature and, unexpectedly, wins the day. And she goes off on Friday afternoons with some of the younger teachers to an Irish bar (this scene was the New Yorker excerpt), where they drink and dance the end of the workweek away. Somewhere in all that, she ends up in the men's room, kissing a colleague. How did that happen? We hear about her family: her sweet brother, who used to love to dress up like a cat burglar in his mother's old leotard and slither across the floor pretending to be invisible, and her younger sister, who, through tricks of chronology and genetics, identifies completely with their Chinese mom. How will Ms. Hempel turn out? And how will her students, upon whom she lavishes so much aching, embarrassing love, make their way in the hard, wide world? The author assures us, with teacherly authority, that we'll all make it through middle school, which, after all, is just another metaphor for life. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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A funny, sharply observed look into the life of a teacher and another journey down the rabbit hole to the wonderland of middle school, memory, daydreaming, and the extraordinary business of growing up.
About the Author
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review and Alaska Quarterly Review. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn, New York. Madeleine Is Sleeping is her first novel.
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