Ms. Hempel Chronicles

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

4.0 9
by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
     
 

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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.See more details below

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist
"...a narrative voice as unique and engaging as that in her award-winning debut. The attention to detail is spectacular."

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR MADELEINE IS SLEEPING
 

"A hallucinogenic fairy tale that veers between the clinical clarity of hard fact and a surreal mysticism . . . Bynum's lush, poetic imagery is full of vivid, sensuous details one can almost smell, taste, and feel."—The Boston Globe

Josh Emmons
[Bynum's] prose remains nimble and entertaining, a model of quiet control well suited to its subject…The deftness with which [Ms. Hempel] observes and describes her world and its inhabitants is so engaging that for all its circumspection and regrettable lacunae, Ms. Hempel Chronicles works as an account of how nostalgia—both for what was and might have been—can generate a thousand mercies.
—The New York Times
Carolyn See
…utterly charming…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Among the most popular fiction of the mid-1960s was Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase, the story of an idealistic public school teacher. Four decades later, National Book Award finalist Bynum has produced a worthy version for our times. Departing from the much-discussed experimental prose of her first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, the author here uses deceptively simple language to explore the sometimes amazing world of middle school in eight engaging linked narratives. Recently minted (and not especially idealistic) educator Beatrice Hempel struggles with insecurities at home and work while discovering in her classroom moments of wonder, grace, and sheer goofiness. Like Tobias Wolff-whose memoir This Boy's Life plays a major role in Ms. Hempel's teaching-Bynum writes with concise, careful phrasing and a clarity that illuminates the depths to be found even in the most quotidian existence. Recommended for all fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/1/08.]
—Starr E. Smith

Kirkus Reviews
A subtle, dazzling novel about a fledgling middle-school teacher who reveals herself slowly, in layers, as if she isn't quite sure how much to show-to her students, to their parents, to the reader. Like a seventh-grade teacher on the first day of school, Ms. Hempel initially seems generic in this second novel from Bynum (whose debut, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was a National Book Award finalist in 2004). It's as if she's more of a type-the young schoolteacher who is just out of school herself-than an individual. But the individual emerges as the novel unfolds. Initially defined by her job, she gradually defines herself by so much more: her ethnicity (Chinese), her affinity for punk rock (the angrier and more abrasive the better), her family life (in her roles as a daughter and sister), her personal life (engaged, then not, then much later married and pregnant). There is so much elliptical richness in the multifaceted character of Ms. Hempel that every chapter in this short, taut novel brings revelation. As Ms. Hempel reveals herself to be "Beatrice" (and, much later, "Bea"), she struggles with how much of her life is appropriate to share with her students, for whom she is, inevitably, "the object of ferocious scrutiny." Some of the choices that she makes suggest either her uniqueness or her inexperience-her assignment of This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, with language perhaps not appropriate for seventh-grade readers; her sharing of her personal life in sex ed; her student evaluations written by the students themselves. So much is new for Ms. Hempel-she is new at being a teacher, new at being engaged (to a man whose sexual proclivities she neither shares nor understands), new at being anadult. These chronicles represent Ms. Hempel's education, as the teacher discovers what it means to be herself. No sign of sophomore slump in this masterful illumination of character.
Jonathan Franzen
"This story of a love affair is pure pleasure to read. Its heroine happens to be a schoolteacher, but Ms. Bynum has such keen eyes and ears and such deep and appealing self-knowledge, you feel she could write no less compellingly about an accountant or an administrator. She can move you in one sentence from wit and hilarity to desperation and wrenching loss. She's really good."

DailyCandy.com
"[B]rilliant...It's impossible to walk away from this beautifully written book without feeling nostalgic."

Los Angeles Times
Such a beautiful book is MS HEMPEL CHRONICLES, the kind that gives its reader profound insights into ordinary, everyday life... [D]eeply affecting.

—Susan Salter Reynolds

Christian Science Monitor
Teachers, take note: You've got an articulate new advocate in novelist Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Bynum's Ms Hempel Chronicles is not only a warm-hearted novel-in-stories about a young 7th-grade teacher navigating the final passage to her own adulthood even as she ushers her students through the tricky narrows of adolescence; it is also a testament to how hard—and important—the work of teaching is.

—Heller McAlpin

Washington Post
[W]hen I opened this utterly charming novel, I fell in love with it...

—Carolyn See

New York Sun
"[U]tterly winning...[Bynum] creates a seamless, intuitive novel of short stories...Each is a small gorgeous thing on its own, but the wise and whimsical 'Ms Hempel Chronicles' gives them their collective due, deploying them on a broader canvas, their colors more layered, their impact more powerful."

Bookforum
The idea that we're all just aging, idiosyncratic children snatching at happiness is central to Ms Hempel Chronicles, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's gently, deeply affecting second novel....Ms. Hempel's consciousness is a joy to inhabit.

—Amy Gerstler

"Hot Type" Vanity Fair
"Sarah Shun-lien Bynum enchants in ''Ms. Hempel Chronicles.''"
Elissa Schappell
Arizona Republic
Bynum's first novel, the dreamlike 'Madeleine is Sleeping,' was a finalist for the National Book Award, but it's her second book that's the real miracle...[W]ith each chapter, Bynum adds to her portrait of Ms. Hempel, quietly offering us small jewels of information that transform her into a complex and disarming character...Bynum is an inventive writer with talent to spare.

—Anne Stephenson

Brooklyn Rail
As a collection, the tales work together to show a complex and memorable character, while also revealing the staying power of a young, extraordinary writer.

—Ken Murray

San Francisco Chronicle
[A] marvelous new book...Each of these eight stories dazzles on its own terms; all together they create a stunning portrait of an unforgettable character at a crossroads.

—Malena Watrous

barnesandnoble.com

"Shun-lien Bynum has already shown herself as a masterful conjurer of the off-kilter...[In Ms Hempel Chronicles, she] manages to imbue middle school, already an uneasy place, with topsy-turvy wonder."

— Tess Taylor

Washington Post - Carolyn See
"[W]hen I opened this utterly charming novel, I fell in love with it..."

Vanity Fair, "Hot Type" - Elissa Schappell
"Sarah Shun-lien Bynum enchants in 'Ms. Hempel Chronicles.'"

San Francisco Chronicle - Malena Watrous
"[A] marvelous new book...Each of these eight stories dazzles on its own terms; all together they create a stunning portrait of an unforgettable character at a crossroads."
Los Angeles Times - Susan Salter Reynolds
"Such a beautiful book is MS HEMPEL CHRONICLES, the kind that gives its reader profound insights into ordinary, everyday life... [D]eeply affecting."
Bookforum - Amy Gerstler
"The idea that we're all just aging, idiosyncratic children snatching at happiness is central to Ms Hempel Chronicles, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's gently, deeply affecting second novel....Ms. Hempel's consciousness is a joy to inhabit."

Arizona Republic - Anne Stephenson
"Bynum's first novel, the dreamlike 'Madeleine is Sleeping,' was a finalist for the National Book Award, but it's her second book that's the real miracle...[W]ith each chapter, Bynum adds to her portrait of Ms. Hempel, quietly offering us small jewels of information that transform her into a complex and disarming character...Bynum is an inventive writer with talent to spare."

Brooklyn Rail - Ken Murray
"As a collection, the tales work together to show a complex and memorable character, while also revealing the staying power of a young, extraordinary writer."

Christian Science Monitor - Heller McAlpin
"Teachers, take note: You've got an articulate new advocate in novelist Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Bynum's Ms Hempel Chronicles is not only a warm-hearted novel-in-stories about a young 7th-grade teacher navigating the final passage to her own adulthood even as she ushers her students through the tricky narrows of adolescence; it is also a testament to how hard—and important—the work of teaching is."
barnesandnoble.com - Tess Taylor
"Shun-lien Bynum has already shown herself as a masterful conjurer of the off-kilter...[In Ms Hempel Chronicles, she] manages to imbue middle school, already an uneasy place, with topsy-turvy wonder."

Library Journal (starred)
"Bynum writes with concise, careful phrasing and a clarity that illuminates the depths to be found even in the most quotidian existence."

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780547247755
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
09/18/2009
Pages:
208
Sales rank:
637,104
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Talent

MANY OF MS. HEMPEL’S STUDENTS were performing in the show that evening, but to her own secret disappointment, she would not be appearing. All around her, she was confronted with reminders of the event: during morning assembly, an announcement (three eighth-grade girls bobbed up and bawled, in unison: Tickets on sale at the door!); pink flyers slapped crookedly onto the walls; a note from a parent: Please excuse Louisa, rehearsals ran late, she will turn it in on Monday.

Adelaide Burr cornered Ms. Hempel during homeroom and described her costume. Adelaide was an avid appreciator of dance. Her first book report had celebrated in a collage (dismembered limbs; blue glitter) the life and contributions of Martha Graham, and her second, a dramatic monologue, was based on a bestseller written by a ballerina who had suffered through several disastrous affairs and then developed a serious cocaine habit. Adelaide seemed excited by the lurid possibilities. "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. Now Adelaide told her that she had choreographed a solo piece to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Balancing precariously, she said, on a kitchen footstool, she had peeled the glow-in-the-dark stars off the ceiling above her bed. "I have incorporated them into my dance," she said mysteriously. She made Ms. Hempel promise that she would come.

The building hummed throughout the day: older girls came leaping down the stairs, fishnet stockings streaming behind them like pennants. Mr. Spiegelman, his yarmulke slightly askew, heaved the grand piano into the auditorium. From the bowels of the science wing, a trombone bleated out a solitary, echoing rendition of "Luck Be a Lady." When Ms. Hempel went into the bathroom, she saw pots of lip gloss perched along the edges of the sinks. The girls hadn’t taken off their makeup since the run-through that morning, and all day their faces had squirmed self-consciously, their sticky black eyelashes batting, their shiny mouths twitching over their teeth. It was all new to them.

Before the show, Ms. Hempel groped around the bottom of her pocketbook and found a tube of lipstick she had left there long ago. The shade was a glamorous brown, and as she hid in the faculty lounge, crouching over her compact, she thought, Narcissistic, and then corrected herself. Vain was more accurate, although not a vocabulary word. Colorless was perhaps even more precise. She rubbed a finger vigorously over her teeth: there were parents waiting outside the auditorium, herded together like hungry and disconsolate cattle; she would have to smile at them as she walked past.

The program announced that Adelaide would be the first performer of the evening. Beneath her name was printed in italics: I wish to thank my family and friends for believing in me. She entered the stage in darkness; the phosphorescent stars, sprinkled over the stomach of her pink leotard, glowed weakly, as if on the verge of dying. Apparently most of the adhesive had remained on her bedroom ceiling, so Adelaide had secured the stars with Scotch tape, which caught the light from her parents’ flash camera and made her glisten like an amphibian. She still had a little girl’s potbelly; her breasts were only nubs. A blue spotlight followed her nervously about the stage, lurching forward whenever it seemed as if she might leap into the air, which she did often, as well as collapse, methodically, several times onto the floor. Throughout, she kept her eyes fixed on some beautiful scene in the distance that only she could see. But the dance remained, in some fundamental way, incoherent: it reminded Ms. Hempel of her music-appreciation class in third grade, when Dr. Freducci would turn up the volume on the record player, flick off the lights, tell the children to shut their eyes, and then order them, threateningly, to move about the room. Ms. Hempel hung on to the edge of her folding chair and tried to see Adelaide as lovely and silvery and ethereal, like a moonbeam or a sylvan nymph. She finally decided: Adelaide is lovely on the inside, and soon the rest of her will catch up. For she admired Adelaide, who could easily have been a pariah, with her walleye, and her manic ways, but on most days she willed her eyeball into place and commandeered a sort of following.

The next girls were in fact beautiful. The three ninth graders stood frozen on the stage in a staggered line, waiting for the tape to begin. They wore shiny athletic pants in shy pastel colors that swished when they started to move. On top, their little cotton camisoles showed the black straps of their bras. Ms. Hempel worried about her own bra; all day it had refused to stay put, with one strap sliding down her shoulder at ill-timed moments. She suddenly felt what a relief it was to be sitting in the darkness. As a teacher, she felt herself the object of ferocious scrutiny; kids missed nothing; they spent entire days looking at her. Ms. Hempel was always getting chalk dust in her hair or, less frequently, on the tips of her breasts when she would stretch up on her toes and write the homework assignment across the top of the blackboard. Some days it could be lovely, this attention; but it could be tiring as well, and she was glad for a moment to be there in the audience.

The girls jerked about the stage in abrupt, perfectly coordinated movements, their faces stiff with concentration. Occasionally a voice would call out from the audience, "Go Jane," and the girl would glance up and beam. The song was friendly and familiar; Ms. Hempel slowly realized that it was about a man whose penis became erect while dancing with someone he really liked. He sang, Girl I know you felt it. Girl you know I can’t help it, and Ms. Hempel felt herself go rigid with alarm; she was caught, again, in an awkward position: still young enough to decipher the lyrics, yet old enough to feel that a certain degree of outrage was required of her. If only she were truly adult, so that the words were unintelligible, the volume unbearable. Then she couldn’t be held responsible. The girl backup singer sighed, Feel a little poke coming throooouuugh on yooooouuuu, and Ms. Hempel peeked at the rows of parents radiating out around her. They didn’t seem to mind, or even notice. Their faces were puckered, as they usually were during school performances, trying to see their children as she had tried: graceful, gifted, well liked.

If parents could understand the words, would they find the song acceptable? Ms. Hempel was actively developing her sensitivity to the appropriate and inappropriate. She still had difficulty distinguishing between the two: was it appropriate for her to laugh when a kid farted in class? Was it appropriate for her to wear stretchy fabrics? Ms. Hempel was not, she knew, a very good teacher. She made easy plays at popularity: dismissing class a few minutes early on Friday afternoons; beginning each year by reading the Philip Larkin poem about how your parents fuck you up; pretending not to hear when the kids did cruel and accurate impressions of her colleagues. She bribed them with miniature chocolate bars. She extracted compliments from them. She promised herself that she would decorate her classroom with photographs of great women writers, but she never did.

She had also discovered by the middle of her second year that the work she assigned her students would come back to plague her, tenfold. And the less work she gave them, the less she had to do. She noticed that another middle school English teacher had stumbled upon a brilliant solution: debate. It had the air of intellectual rigor, but you never had to bring piles of it home with you to correct. You just listened carefully and pretended that you were writing copious and detailed notes in your grade book. But she soon learned that she had no stomach for eighth-grade debate. It required a lot of newspaper reading, which she didn’t enjoy, and too often the students would make sweeping assertions about terrorists’ knowledge of chemical weaponry or atrocities committed by the New York City police or illegal dumping of toxic waste in residential neighborhoods, which never sounded quite right to her, but she didn’t feel sure enough to correct them. She found herself, during November’s Debate Unit, in the midst of a deafening storm of misinformation, a great deal of it rather frightening and, she feared, damaging to her kids’ sense of safety and well-being. So they returned to reading novels and poems, a territory across which she stalked with much greater confidence. The literature they read was often bleak and depressing, but it was fiction, and none of her kids needed to worry about getting stranded on a desert island or working as itinerant laborers on an isolated and soul-crushing ranch.

This was her policy: lots of pop quizzes, because she could correct them easily in front of the television, and because they made her kids feel always a little bit afraid. But pop quizzes were not without their own pleasures, which she knew with a certainty stemming from her own days as a student. Now, as teacher, she would glide into her classroom, the stack of photocopied pages still warm against her chest, and she would sing out to them, "I have a surprise for you!" The kids would groan together, like a Greek chorus, but still they cleared off their desks, tucked away their books, swiveled their pencils in their tiny plastic sharpeners with a resignation and an eagerness she recognized. Because what are quizzes? They are everything that is reassuring about school: a line for your name; ten questions; blank spaces; extra credit at the end.

There were of course those children who didn’t thrive under such conditions. Who muttered at her, or who cried, or who wrote nothing except their names and a heavy dark F at the top of the page: the self-condemned. The boy now lugging a didgeridoo onto the stage had been one of those: Edward Ashe, former piano prodigy, who by eighth grade had settled into a catatonic state interrupted only by moments of silent, unrelieved terror whenever she approached his desk. He had the biggest eyes she had ever seen on a boy, and he would widen them, like a camera aperture on a gloomy day, to suggest innocence and surprise: We were supposed to read chapter two last night? So genuinely panicked, so unconvinced by his own excuses, Edward could excite only pity. Ms. Hempel would move away and put another zero beside his name in her blue grade book. She did not believe in humiliation, though some other teachers exercised it to remarkable effect; she did not believe in making children unhappy when so many already were.

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

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What People are saying about this

Jonathan Franzen
This story of a love affair is pure pleasure to read. Its heroine happens to be a schoolteacher, but Ms. Bynum has such keen eyes and ears and such deep and appealing self-knowledge, you feel she could write no less compellingly about an accountant or an administrator. She can move you in one sentence from wit and hilarity to desperation and wrenching loss. She's really good.

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