Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Bynum)

Book Reviews
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.
Josh Emmons - New York Times


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.
Carolyn See - Washington Post


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.
Publishers Weekly


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.
Starr E. Smith - Library Journal


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 an adult. 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.
Kirkus Reviews

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