Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Bynum)

Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 2008
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
208 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780547247755

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 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Houston, Texas, USA
Education—B.A., Brown University; M.F.A., University of
Awards—Finalist, National Book Award (2004)
Currently—Brooklyn, New York, New York

Madeline is Sleeping is Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's first novel. Her short fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Best American Short Stories of 2004. A graduate of Brown University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, she lives in Brooklyn, New York. (From the publisher.)

From a 2004 interview with Barnes & Noble:

• I adore sushi (which I didn't discover, weirdly enough, until I was living in Iowa), but right now I'm on a strict sushi hiatus as I wait for the arrival of my first baby in the spring.

• I didn't see a single scary movie until I was twenty years old, but now I can't get enough of them! My favorites are The Shining, Rosemary's Baby, The Ring, and anything with zombies.

When asked what book most influenced her career as a writer, here is her response:

Jane Eyre. When I first read it in the eighth grade, I remember being struck by two things: the extreme attractiveness of Mr. Rochester, and my sudden, acute awareness of Charlotte Brontë as the book's author. Up to this point, I don't remember giving much thought to the writers of books I liked—I was far more interested in the plots and the characters—the authors themselves seemed, for the most part, like appendages. Maybe it's because the edition I read of Jane Eyre had that lovely pencil drawing of Charlotte Brontë on its cover, or because her name was displayed in the exact same font and size as the title. In fact, her name appeared above the title, which explains why my younger brother believed for years that "Charlotte Brontë" was the famous novel written by Jane Eyre.

I'd like to believe that my growing awareness of an authorial presence was due to my budding sophistication as a reader—and certainly there was a new sort of intensity and urgency I felt in this book that might have suggested the workings of a very specific sensibility and imagination—but I'm afraid I would be giving my eighth-grade self too much credit. Either way, I remember Jane Eyre as the moment I became curious about the person behind the book, a curiosity which eventually led, I think, to my first serious thoughts about what it meant to be a writer, to become a writer. Charlotte Brontë continues to exercise her hold over me, as does her sister Emily—now, in addition to rereading Jane Eyre, I find myself returning to Anne Carson's The Glass Essay and Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Brontë, both of which cast their own spells.

(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

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

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Ms. Hempel Chronicles:

1. Does Ms. Hempel like her job? How does she view her students? How do you view her students?

2. What was the point of having her students write their own progress reports in place of standard teacher evaluations?

3. How has Beatrice's past shaped her present personality and performance as a teacher? What ever happened to the teenaged girl who wore steel-toed boots and listened to punk rock?

4. Talk about this passage from the book: "When you are in school, your talents are without number, and your promise is boundless... But at a certain point, you begin to feel your talents dropping away...until one day you realize that you cannot think of a single thing you are wonderful at." How true do you find this observation? If it is true, how does it happen?

5. The passage in Question 4 reflects what can happen to children—they start out as colorful butterflies and move toward drab moths as they head into adulthood. Can you trace a sort of reverse movement—from moth to butterfly—for Ms. Hempel?

6. There is little plot and little conflict in Chronicles. Does that bore you...or hold your interest? What about the way the book is structured, its series of vignettes?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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