A Little Gem

For me, one of the most charming reads of the year: Ms Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, a magical collection of interlinked stories, à la Olive Kitteridge, only where Ms Kitteridge, ex-scourge of a classroom left me with a sour taste in my mouth, Ms Hempel was a sheer delight.

Beatrice Hempel is in her late twenties and has been teaching English literature to the seventh grade for four years. She’s not a great teacher, setting pop quizzes to ensure herself the least amount of homework to mark, oversharing in class and making cheap bids for popularity by offering the kids chocolate and early dismissal at home time. But she’s intoxicated by her children, by their enthusiasm, their untapped potential and their creativity, even for mischief. It doesn’t seem so long ago to Beatrice that she was a child herself, a slightly ragged one, with a penchant for punk and an inability to string her arguments together in essays, and she doesn’t feel she’s really made much progress since then. The stories in Ms Hempel Chronicles are often tracking this uncertain fault line, between the powerful desires and aspirations of childhood and the twilight zone of their disappointment that is early adulthood.

What made this collection so great for me was the writing, which is outstanding. Whether it’s the students being described:

‘Edward Ashe, former piano prodigy, who by eighth grade had settled into a catatonic state interrupted only by moments of silent, unrelieved terror when 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’

or whether it’s the teaching:

 ‘The curriculum was always marching on, relentlessly: the scrambling dash from one unit to the next, the ancient Egyptians melting into the ancient Greeks, the blur of check marks and smiley faces, the hot rattling breath of the photocopier, book reports corrected shakily on the bus, the eternal night of parent-teacher conferences, dizzy countdowns to every holiday, and the dumb animal pleasure of rest. One could be quite unhappy and never have a chance to know it’

there is an exquisite accuracy and truthfulness to the prose which makes it a pure pleasure. There’s also a gentleness to the vision, an inbuilt sense of amusement that settles a benign air across those adolescent years of bitter bewilderment. Ms Hempel’s students are altogether more charming, even the bad ones, than your average hostile, fearsome teenager. But that’s okay, indeed, it is an intrinsic part of the book’s unique voice that there is a measure of fairy tale in the mix. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is brilliant at evoking a certain kind of childhood perspective, one that sees the potential for grandeur, curiosity and magic in all it surveys.

Don’t come to this book expecting a plot, though; there isn’t one. Instead we come at Ms Hempel’s life from a number of angles: as she sits watching the school talent show, quietly wishing she were on the stage, as she takes the children on school trips to the beach and to a mock-up of an early settlement; as she enviously views another young teacher, who took a year off after nearly suffering a breakdown and who has returned pregnant and ready to abandon teaching altogether. We also get glimpses of her own childhood, domineering her younger brother, Calvin (a brilliantly evocative account of the weird things siblings do together) and of what remains of her childhood when she returns home for her birthday – not enough, that is to say, now her father has died and her mother wants to turn the family home into a B & B. The very last chapter pushes the fast forward button to find her beyond her teaching career, bumping into one of her former students now grown up.

This isn’t quite a perfect book; the different perspectives on Ms Hempel call for some awkward mental image adjustment – I thought at first she was older than she is meant to be, and halfway through we find out she has a Chinese mother. Then the chapter recounting her doubts about her fiancé veered into the territory of sexuality that sounded the only false note. The things that happen, the events that would normally provide the focus of the narrative, a broken engagement, the death of her father, are mentioned so casually in passing that if you blink you can miss them. But really that doesn’t matter. This is a narrative that glorifies the stasis-in-frantic-motion that is childhood, where everything is metamorphosing and yet so much in terms of hopes and fears remains the same. I found it a wholly endearing book about the piercing nostalgia we feel for all that is unappreciated and invisible in our childhood until it is outgrown. It made me smile from the first page to the last.


18 thoughts on “A Little Gem

  1. Now why did one quotation come out pale grey and the other black? I’ve been back into the post, edited it, to no avail! Why does this sort of thing always happen to the computer illiterate? Well if anyone knows how to fix it, do tell me please!

  2. First, the book sounds delightful and you’ve forced me to put it on my TBR list.

    Second, not sure how you’ve done it but you’ve inserted a bit of code that changed the color of the font in first quote. If you click on the html view button in edit post mode, look for a string that looks like this:

    It will be at the beginning of the quote. Delete the piece and at the end of the quote delete the piece and you will be right as rain.

  3. Are you using wordpress on visual or html? (Have a look at the tab that’s darker). If it’s on html it’s easier to see what is going on (like reveal codes in wordperfect). I’m not sure what caused it, but if you want to turn the grey back to black, make sure you click on the html tab. then type except leave out the space between the bracket and the f at the beginning and the quote and the end bracket at the end. I did that so it would show up, otherwise it’ll just be an html command. Then put at the end (again leaving out the spaces).

    On another note entirely, I enjoyed the review and the exerpts, regardless of colour! It sounds like a thoroughly enjoyable book.

  4. “stasis-in-frantic-motion” – what a wonderful description! I like reading about childhood, partly for the nostalgia but also because it’s just an interesting time, when our perceptions of the world are very different, and I like remembering that. I thought Julian Barnes wrote about childhood very well in “Sense of an Ending” which I read recently, and also from a bit further back this year I enjoyed Preeta Samarasan’s “Evening is the Whole Day”, in which a young child has a big effect on the plot. I like when children are treated as what they are, very complex characters with their own clear opinions and aspirations, not just as innocents.

    On the formatting, if just highlighting the text and making it black is not working for you, click on the “HTML” button above the post to go into the HTML version of editing. Then delete from just before ‘Edward Ashe…’ and delete from after ‘innocence and surprise’. Hope that helps!

  5. Sorry, the HTML bits got deleted 😦 I’ll try again:

    Delete span style=”color:#888888;” (and also the around it, but I can’t type those because otherwise they’ll disappear again!) from just before ‘Edward Ashe…’ and delete /span (again also delete the tags) from after ‘innocence and surprise’

  6. Ha! Success! Thank you, thank you, excellent bloggers and computery peeps one and all. But why did it do it? I only clicked on the big ” in the menu bar on both occasions….??? Still, at least I know what to do now, thanks to your clear and helpful advice. Proper responses to your comments about the book tomorrow. Much gratitude for now.

  7. This is the second review I’ve read of this in the past week. I’ve wanted to read it for a while and now I feel like the universe is encouraging me. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. Great review.

  8. Stefanie – I thought of you when I read about Ms Cruz, ‘who really did lead the fabled double life of the librarian.’ What librarian could resist such a character or indeed such a lifestyle! I hope your double life is coming along nicely. 🙂 Would love to know what you think of this book if you read it.

    Lilian – this is a delight and so very good about children. I think you might well enjoy it!

    Andrew – I really agree with you. Children are not small adults, but a whole other level of being, and I love books that get it right. This one is beautifully done. I’m keener than ever to read that Julian Barnes now!

    Simon – it is indeed a book that’s perfect for consoling one’s inner adolescent! Would love to know what you think of it if you get hold of a copy.

    Eva – I found it an unexpected treat. I am such a sucker for books that have a delicious lightness of tone and make me laugh.

    Caroline – I think you’d like it – the writing is wonderful.

    Laura- oh oh that happens to me sometimes! Never struggle with the universe; it always wins. 😉

    Gentle Reader – ah now I feel quite sure that you would appreciate this one. It is a delight. And it’s lovely to have you stop by – does this mean you’re back in the blogging saddle again?

  9. This sounds really good, exactly the kind of book I would like. I’ve come to be quite fond of the genre of interlinked stories; I liked Olive Kitteridge quite a lot, and also the latest Jennifer Egan, which is interlinked stories. I should read this one and also the Sarah Orne Jewett collection of stories (Pointed Firs) to explore the genre further.

  10. I have to rely on Typepad to do all the fancy stuff for me–I’m useless at HTML or whatever else is needed to make all the cool things other people do! I really like interlinked stories–this sounds like the Tim O’Brien book I just read and loved. And I like the lighter, humorous tone of this. Why, or have, I heard the author’s name before?

  11. This sounds excellent; I’ll have to check it out! I’ve read and liked a few of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s stories in the New Yorker, and I have a copy of “Madeleine is Sleeping” that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. Meanwhile, I’ve just looked this up on Amazon and noticed that the cover of the US edition features art by Amy Cutler, which makes me laugh because I just went to a gallery show of hers this past weekend.

  12. Yet another testimony to the fact that a a good review can make you want to read a book which you wouldn’t go for normally. I will put it on my list to be picked up to satisfy my rainy afternoon nostalgia pangs !

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