Daily Archives: August 19, 2011

Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum) – Review

Ms. Hempel chroniclesMs. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Age: Adult
Genre: Fiction/short story collection
Publisher: Mariner Books, 2008
193 Pages
Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction Finalist

Ms. Beatrice Hempel, teacher of seventh grade, is new — new to teaching, new to the school, newly engaged, and newly bereft of her devoted father. Overwhelmed by her newness, she struggles to figure out what is expected of her in life and at work. Is it acceptable to introduce swear words in the English curriculum, enlist students to write their own report cards, or bring up personal experiences while teaching a sex-education class?

Madeleine is sleepingI found this book in the sale section of Powell’s bookstore last week and immediately snatched it from the shelves with eager hands. I read and loved Bynum’s first novel, Madeleine is Sleeping, and hadn’t realized that Bynum had a second book out in stores already. I read it immediately, and was able to finish it in a couple of days.

I could readily identify with the character of Ms. Hempel. We’re the same age, starting anew in traditional educational careers, and still wary of each step we take and each word we utter to minors in our presence. Granted, my biggest fear is not being abducted by a van of crazed clowns.

Bynum has a very unique writing style. Its a mix of snarky, subtle, youthful, naive and insightful. Two chapters into the Ms. Hempel Chronicles and I knew I could not in any way compare it to Madeleine is Sleeping. The story, characters, setting are vastly different. The Ms. Hempel Chronicles is aptly named, as many of the chapters were published as short stories in various literary magazines before being compiled into this book. That makes for choppy transitions between chapters. It feels more like a series of vignettes than a linear account of Ms. Hempel’s time as a teacher. Overall, I think this is a great book for someone in their late 20’s, particularly new teachers of middle schoolers.

Find this book at your local library

Book 35 of 2011