A couple of weeks ago, Dan wanted to take a book out of the library; having no card of his own, he tried to borrow mine. At that point, we discovered that my fines were so hefty, there was a hold on my card (you will remember, perhaps, that I guiltily buried Bonfire of the Vanities on my coffee table for about two months last year). This was embarrassing. So, I sucked it up, went to the library, paid my fine, and have since rediscovered the joys of the library.
The first book I took out was Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, a book that has resided on my Amazon wish list for so long that people probably think I don’t want it anymore. Well, I do. Or I did. I don’t need it anymore because, of course, I’ve read it now!
It was on my list for three reasons:
1. It is about a teacher, and I love teaching and talking, seeing movies, reading etc. about teaching.
2. It is a book of short stories, linked by the title character of Ms. Hempel, and I am writing a collection of linked short stories.
3. The cover art is by Amy Cutler, who is super awesome. See?
What I didn’t realize–which is strange considering the author’s memorable name–until I started reading it is that I had read two of the stories before, “Accomplice” and “Yurt,” in The Best American Short Stories 2004 and The New Yorker, respectively. I enjoyed both stories the first time and found them just as pleasant the second time.
“Pleasant” is the word I would use to describe this collection. I liked reading it, there were poignant moments, funny allusions, clever carefully placed details, but it didn’t rock my world or anything. The two stories I had read before were my favorites. “Accomplice” wove together the story of Ms. Hempel, the teacher, struggling to write “anecdotals”–a more hippie-ish version of progress reports–for her students with the story of young Ms. Hempel, the daughter, struggling in school yet forever championed by her father (recently deceased, in the present). She decides, in the end, to let her students write their own anecdotals, initially passing them off to their parents as her work. She reveals a couple days later that it was, in fact, an assignment, to unpredictable, heartbreaking effect. Meanwhile, “Yurt” rolls up everything that is sad about teaching, breaking up, moving on, not being the prettiest girl in the room, etc. into one strange story.
The other stories that take place within the universe of the school are wonderful in their own ways, too. What threw the collection a little off kilter, I thought, was the inclusion of several stories that exist outside of that universe, in Ms. Hempel’s homelife. The first story, centering around her and her brother when they were children, despite not being the strongest in the collection, had its charms and tragedies. Another story in which Ms. Hempel visits her mother and her much younger sister had a couple special moments, but overall seemed flat and fairly uninteresting. The final story in the collection, which should have been killer, was instead the weakest in the book. It jumped ahead a couple of years and found Ms. Hempel having moved on from teaching to some vague parks department job, pregnant and married (we don’t find out to whom), admiring the rear end of a young woman walking in front of her, a woman who she discovers is a former student. The interaction that follows seems like it should be poignant and meaningful, like it should elevate the stories that came before, but instead it is dull and aimless. The student is not one of the students already highlighted in the book, she is not special and she adds little. I was bummed.
The best stories in the book were made more thrilling than their material would suggest because of the bizarre trajectory they took:Like that. Get it?
As the story progressed, it wouldn’t move in an arch but sort of a semi-meandering line. I’d think it was about one thing, but then I would learn some little detail and realize it wasn’t quite about what I’d thought, and then I’d get a little further and think I finally had it, and then Ms. Bynum would twist it ever so slightly one more time, so suddenly the story was about all of those things, but something more unexpected, too. When it worked, it really worked!
The last thing I’ll say about this book is that anyone who teaches public school students in NYC will be completely confused by the kids, school culture and classroom dynamics described by Ms. Bynum. If not for a couple tiny details, I think it’s next to impossible to tell that the book is set in New York City. Ms. Hempel never alludes to the fact that the school is a private school and that her students are not typical city kids, but anyone with any experience teaching will wonder. I could suspend disbelief because it is fiction and in fiction, sure, you can have storybook children and teachers teaching what they want without worrying about ELA tests and a whole school full of adults who act like caring, responsible people. I could also get beyond a little part of my head that was screaming: that would NEVER HAPPEN because I know where Ms. Bynum used to teach: the Berkeley-Carroll School in Park Slope, a school that is definitely a strange urban/hippie/priveledged/quirky mix.
By not giving specifics about the location and type of school Ms. Hempel taught, Ms. Bynum was able to cultivate, for better or worse, an anachronistic, almost surreal tone for her book. She created an alternate universe where school functions like it is supposed to in the most ideal imagination: 7th and 8th graders are precious and beautiful children filled with promise and their devoted teacher is the one who sees it.