Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Morning Reading: Ms. Hempel Chronicles

The new Bookforum is out and in it poet Amy Gerstler reviews Ms. Hempel Chronicles, the new novel by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. She notes,” this is not a saccharine novel, and heartache, sexual confusion, and resignation rear their heads. When Ms. Hempel observes that a colleague’s messy desk is “both hopeful and doomed,” she is, in her succinct, winning way, describing both her outlook and the predicament of so-called adults everywhere.”

I first encountered Bynum’s work this summer in an issue of the New Yorker where her story “Yurt” appeared. I was immediately attracted by the title (I have a yurt) but happily taken even more by the story itself, the tale of Ms. Hempel, a young teacher at a private middle school who is unsettled and challenged by a colleague’s changing life. “Yurt,” as it turns out is a chapter – or a story – from this novel, - or collection of linked stories. I was able to read Ms. Hempel Chronicles over the recent Labor Day weekend.

Here’s the opening of “Yurt”:

A year ago, Ms. Duffy, the fifth-grade English and history teacher, had come very close to losing it, what with her homeroom being right next to the construction site for the new computer lab, and her attempts to excise the Aztecs from the curriculum being thwarted, and her ill-advised affair with Mr. Polidori coming to an end. She had come very close—or at least that was the general opinion among both the middle- and upper-school faculty, and who was Ms. Hempel to disagree? But now, upon her return, Ms. Duffy looked unrecognizably happy. It was the first week of May, and she was holding court in the teachers’ lounge, her hair nearly down to her waist and her big belly protruding over her lap. Above the belly, Ms. Duffy laughed and swayed and gestured freely with her hands, as if to say, “What—this old thing?”

Ms. Hempel couldn’t take her eyes off it. It looked as tough as a gourd.

“Yemen is magical,” Ms. Duffy was telling the handful of teachers who happened to have fourth period free. “Just unbelievable. The pictures don’t capture it at all.”

And later:

But Ms. Hempel wouldn’t have described her as miserable, and she doubted that Ms. Duffy would have used the word herself. Because didn’t misery imply a wallowing sort of wretchedness? And a teacher had no time for that. The curriculum was always marching on, relentlessly: 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. Ms. Hempel was sometimes astonished by the thoughts she’d have while walking to work. One morning, she looked longingly at a patch of ice on the pavement and realized that if she were to fall and fracture her leg in several places then she wouldn’t have to go to school. And maybe, if the doctors put her in traction, a substitute would be hired for the rest of the year. Perhaps she’d need a body cast. There was a way out, an honorable and dignified way out. All she had to do was undergo a terrible accident . . .

But then her desk would be emptied in her absence, and all her secrets would come scuttling forth: the torn and smelly pair of stockings, abandoned there months ago; the descriptive paragraphs that had taken her so long to grade she’d finally claimed to have lost them at the laundromat; the open bag of Doritos. And, embarrassment aside, she had responsibilities: The volleyball finals were fast approaching—who would keep score? Someone else would have to chair the weekly meetings of the girls’ after-school book group, and conduct the middle-school assembly on Diversity Day. And who would finish grading the “Mockingbird” essays, adhering to the byzantine rubric she’d devised?

To read the rest of the story, click here.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum lives in Los Angeles and teaches at UC San Diego. She'll be reading on Thursday September 18 at 7 PM at Book Soup in Los Angeles and then again on Wednesday October 15 in San Diego at 4:30 PM, at the New Writing Series, Visual Arts Performance Space, University of California San Diego. She be back up in LA later that month as part of the Hammer Museum reading series. You can see her there on Saturday October 25 at 5 pm.

Like Ms. Hempel, I'll be teaching at most of those times but you should go.

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