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Ms. Hempel Chronicles Hardcover – September 8, 2008

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 193 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (September 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151014965
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151014965
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,601,472 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

Bynum’s second novel provides a narrative voice as unique and engaging as that in her award-winning debut, Madeleine Is Sleeping (2004). Here we meet a twentysomething middle-school teacher full of both hope and insecurity on the brink of confident adulthood—an age Bynum renders as poignant as that of her students. Rather than focus on the major events of Ms. Hempel’s current life, including a broken engagement and the death of her father, Bynum instead uses these as a net to cradle smaller, more telling moments—a troublemaker buried in sand on class “beach day,” a magic routine at the talent show, dancing with colleagues at happy hour. Bynum dares to put much stock in these small moments and in the dreamy perspective of her heroine, and the result is charming without being quirky. This tightly composed novel favors character over a traditional narrative, with one particularly wonderful chapter looking back on a teenage Ms. Hempel, locked in her room, listening to pirate radio, and having aimless conversations with prank callers. The attention to detail is spectacular. --Annie Tully

Customer Reviews

This is is a smart, witty novel.
M. Grotz-Rhone
Also - the descriptive style is hilarious as well as dead on.
A terrific book-- engrossing, funny, charming.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Dee Dee von Reebies on September 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Ms. Hempel the schoolteacher lives, works, and loves with both feet firmly planted in the realm of the mundane, but her gently persistent sense of wonderment about life leads to the discovery of the marvelous in the very crevices and folds of the day-to-day. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's masterful storytelling navigates these twists and turns of nine-to-five city life in a way that (sometimes in the space of a single page!) bears the heart of her reader from ho-hum to melancholy to raptures and back. We meet Ms. Hempel's family, friends, students, colleagues, and love interests, but the novel is really about the profound experience of normal days: finding the remarkable in the unremarkable, the sublime in the routine, a sudden burst of the soul against the tick-tock of the clock. As in life, the plot's movement yields to the force of the heroine's day-in and day-out, but also, quite unexpectedly, draws us into the subtle undercurrent of her intimate journey toward spiritual plenitude. Like her poetic given name, Beatrice, tucked away from everyday view, Ms. Hempel's soul-searching makes gentle cameo appearances at the surface of her daily grind. The novel's power lies in this perfect tension between schoolmarm and muse. Their counterpoint reverberates like a soft heartbeat lending a timeless and organic harmony to the din of our ordinary days.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By om on September 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I read "Yurt" in the New Yorker, was anxious for more, and The Ms Hempel Chronicles delivered. As a teacher of adolescents, I was struck at how Bynum nailed the emotional dynamic of the classroom, relationships between teachers and students, the internal struggles of the characters to become who they are and will be. Despite the very different setting and cast of characters from those I know in my own classroom, the relationships and realizations of Ms Hempel seemed uncannily familiar to me. Also - the descriptive style is hilarious as well as dead on. I'm planning on passing it along to my middle school colleagues.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jesse Archer on November 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I would never have read this book had it not fallen into my hands at the urging of a friend. First of all, what is with that awful, awful cover? And the title? Again, awful.

How many lessons must I (and publishers, for shame) learn about judging a book by its cover? As a writer, I cannot recommend this book enough. Ms Hempel is a thoroughly engaging protagonist full of doubt, wonder, humor, and above all heart. This is a book about life and its author a master. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's words are carefully chosen - so carefully chosen as to flow effortlessly for the reader.

The sentiment here is not heavy handed; she doesn't beat you over the head. The book is written matter-of-fact, devoid of the chick-flicky weepiness that I so despise. So why did I find myself weeping at the end of this wonderful work of art? I suppose it's because I, as with her former students, remain deeply haunted by Ms. Hempel.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Lindsay Johnson on March 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
As a reader, I often feel like a voyeur without the negative stigma brought about by reality television. Bynum's slim novella, which reads more like a collection of short stories, allows us to revel in this role, granting a nearly unobstructed view of Ms. Hemple. We are given a set of chapters, not necessarily in order, plucked from different times in the life of this "rebellious" child turned middle school teacher turned urban planner. Though each section could stand alone, the distinct voice of a developing Ms. Hemple pulls the pieces together in a naturally cohesive way. Without giving us all of the answers, Bynum allows us to discover Ms. Hemple as she is in the process of discovering and evolving herself; I did not have to stretch myself to identify with this character.

Though the subject matter may seem perfectly ordinary, the quality of the writing is anything but. Bynum has an outstanding command of the English language and I was simply blown away by some of her descriptions. I walked away from this book thinking, "this author is an extraordinary writer." However, I also walked away thinking that this book left me hanging, begging for another chapter to give it some sense of closure. It just did not feel complete and that prevented me from giving it five stars, which is too bad because I enjoyed this book a great deal. Enjoy every word of this one because there are not as many as you might wish and because writing of this caliber does not come along every day.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By David Keymer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Walbert, Kate. A Short History of Women. Scribner. 2009. 224p. $24.00.
Bynum, Sarah Shun-Lieh. Ms Hempel Chronicles. Harcourt. 2008. 195p. $23.00.

I have just finished two extraordinary novels about what it is to be a woman. The one is Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women and the other is Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Ms Hempel Chronicles.

Both books are short: Walbert's is 224 pages and Bynum's is even shorter at 195 pages. Both expose their subject's lives episodically: Walbert, snapshots spanning five generations of extraordinary women in one exceptional family, episodes that stretch from 1898 to 2007; Bynum, interlocking and mutually reinforcing glances at the life and experiences of a middle-school teacher -seventh grade, social studies-- who doesn't think she's exceptional at all, from her first year teaching through a time years later when she has left teaching and encounters a former pupil and discovers what effect she had on that girl's life and the life of her classmates.

Both books are superb. No, that is the wrong word to use for them. "Superb," accurate though it is, is pallid, too critic-like. These books, and especially Short History, beg for the fan's language: I don't approve of these two books, I love them! Time and again, as I read Walbert's short novel, I thought: "What male (or female) author has ever caught the dilemmas and hang-ups of being male as well as she does with women, and in Walbert's case.
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