Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

I came across this list by Jonathan Franzen a little while back. He discusses four older books that never received the attention they should have, and this little gem is one of them.

As a child, Ms. Hempel (and her teachers) thought that she would grow up to become a famous writer, but here she is, grown up to be a very ordinary seventh grade teacher. Too inexperienced to feel terribly good at her job, too unsure of her career choice, but too dismayed by life to consider doing anything else.

Here are eight stories about her, from her sweetly naive and honest thoughts about her students (whom she feels she is letting down every day with her substandard teaching), to thoughts of her fiance, a forgettable classmate from her childhood with whom she has forged an amenable, if only tolerable, relationship.

So it sounds really negative, right? Not so much. I really enjoyed it. She aptly captures the innocence and earnest effort that I think most adults in their 20s pour into their jobs. Her characters complicated and lovable. Plus the writing is superb; Bynum was a finalist for the National Book Award for a previous work.

p. 11: "She was not a good teacher, yet teaching had rendered her unfit for everything else: She was not a good friend (she didn't return phone calls), nor a good lover (a student's smiling face would suddenly materialize before her, mid-coitus), nor a good citizen (she didn't have time to read up on the propositions before she went to vote). She had chosen teaching because it seemed to offer both tremendous opportunities for leisure and the satisfaction of doing something generous and worthwhile. Too late she realized her mistake; teaching had invaded her like a mild but inexorable infection; her students now inhabited her dreams, her privacy, her language."

On talking about her two best friends from her own childhood --p. 58: "They served as each other's most passionate advocates: no one, in Beatrice's mind, was as intelligent and beautiful and kind and brave and talented as Kate and Greta. And Kate and Greta, in turn, would insist the same of Beatrice. It was puzzling, then, that together they had managed to collect such a number of men who seemed less alert to these qualities."


Titianlibrarian said...

p. 56: "Folded and unfolded--this circus was famous for its contortionists. But what they did seemed like the most normal thing in the world; their bodies, glittering in the blue light, appeared enormously relieved, as if they had been permitted, finally, to relax into their most natural states. Clearly she saw how the feet longed to roost behind the ears, how the spine was as stretchy as chewing gum. It made her feel sorry for her own creaking vessel, shuffling along dimly, made to stand upright on two feet. No, not vessel--because if this circus, so full of secrets, revealed anything, it was that the body does not contain, but is contained; rather than comb through the jungles of Asia and Africa and bring back, in shackles, the wildlife found there, this circus had coaxed out of hiding a strange beast, the body."

Titianlibrarian said...

p. 159: "Their mother was outside in the cold, calling their names. She needed help. [...] When Beatrice, shivering in her swingy little car coat, suggested that the spring might be a better time, her mother said, 'Who knows when you'll be coming home next?' and with a heavy feeling Beatrice realized that a definite and as yet undisclosed list, including such items as essay revision and tree removal, had been compiled in preparation for her visit."