Book Review: Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the acknowledgments, it appears that this novel began as a grouping of short stories. As individual short stories, these would be stronger than they are as a book. A couple of the chapters/stories would be quite strong as short stories, particularly the one about the weird phone calls and the last one in the book, both of which disclose the past in subtle and intriguing ways and end at just the right spot to leave me wanting more but feeling a sense of satisfaction at the same time.

As a novel, though, it seems as though the chapters/stories ought to build on one another and give me a fuller sense of Ms Hempel as a person. Instead, they seem to be a series of just kind of weird details that never quite coalesce into a unified portrait.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the book. I enjoyed it in bits and pieces, especially the insights about the nature of teaching as a day-in, day-out job. I sometimes fantasize about what I might do when my kids no longer require so much of my time and attention. As a homeschooling mom, one of the possibilities that comes up is teaching. But I’d not thought before about what it would mean to be in front of a group of kids all day, every day. Ms Hempel is a little uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny to which her students subject her, and I fear I would be, too. I might enjoy being, briefly, the center of attention in a conversation or in a public speaking setting, but to be the center of attention as a major part of my job would, I think, be a little too much for me. It’s difficult enough being so integral and on display to my two children. I don’t want to imagine what it would feel like to be out in front of a couple dozen of other people’s kids every day. I’m neurotic enough without that added stress.

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