Tag Archives: guest review

Guest Review: MS. HEMPEL CHRONICLES by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a book called Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, which was a recent finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. EDIWTB reader and frequent contributor Nancy West wrote a review of Ms. Hempel Chronicles, and shared it with me for the blog. Thanks, Nancy!

Bynum The most interesting thing for me about reading Ms. Hempel Chronicles was that it inspired me to think a lot about the fine balance an author must navigate in creating characters who are unusual enough not to be stereotypes but at the same time familiar enough not to be impenetrable. (Actually, the very most interesting thing for me about reading this book was halfway through when I suddenly realized that when author Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum was in college, she used to babysit for my niece, and I met her at my niece’s second birthday party, but that has little to do with this review.) To be artfully crafted, characters need to be on the one hand wonderfully new and unique; while on the other, we should be able to easily imagine the things they do and the words they say. They are simultaneously original and familiar. A paradox? Yes, but that paradox is what makes for great writing. I’d offer any of Curtis Sittenfeld’s characters in Prep or American Wife as examples. We believe these people, because they seem familiar and real; on the other hand, they’re original enough that we’re always curious about what they are going to say or do next.

There are plenty of characters in contemporary popular fiction who fall into the stereotype category. (Almost any secondary characters created by Jodi Picoult, for example.) Sure, we can picture them, because we’ve run into them a hundred times before, but that doesn’t automatically make for good fiction; we don’t want to read about characters who never ever surprise us. At the other end of the spectrum, however, is Beatrice Hempel of Ms. Hempel Chronicles – I just don’t get her. I just can’t see her or hear her. She’s quirky and interesting, sure, but so uniquely drawn that she doesn’t remind me of anyone I know and I find her inexplicable enough that I don’t really care what she thinks or does.

That said, lots of reviewers love this book, and to once again give Bynum credit for eschewing stereotypes, Ms. Hempel (as she is referred to throughout most of the book) does not remind me of any other teacher protagonists. Her middle-school students really like her, though she doesn’t seem to understand why and as a result neither do I. She likes her profession, but again, I can’t tap into her thinking process. It’s true that Bynum has given us a snapshot of teaching life well beyond the cliché – Ms. Hempel and her peers dance at eclectic bars for Friday afternoon happy hour, take sabbaticals in Yemen, and have flings  – but for much of the time I was reading it, I was thinking about recent novels whose teacher protagonists were more interesting to me: Ruth in Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher; Alice (actually a school librarian) in the aforementioned American Wife, even Jack in John Updike’s frightening novel Terrorist.

The most engaging and believable scene for me in this novel was the one where Beatrice goes to her family home to celebrate her birthday, visit with her mother and help her much-younger sister write an application essay. Finally, there were actions I could understand and characters I found accessible. Further research into Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum proved to me that she’s getting plenty of acclaim as a young writer – she’s a contributor to the New Yorker, after all — and clearly I am in the minority in not celebrating this book. Thinking about characterization made it interesting for me, though. Where exactly is the fulcrum on which perfectly drawn characters balance between too quirky and too stereotypical?

I remember a reviewer writing about a “Sex in the City” episode several years ago who said about a particular scene, “We wait to see if Miranda will do the Miranda thing.” Frivolous as the example may sound, that sums up my point pretty well. We know what the Miranda thing would be: will she do it? Probably – that’s why it’s called “the Miranda thing” – but not definitely, and therein lies the intrigue. After finishing this book, I still couldn’t tell you what “the Ms. Hempel thing” to do would be.

Guest Review: OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Thank you to EDIWTB reader Nancy West for this guest review of Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I’ve not read this book yet, but I want to.

Olive Several years ago, my book group discussed Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love. At one point, someone brought up the title: presumably it was an adjectival construction referring to love that endures, but was it possibly a word play meant also to draw upon the present participle – as in “How do we go about enduring love?”

Probably not, we decided; it seemed unlikely that the author of such a complex character-driven novel intended to distract readers (or book groups) with a clever word play, and we moved on quickly to a discussion of the novel itself. It is a long literary leap from the unforgettable page-turner by the highly acclaimed British novelist to Strout’s collection of interconnected stories about hard-on-their-luck folks in a midsized, rundown town in coastal Maine, but I found myself thinking back often to that earlier discussion. Strout’s book could indeed be called Enduring Love, drawing upon both meanings – because although the stories are ostensibly linked by the fact that they either center around Olive Kittredge herself or people with some connection, however specious, to the title character, the theme that truly connects the stories is how any of them, or presumably how any of us, endure love, as it grows old and complicated and tedious and distractible and… and on and on. Husbands endure obnoxious wives; wives endure cheating husbands. A young woman attempts to endure in a promising relationship despite the inescapable memories of her childhood; another young woman’s endurance is tested by her own self-destructiveness. An adolescent wonders if she can endure the peculiarities of her parents, peculiarities that drive her beloved older sister out of the house. Olive and Henry Kittredge endure the emotional fallout of being random victims of a horrendous crime; another couple their age has less success with endurance after crime rips their domestic life apart – because in their case, their child is the perpetrator. In one of the most interesting plot threads, Olive’s enduring love for her son is tested and tested again, with uncertain results.

Some survive; some do not. Perhaps the most compelling example of endurance, though, is the reader’s enduring affection for Olive. Though many others in this Maine harbor town find her to be odious, omniscient viewpoint enables us to understand her as they cannot, and to appreciate her as few can. Ultimately, we find ourselves rooting for nearly every character in this collection, hoping against fairly high odds that they can all survive, and endure, and that the love around which their lives are centered can somehow endure along with them.

Thanks again for the post, Nancy!

Guest Review: TERRORIST by John Updike

Thank you to frequent guest-reviewer Nancy West, who sent in this review of John Updike’s latest novel, Terrorist. (I apologize for the formatting – it won’t let me insert spaces between paragraphs, for some reason).

UpdikeBecause Ahmad is a disenfranchised and unhappy adolescent of Middle Eastern descent, because he studies the Koran faithfully with an imam of unclear motives, because the imam sets him up with a job driving eighteen-wheelers for a furniture company owned by Middle Eastern immigrants, because the novel is set in the spring and summer of 2006, and because its title is Terrorist, we can pretty much see where things are most likely going. To say this is a novel that examines the question of homegrown terrorism should not be construed in any way as a plot spoiler. It’s just that – a question, not a foregone conclusion.

Having read the basic Updike canon when I was in college, I had not picked up any of his novels in years, mostly because I find the pervasive misogyny to be both antiquated and off-putting. But when I heard last spring that Updike had written a novel from the point of view of a young man apparently destined to become a homegrown terrorist, I was intrigued. Despite my lack of interest in Updike novels overall, I do acknowledge his stature as one of our era’s leading American novelists, and it seemed to me that it would take a writer of Updike’s status to pull off the challenge that this novel presents. Other than perhaps Joyce Carol Oates, I couldn’t imagine another writer who could do it, and so I went ahead and read it.

Terrorist is a highly engaging account of an 18-year-old named Ahmad Mulloy Ashmawy raised in a small apartment by a single mother in a bleak and depressing working-class New Jersey community. The fact that Updike chose to make his narrator a high school senior rather than an adult poses one of the first interesting questions of the novel. While it’s easy on the one hand to think of Ahmad as having anti-government proclivities because of his ethnic heritage, we soon learn that his ethnic heritage is essentially incidental: the mother who raised him is Irish-American; the father who represents the Middle Eastern half of his genetic makeup abandoned the boy in early childhood. Ahmad seems to have chosen to self-identify as Muslim and Middle Eastern more as a way of rejecting his working-class New Jersey side than because he’s had any positive influences from that heritage. It is solely his choice to study the Koran with a radical Muslim cleric; his generally hands-off mother is perplexed by his interest but unsure as to whether it poses an actual danger or is just another dubious choice of the kind that adolescents make all the time.

And therein lies an interesting thematic element of Terrorist. What if his tendencies stem not from the fact that he’s half Egyptian but instead from the possibility that this is simply the most extreme end of the troubled-adolescent spectrum? If, say, a normal male teen fights with his parents, a slightly more rebellious one takes illegal drugs, and a highly unstable kid commits a school shooting – then can we assume that the most extreme expression of teen rebellion would be to commit an act of large-scale terrorism?

Updike’s metaphors are simultaneously thought-provoking and easily accessible. Terrrorist raises a host of intriguing questions about American life, teen culture, disenfranchisement and zealotry. When this novel first came out, it seemed that many reviewers focused on the question of whether they “bought” the notion of Updike being able to speak from the perspective of a teenage might-be terrorist. My feeling is that it doesn’t really matter whether Updike is entirely credible or not – to me, it was interesting enough simply to find out how he would envision the situation, whether or not he could be considered completely convincing. I read this novel for both the subject matter and the skill of the writer, and I was not disappointed in either regard.