July 2: “Talent” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Happy Saturday, Story366! Today is a middle day of a long holiday weekend, meaning there’s not a lot of traffic online, not a lot of hits on good old Story366. I wonder as I write this if there’s a way I can pander to the masses and pull you from your yachts and your barbecues and your beaches, all so my WordPress statistics don’t take too much of a hit. If this were a TV show, I’d either send Story366 to Hawaii for a two-part episode, have it get pregnant, or maybe have it shot by someone, a shadowy figure, and not tell you who shot it for a few days. If I were a magazine, I’d either have a swimsuit edition—I’m one short-short collection away from my ideal beach weight—or just start doing a series of ultra-sexy lists. Since I don’t have the budget to go to Hawaii for two days (or the energy to fake it, like I did for Spring Break!), I’ll just do a list instead. Without further adieu, let’s hit the Top Five Sexiest Days of the Week:

5. Friday
You’re probably thinking that Friday would be higher up, more like a number 1-type sexiest day of the week, but no. As I see it, everyone’s tired on Friday, plus they get paid, so the last thing on anyone’s mind is sex or being sexy. People are blowing off steam, resting, paying their bills, and going out to clubs. While going out to clubs is inherently sexy, I’ve never actually gone clubbing, so I think it’s all a myth. That’s why TGIF existed on ABC in the nineties, because it’s only the fifth-sexiest day and they had to make up for that somehow.

4. Tuesday
I’ve heard that Tuesday is the most productive day of the week because people are over their post-weekend Monday hangover but still have four days left until the weekend. I think doing work is sexy, so Tuesday scores a spot on this list.

3. Monday
I know what you’re thinking, that Monday would have been one of the two days not on the list. As it turns out, Monday is very, very sexy. Church has worn off by then, so people are ready to get back to business, overcompensating for the spiritual beating they’d enjoyed the previous day. It’s like wearing a really stiff suit all day and then getting home and just ripping it off and putting your sweats on. What’s sexier than those post-suit sweats? Nothing, I say.

2. Wednesday
Hump Day! Need I say more? High five!

1. Sunday
I know what you’re thinking, especially after my justification for putting Monday third on this list. Since these answers aren’t cumulative, I didn’t have to pay any heed to that logic, plus Sunday for me—as a non-spiritual person—is the day that I make sure I get everything done that I didn’t do on Friday or Saturday, making sure I don’t start the week behind the eight ball. That includes house work, yard work, teaching work, Story366 blogwork, and best of all, getting busy. My most getting-busiest time is on Sunday, just because I’ve been bottling it up all week, all weekend, and want to make sure I clear the ledger before I turn the page. So, for that reason, Sunday is certainly the sexiest day of the week (except for this weekend, and every holiday weekend, where Monday becomes the sexiest day of the week and everything else is more or less pushed back a day).

Honorable Mention: Saturday
Also Under Consideration: Thursday

That concludes my first-ever Story366 list of Sexiest _____. I’ll see how the numbers go today and early tomorrow, and if need be, there’s always the Top Ten Sexiest Months of the Year. Just to let you know, number 7 is shocking!

Now that thousands upon thousands of you are reading, let’s shift over to today’s story, “Talent” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, from her collection of linked stories, or heck, novel-in-stories, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, out from Harcourt (which I just now found out is defunct). I ran into the author while she was touring this book in Ann Arbor and talked with her a bit, noting I’d seen her on Charlie Rose; Bynum had been a National Book Award finalist for her previous book, the novel Madeleine Is Sleeping, and Rose had had her and the other finalists on to discuss their nominations. We chatted a bit—she’s super-nice—and apparently I had my oldest boy with me as a babykins because the inscription in the book is to both me and my baby son. So, time capsule opened, as that kid’s just about ten and I guess there was a time I thought it was a good idea to drag babies up to Ann Arbor for fiction readings.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles is about Beatrice Hempel, a new seventh grade teacher and new adult, and after reading the first three stories, I feel confident saying that this book is, more than anything, a very detailed character sketch of a young woman coming of age in the world. Okay, maybe she never comes of age—there’s a bunch more stories left—but Ms. Hempel is a naïve woman, full of hope, full of fears, full of opinions, and her starting out in the work world, in life, seems to be what Bynum is telling us about here.

“Talent” is the first story in the collection and catches Ms. Hempel (what she’s known as throughout the stories, her being an elementary school teacher and all) watching the school talent show. It’s a nice set-up for a story, especially the first story in a novel-in-stories, as we get to see Ms. Hempel observe and judge everyone who is in her life, namely her students and her coworkers at the school. Told in a vey close third person, “Talent” goes through the talent show acts, one by one, allowing Bynum to have some fun with kids and their abilities (The Simpsons does this all the time), Ms. Hempel evaluating each one as they fail or succeed (there’s a particularly gifted magician in the bunch). We also get to see what Ms. Hempel thinks of her fellow teachers, the non-teaching staff, and some parents, making this an ideal setting and occasion to start this book : Everyone who will probably be in the book is at this talent show. Brilliant intro.

Of course, through these observations, the choices that Bynum makes Ms. Hempel make, what we really get is an in-depth characterization of Ms. Hempel. How she looks at each kid, pontificates on the kid’s home life, abilities, and future, reveals a judgmental spirit, though she’s hardly harsh or unfair. Her relationships with her coworkers are revealed as well. What we find out, more than anything, is that Ms. Hempel is characterized mostly by the fact that she’s not a fully formed person yet, someone who has a vast and complicated interior life, but not much of it has come out and formed a personality. It’s implied that this is what others think of her, this new, quiet, mousey woman that nobody really knows.

The great thing about setting up a character like this is that Bynum can take her in any direction. It’s doubtful that Beatrice Hempel is going to remain quiet and mousey and inside herself for a dozen stories—what’s the point of that?—but at this stage, Bynum has an endless array of choices. Which of these characters that Ms Hempel evaluates in her head will be a part of that growth, that coming out? There are so many candidates—a bully in her class named Robert gets the most attention—and we’ll all have to read further into the book to find out.

In “Talent,” Sarah Shun-lien Bynum has a set herself up for just about anything for her meek title character in Ms. Hempel Chronicles. Bynum’s prose is tight and imaginative, exploring the stream-of-conscious thoughts of a person just learning how to be a person, how the world works. It’s a fascinating exploration, one I enjoyed a great deal.

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