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September 10, 2008

Book Notes - Sarah Shun-lien Bynum ("Ms. Hempel Chronicles")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's Madeleine Is Sleeping is one of the most remarkable debut novels I have read in recent years, so I greatly anticipated her second novel, Ms. Hempel Chronicles. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum again proves herself a masterful storyteller with this book about a seventh grade schoolteacher. Once I saw her playlist for the book online, I knew she would be a perfect fit for the Book Notes series.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

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.

In her own words, here is Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's Book Notes essay for her novel, Ms. Hempel Chronicles:

The main character in my book is a seventh and eighth grade teacher, and spending all her time around thirteen-year-olds makes her think a lot about when she was that age. And thinking about Ms. Hempel as a thirteen-year-old gave me in turn a good excuse to relive my own youth and revisit the bands I was listening to around the ages of thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen, when music mattered more to me than almost anything else. The following playlist features some of the songs and bands that appear in the book.

Mission of Burma: That’s When I Reach For My Revolver

I grew up in Boston during the 1980’s: there were a lot of truly great bands around then, and a lot of college radio stations where you could hear them. Once I figured this out, “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” is the first song that I remember being able to sing along to. One of the big differences with college radio was that they didn’t play the same songs over and over again like on normal radio, so you really had to pay attention and listen hard to get the hang of things. So at thirteen I felt happy that this was a song I could recognize right away and sing the words to and I always got a little rush when the drums would speed up just before the chorus began. By the time I first heard them, the band was already broken up, but their final live record had been released -- “The Horrible Truth about Burma” -- and it must have been played pretty frequently in 1985 for me to learn the lyrics (which I mangled anyway, as I did with most lyrics).

The Cramps: Human Fly

“Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?” is my first official Cramps song, which was getting a lot of airplay because their record “A Date With Elvis” had just been released. But my cousin in Canada made me a tape of two older albums (“Psychedelic Jungle” and “Off the Bone”) and I loved those even more: they sounded fuzzier and sloppier and just way more primal, like the band was still dripping with prehistoric ooze. (While “A Date With Elvis” sounded as if they’d gotten toweled off and booked at the local burlesque club.) And I always admired Poison Ivy because she was the lead guitarist and not the lead singer. She seemed like the cool one while Lux Interior was the campy one. I played this tape constantly. It was a good soundtrack for the long walk from my house to the trolley stop in the swampy Boston heat.

Squirrel Bait: Kid Dynamite

By the time this record (“Skag Heaven”) came out, I was working at an ice cream store and going every week to Newbury Comics or Second Coming to buy music. I loved this particular record to death -- it was so fast and tight and heartfelt -- and I wrote a letter to the band, who lived in Louisville, Kentucky, asking if they’d please come play in Boston: they could stay at my house and we’d have a barbecue. I never heard back from them, which surprised me a little, because when I wrote a letter to the Volcano Suns (an offshoot of the defunct Mission of Burma) they sent me back a nice drawing and some ketchup packets that Tom Jones had left on a picnic table at a highway rest stop. It was sweet -- the Volcano Suns explained in their note who Tom Jones was (“of ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’ fame”) -- which strangely I knew already because I used to be a big Peter O’Toole fan and I’d rented all his movies.

Angry Samoans: Right Side of My Mind

Angry Samoans was one of my first big all-ages shows; they played at a club called the Channel that was down by the waterfront, across from the Children’s Museum. I made my father drop me off several blocks away in front of some deserted warehouses so I could walk up to the Channel’s parking lot looking as if I was a feral kid who didn’t belong to any parents. For a long time I thought the band was called the Angry Simones -- that’s how it sounded on the radio, and I was learning French at school -- and I didn’t discover their real name until I saw flyers for the show. My friend Val came with me; she had a crush on a skater we called Shaggy Jeff and that afternoon she bought him an Angry Samoans t-shirt and got him to kiss her. I remember running out of the dark club into the daylight, completely elated: we felt as if we were finally making progress.

Minor Threat: Straight Edge

What a great invention straight edge was! I never subscribed to it in a formal way, or used a Sharpie to draw a black X on the back of my hand, but I was very glad it existed as an option. When you’re fourteen and hoping to hang out with older, cooler people it was nice to know that you could gracefully bow out of any weird drug situation that might arise. Plus, it allowed you to act indignant and self-righteous when your parents worried about the bad influences you were being exposed to by going to shows all the time.

Sonic Youth: Schizophrenia

I adored Sonic Youth: their music always made a lot of sense to me, like they were the house band of my own inner universe. If any Sonic Youth fans read the book, they’ll notice that I conflate two of their records -- “EVOL” and “Sister” -- when I talk about Beatrice’s fascination with the half-naked girl on the album cover. The picture that’s described is from the Sister cover but in the book it says that Beatrice “knew from reading the back of the album that this picture was a film still, and that the film was called Submit to Me, but she couldn’t find the information she wanted most, which was where one could see a film like this” -- and this is actually a reference to the EVOL album cover with the Lung Leg photo on it. Both images are taken from Richard Kern films, but a fan will tell you that the pictures on the Sister cover aren’t credited but simply mentioned in the liner notes as “from public domain jacked from sonic matrix.” I mashed the two album covers together for the purposes of the story because I wanted to suggest how closely, how obsessively you study record covers when you’re a kid, looking for information, looking for clues to a world you know exists but you don’t yet know how to enter. One of my most quietly thrilling moments happened when I was taking EVOL off my record player and I noticed that there were words -- handwritten words! -- etched in the band of blank vinyl at the center of the record. It said: EVERYTHING TURNS BLACK TO BLUE -- which is a line from the song “Star Power” -- and I just about died. There was a person out there in the world who loved this song as much as I did! A person who worked at SST Records and who had slid my vinyl disc into its sleeve! It was such a beautiful, tactile moment of connection.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Ms. Hempel Chronicles links:

the book's website
the book's page at the publisher
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Beyond Books review
Bookforum.com review
Daily Candy review
Nylon review
Owl's Court reviews
Peeking Between the Pages review
Publishers Weekly review
Tennessean review
Washington Post review

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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