Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum was a National Book Award finalist for Madeleine Is Sleeping, and her new book of interconnected stories is a delightful portrait of a young teacher early in her career. Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Harcourt, $23) is the perfect present for a grade-school teacher, but any reader will find “pure pleasure,” as Jonathan Franzen says, in reading about Ms. Hempel, a seventh-grade teacher who begins the year having her students read Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse.” She’s persistently concerned with what’s appropriate and what’s not, and not only when teaching sex education. In English class she selects Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life, an obscenity-laced memoir of a dysfunctional family, and struggles over presenting such a failed adolescent portrait. Bynum has made a wonderfully endearing character out of Beatrice Hempel.
In The Flying Troutmans (Counterpoint, $24) Miriam Toews introduces one of the most appealing and irrepressible characters in recent memory: Thebes, short for Theodora. When her mother sinks into chronic depression, Thebes calls her Aunt Hattie in Paris, begging her to come home and help her family. What follows is one of the most heartfelt, humorous, and insightful road trips in recent memory as Thebes, her older brother Logan, and Hattie commandeer a van and search for the kids’ father, rumored to be running an art gallery somewhere in South Dakota. These are characters that get way under your skin, and a book that keeps you smiling from start to finish.
A family’s worst nightmare is realized in Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, Songs For The Missing (Viking, $25.95), when their high-school daughter, Kim, fails to come home on a typical summer weeknight. Her parents’ natural reactions move from anger to worry to terror, as they search in vain for a sign of her. As time goes by and Kim fails to turn up, Ed and Fran struggle to learn their new roles as parents of a missing child. Kim’s disappearance affects everyone in different ways. Her younger sister Lindsay, an unpopular but straight-A student, feels the loss, but after a lifetime living in Kim’s shadow, is also uncomfortably liberated. Kim’s best friend and boyfriend struggle with guilt and whether to reveal damaging facts about Kim’s life even if it might help the police find her. O’Nan is expert in portraying ordinary life in all its complexity, tedium, hilarity, generosity, and terror as a family deals with a domestic nightmare.