Arts & Entertainment

Book review: 'The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman' by Ben H. Winters

EntertainmentMusicEducationMiddle SchoolsSchoolsCookingJane Austen

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman

A Novel

Ben H. Winters

HarperCollins: 256 pp., $16.99

Teachers occupy a peculiar place in children's minds, especially for elementary and middle school students. Who are these people after they set down their dry-erase markers and lock up their classrooms? Are they as boring as their button-down shirts would indicate? Or might they be leading double lives?

That's the comedic idea behind "The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman," a novel for middle school students from Ben H. Winters, who updated Jane Austen's classic in the 2009 literary mash-up "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters."

With her mousy brown hair and conservative clothing, Ms. Finkleman is so ordinary as to be invisible. She isn't a good teacher, nor is she bad. When her seventh-grade students dutifully trod into choral class, they sing "Greensleeves" and other traditional English folk ballads competently but with little joy or inspiration.

It's only when pigtailed Bethesda Fielding decides to make Ms. Finkleman the subject of a social studies assignment — to find a mystery and solve it — that this eight-year veteran of Mary Todd Lincoln Middle School comes under the microscope. While Bethesda's classmates investigate why hot dogs are sold in packs of 12 when their buns are sold in bundles of eight, and why a mother is no longer talking to an uncle, the 12-year-old, straight-A Bethesda is convinced an even greater mystery exists in a teacher who seems so utterly blasé.

Bethesda's questioning of the librarian and home economics instructor comes up with nothing. But when she queries her pre-algebra instructor, she stumbles upon her first clue: Ms. Finkleman has a tattoo on her arm, a tattoo that appears to be of Ozzy Osbourne.

Entering her teacher's room at precisely 4:27 p.m. on a Friday, Bethesda continues her investigation at Ms. Finkleman's desk. She finds nothing but a pencil sharpener and a bowl of clementines, until she uncovers a scrap of paper in a bottom drawer listing acronyms that scream to be deciphered.

Bethesda calls upon her dad, a reformed hipster who once fronted an indie rock band in Brooklyn. Together, they figure out the paper is actually a set list for the all-girl punk-rock band Little Miss Mystery and the Red Herrings. Conveniently, Bethesda's dad owns a vinyl 7-inch by the band. Even better, he still has a turntable. And the two rock out to a riotous song that Bethesda is sure is sung by Ms. Finkleman.

Bethesda lets the secret out and, within days, the tenor of the school has shifted. Ms. Finkleman's students are, for the first time, respectful. They're actually trying, and succeeding, in their attempts to hit the right notes. Not only do the students know the gossip, so does the principal, who decides to capitalize on Ms. Finkleman's newly uncovered fame by allowing the school to put on a rock show that can qualify for the local battle-of-the-bands contest.

Ms. Finkleman, it turns out, has another secret. And Bethesda's class rival is determined to expose it before the show.

With "The Secret Life," Winters, who is a teacher himself, applies a light touch that fuses youthful, scholarly exuberance with the inspirational power of rock 'n' roll. Together, they're a potent force for bringing together kids of disparate skills and temperaments in a fast paced and unjaded book that is sure to delight.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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