Spanking Shakespeare and Welcoming Wizner

h1 December 5th, 2007 by jules

{Friendly Warning: Some plot spoilers below} . . .

In author and English teacher Jake Wizner’s first book, a YA novel entitled Spanking Shakespeare (Random House; September 2007; review copy) — also a Fall 2007 Book Sense Teen Pick — we meet Shakespeare Shapiro. It’s his senior year of high school. He’s never had a girlfriend; he’s never kissed a girl; his brother, Gandhi (yes, Gandhi), who is two years younger, has a girlfriend, will lose his virginity before Shakespeare, and is terrifically popular at school; and he has only two close friends: “Neil Wasserman, whose favorite thing to do is discuss his bowel movements; and Katie Marks, who favorite thing to do is tell me how pathetic I am.” And then there’s his name:

“It’s hard to imagine what my parents were thinking when they decided to name me Shakespeare. They were probably drunk . . . I’ve given up asking them about it because neither of them is able to remember anything anymore, and the stories they come up with always leave me feeling like it might not be so bad to dig a hole in the backyard and hide out there until I leave for college next year. That is, if I get into college.”

At his high school, named for Ernest Hemingway (“a writer who consumed tremendous amounts of alcohol, wrote simple declarative sentences, and eventually killed himself with a double-barreled shotgun”), seniors are required to take a year-long seminar in which they must complete their senior project — memoirs, “often in excess of one hundred pages, {which} have made the school famous.” Shakespeare decides to write about what he considers his pitiful life and its series of unfortunate incidents — from his birth on Hitler’s birthday (“{w}henever I did anything wrong as a child, my father would call me Adolf, and my mother, whose parents had been Holocaust survivors, would fly into a fury and accuse my father of being an insensitive pig”) to the time “my parents sent me to a camp straight out of Lord of the Flies” (with a game entitled the Coma Game, you can maybe imagine why) to stories of his mother’s emotional blackmail to the time he watched a porn movie with his mentally unstable grandmother to the time he and Neil visited a sex doctor — and everything in between. As you can see, Wizner is not afraid of those nervous, more censor-happy parents of teens who don’t want their children to read about smoking pot, porn, masturbation, getting drunk . . . you get the picture.

But it’s much more than that. Actually, this is one of those great titles in which the teen protagonist learns the consequences of his actions, not even enjoying that first pot-smoke, as it makes him ill — not to mention the students around him who drink and smoke too much pretty much are just hanging around and hurling chunks in trash cans anyway. In other words, Wizner is not out to glorify that type of behavior. Just to capture it honestly. But then most teen readers don’t care about the-protagonist-learning-his-consequences-yadaya-yadaya-yadaya. They will just enjoy the honest, smart, hilarious writing of Wizner; he writes with great candor about high school life without condescending to teen readers.

And, best of all, all that hard-edged honesty is nicely counterbalanced in the end when, after all his talk of wanting to get laid for the first time, Shakespeare has a lovely date with his first real girlfriend, Charlotte, a girl in his class whose painfully difficult home life makes Shakespeare realize that, quite frankly, he ain’t got it so bad and never really did. To be clear, it’s likely Shakespeare reaches his goal of sexual fulfillment on the beach on that first date, prom night with Charlotte, in her kickin’ hand-made prom dress. But after his coarse, blunt talk about sex all throughout the novel, it’s quite poignant that the prom night chapter ends on a silent note, at least when it comes to the issue of what he and Charlotte did:

“Well, I guess this is good night,” Charlotte says.

I lean over and kiss her and then gently stroke the side of her face. “Good night,” I say.

She turns and walks into her building, and after a moment I walk slowly back to the limousine.

Soon I will be home. I will creep up to my room, dump my clothes in a heap, and tumble into a bed that has never felt so welcoming. I will end up sleeping most of the day, and I will not dream anything I can remember. Later, when I wake up, I will call to check on Neil and Katie, I will answer my parents’ queries about the night in an infuriatingly vague way, and I will sit down at my computer to finish writing my memoir.

End of chapter. I love it. He might be pumpin’ his arms in the air at having had sex for the first time, which — again — is my assumption as the reader, but since Charlotte’s obviously earned his respect, he’ll keep that to himself, thanks very much. Nice juxtaposition to all the sex talk that precedes this moment — rather, non-moment. (I’m supposed to say “juxtaposition” in a book review, yes?) . . . It’s a similar technique Wizner uses to bring home even more poignancy at the novel’s close when the students sign one another’s yearbooks. And isn’t it always the case anyway that students who normally rib each other ’til it hurts will be all, “I love you, dude. You’re special to me and here’s why . . .” when they sign yearbooks? It’s nice. If Wizner had not deviated at all from his ribald, sharp-witted, party-hearty tone in the writing, it would have been a one-note novel, indeed. But he knows how to make an emotional connection with the reader — without it being too much, particularly for saccharine-fearing teens (and saccharine-fearing they should remain into adulthood, if you ask my opinion).

But the humor . . . well, it’s the very VERY best part of the Reading Experience that is Spanking Shakespeare. There are his musings about how literary people must flirt (one girl he’s terrifically attracted to, Celeste, “was talking about a battle scene in The Iliad as an example of Homer-erotica, and it wasn’t until later that I realized Homer rhymes with boner“). There are the posters he and Katie and Neil hang up all over school, in which they cleverly slide in some random, pointless, philosophical questions for their fellow students, concealing them being the only way they can get away with it (entitled The Worst-Case Scenario Game: Fun for the Whole Family). It has the school abuzz:

Serious guitar player seeking
singers and musicians
who are into heavy metal
and classic rock.
If you’re into Metallica, Iron Maiden,
Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC,
Bon Jovi, Aerosmith,
then would you like to get
together to jam?
Would you rather spend your whole life
with no music or drink one liter of
vomit on your birthday every year? {*}

And then there’s the creative writing assignment of his own obituary: “Shakespeare Shapiro, 27, Sumo Wrestler and Haiku Poet.” It deserves its own Poetry Friday entry.

Very sharp, very funny writing. One of my liveliest reads this year, to put it mildly. And a welcome debut from Jake Wizner.

* * * * * * *

* Not to be out-done by: Would you rather eat a full plate of your best friend’s boogers or drink a full glass of a chain-smoker’s spit? and Would you rather live your whole life with no candy or with two fingers missing from each hand?. Don’t expect Wizner to be p.c., as there’s: Would you rather be crippled or a dwarf?, Would you rather be retarded or weigh four hundred pounds?, and the old classic Would you rather be blind or deaf?. And with Would you rather watch a kitten be dissected or watch your parents having sex?, you are guaranteed that his refreshingly funny warped humor makes no promises regarding no animals being harmed during the writing of this book. Just don’t ask about the puppy . . .

One More Note: Wanna know what others think? Go here. Publishers Weekly has given it a starred review (“{e}xceptionally funny and smart”), and here’s my favorite mini-review from not your mother’s bookclub: “Bawdy, hilarious fun. Wizner just may be the secret love child of Judy Blume and Woody Allen. Warning: if you read this on the plane, you will laugh out loud and strangers will stare. This book, however, is worth making a spectacle of yourself over.”

8 comments to “Spanking Shakespeare and Welcoming Wizner”

  1. Curses on me for not reviewing this myself a while back when I read it.

    This book kinda crept up on me. I wasn’t so sure I’d like it at first but by the time I was done my only question was “who is this book for, teens or adults?” It has a sort of looking-back quality to it that I’m not sure a younger audience will be feeling so warm and fuzzy over.

    And I liked it despite the YA cliche of the main character wanting to be a writer. I mean, yeah, a lot of kids want to be writers, and that’s sometimes the only way to write *clever* first-person YA, but it still has the air of being a bit too self-conscious.

  2. The look I got from the salesperson in the bookstore was absolutely priceless when I asked about this book. They didn’t have it though.

    I can’t wait to read this book. Thanks for your review.

  3. I. Want. This. Book.

    Great review, Jules!

  4. I’m so glad you loved this book as much as I did! Thanks for highlighting so many of the funny passages–it’s great to relive them!

  5. It makes me sad to read reviews of great YA books that didn’t get nominated for the Cybils. We do have 123, but this one sounds really good…

  6. my teacher started to read this book but he wouldn’t tell us what had happened to shake. i think it was because of his date with char. he started to flip through the pages until he came to the part where Shake. is a sumo wrestler.


  7. I liked this one a lot. The only thing is that I felt it was a little TOO quirky. Great review though!

  8. […] than he is, and having no prospects of ever getting a girlfriend. Ages 14+. Reviews 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Dishes: Nineteen-year-old Danny spends an eventful summer in Maine, looking for romance, working […]

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