Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Shakespeare for the 21st Century

Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner
4Q 3P S

As I said about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this is a book that may raise a parental eyebrow or two on occasion, but teenage boys won't bat an eye and will eat these books up. It's great to have books for older teenage boys that will make them laugh. Out loud, even. We don't get very many of those.

Shakespeare Shapiro is a loser even in his own eyes. Here he is, a senior in high school, and he's yet to kiss a girl. His younger brother Gandhi gets more action than he does! He has his eye on Celeste Keller, who's been his fantasy girl since ninth grade, even though he knows he should be realistic and settle for one of his safety list girls (you know, like you have a list of safety schools when you're applying for college, these are girls he's pretty sure wouldn't say no). For the time being, though, he's holding on to his dreams (in more ways than one) and hoping someone on his "unrealistic" list will come through for him. Shakespeare has only two good friends, Katie and Neil. The typical conversation between the three of them consists of Katie telling Shakespeare everything that's wrong with him, Neil describing his bowel movements, and Shakespeare trying to get his head around the fact that Neil and Katie are hooking up.

At home, besides his handsomer, more popular younger brother, he's got a neurotic mother and an alcoholic father. They're a tad on the sadistic side (in case you couldn't guess from the names they gave their kids). Dad's favorite parenting methods involved terrorizing his kids. When Mom got fed up with them, she pretended they didn't exist. When Shakespeare was seven, they sent him to a summer camp that he would later compare to Lord of the Flies. (It wasn't a totally savage experience. He did learn one important skill there that gave him a great deal of pleasure throughout his teenage years.) Of course, there are benefits to having crazy parents. They're pretty easy to negotiate with, for one thing. For giving up naming rights to his puppy (they named it Onomatopoeia, Pee for short), Shakespeare got $30 bucks and a picture of a naked woman for his bedroom. So yeah, maybe there are a few advantages to having parents who are nuts.

Does a kid like this have any chance of getting the girl? Of getting any girl? It isn't looking good. And Shakespeare is more than a little tired of getting action only in his dreams. But he has one talent that just might get him the girl after all. Shakespeare can write. (Ironic, isn't it?) And Shakespeare has a weird sense of humor. As it turns out, there are two girls who like that combination in a man. Two! An embarrassment of riches! And one of them is Celeste! But remember who we're talking about here. The course of true love never did run smooth.

Of course, it's just barely possible that we should be taking much of this with a grain of salt. Perhaps several grains. Half of this book, after all, is really Shakespeare's memoir, the memoir that all seniors in his school have to write. Could Shakespeare be exaggerating just a tad, just to make his memoirs memorable? For his sake, I hope so!


I've read that the author is a middle school teacher and that this book (his first) is making the rounds in his school to great acclaim. That's cool. But I'll be recommending it to high school-aged teens, not middle schoolers.

There's a lot to laugh about in this book. But I think that there are elements that are a little forced. For instance, how many teenage boys are obsessed with their bowel movements, to the point of keeping a journal about them? Isn't that pushing scatological humor a little over the top? That could be my bias as someone who was never a teen-aged boy. Readers who love outrageous humor aren't going to bat an eye at elements like that. Those who like something a little subtler may need to let a few things slide.

For all that I've been emphasizing the humor in this book, there's more to it than that. The subplot involving Charlotte White adds much-needed depth to Shakespeare's character and heart to the book. Shakespeare is more than a little self-obsessed, and I felt he needed someone like Charlotte to make him a mensch. When the book ended, I found myself wanting to know more about that relationship and how it changed Shakespeare. I'd read that sequel, were it to be written.

I was tickled by the decision to make the book look like a binder, complete with dog-eared pages.

Quotes: (selected to give you a sense of Shakespeare's voice):

I should warn you. Some of the material you're about to read is disturbing. Some of it will make you shake your head in disbelief. Some of it will make you cringe in disgust. Some of it might even make you rush out into the stormy night, rip your shirt from your body, and howl, "WHY, GOD, WHY?" Then again, maybe you'll jusst sit back and smile, secure in the knowledge that your name is not Shakespeare Shapiro, and this is not your life.

Ten minutes later Ms. Rigby, my math teacher, calls on me when I'm not paying attention. Ms. Rigby is the kind of teacher who prowls for students not paying attention and pounces on them with undisguised delight. I've been staring at Jody Simons, who is wearing a miniskirt and sitting diagonally in front of me, and when Ms. Rigby calls my name, my head shoots up and my cheeks begin to burn. "Shakespeare," she says. "If you would devote as much focus to calculus as you do to Jody's legs, you might learn some math this year." Everybody laughs, and Jody shoots me a sympathetic look, the kind you might offer to the parent of a brain-dead child.

I wonder how Ganghi [asked a girl out]...I wanted to ask. What did you say? What did she say back? Of course when you're sixteen and your brother is fourteen, you can't really ask him to teach you how to get a girlfriend. Sometimes I wish we were still in elementary school so I could beat him up like I used to.

One of Shakespeare's tamer musings on girls:

The day Celeste heard my obituary was the day our relationship took on new life. We sit together in class now, and I smile when she makes references to novels I haven't read and wonder if this is how literary people flirt. I missed a great opportunity the other day. She was talking about a battle scene in The Iliad as an example of Homer-erotica, and it wasn't until later that I realized that "Homer" rhymes with "boner".

Shakespeare's mother is a big believer in therapy. She thinks Shakespeare would benefit from it, but he keeps saying no. I like this quote because Shakespeare presents himself as a fairly shallow guy, and I think this goes a way towards explaining why.

The truth is I know exactly why I'm resistant. I don't want a therapist to tell me things about myself I don't want to hear, and I don't want to admit that I have problems I can't deal with myself. It would be one thing if I could just go in and complain about my life, but having to confront and take responsibility for my shortcomings and insecurities is something I have no interest in.

More about this book:

It's one of ALA's Best Books for YAs 2008

Jake Wizner's web site. You'll want to check out his obituary generator and Top Ten lists, for sure. (He hates chocolate and peanut butter and loves gefilte fish with horseradish?!)

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
: Warning: If you think my blog reviews are too detailed and spoilerish, you won't want to read this post.

Robin Brande liked it. (She wrote Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature, which I reviewed here.)

Flamingnet.com: One teenage girl's opinion (She recommends it for boys 14+.)

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