Book review: ‘Spanking Shakespeare’
February 22, 2008
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” It’s probably true that the Sue of Shel Silverstein’s pen (made famous by the Man in Black) had a bit rougher life because of his name. Then again, at least he was named that in an effort to toughen him up because he had an absentee father. Shakespeare Shapiro got his name because his liquored up parents were doing some kind of kinky role-playing, put that together with their love of alliteration, and there you have it. A certain amount of blame can be put on parents like that for how one’s life turns out but that certainly doesn’t explain some of Shakespeare’s more anti-social and unacceptable behaviors.
Author Jake Wizner, an eighth grade English and history teacher turned first time author, has done an absolutely stunning job depicting the life of a teenage chronic masturbator obsessed with little more than finding a girl to mate with and wallowing in his own self pity. At times the writing is so terrifically realistic that it begs the question: Is Shakespeare Shapiro really the true-life Wizner back in the day? Whether he is or not, Wizner has created an unbelievable, disturbingly honest teenager who you can gawk at, be shocked by, and at the same time, completely relate to.
Following his senior year at Hemingway High School, “Spanking Shakespeare,” is more than one book. First off, it is the monthly diary following the trials and tribulations of being a complete failure at what you think you want most (which in this case is sex). Secondly, it is the memoir that Shapiro and the rest of his companions must write to graduate from a school that celebrates a man who “consumed tremendous amounts of alcohol, wrote simple declarative sentences, and eventually killed himself with a double- barreled shotgun.” The greatest part about this is it offers similar yet different writing styles, one which would be shared with a teacher, one that reads more like a personal journal.
It’s hard not to focus on the humor of the book as it is near continuous. To keep the reader interested though, Wizner added a more serious sub-plot, clearly designed to contrast Shakespeare’s perceived life-ruining issues. There is no pretension in these real life vignettes and they truly showcase Wizner’s ability to continue both the serious and the seriously funny while managing to be taken seriously as a writer the whole time.
Although there are certainly times when Wizner goes a little overboard with Shapiro’s neurotic sex cravings, they are all balanced when you read a chapter from his memoir such as, “The time I got caught with a pornographic magazine in math class,” or “The time I saw my father get drunk and act like a complete idiot.” Then even the most seemingly depraved feelings and thoughts get overshadowed by the most humanizing writing possible. And even though Shakespeare’s life may not be nearly as rough or traumatic as he tends to make it out to be, you just can’t help but cut him a little bit of slack after he relates his insecurities. Maybe we weren’t all quite as wrought with issues as he was as a teen, we definitely all can relate to what he so eloquently expresses.
Andrew Fersch writes weekly book reviews for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about this review to email@example.com. This book is available for purchase at the Bookworm in Edwards.
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Vail Daily: What’s the deal with the title? Why spanking?
Jake Wizner: Shakespeare has been spanked by life, and of course spanking refers to one of his favorite hobbies, masturbating.
VD: How much were you like the chronic-masturbating, sex-obsessed Shakespeare as a teenager?
JW: Some of the memoir chapters are based on me, but most of Shakespeare is a composite of people I’ve known and made up. I certainly was nowhere near as successful with girls in reality as I was in my imagination.
VD: What was YOUR most traumatic experience growing up?
JW: It’s hard to pick just one. I remember at a party one night in high school believing that it was finally my time to hook up, because this girl and I had been flirting for some time and we had talked about the fact that we were both going to be at this party. Unfortunately, when I went looking for her that night, I opened a bedroom door and found her making out with one of my close friends.
VD: Is there any real lesson that Shakespeare learns in this book? He goes from being a sex-obsessed single boy to a sex-obsessed boy with a girlfriend, what changes?
JW: Mostly he learns that if he wants anything to change for him, he has to stop wallowing in his own perceived misfortune and be more proactive in going after what he wants. I think he also moves beyond the idea of just wanting sex to appreciating what it means to be in a relationship.
VD: Did you ever run this by your middle schoolers to see if it was realistic (or humorous) enough?
JW: As a writer I’ve read bits and pieces of all my work to my students. Most of the feedback while I’m writing comes from my wife and my editor.
VD: Did you have any fear that there might be a negative response/ backlash to the sexuality and religious aspects of the book? Was anything taken out of the book due to this fear?
JW: There’s no better publicity than a banned book, so I just wrote what I felt fit the characters. I did consider the fact that some of my students (and their parents) might look at me a bit differently after reading the book, but I’ve emphasized that it’s a work of fiction, not memoir.
VD: What advice would you give to teenagers about the opposite sex?
JW: If I could talk to my own teenage self, I’d say: Girls are as interested in boys as boys are in girls, so don’t be so scared of them. Focus more on who the girl is and less on what she looks like. And trust that there are girls out there who will appreciate you for who you are. (I guess the same advice would hold true to a teenage girl.)
VD: What’s next for you?
JW: I’m doing revisions on my second book now, which is also for young adults, but not a sequel to Shakespeare. I still teach, and my wife and I have two young daughters, so I am always busy doing something.