Monday, August 17, 2015

Book Review: Spanking Shakespeare

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Spanking Shakespeare

Author: Jake Wizner

Author's web site:

Publisher: Random House

Date: 2007

Length: 287 pages

Quote: “It's hard to imagine what my parents were thinking when they decided to name me Shakespeare. They were probably drunk.”

In the Bible (Genesis 9:20-27), after the Flood Noah becomes a heavy drinker. One of his three sons, Ham, and that son's son, Canaan, find Noah passed out drunk and naked, and make fun of him. Other sons and grandsons respectfully cover up the old man's indiscretion. When Noah awakens, he “curses” Ham and Canaan with a will that designates Canaan as “a servant of servants unto his brethren.”

This is generally considered one of the least edifying stories in the Bible, usually omitted from Sunday School studies; some think this story may have been added to the Bible to justify the Israelites' less than cousinly policy toward the closely related Canaanite tribe. Nevertheless, even for those who read the story of Noah's drinking binge as politically motivated fiction, it does show how ancient Israelites felt about young people's duty not to make fun of their elders.

Jake Wizner's teenaged narrator, Shakespeare Shapiro, has a lot to say about his family life. What he has to say does not include any consideration of the moral of Genesis 9:20-27 (although he does mention being Jewish, so he should know the story). Shakespeare often sounds as if a good spanking would improve his editing skills, but he never gets one. It's his parents, his younger brother Gandhi Shapiro, his teachers, and his friends, who get spanked (verbally) throughout the novel.

Publishers Weekly called Spanking Shakespeare “bold and bawdy...funny and smart.” A Chicago Tribune reviewer raved, “Brilliantly lewd.” I seem to be the only one who's thinking this novel crosses a boundary.

Nobody else seems to be saying, “Go ahead and write about your parents' drunkenness, about how you couldn't talk about pornography with your father 'because anything he said was bound to be disturbing,' about being taken to an explicit movie by your 'mentally unstable grandmother' and worse. Get it all out on paper. You might even show those pieces of paper to your therapist, or people you meet at Alateen meetings, if you really want to, before you burn them. (And if you're a fictional character, literary tradition allows them to be published in the real world by means you never suspect.) Then all that sort of 'material' will be out of your system when you're ready to write about something other people need to read.”

Spanking Shakespeare is not presented as the private thoughts in the private journal at the back of the teen writer's closet. It's presented as his senior project. I think the teacher should have told him that this kind of story needs to remain private.

And it's not just that we're told that Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro drink, that Shakespeare's buddy Neil talks endlessly about his irritable bowels, or that Shakespeare's teacher orders teenagers to compose their own obituaries and praises Shakespeare for fantasizing about a short life as a failure at everything he's done. We're told these things over and over and over.

And Shakespeare Shapiro, compulsive secret-spiller, is inevitably attracted to Charlotte White, a nice quiet girl who has a big secret. Which he spills. But Charlotte forgives him, because in our society teenaged girls tend to become desperate due to the pressure on them to choose boyfriends their own age, who are, of course, even less mature than the girls are. Like most teenaged girls, Charlotte has never had a serious boyfriend before and thinks having one is too interesting to risk. Charlotte even forgives Shakespeare for ruining a tender moment with, “Can I ask you something?” and when she shyly murmurs, “Of course,” “Where...would be the best go to the bathroom?”

Here's where I see whatever redeeming social value this long, long sequence of dirty jokes may have. Teenaged boys don't need to read Spanking Shakespeare. They already know how to be crass. But teenaged girls should definitely read Spanking Shakespeare, just as an antidote to all those horrible teen romances where the girl automatically assumes that a boyfriend will be a better mentor than a relative, teacher, or counsellor would be. Teenaged girls need to know how immature even the smarter, smoother kind of teenaged boys really are. They need to see it acted out for them: Charlotte may be ready for True Love, but Shakespeare is not.

For the guys, there's quite a range of real memoirs, by real men from Winston Churchill to Tim Tebow, to show them what a fellow can do when he's learned a very important lesson of public memoir-writing: what to leave out.

For those who don't follow this web site over to Google +, this web site recently got into a conversation with another web site that discussed a tacky thing a teenager had done. "What would you do if these were your sons?" This web site replied that what the other web site had done came close to one of the worst punishments with which this web site could ever threaten a teenager...publicizing tacky behavior on social media! That would be harsh, bordering on cruel...but not illegal...even though I'm sure most teenagers would rather be spanked with a two-by-four plank! Something for teenagers to keep in mind if they read Spanking Shakespeare.

Despite this faint praise, Spanking Shakespeare is a Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here, by sending $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the box at the very bottom of the screen, we'll send Jake Wizner or a charity of his choice $1 per book.