November 08, 2007


Gert Garibaldi’s Rants and Raves: One Butt Cheek at a Time. By Amber Kizer. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Spanking Shakespeare. By Jake Wizner. Random House. $15.99.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It. By Lisa Shanahan. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

      High school is a hoot and a half, according to all three of these first-time authors. Oh yes, there’s some drama and some family difficulty and those pesky things called classes and grades, but most of what’s happening is fun and frantic and just too fast-paced for words (well, almost – each of these books contains plenty of verbiage). As different as these books are, as differently as their authors write them, there is a sameness to the underlying attitudes toward teen life and teen angst that turns this trio into a sort of Harlequin Triple Romance of high-school life (and yes, there’s romance in all the books, too).

      Gert Garibaldi spends her time ranting into her notebook about the awfulness of high school in Amber Kizer’s Gert Garibaldi’s Rants and Raves: One Butt Cheek at a Time: “It’s high school – brutal, people, brutal. …A girl can only take so much ménage à trap.” Gert’s best friend, Adam, is gay; her crush, Luke, barely notices her; and she has to deal with the usual assortment of parents and classes and all that. Her official “rant” and “rave” pages are set in different type from the rest of the narrative and are numbered and titled: “Rant #6: Homecoming (an ancient tradition of humiliation).” But pretty much everything Gert writes sounds like a rave or a rant, such as her comments on a driving lesson with the school’s instructor: “Mr. Fritz starts to wheeze. He does that when he’s agitated. Or is he dying? Is this the death rattle? He doesn’t look quite dead. He’s got good color. I don’t think I’ll have to resort to CPR.” Kizer writes with great bounce, and manages to make even highly embarrassing situations funny, as when Gert’s menstrual period starts during a class presentation and she wishes she could “make myself invisible. Clear. Saran girl.” By the time Gert turns 16 near the end of the book, readers will really like her – unless they find her awesomely annoying. You choose.

      There’s lots of humor in Spanking Shakespeare, too, and the title has nothing (or not much) to do with the playwright, even though the cover of Jake Wizner’s book shows the historical Shakespeare grimacing and holding his rear end. The Shakespeare of this book is named Shakespeare Shapiro (his parents named his brother Gandhi, which tells you everything you need to know about them, although Shakespeare makes it a point to explain that “my father is a drunk and my mother gets loopy after one glass of wine”). Shakespeare is entering his senior year of high school, making him older than Gert Garibaldi but not much wiser. He’s never had a girlfriend, his life is one embarrassment after another, and now he’s chronicling everything much as Gert does – except that Shakespeare Shapiro is turning his awful life into the subject of the writing project that every senior at his school must complete. And it’s going well, which is either another source of embarrassment or perhaps Shakespeare’s ticket to some sort of success (and maybe a girlfriend). The novel is written as if it’s Shakespeare’s project – the pages are printed to look as if they come from a notebook. Sections have such titles as “The Time My Mother Used Emotional Blackmail to Deprive Me of the Only Thing I Ever Really Wanted” and “The Time I Visited a Sex Doctor.” The book ends with graduation and a hopeful orientation for the future, on a more serious tone than much of what has gone before.

      There’s more seriousness throughout Lisa Shanahan’s The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It (a title so long it barely fits on the cover). Gemma Stone is younger than the protagonists of Kizer’s and Wizner’s books – she’s just 14 – but she has all the same sorts of worries about school and family and siblings and dating and all that. Shanahan introduces the clever concept of “chucking a birkett,” which basically means throwing the world’s worst temper tantrum and is a phrase derived from the name of Gemma’s older sister’s former boyfriend, a major-league loser. Gemma knows one does not chuck a birkett, and doubly especially not in front of a stranger, so you see pretty early on where this book is going. Then it goes there. Gemma develops a crush on a boy; finds another boy – a strange one – taking an interest in her; auditions for the school production of The Tempest and actually gets chosen to play Miranda; and has to endure meeting the weird family of the boy her older sister, Debbie, is going to marry. It’s all just too much. Shanahan is Australian – watch for such phrases as “tomorrow arvo” for “tomorrow afternoon,” and “Dad pulled his red silk pajama pants out of his bum” – but apparently 14-year-olds’ angst is the same everywhere. The performance of The Tempest is one climax, Debbie’s wedding is another, and there is a tragedy in between the two that, as happens inevitably in coming-of-age books, helps Gemma…well, come of age. There’s nothing really new in Shanahan’s book, or in Kizer’s or Wizner’s, but each takes the formula of teen troubles and triumphs in a slightly different direction, and their differing styles will appeal to a wide variety of readers.

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