Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

Naked Before the Mirror

SEX WITH SHAKESPEARE. Jillian Keenan. William Morrow.

Sex With Shakespeare

Image courtesy of William Morrow.

There have been actual libraries created in honor of Shakespeare, widely considered the greatest writer to ever have walked the earth. So, from a critic’s standpoint, it’s quite a hard sell when someone comes forward with a another book about the long reach of the bard’s work. But Jillian Keenan’s Sex With Shakespeare is very much different, because Keenan stands naked before the mirror here, revealing her most buried secrets in relation to the works of William Shakespeare.

Like so many writers, Jillian Keenan struggled growing up – at times emotionally separated from the world around her, looking for something to grab onto. And she found that something in the plays and poetry of Shakespeare. In sum, Keenan was looking for explanations to what she couldn’t articulate, searching to understand  how we connect with others and ourselves.

During the process of this journey toward answers, Keenan unearthed the fact that these questions are directly wedded to sexuality, pointing out that a person cannot figure out how they relate to the world until they figure out how they relate to their own heart and soul. But as Keenan learned, you can’t reach this plateau until you accept that you are a sexual being who exists suspended from the grabbing hands of the world. In other words, elements of sexuality are as unique a trait as a person’s body shape or eye color and they cannot be sculpted to fit another person’s perception of you.

“I slid a pair of sunglasses under my pink hijab and retreated back to my computer,” Keenan writes. “…After another quick glance over my shoulder to confirm that there was no one behind me, I typed the word spanking into the search bar and clicked enter”  (pages 3-4).

Can you imagine how frightening it must be to admit to yourself and then to the world that you’re not only aroused by spanking but that it’s intertwined with your identity as a person? Just who do you go to for a question and answer session?

Keenan didn’t have anywhere to turn at first, until the point when she was able to link the gardens of her sexuality with Shakespeare’s canon, blending pieces of her own identity with the plot-lines and the faces she discovered in seminal literary masterpieces such as Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra & Othello.

Under the scrutiny of Keenan’s pen, the characters of the plays suddenly take on brawny new dimensions wherein they begin to reflect actual pieces of the modern light. In this coarsely blunt book that rivals the erotic writings of Anais Nin (regarding elements of bravery, risk and vulnerability), Keenan intersperses her story with flashbacks to Shakespeare’s greatest dramas, using these fictional personae to help forge a deep understanding of her true self.  And Keenan writes:

“At it’s most basic level, Shakespeare is physical and biological. It’s even sexual. The metrical rhythm of the iambic pentameter – the syllabic building block of Shakespeare’s poetry – mimics the ba bump pattern of a heartbeat. His words circulate, speed up and slow down, skip beats, and flutter in perfect symmetry with the human heart. It’s not an accident. I feel it in my blood stream every time.

This story is about the Shakespeare Thing. And The Spanking Thing. But most of all, it’s about the Love Thing.” (page 7)

Rarely have I encountered a book where the writer’s courage in speaking out results in a truly original manuscript that is able to speak for all people struggling with fragmented concepts of normalcy and identity. In the end,  Sex and Shakespeare is not just about being OK with what you like in the bedroom, but instead, it’s about being OK with who you are as a person. As Keenan shows us, the ultimate lesson from the great Shakespeare comes in learning to have the guts to not run from the who that you hide from the world.

Editor’s Notes:

  • Keenan previously wrote on this subject in the powerful  New York Times “Modern Love” essay, “Finding the Courage to Reveal a Fetish.” I recommend that readers search out this essay as it fills in a few gray areas from  Sex With Shakespeare.
  • For readers wanting to delve further into this subject matter, see Beat Poet Michael McClure’s Meat Science Essays, which offers an in depth exploration into the self from a mostly biological perspective.

Also On the Hot Shelf This Month

THE BLACKBIRDS. Eric Jerome Dickey. Dutton.


Image courtesy of Dutton.

Eric Jerome Dickey is about the best novelist going right now in terms of writing about romance and sex from the woman’s perspective. And Blackbirds proves to be no exception as he tells the story of 4 best friends each trying to cope with their own individual crosses without tearing their friendship asunder. The passages that chronicle Ericka’s attraction to Destiny’s father are absolutely riveting, allowing the reader to experience lust and regret from a multiplicity of  perspectives.

BARREN COVE. Ariel S. Winter. Atria.

Barren Cove

Image courtesy of Atria.

Barren Cove examines the family dynamic from the perspective of Sapien, a human-made robot, in one of the most inventive and original novels of 2016. Winter’s plot-line is drenched in risk, but he’s able to pull it off via layered characters who speak in universal tones about the world which we share. As far out as the story seems at first glance, it proves truly compelling, forcing you to rethink your connection to family and community along the way.


Too Like the Lightning

Image courtesy of Tor.

Too Like The Lightning is science fiction of the highest order as it charts the life of Mycroft Canner. Canner is a convict adrift in the 25th century who has been sentenced to wander the world and help strangers – it’s the penalty for his crimes. Along the way, he encounters spiritual advocate Caryle Foster who lives during a time when the public practice of religion is forbidden. Thrust together, Canner and Foster walk a universe that is so technologically advanced it’s lost its whole spirit. Even though the book is labeled science fiction, many readers will nonetheless wonder aloud if this is where our smart phones are actually leading us.

OLD RECORDS NEVER DIE: One Man’s Quest for His Vinyl and His Past. Eric Spitznagel. Plume.

If you grew up before 1990 and the big push to compact discs, you’ll understand why Eric Spitznagel wrote this book and why his vinyl records are a part of his life. Old Records Never Die is a memoir with which record collectors will immediately identify: Spitznagel on a treasure hunt to find the exact same record albums from his collection that he’d previously sold. Why bother? Well, they’re not just vinyl records to some people. Instead, the music itself serves as the record of  how we lived our lives, serving as the painting in which the people who helped shape us are memorialized. Do you remember the movie Diner? Do you remember the character Shrevie Schreiber? Shrevie said: “Everyone of my records means something!” And that’s the simple reason Spitznagel wrote this book.

WHAT I TOLD MY DAUGHTER. Nina Tassler (with Journalist Cynthia Littleton ). Atria Books.

In What I told My Daughter, Nina Tassler (former CBS Entertainment Chairman) and journalist Cynthia Littleton stitch together commentary from 50 of today’s most successful women (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Whoopi Goldberg, Dr. Susan Love, U.S. House Of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) who reflect on the messages they’re passing down to their daughters. In sum, these voices have come together here to share the secrets of how they made it to this place in time; and then, going further, they collectively ask their children to look at the lives they’re living and the legacies they’re leaving behind. Deep and poignant, universal in tone, What I told My Daughter serves to close the circle of life as the elder generation passes the torch to its successor.

A CABINET OF PHILOSOPHICAL CURIOSITIES: A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles, and Dilemmas. Roy Sorensen. Oxford University Press.

 If you like to challenge your mind, this book is for you. Here, Roy Sorensen (professor of philosophy,  Washington University, St. Louis) presents a grand compendium of puzzles and riddles that borrow from a multiplicity of disciplines while sampling from both  contemporary and historical planes. In sum, the work features a wide array of logical reasoning dilemmas and sharp-eyes paradoxes that  ultimately serve a singular purpose – that being, to test the reader’s mental acuity, putting the problem-solving abilities of the brain at center-stage.  A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities is noted for its originality and breadth of vision that will give puzzle junkies a sustained high.

This Month In Audio

LISTEN LIBERAL. Thomas Frank. Macmillan Audio.

Listen Liberal

Image courtesy of Macmillan Audio.

Awash in the chaos that is the 2016 presidential election, many Americans have drawn the conclusion that neither party is presently viable. Here, Frank examines the Democratic Party’s  shortcomings in layered and incisive detail: Cutting to the core of the Democratic philosophy, showing how it’s slowly morphed into a bitter brand of cultural elitism that’s alienated the very middle class it was built to protect. In essence, Frank is calling out the Democrats and warning them that if they don’t use this election as a platform to level the playing field between the rich and the worker bees who serve them, then the Party will ultimately destroy itself. Read by the author, whose voice resounds with intelligence and commitment. Accordingly, his audience can’t help but grab onto to the message. 8.5 hours on 7 CDS.

by John Aiello


One comment on “Naked Before the Mirror

  1. brontespageturners
    May 2, 2016

    The Shakespeare books sounds very intriguing! Will check it out! I reviewed a few Shakespeare-related books as part of Shakespeare 400 celebrations if you’re interested. Thanks for flagging this book! Bronte

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