Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

415sr3ffx-l_sl500_aa240_Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead is a quiet book with a strong undercurrent. It takes place in the summer of 1985 in a section of the Hamptons that was the summer home of wealthy African American families, a place where everybody knew everybody else (and probably knew your mother and grandmother before you).

Benji and his brother, Reggie, have been spending their summers at Sag Harbor all their lives, but the summer of 1985 is a little different. The boys are alone all week long while their parents are in the city, coming out only on weekends. For three months they have huge amounts of freedom and virtually no supervision.

During the school year, Benji attends a mostly-white prep school in the city. He’s smart and funny and accepted, pretty much. During the summer, he sees lifelong friends, all from black professional families, who have learned new handshakes and are into different music than he is. Fitting in and teenage awkwardness are relatable themes in this coming of age story.

Benji and Reggie, formerly attached at the hip and never spotted one without the other, each get their first jobs- Benji at Johnny Waffle, and Reggie at Burger King. Their time together is limited due to different work schedules. Benji is trying to reinvent himself this summer and have his friends call him Ben, without much success. He’s a veteran of a single hand-holding incident with a rollerskating member of the opposite sex, but is by no means a ladies man. He’s got some status in his group of friends because he has the empty, parentless house, but still.. he’s not the one with the car, or the cool one. He’s a nerdy kid who is regularly embarrassed, wears braces, likes easy listening music, and has a bad afro.

I was really charmed by this book. It has some really funny moments and lots of references to 1980’s culture. It was interesting and exceptionally well written, even though not a lot happens. It’s more like a series of snapshots, with each chapter being quite self contained. There is some insight into mid-80’s race relations that made me think, and a small amount of darkness and family drama. But mostly it’s a story of what Benji did on his summer vacation.

This book resonated with me because our family visits the same lake community every summer. Like Benji, we see the same families year in and year out. The first couple of days are exciting- who’s here, who will be here for the 4th of July, the grass is cut so maybe they’ll be out this weekend, etc. Then it’s on to- who’s gotten taller, who’s too old to play at the beach, what is still cool to do and what is not, who has a cell phone (or an iPod, or a Wii), who’s riding bikes, who’s driving. The kids go their own way, doing kid things, and time folds in on itself. The grown ups fire up BBQ’s and have a few beers and catch up on each other’s lives- who’s gotten married/getting divorced/cheating on their spouse/losing their job, etc., and not paying a whole lot of attention to what the kids are up to. The book is like that. It’s funny, sweet, sometimes sad. It has a meandering feel to it, like a long summer day. I enjoyed it.

Here’s a funny video of Colson Whitehead talking about Sag Harbor:

The Sunday Salon

cookies_groupHappy Sunday!  I hope everyone had a great week and will have time for reading-n-relaxation today.  I’m not sure if reading is part of the plan for me today but I’m going to try.  My oldest starts confirmation classes at church this morning, which means I’ll drag my lazy butt to church as well.  Then later I have to load up my van with dozens of cases of Girl Scout cookies from a warehouse, bring them home, sort them out by ‘who sold what’, and distribute them to the girls in my troop.  OH, and I have to catch a mouse (or at least figure out how to do that).

Once, years ago, when I lived in a rural area in Michigan, we had a mouse in our house.  I remember my mother putting out traps, then being horrified to hear one go off in the middle of the night, but in the morning-no mouse.  This went on for days until finally we actually caught the helpless creature rotten rodent in the pantry.  I remember my sister and I finding the little thing stuck in the trap the next morning and feeling so sad.  It was also fascinating to look at, in a horrifying way- so much so that we talked our mother into letting us put the mouse in a Mason jar and taking it to school for Show and Tell.  I was maybe 8 years old.

cordless-mouse1But now there is definitely a mouse in my kitchen (hopefully it’s a mouse, and not mice).  I have seen the, ahem, ‘evidence’.  I have heard scampering at night.  And I’m not 8 years old anymore.  I have no loving feelings toward vermin.  If anyone else has ever dealt with this, please tell me what to do- do I buy traps?  Poison?  Get a cat (our dopey golden retriever is no mouser)?  Or call an exterminator?  I’m freaked out by it and want the dirty thing gone NOW.

Ok, on to reading.  This week I finished Sag Harbor for Barnes and Noble’s First Look online book club .  I haven’t written my review yet, but the writing was superb- although nothing much happens.  It will be a tricky review to write.  Sag Harbor’s author, Colson Whitehead, is active on the book club message boards at B&N, and I love having access to the author in that way.  I was able to ask him questions while reading the book, and he answered them immediately- so cool!  

I finished Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay this week too.  I’m still reeling from the story- it was powerful.  My book club will discuss it next Sunday night.  We had hoped to speak with the author by speaker phone, but she lives in Paris and because of the time difference, it isn’t going to work out.  She is, however, going to answer our questions via email, so I’ll post the questions and answers here with my review sometime after the 8th.  She’s also my newest Facebook friend!  

51svuaqeq5l_sl500_aa240_Today I hope to start One True Theory of Love by Laura Fitzgerald, one of my favorite authors.  It looks good and I can’t wait to start it.  My book club spoke to her when we discussed Veil of Roses a couple years back, and she was so warm and funny.  For anyone who enjoyed Veil of Roses, I have exciting news.. Laura is in the process of writing the sequel!  Yes!  We’ll find out what happens to Tami and Ike!  Laura will be guest posting here soon to share what it was like having her own neighborhood book club discuss her new book.  

Well I hope everyone has a great week!  I’m off on a mouse hunt..  all suggestions, advice, sympathy, comments, questions about the cleanliness of my house (it’s clean, I swear!), etc. are welcome and appreciated.

Teaser Tuesdays 2-17-09

tuesday-t Miz B and Teaser Tuesdays asks you to: Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!


415sr3ffx-l_sl500_aa240_This teaser is from page 107 of Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, an ARC I’m reading for Barnes & Noble’s “First Look” book club.

“I wore braces, you see, tiny self-esteem-sucking death’s heads all in a row, turning my smile into a food-flecked grimace. Oh, I kept them pretty clean, but a series of corn-on-the-cob related incidents had planted the seeds of a neurosis, and every so often, if the psychological weather was right, my hand darted to cover my smile from view.”

Did you wear braces? I never wore them myself (I should have, but no money for orthodontia back then!). My daughter wore them for 8 months (phase 1- she will have them again next year), and I witnessed that self conscious ‘hand over the mouth’ smile almost every day!

What are you reading this week?

Guest Post and Giveaway: Overheard at a Booksigning with Karen Harrington

I frequently get asked what prompted me to write a story that starts with a mother who kills. It’s a fair question. If you told me five years ago that I’d be writing about this subject, I might have looked at you like you had banana peel shoes. (And if you do own a pair of banana peel shoes, I mean no disrespect, but I hope you have good insurance.)

Ultimately, I did write about the subject of maternal filicide, but not without a good bit of trepidation. Though JANEOLOGY is set in motion by this troubling crime, I decided that looking at the crime would be most compelling through the eyes of her spouse, Tom – who lived with her, loved her, and ultimately, heart-breakingly, was somehow unable to see the mental breakdown occurring right before his eyes.

As you might imagine, describing this story is even tougher for a debut author under the bright lights of a Barnes & Noble. It has been a steep learning curve for sure. Naturally shy, I bought every short sleeved turtle-neck I could find to hide the red nervous neck I knew would come when I asked someone to part with their hard earned money and take a chance on an unknown author. Like most things in life, with each description, with the meeting of each new book-buyer, I got better. (And even learned how to pitch differently to men and women, to relax and have fun.)

So thought I’d share some of the more interesting exchanges I’ve had in recent months.

Of my books on the signing table.

“Are these complimentary?”

Of the topic of filicide.

“I can’t read this. I read The Lovely Bones and I hated it.”

Of my pitch that my novel is about a man trying to understand his wife by way of understanding the family secrets and ancestors in her family.

“Oh, we all have black sheep in our family. My brother’s wife just left him and he’s now realizing it had something to do with her mother.”

Of my description of the book to a kind old man.

“Sounds good. Let me go ask my wife.”

Of the title.

“Oh, is this another book about Jane Austen?”

Of my offer to sign a book for a woman.

“Oh, are you the author?”

Of my newly confident introduction to the next person who approached my table, “Hi, I’m the author Karen Harrington.”

“Hello the author Karen Harrington.”

Of the chocolate mints on my signing table.

“What are these for?”

Me: Well, you know, fiction tastes better with chocolate.

Of the puzzle on my signing table.

“Why did you cut up your cover like that?”

Of the woman who ran over to my table with her hubby and told me her name was Jane.

Hubby: “If I read this, will I understand my wife better?”

Me: Uh, maybe. (nervous laughter) Here’s a bookmark.” (She leaves. Returns 10 minutes later.)

“OMG! OMG! My husband’s name is Tom!” (See, the couple in my book is Jane and Tom.)

Of my accidental penning “Very best pictures” (Doh! Should have written WISHES)

Me: “Oh, I’m so sorry. We were talking about pictures, and, well, ha ha…well, if I become famous, one day this will be very valuable.”

She: (eyes rolling)

Of me just standing there alone for a looooooong time feeling like a dork.

“So, I saw you standing here by yourself for a looooooong time. I’m a salesman. Make your best pitch in 60 seconds. Go.” (Yup. I sold him a copy.)


Number of signings so far: 5

Number of books sold: 71

Number of miles traveled: 156

Poorest results: 3 hours/3 books

Best results: Sold out – 25 books in 2 hours

Most useful signing tools: A smile, bookmarks and photo album including pics of my ancestors that served as genealogical inspiration for JANEOLOGY. (I would add chocolate mints, but I ate many of these myself, so…)

Times asked where person could find another book: 4

Funniest Ooops: When a bookstore manager introduced me over the store PA as Jane!

Biggest thrill: When a young girl told me she wanted to be a writer, asked my advice and would I please sign her bookmark.

Biggest book promotion lesson: Finally understanding my mentor’s statement, “There are many writers with talent, but few have the temperament to make a career of it.”

Ranking on the worth-it meter: Off the charts!!!!

Blogger Bio: Karen Harrington lives in Texas with her husband and children. She received a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. She is the author of the legal thriller Janeology, and a children’s book, There’s a Dog in the Doorway, created expressly for the Dr. Laura Schlessinger Foundation’s “My Stuff Bags”.

Read an interview with Karen on J. Kaye’s Book Blog HERE

You can read a synopsis of Janeology from the publisher’s website HERE

I will be giving away my copy of Janeology to one lucky reader! Just leave a comment here by July 15th for a chance to win!

Review: Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan is a straightforward story about the disappearance of popular 18 year old Kim Larsen the summer after her high school graduation.  Told from the perspective of Kim (in the earliest chapters), her parents, her sister Lindsey, and her friends, O’Nan explores the impact of her disappearance on not only those closest to the missing girl, but their entire midwestern community.

The family does everything in their power to attempt to find their daughter, including search parties, public appearances, sound bites on the nightly news.  They distribute flyers, track down leads and squash rumors, but ultimately their efforts are futile and they must accept the fact that she is gone.  When public interest begins to wane, the family must carry on the search and keep their hopes alive with very little support.  

Lindsey, 15 years old, shy and awkward at the time of her sister’s disappearance, feels like a freak when she goes back to school in the fall.  Everyone is watching her, they all know who she is, they all know what her family is going through.  The change in Lindsey over the course of the book (3 years time) is perhaps the most dramatic, but everyone close to Kim is transformed by her disappearance in various ways. 

In one heartbreaking chapter called “Halftime Entertainment” the family holds a ceremony at the high school football game on Thanksgiving Day (Kim had been missing since June).  Her smiling face is everywhere on posters (“She would hate this,” one of her friends remarks), and the boosters are selling rainbow pins and wristbands.  The game is well attended due to an undefeated season, but the bleachers are sparsely populated during halftime.  The family thanks the school for contributing to the reward money for Kim’s safe return, then Kim’s mom asks the crowd to join hands and participate in a “Circle of Hope” which they soon see is pointless because whole sections of the bleachers are empty.  How quickly people move on. 

Songs for the Missing is more character driven than plot driven, and O’Nan really takes the time to richly develop these characters.  I felt so much sympathy for the parents and the sister and I completely understood who they were and what they were going through.  This is my second O’Nan book (Last Night at the Lobster was my first) and I do believe he is my new favorite author.  If anyone has read more of O’Nan’s work, I’d love suggestions on which of his books to read next. 

I received Songs for the Missing as part of Barnes and Noble’s First Look program (the discussion officially starts Monday June 2nd).  It will be available in stores October 30, 2008, and I suggest you run right out and get it as soon as you can!

Review: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan writes with such clarity in Last Night at the Lobster that you can almost smell the seafood gumbo and the Cheddar Bay biscuits.  At 146 pages, this is a spare, minimalist day-in-the-life novella about the lives of the employees at a shabby, downsized Red Lobster restaurant.

The entire story takes place on the last day of business for the New Britain, Connecticut branch of the Darden restaurant chain.  Manny De Leon is the dedicated general manager at The Lobster; he is the picture of corporate loyalty.  The company has decided to close the branch, although he can’t figure out why because his numbers haven’t been that bad.  He takes great pride in “his” store, following company policy to the letter.  

As Manny attempts to stick to the routine and make the best of the last day, the elements are against him.  A blizzard is bearing down, the snow is piling up.  Disgruntled employees come in late or not at all.  Guests are few and far between, although there is some craziness at lunch when a party of 14 comes in without a reservation.  They are understaffed and understocked, and Manny, leading by example as always, must pitch in on the floor and in the kitchen. 

There isn’t a lot of dramatic action, but there is so much emotion.  Manny’s entire adult life has been wrapped up in this job, a job he takes great pride in and can practically do with his eyes shut.  The other employees don’t have the same feelings toward the Lobster as he has; they seem to resent the job, one another, and probably Manny as well. 

Manny spends time snowblowing the sidewalk during the blizzard and looks almost lovingly at the glowing windows of the store through the storm.  For Manny, The Lobster is the haven in the chaos of his life. While ruminating on what to get his pregnant girlfriend Deena for Christmas, he also reminisces about his failed relationship with Jacquie, one of the waitresses.  Manny longs for Jacquie, but she has moved on, and it is much the same with The Lobster.  He is a company man, but the company is indifferent toward him.    

If you’ve ever worked in a chain restaurant during the holidays, or been a victim of corporate downsizing, you will recognize and relate to the staff at The Lobster.  Their minor human triumphs and tragedies are the stuff of every day life in middle America.  This is a powerful little story that will stay with you and one that I would highly recommend.  You will not be able to eat in a Red Lobster or Olive Garden ever again without thinking of Manny and his crew. 

Stewart O’Nan’s latest book, Songs for the Missing, will be out in October 2008, but I’ll be getting an Advanced Readers Copy through Barnes and Noble’s First Look program, so I’ll be writing about it here this summer.