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?