Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

17 May

This book was the first pick of the Twitter Book Club, organized by @booksquare (Kassia Krozser) and @thebookmaven (Bethanne Patrick). I’ll have comments on the discussion at the end of the review.

Sag Harbor: A Novel Sag Harbor: A Novel by Colson Whitehead

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a wonderfully written coming of age novel. The main character is Benji, a 15 year old upper middle class black kid. He and his younger brother Reggie are spending the summer mostly unsupervised at their parents beach house in Sag Harbor.

The author does a very good job in evoking the feeling of 1985. For me, the book was a contrast of the familiar and foreign– I remember new coke and the fashions, but beach houses and the art of an afro were not part of my experience. I understand family conflict but not the relationships between teen boys.

At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the brothers as being virtual twins, but by the time we come to the summer in question, they have drifted apart, even choosing to attend different schools. We get a look at how this relationship changes, and what being brothers really means to them.

The rest of the family is largely kept in the background. We get glimpses of the older sister, and of the relationship between the mother and father. These are not smooth relationships, but we really only see them in the impact on Benji and Reggie, such as when they accidentally find a list their mother made, outlining their father’s faults (and there are some big ones on the list).

We also see the challenges within their group of peers in Sag Harbor. Some trick of demographics caused there to be virtually no girls within their age group. Watching the interactions between these boys on the edge of being men was interesting. Each of them has his own journey that summer, but they are interwoven as well.

The story was told by Benji as an adult, looking back on his childhood. Most of the time, the narration is unobtrusive, which made the occasional glimpses we got of the grown Ben more powerful. We read about the friends’ mostly innocent adventures with BB guns that summer, then Ben mentions that later encounters with guns were more serious, and talks of the loss of friends.

I listened to this as an audiobook.  It worked well for me in this format, keeping me from speeding up too much and missing the atmosphere.  The narrator did a good job, allowing my focus to be on the story rather than his telling of it.

One thing that hasn’t come through in this review is that the book is funny, really funny. Whitehead has a light touch which keeps the more serious issues from overwhelming his entertaining look at day to day life. The descriptions of Benji’s job at the ice cream parlor and details about the grammatical patterns of their cursing are just a few of the parts that had me laughing while reading.

And now, on to Twitter Book Club. I was skeptical of trying to have a meaningful discussion on a book 140 characters at a time, but I did think it would be fun to try.

Unfortunately, Twitter didn’t cooperate, with search and applications that rely on it having significant delays, starting at 10 minutes, and reaching 30 minutes by the end. This meant dialogue was next to impossible.

On the other hand, the comments were insightful when they finally got through, and I think it would have been a great discussion. Having the author participate was an added bonus.

This was my first time trying Tweetchat for a discussion like this, and I think I like it better than having a column open in Tweetdeck or using Twitter search.

I’m eagerly awaiting the next book announcement, and I’m excited about trying again next month.


Posted by on May 17, 2009 in Book Club, books, reviews


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3 responses to “Review: Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

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