To calculate the overall star rating and percentage breakdown by star, we don’t use a simple average. Instead, our system considers things like how recent a review is and if the reviewer bought the item on Amazon. It also analyses reviews to verify trustworthiness.
I really enjoyed reading this story of a boy remembering his beach summer holidays and his childhood as a relatively privileged but troubled boy. I think it sagged (inadvertent pun) a little in the end, but I was fond enough of the characters to carry on. The authorial voice was convincing and evocative and as long as you don't mind a book that meanders it's an excellent read. I would recommend it.
I had a hard time figuring out what to rate this book. I agree with the reviewers that were disappointed with it's lack of plot, tension, conflict, or any similar driving force. There is one scene where the father is bbq'ing on the beach and it feels like it is building to something, but I don't think it ever did, other than the fact that the chicken didn't turn out too well that day??
The narrative meanders along and at times the descriptions are so long that it feels indulgent and calling out for an editor. This is most apparent in (but unfortunately not limited to) the scene where the main character describes all the types of people that come into the ice cream shop where he works; it goes on for many pages (I read it on kindle so not I am not sure how many, just too many) and it works for a few paragraphs before it just gets annoying. I also found some parts of the book rather confusing. It would jump ahead to the "present time" and say how things worked out or talk about subsequent or previous summers and then, I guess, go back to the particular summer that was the focus of the book. But I wasn't always sure about this, what age the Benji character was, what the year was, and where all the stories fit in relation to each other.
Still, I found many of the stories to be very funny. I would remember them later and have my husband read particular passages because I thought he would also find them funny. Overall, I liked the characters and the stories and the writing, but it bored me in between these funny stories. It wasn't the kind of book I couldn't put down or wanted to keep reading after my subway ride was over, walking down the street with it, trying not to get run over, like I have with other books. I actually read it during a long "vacation" weekend and even with little else to do I didn't always pick it up when I could. So in the end, I suppose three stars is about right. Maybe 3.5 if I had the option - because I do think it's well-written and the characters are mostly likeable and there are some very funny bits and some relateable pieces. I don't consider the days I spent reading this book to be a waste of time, but having read many good things about this book, I expected more.
Colson Whitehead's Fourth. It sounds like a future lecture title in a writing workshop of the future. There are so many reasons that should be the case, but since this is my first Whitehead read, un-initiated into this writer's social networking, reviews, etc., I'll just add a few personal notes.
As someone (an up-islander) who's spent time in Sag Harbor since the mid-1970's, tying up a dinghy to the Long Wharf dock, then rushing across the asphalt to the Waffle-Cone shop in the hopes of reducing the sweat pouring off me, I'm finding this book touches on very familiar places. There has been a screaming need, for many years, for a definitive written account of what the "Season" does to a small East End Town from the perspective of a working townie, or in Ben's case, a long-term Summer Townie. Anyone who's risked life and limb, crossing the street to the Corner Bar will feel right at home. Sag Harbor, an honest, working town, deserves this more than any I can think of. It's also a place that I love dearly.
The device the author uses to elicit our empathy, the mind of a teenage boy laid bare to expose its mechanical processes, will keep readers in the loop on this one. This is not a quick snack. It's a full meal, best read on an empty stomach. It has the grace to illustrate the yearning soul of a tourist town that is mostly just seen as surface gloss. Sag residents, especially those with some history in the place, will undoubtedly receive this book with the good humor,love and longing that pours off the pages.
Did I mention profoundly moving? I'm not sure I can adequately describe how universal Benji's gradual awakening to the reality of his life is to anyone who was once an awkward teenage boy. We all have had that one, crystalline night when we discovered who we really were.
For those, like myself, of an older generation, Jean Shepherd's narrative work comes to mind, but the author takes it much further. Though the decade and the cultural angle are very different than my own, the author's easy, good-natured ability to paint a loving picture of one Summer Life, with all it's warts and tics, will keep Colson Whitehead in my list of writers I'd like to drink a beer with.
I picked up this Colson Whitehead book after hearing much about him but never reading any of his works. (I also read Apex Hides the Hurt right before this). Overall I am impressed with his writing but had two issues with this book. The first is that it reads super slowly. It is not a long book but it is not easy to get through either. The second which really isn't a problem per se but annoyed me is that he writes in an angry way--as if the whole world is out to get his characters. That is ironically what makes the book interesting but sometimes I felt it to be kind of annoying.
The book is narrated by Benji who along with his family spends each summer at the NY beach in Sag Harbor. He and his brother are basically left alone by their parents who are not "down" very much. So they inevitably get into a lot of trouble and have to make their way through the hot summers scraping by with not a lot of money and trying to keep their wits intact. Probably the best parts of the book were when Whitehead describes Benji and his friends working at the local waffle ice cream shop. How Benji had no money so he basically ate all his meals there. References to calling shotgun, New Coke, boom boxes, and many other things rang familiar in my ears as I read this book. I can recommend Sag Harbor to anyone who wants to understand Colson Whitehead's writing in a deeper way and to anyone who enjoys novels with an African-American theme to them.
Do you have that special place from your childhood? The one that will always be your first love? For Colson Whitehead, in his "autobiographical" novel Sag Harbor, this place is his family's beach house on Long Island.
Sag Harbor covers the teenage summers of Benji ("Call me Ben") as he navigates those painful years of both discovering and inventing who you are, where a single failure can allow others to define who you are without your permission. In the book, Whitehead creates a sympathetic character who is real, who we can associate with, who we can project ourselves onto. And that is his success. By the end of the book, we are thinking not of Sag Harbor but of our own childhood, of our own "beach house" where we escaped our lives and could be who we wanted to be, but ended up being even more of ourselves.
Structurally, Sag Harbor is not driven by plot. Although it follows the events of a summer, this is more a device for us to learn about Benji, for Whitehead to show the arc of self-discovery through the events. This can - at times - slow down the novel. But the author's eloquently sparse style keeps it from becoming a burden. He has gathered anecdotes and arranged them in an order that lets us see the progression without showing us the end.
Benji Cooper is the loveable loser with whom we can identify. Benji and his brother Reggie are spending the summer mostly alone at their family's beach house at Sag Harbor. He is at that awkward age for many teenage boys when the desire to be cool and fit in doesn't always match reality. Everytime I thought Benji was making progress, something happened that left him short. Take the time when he gets his first kiss and seems about to get more than that and all goes wrong. Or his frustration at his summer job at Jonni Waffle. I went through some similar experiences only a few years earlier than Benji (the book is set in 1985), so many of the cultural references were familiar. Some reviewers have disliked this book because of its lack of plot, but I think they just don't get what Colson Whitehead is doing here. He is painting a portrait of the black teenagers who happen to belong to families with summer beach houses and seem to not quite fit into any culture (black or white). The TV dinners, BB gun fights, and the grilling father were just a few of the elements that made this such a captivating read. I can only suspect that Benji will return next summer to Sag Harbor a bit wiser if not any luckier.
I read this book at the end of summer, which is a good time to read it. Whitehead is one of America's rising literary stars, but this book will probably not go down as one of his best or one of his most important books. It may, however, go down as one of his most personal novels. It is an important glimpse into a sector of our society that not many of us may otherwise see. This novel flies in the face of the African-American experience portrayed within television or Hollywood movies. The teenagers portrayed within Sag Harbor are not the Barack Obama's, trying desperately to understand their role within black-white America. These are teenagers who are looking for their first kiss, a few dollars in their pocket from a summer job, or what to do on a hot, summer evening. Whitehead paints a wonderful picture of the community, the time, and the teenagers we all grew up with.
I had high hopes when I picked this up, enjoying the style of linked short stories, but that is where any pleasure ended. There is zero impetus in this book, nothing at stake, no momentum. He calls it a novel, but it feels like a limp, flabby memoir. I get the sense as I read it that he is deeply enjoying his own nostalgia, whilst barely a shred of it has any interest for me. He spends two pages explaining the sounds associated with his father's drinking, another entire page about the intricacies of lighting a barbeque - a barbeque. I fixed it for him - "My father soaked the charcoal in lighter fluid and set it on fire." I'm forcing myself to finish it, but the closer I get to the end, the more pity I have for the people who wind up in a conversation with this man. He strikes me as the sort who will hold forth, ad infinitum, with zero concern for those stuck listening to him. Which reminds me, there is no character depth or development in this book - everything feels stilted and disconnected as if he doesn't have real human connections and has no idea about how to convey them in language. Do yourself a favor and don't believe the hype ;)