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Half a Life Hardcover – September 15, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Strauss's spare memoir begins with a confession: "Half my life ago, I killed a girl." Strauss (The Real McCoy) readily acknowledges the problems of writing about this event, the result of a moment's distraction-trying to avoid aestheticizing reality, questioning his own self-involvement, admitting to playing a role of contrition, even remarking that "...tragedy turns a life into an endless publicity tour, a string of appearances where you actually think in words like 'tragedy'"-yet a discomfiting tone pervades, and some of the author's concerns, such as those related to public perception, may alienate readers. As Strauss breezes through key events that span over a decade, he reminds us that life seldom involves the drama of deep atonement, epiphanies, unadulterated grief, or nightmarish flashbacks. A much more complicated mixture of selfish relief, sadness, and survivor's guilt informs the aftermath of unthinkable events, and what proves most frightening is the gradual awareness that one has begun to forget; forgetting contains not just the drive to move ahead, but also the fear of erasure. Strauss delivers an unexpected take on remorse with the maturity that only comes from earnest reflection.
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From Booklist

Although the accident was what insurers call a “no fault fatality,” the moment Strauss’ car struck and killed his classmate Celine, a girl he hardly knew, his life was understandably changed forever. Prompted to tell his story (he first told portions on This American Life) by new fatherhood and the realization that the earth-crumbling event had occurred half his lifetime ago, Strauss takes advantage of the perhaps unfortunate ability the accident gave him to introspect and proceeds to do so for 200 pages of conversational free-form essay. Remaining well on this side of overly sentimental, Strauss deconstructs the past 18 years and views them from every vantage point; he sees his embarrassingly self-centered thoughts immediately afterward and the premature graying of his hair and stress-related stomach problems of his late twenties. “Name an experience. It’s a good bet I’ve thought of Celine while experiencing it.” Strauss already has a few well-received novels under his belt (Chang and Eng, 2000; The Real McCoy, 2002), and his turn to nonfiction of a highly personal nature, a slow-release mediation on grief, is no less symphonic. --Annie Bostrom

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 204 pages
  • Publisher: McSweeney's; First Edition edition (September 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1934781703
  • ISBN-13: 978-1934781708
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (170 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #522,638 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

110 of 114 people found the following review helpful By thekittens on September 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
WOW -- STRONGLY RECOMMEND!!!! I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of this memoir by Darin Strauss, and it is incredible. Almost TOO incredible -- while I was reading the first chapter, which describes the author's car accident, my heart started beating really quickly! I've never had that reaction to a book before -- and it seemed to give me a tiny glimpse into how overwhelming the whole experience that the book describes must have been for the author. Fortunately, I calmed down and finished the book in one sitting and it was riveting.

The book starts with the accident: The author, in high school, is driving his father's car when a classmate swerves in front of him on her bike. He knows there is nothing he could have done and the police confirm that. But it is hard for people in his hometown to cope with the idea that this was just a senseless, meaningless accident -- no one likes to think that our lives are out of our control; we are more comfortable with assigning fault or at least ascribing some kind of significance.

So the girl's mother tells Darin that he is living for two now, and that he has to do everything twice as well now. She seems to mean well -- to offer a way for Darin to be able to somehow make up for, or at least respond to, the accident -- but instead she places a heavy burden on him. Maybe she tried to forgive him and couldn't -- for later (no spoiler here, since the book cover discloses it) she and her husband sue Darin. But perhaps the lawsuit doesn't take the heaviest toll on him -- maybe the heaviest toll is taken by Darin's inability to get close to anyone he meets after the accident: "My accident was the deepest part of my life and the second deepest was hiding it.... By now the camouflage had become my skin.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Reader on November 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover
What I liked most about Half a Life: the author's not sentimental or self-aggrandizing. This is a guy who has looked squarely at himself. But the reason I couldn't stop reading Half a Life is because Darin Strauss is such a brilliant writer. I feel like I know more and feel more now than I did when I started. That's all I want from any book. I want to feel like I'm reading something true. This book delivers. It's honest and unsettling. Strauss takes a difficult story, his own, and makes it really gripping. I couldn't put it down. Highly recommended!
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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Carolyn Watson Dubisch on October 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover
It was a sunny day, not to be taken for granted in a place like Long Island, New York, in May 1988. My friend Celine was biking with a friend. She was training for a bike trip our youth group was planning, when she was struck by a car and killed. The driver was a classmate of hers, and since we went to different schools, I didn't know him. Celine always wore bowling shoes, and was outgoing, friendly and very religious. When, just days before the accident at a youth group meeting I didn't attend she announced "I'm not afraid to die. It could happen tomorrow and I'd be OK with that", her words seemed foreboding, and almost as if she'd beckoned death to her door.

When the accident was described in hushed whispers in the funeral home, she was said to have been biking in heavy traffic and there was just nowhere for the car to go but into her. I developed an irrational fear of biking, and of being fully satisfied with life, but I wasn't extremely close with Celine and life moved me forward from that day.

Last week I noticed an article about an author I'd read. He had a new book out, and I quickly clicked on the link, anticipating another historical fiction (a genre I love). As I read his interview I felt a falling sensation, like the world was shifting. Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng, a book I loved, wrote a memoir about killing Celine. Darin Strauss was the driver that day, and while I moved on from my friend's death Darin (and her family I'm sure) was left with the wreckage.

His book "Half a Life" begins with the accident, in which she inexplicably swerves into him and follows him through college and young adulthood where she haunts his conscience on a near daily basis. Learning more of her story (and his story) was a profound experience for me. As I read it I realized Celine did not beckon death to her door, she ran through that door on her own, and maybe bicycling is not as dangerous as I let myself believe.
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Sterling Sound on September 22, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had the privilege of having Darin as a writing professor, and after reading his new memoir, I am even more proud to say that I studied with him. This story reads like a memoir and a personal essay, and is not only heartfelt and brave, but delves deep into the author's mind. I read it in one sitting, and will read it again, for the beautiful language, the story, and the epiphanies.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Bee VINE VOICE on March 29, 2011
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A few pages into this book, I was already thinking "I don't want it to end." Although I was tempted to devour this short memoir in one sitting, I decided to read it more slowly to savor the insight, the emotional resonance, and the disarming honesty of the author's reaction to the death of a cyclist who swerved into the path of his car, "half a life" ago when he was 18.

Strauss describes the surreal task of incorporating the effects of profound trauma into a life full of mundane experience. Due to his abiding concern for how he is perceived by others, most of his interactions with people are the result of a negotiation between feeling and presentation. He depicts the unavoidable gaps between public and private experience with a level of self-awareness that is extraordinarily candid.

While his story is very small and very personal, it touches upon many larger themes. As he describes his psychological struggle to incorporate the accident into his self-image and find a socially and personally acceptable way to justify his own survival, I am reminded of the enormous power of chance in life and the challenge of dealing with the inevitable uncertainty we all encounter.

Near the end of the book, Strauss uses a metaphor to describe a minimalist but healing conversation with his wife: "It was a larger and more complete moment than simply the words that were like whitecaps on the surface of it. All moments are like that. But the rare thing is to have a clear sense of this depth, and to know another person is sensing it, too."

There is so much going on beneath the surface of this memoir. I can see from the other reviews that not everyone found it as rich and moving as I did, but I am grateful to the reviewers who led me to this book, and I highly recommend "Half a Life" to those who are interested in what's going on beneath the surface.
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