on September 15, 2010
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." Confessing doesn't help either: "Even the truth had a lie's sourness."
The book is beautifully-written, impossible to put down, and significant for all of us hoping to figure out the meaning of our lives and to decide what -- and whom -- we are responsible for.
on October 17, 2010
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.
on September 22, 2010
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.
on November 5, 2010
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!
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.
on March 27, 2011
First book I've read by Strauss, and I am a little disappointed. I love fictional dystopias and a touching memoir, but have been spoiled by far superior writers who lay their soul out more completely.
I give it to Darin for taking on such a tough subject that would effect anyone in a profound way, but the conclusion left me asking for more. The conclusion that maybe Celine did not commit suicide and that it just may have been more about Darin than he let himself believe is a great way to conclude the book, but was not developed.
I wanted to feel for Darin, his life and more importantly with the girl that he was part of ending her life, but never really got emotionally involved. I am an easy 'crier', but not once did he take me to that level.
With such a quick read and an anticlimactic ending I would not recommend paying for this book. It may be worth checking out at the library for a quick somber read, in-between settling down for a more substantial read.
Darin Strauss was 18 years old and driving to play miniature golf with his friends when a girl he knew swerved her bicycle in front of his car. By all accounts, he didn't do anything wrong. But she died and changed who he was forever. There is no simple guide for how to go on with your life when you have, through no fault of your own, taken someone else's. This book is his attempt to figure it out. It's less a classic memoir than it is a witnessed therapy session; we sit beside him while he grapples, through the act of writing it all down, to come to terms what happened and what it did to him. The book is a series of memory snapshots: some as long as five pages, some as short as three sentences. It is an intimate look at what it means to go on living after such a tragedy, and how hard it is to even know how to feel or who to be after such an event. The book was edited by Dave Eggers and his influence shows; it's an extremely self-aware piece of work. But that's not a bad thing. The writer's struggle is visible on the page and it feels honest. It's hard to critique the book without seeming to critique the person and I think Mr. Strauss has been hard enough on himself for everyone. But if I had one missing piece in the book, I wish I had known the girl a bit better. Other than one short phone call, Mr. Strauss does not get to know her at all. As such, it feels a bit like witnessing half a tragedy. He says over and over that this is more her tragedy than his. But it is entirely his story here. I think he has suffered a great deal, and if sharing his story gives some light to other people, then that is a good thing. I hope it has given him some peace as well.
on November 28, 2010
I wondered if her parents read the book.
I wondered what THEY thought.
Would I, in their shoes, resent its existence?
As a reader removed from the pain, I choose to believe the best of the author. That in using this public method of coping with his pain, he has helped others to do so as well. I thought of the young man I know only slightly who was blinded by sunlight and hit a man who was fixing a flat tire on the side of the road. The man died while his 11-year-old son stood by him on the isolated road. Every time sunlight blurs my view, I think of him.
Every time I see a bicyclist on the road, I think of the young woman, my colleague, who died on her ride home from directing a school play. I never think of the man who hit her. Now I will.
What a beautifully written, sensitive book.
The author's outstanding style of writing adds much to this experience. It is a book I will not forget.
As the ever-present undertone of this memoir is guilt, I feel a little guilty about not loving it; not giving it five stars; not being able to wholeheartedly recommend it - especially in view of the gravity of the central event which shaped the second 'half a life' of the author, a car accident which ended the life of a high school girl.
This memoir provided the writer with the means of allowing himself some catharsis over the event - a way to allow himself to move the event away from the center of his psyche - which seems to have been pushed below the surface from the time of the accident on, but which nonetheless apparently and understandably, colored his every move after that tragic day. This book is about how Strauss finally came to grips with this life-altering accident.
I had a hard time mustering empathy for Strauss until nearly the end of the book, when he relates conversations with Susannah - conversations which it seems to me, should have been initiated by his mother and father many years earlier. Besides the mention of the one session with a psychologist who drives a Porsche, which presumably was arranged by his parents, there is virtually no mention of the author's mother, and little mention of his father apart from his arrival at the accident scene; accompanying him to the girl's funeral and to the deposition for the lawsuit. The father is portrayed as a strength in Strauss' life, but beyond this, there is no mention of his parents attempting to have a conversation with him, or in any way try to help him sort this out in his 18 year old brain - apart from presumably engaging the Porsche-driving shrink. I imagine that there were such conversations and expressions of concern on the part of his parents; apparently they were ineffectual.
I had a tough time with the writing style also. Familiar, conversational writing is peppered with what seem to be cleverly intended, hip, made up words, e.g., "system-junking", and repetitions of less commonly used words, e.g., "shambling" (which appears at least three times in such a short book), and chiaroscuro, make the conversational style writing seem forced, and consciously intended to make Strauss appear a bit superior- all while the book is set in an understandable attitude of unworthiness.
Likewise, the level of analysis of some of the conversation goes so deep, that it is startling to note that the author actually engaged in that level of analysis while conducting conversations - from which as a reader, I could only conclude that he was sorely in need of some kind of conversation with someone, and the lack of those conversations in his past really compounded the very serious problem that he needed to deal with.
To be sure, there are moments of true revelation - things that Strauss views as shameful that he shares with the reader, and that occasional rawness gives the book its honesty. He writes, 'This plagiarized "emotional" reaction, acted out for girls I'd never see again, is one more stomach-turning fact of that afternoon.' And there are other moments where he states plainly things about the human condition with which many could identify: "Self-hate is rarely unconditional. I don't pretend it's all right that I felt even half-okay."
I haven't read any other of Strauss' books. It seems to me that this could have been a much stronger book, had some of his own parents' actions and reactions been included, and if the writing itself hadn't in places, tried so apparently hard to seem cool. There is much substance here.
Last, as a native Long Islander, I can't help but comment on Strauss referring more than once to Long Island's geography as a tailless crocodile facing the Atlantic. Most natives I know, think of LI as a fish facing the other way!
The phrase I use as a title to my review is how Strauss describes the corpse of the cyclist he killed in a collision, and I find it a fitting nutshell description of my reaction to this memoir. This comes as both a surprise and a disappointment, both because the book has been extravagantly praised by mainstream media reviewers (not that that necessarily means much) and because as someone who has lived a full life filled with its fair share of sorrows, frustrations, and regrets, I was prepared to relate to and deeply appreciate what the author had to say.
Strauss is a successful novelist. I haven't read any of his other works, but he is clearly an intelligent man and not without a pleasing literary ability. I wish he had stuck to writing novels and just kept this little piece of writerly psychotherapy to himself. It becomes evident very early on in the book that Strauss was not at fault in the accident. It is also very self-evident that the event has stayed with him, haunted him really, ever since. I can certainly appreciate that. And I can project my sympathy out him as I read about his sense of being singled out, of not knowing how to be in light of his continued survival, or what to do with this painful, unfortunate, onerous thing that has taken over his emotional and psychological life. I can cheer when he describes meeting his wife-to-be and finally begins to come to terms with his past. But throughout the entire experience I could not escape the nagging question, the elephant in the room: why are you publicizing this?
One might think Strauss has insights that, as a writer, he is able to articulate, insights that might prove helpful to others in a similar situation. I did not find this to be the case. Where some reviewers find him "stunningly honest" "beyond brave" and "subtle," I found his ruminations shallow, melodramatic, and irredeemably writerly. I also have to say, my BS meter tells me Strauss is in fact being less than honest. I can only surmise that the reviewers who find this piece of tortured artistry so compelling have lived lives relatively unburdened by genuine affliction and so find it novel and titillating to read of it here.
For me the final straw came when Strauss pleads with us in a footnote: "I didn't ever tell my story in a wheedling voice. I didn't pursue sympathy as if I thought it was somehow the right payment for any psychic wounds suffered. I didn't throw my sadness around. Most of all, I always remained awake to the only certainty there was: I am here and she is not." If you find this kind of sophistry compelling or profound, you will love this book. If you're like me, you might find yourself stunned by the self-serving hypocrisy. Again and again I found myself wondering "why are you publicizing this?"
At one moment early in the book, describing the events in the immediate aftermath of the fatal accident, Strauss writes about how a crowd gathered, among them two teenage girls who approached him to ask how he was doing. He describes dropping to his knees and covering his head with his hands in a "plagiarized emotional reaction" acted out for the benefit of these girls he'd never see again. This is the overriding impression I came away with from this book: that in spite of the author's assurances to the contrary, this is a self-serving, self-absorbed, self-conscious attempt to make literary hay from the dark sunshine of genuine tragedy. But the tragedy isn't Strauss' and he comes off as an overwrought hack tragic actor hamming up the Shakespeare. It leaves a distinctly bad taste in the mouth.