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Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
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A-Half a LifeHailed as "a brave new voice in literature" by the Wall Street Journal, best-selling author Darin Strauss has published three novels: Chang and Eng (2000), The Real McCoy (3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2002), and More Than It Hurts You ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2008). Half a Life is his first work of nonfiction.

The Topic: "Half my life ago, I killed a girl." On a spring afternoon in 1988, 18-year-old Darin Strauss was driving his father's Oldsmobile when a classmate riding her bike, 16-year-old Celine Zilke, inexplicably veered across two lanes of traffic and collided with his car. Although Strauss was eventually exonerated, his life changed irrevocably at that moment. The anonymity of college promised some measure of escape, but a multimillion dollar lawsuit filed by Celine's parents tormented him during the years it plodded through the courts. Plagued by questions and self-doubt, Strauss continues to struggle with pain and guilt, but that tragic day has fueled his achievements and galvanized his fiction even as it haunts him. "The accident taught me this. Things don't go away. They become you."
McSweeney's. 208 pages. $22. ISBN: 9781934781708

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a rare privilege to make the trip of Half a Life. What might have been exploitative instead feels important, and dearly won." Karen R. Long

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"His distance from [the accident] is one of the things I liked best. Too many memoirs suffer from lack of perspective. But Strauss explores memory, guilt, and coming-of-age from a mature vantage point that leads to enormous insight." Pam Abrams

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"At the center of this elegant, painful, stunningly honest memoir thrums a question fundamental to what it means to be human: What do we do with what we've been given? ... What is truly exceptional here is watching a writer of fine fiction ... probe, directly, carefully and with great humility, the source from which his fiction springs." Dani Shapiro

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Strauss takes a series of emotionally charged moments--the accident, the police response, his friends' reactions, his brave attendance at the victim's funeral, the drawn-out civil trial--and slows them down, studies and dissects them, attempting to find meaning. He writes in spare, evocative, and down-to-earth language, and his writing has a depth of poetic attention that is mesmerizing." Wayne Scott

Portland Mercury 4 of 5 Stars
"Strauss tempers his clear-eyed emotional reportage with the occasional disarmingly offbeat observation. ... These moments of oddball humor offset Half a Life's intensity just enough to ensure that Strauss' brilliantly intense, self-critical memoir goes down easy." Alison Hallett

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"With honesty and sensitivity, Strauss looks not only at how that fateful incident decades ago ended Celine's young life, but also at how it greatly affected his. Out of undoubtedly complicated circumstances, he crafts a simple yet remarkable story about pain and guilt, maturity and responsibility, hope and understanding." Christina Eng

Onion AV Club 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Half a Life tries to lance the trauma, this time without the artifice of fiction, and comes up straining for the right balance between art and self-consciousness. ... Much of the book tacks uneasily between plainspoken honest anxiety and writerly frills that go against the project's (perhaps impossible) goal: writing honest art that's also a sincere penitence that may not even be called for." Vadim Rizov

Critical Summary

Strauss's "subtle, exceptional memoir" (Cleveland Plain Dealer) poses age-old questions without answers: why do terrible things happen, and how does a person carry on after such a pointless tragedy? Strauss's lyrical prose, keen insight, and unflinching honesty won over the critics, who praised his choice to relate his experiences straightforwardly rather than to mine them for maximum dramatic effect. Strauss's exploration of his grief and guilt is deeply personal and genuine, but he skillfully balances the intensity and heartache of his story with humor. Although the Onion AV Club objected to the book's pace, tone, and edgy fusion of art and life, it was the sole voice of dissent. Most reviewers agreed that Strauss's graceful, candid memoir is a touching meditation on making sense of the senseless.

Also by the Author

Chang and Eng (2000): Through the first person viewpoint of Eng, Strauss humanizes the life of Chang and Eng, a pair of conjoined (Siamese) twins born in the Kingdom of Siam in 1811, as he takes readers from their childhood through their circus career and married lives.