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By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir of Disaster and Love

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An exquisitely written memoir about the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage and fatherhood by a talented new writer from the University of Iowa MFA program. Joe Blair always had big plans. As a child, he would lie on his bed and study the Easy Rider poster stapled to his wall, dreaming of the day he could wear a leather jacket and be free. In his early twenties, he and hi An exquisitely written memoir about the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage and fatherhood by a talented new writer from the University of Iowa MFA program. Joe Blair always had big plans. As a child, he would lie on his bed and study the Easy Rider poster stapled to his wall, dreaming of the day he could wear a leather jacket and be free. In his early twenties, he and his new bride jumped on a motorcycle and rode across America to chase their destiny. Fifteen years later, Joe finds himself in Iowa, working as a heating and air conditioning repairman who reluctantly owns a house, two cars, and a dog. His marriage is failing, and his four children—one of whom is severely autistic—are struggling. “Our history,” he writes, “gains more weight day by day. And the future seems more and more unlikely to be anything cool at all.” Joe believes it would take an act of great faith or courage to revive in him the hope and passion that once seemed so easy to come by. What it takes, he discovers, is a flood. With a genuine narrative voice like Rick Bragg’s and the raw, emotional power of Rafe Yglesias’s novel, A Happy Marriage, this is a wrenching, unsentimental account an ordinary man’s struggle to live an authentic life. Joe Blair lays bare the heartbreaking and hopeful story of a river that became an ocean and of a great love that was lost and then found again, By the Iowa Sea.


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An exquisitely written memoir about the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage and fatherhood by a talented new writer from the University of Iowa MFA program. Joe Blair always had big plans. As a child, he would lie on his bed and study the Easy Rider poster stapled to his wall, dreaming of the day he could wear a leather jacket and be free. In his early twenties, he and hi An exquisitely written memoir about the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage and fatherhood by a talented new writer from the University of Iowa MFA program. Joe Blair always had big plans. As a child, he would lie on his bed and study the Easy Rider poster stapled to his wall, dreaming of the day he could wear a leather jacket and be free. In his early twenties, he and his new bride jumped on a motorcycle and rode across America to chase their destiny. Fifteen years later, Joe finds himself in Iowa, working as a heating and air conditioning repairman who reluctantly owns a house, two cars, and a dog. His marriage is failing, and his four children—one of whom is severely autistic—are struggling. “Our history,” he writes, “gains more weight day by day. And the future seems more and more unlikely to be anything cool at all.” Joe believes it would take an act of great faith or courage to revive in him the hope and passion that once seemed so easy to come by. What it takes, he discovers, is a flood. With a genuine narrative voice like Rick Bragg’s and the raw, emotional power of Rafe Yglesias’s novel, A Happy Marriage, this is a wrenching, unsentimental account an ordinary man’s struggle to live an authentic life. Joe Blair lays bare the heartbreaking and hopeful story of a river that became an ocean and of a great love that was lost and then found again, By the Iowa Sea.

30 review for By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir of Disaster and Love

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jon Grice

    As an Iowan who experienced the same flooded times in our state as Joe did, I appreciated that aspect of this memoir. However, the story of Joe's personal life and struggles left me flat. Not everyone has an autistic child to raise (I have a son with disorders), but everyone does experience day-to-day challenges. I found nothing special or redeeming about Blair's life tale, and though he may be honest, he impressed me as being rather self-absorbed and self pitying. As an Iowan who experienced the same flooded times in our state as Joe did, I appreciated that aspect of this memoir. However, the story of Joe's personal life and struggles left me flat. Not everyone has an autistic child to raise (I have a son with disorders), but everyone does experience day-to-day challenges. I found nothing special or redeeming about Blair's life tale, and though he may be honest, he impressed me as being rather self-absorbed and self pitying.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Timothy Bazzett

    Hoo, boy! Where to even begin trying to describe BY THE IOWA SEA? I believe that Joe Blair's memoir will be a rather controversial book. But here's my two cents' worth. This is a very powerful book. I had trouble putting it down, which is good. But I felt like a voyeur, and I'm not quite sure yet if that's good or bad. BY THE IOWA SEA is perhaps the most utterly human and nakedly candid look at a marriage as any I have ever read. I started to call it a "troubled" marriage, but then I decided I di Hoo, boy! Where to even begin trying to describe BY THE IOWA SEA? I believe that Joe Blair's memoir will be a rather controversial book. But here's my two cents' worth. This is a very powerful book. I had trouble putting it down, which is good. But I felt like a voyeur, and I'm not quite sure yet if that's good or bad. BY THE IOWA SEA is perhaps the most utterly human and nakedly candid look at a marriage as any I have ever read. I started to call it a "troubled" marriage, but then I decided I didn't want to pigeonhole it in any way. Sure Joe and Deb Blair have got their troubles after eighteen or twenty years of marriage, but doesn't everyone? Doesn't that first flame of passion fade for most married folks after that many years - hell, even sooner for many? And the Blair marriage is made even more difficult and problematic by their having to deal with a severely autistic son. And Joe Blair's descriptions of what that entails hold nothing back. Yeah, they have some outside help, with various therapies, special schools and respite workers, but the truth is - and both Joe and Deb are all too aware of this - having an autistic child is kind of a life sentence. Joe Blair is a pipefitter. He's the HVAC guy that comes to fix your furnace or boiler or air conditioning system. The 'plumber's crack' is never specifically mentioned, but judging from some of the contortions needed for the jobs described, it must show up now and then. But, fortunately for us, Blair is also one hell of a fine writer. There's nothing fancy or artsy-fartsy in his writing. It's plain, direct language, used to its full effect. Joe misses his wife, Deb - the go-for-it girl she was when he met her back at UMass Lowell. But it's four kids later now, saddled with debts and the monotony and repetitions that make up real life, so of course Deb has changed. So Joe looks around, notices how other women are still attractive, and attracted to him. He even tries to get Deb into the game. He has a rich fantasy life - or he tries to have. Deb is mostly tired all the time. The inarticulate, exhausted, sometimes angry conversations are recreated here with near perfect pitch - "... what? says Deb. You want to sleep with other women? That's ... That's not - I begin. You want to sleep with other women, she says again. No, I say. Absolutely not. But ... what if I did? I knew it! she shouts, almost victoriously. Why do you - No! No! You don't understand! It's not about sex. It's not. It's about ... love. You want to leave me. No. That's not what I'm saying. I just want us both to ... choose again. To ... be loved. And to love. You know? I'm trying - ..." And on and on and round and round until you can nearly feel the pain yourself as you read this stuff; it's nearly palpable. And I just felt for this guy, for this pipefitter, who was so filled up with the malaise of middle-aged disappointment and wondering, "Is this it then? Is this how it's gonna be for the rest of my life?!" I'm pretty sure that men and women are gonna choose sides when they read this book - Joe or Deb. Because this is perhaps one of the most intimate and real looks into the male mind that's ever been written. Guys will get it. Women will probably not. Most of them will probably think, "Why, you BAStard!" And here, if I try to defend him, I begin to quickly lapse into the same sort of sad inarticulateness that afflicts poor Joe. Maybe it's a guy thing, that need to keep on being, being ... well, a sexual being, ya know? I guess the thing that worked me up the most about this book is that it is NOT FICTION. It's a memoir, so I gotta believe Joe is doing his confused and inarticulate best to just tell his story. And somehow in the process he sets the story - his and Deb's - against the backdrop of the horrific floods of 2008 which utterly changed and ruined so many lives throughout the midwest. The connections come through. Natural forces, human desires and dreams, and how they all collide, and how things change. Honestly, I feel like kind of a jerk trying to describe this work. But I'm not alone. Joe Blair himself described it this way to a woman he later had an affair with - "A book, I said. About love. Well, not really about love. It's about this guy who has lost hope, and then finds it. And it's autobiographical, only not. And it's about faith. And a marriage that has ... well ... to be honest, I don't know what it's about. It's hard to say." And that sort of sums it up. You know? You just have to read it. And I guarantee it'll suck you in, whether you're a man or a woman. I ended up liking the guy. And I suspect, even though it's very much a 'guy' story, that a lot of women will end up liking him too. Here's a little postscript. Joe, if you haven't already read it, you should read Fred Haefele's memoir, REBUILDING THE INDIAN - that motorcycle stuff you talked about, ya know? And you and Deb both should try to read NEXT STOP, Glen Finland's memoir about her adult autistic son. I mean if you have time, which you probably don't ... even so. Sheesh! Joe's got me writing like he does now. Once more. This is one very powerful book. Read it!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jaclyn Day

    Occasionally I come across a book that I’m not immediately interested in, but decide to read anyway because I’ve heard good things about it. I’m so glad I decided to give it a try. This story of a man and his marriage and family is heart-breaking and beautiful, written in such a painfully honest voice that I sometimes cringed as I read. I think everyone, at some point in their life, wonders, “Is this all there is?” Can change (whether in location or in who you are with, for example) be enough to Occasionally I come across a book that I’m not immediately interested in, but decide to read anyway because I’ve heard good things about it. I’m so glad I decided to give it a try. This story of a man and his marriage and family is heart-breaking and beautiful, written in such a painfully honest voice that I sometimes cringed as I read. I think everyone, at some point in their life, wonders, “Is this all there is?” Can change (whether in location or in who you are with, for example) be enough to make you happy? Blair discovers the answer to that question is more complicated than a simple yes or no. There were some lines in this book that stopped me and made me put down the book and think for a moment. I love a memoir that’s viciously honest and Blair does not mince words. It may not be something you’d pick up at first glance (it certainly wasn’t for me), but I’m glad I read it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Stuart Smith

    By the Iowa Sea is a rattling and at times disturbingly accurate story of a man who has stumbled into the middle of his life with only questions to show for his existence. Ripped of frills, Blair constructs simple prose that hide within them a special clarity in the face of both natural and personal disasters. Readers will find beauty in the small town monotony and many will relate to the internal struggle that grips a man in a small town fearing he will live a small life. I caught the overall f By the Iowa Sea is a rattling and at times disturbingly accurate story of a man who has stumbled into the middle of his life with only questions to show for his existence. Ripped of frills, Blair constructs simple prose that hide within them a special clarity in the face of both natural and personal disasters. Readers will find beauty in the small town monotony and many will relate to the internal struggle that grips a man in a small town fearing he will live a small life. I caught the overall feeling of the book by pulling the following quote from page 238: “ It is possible to grieve for the loss of a thing even as you are in possession of it. To crave the very thing you have been blessed with”.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Gloria

    Remember the opening to the movie Joe vs. the Volcano...? "Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job..." Allow me to cut to: "Once there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job ... and what he thought was a lousy life ... a dead end marriage ... and a tiring job as a father..." When I first read the blurbs for this book, I was eagerly anticipating reading it. Now that I have, I'm a bit flummoxed. I honestly don't know how to rate it. I finished this in less than a day-- so Remember the opening to the movie Joe vs. the Volcano...? "Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job..." Allow me to cut to: "Once there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job ... and what he thought was a lousy life ... a dead end marriage ... and a tiring job as a father..." When I first read the blurbs for this book, I was eagerly anticipating reading it. Now that I have, I'm a bit flummoxed. I honestly don't know how to rate it. I finished this in less than a day-- so clearly the man can write and is able to pull a reader in. The first several pages I was excited, intrigued. He was thoughtful, bordering on profound. Several pages later, I think I'd changed my mind. This wasn't anything special. It was the musings of some whiney, bored, approaching middle-age man who thinks he's made a mistake and is now missing out on something. Another 10 pages, I'm hurting for him as I can't even imagine what it must be like to try and parent a severely autistic child-- knowing things will never change, he'll never "outgrow" this. He'll be a compulsive, unreachable "child" forever despite his growing in years and size and strength. After 10 years of that, how could one not feel stuck, trapped, mired ... and question one's choices leading up to that point. But then again, it will flip ... and I'm no longer sympathizing. I'm irritated. So trying to pinpoint my feelings regarding this man's story of his life is as elusive as trying to give it any sort of rating. I think Mr. Blair a gifted writer. I would try a novel or a short story produced by him. But I'm not sure I care to hear any more about his personal life. Perhaps it's all based on perspective. Perhaps reading Elie Wiesel's Night was not a good precursor to Joe Blair's somewhat self-absorbed memoir. Modern day Coralville and Iowa City (even amidst a flood) are not Auschwitz or Buchenwald. Perspective.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ariana Lisefski

    I picked up this book because I'm an Iowa native with an interest in writing about life on the floodplain. I was disappointed to find that these aspects were very peripheral to Blair's lackluster story of parenthood and marriage. Blair surprises and provokes sympathy with his frank accounts of life with an autistic son, but that too is peripheral. Center stage is really his "struggle" with marital infidelity. Sure, infidelity's a complicated facet of the human experience. You and me and everyone I picked up this book because I'm an Iowa native with an interest in writing about life on the floodplain. I was disappointed to find that these aspects were very peripheral to Blair's lackluster story of parenthood and marriage. Blair surprises and provokes sympathy with his frank accounts of life with an autistic son, but that too is peripheral. Center stage is really his "struggle" with marital infidelity. Sure, infidelity's a complicated facet of the human experience. You and me and everyone we know has some story of it to tell. But Blair wants us to hold his hand through it, as if his is the first story anyone's told about men feeling victimized from their own miscommunication with women. By injecting some lyricism about the Iowa landscape and flooding into his narrative, Blair attempts to cast a poetic sheen on his personal life, and as a result, prop up an apology or sympathy by way of metaphor. But the symbolism only comes off as tired and self-important. I realize this is a man's lived experience, and I'm really not trying to criticize his actions or even his writing. I'm simply exasperated by publishers' and readers' continued interest in romanticizing male infidelity and self-indulgence. One more story trying to convince us to forgive poor, good old boy Joe Schmo who "just can't figure out this fidelity thing" just feels like one more way to direct blame back to women. Not a book I would ever recommend.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Bacon Curry

    This was a beautifully written, highly poetic examination of a midlife marriage and family. I have no doubt that time of life & locale both nurtured my bond with this book (this is no YA novel, and those of us who know & love Iowa City will find something special in this book -- though knowing and/or loving IC is definitely not required for connecting to this memoir). Joe Blair has a distinctive, lyrical prose and a penchant for revealing the stark truths we prefer to shield our eyes from. For t This was a beautifully written, highly poetic examination of a midlife marriage and family. I have no doubt that time of life & locale both nurtured my bond with this book (this is no YA novel, and those of us who know & love Iowa City will find something special in this book -- though knowing and/or loving IC is definitely not required for connecting to this memoir). Joe Blair has a distinctive, lyrical prose and a penchant for revealing the stark truths we prefer to shield our eyes from. For the most part, he draws you into a story from which you cannot look away. I say "for the most part," because I had a sense about 3/4 of the way through the book that Mr. Blair may have lost some interest in his story. It is not that the book becomes any "less good" at that point, but it does seem a bit as though the author loses focus on actually relaying the story to the reader. It is almost as if he were interrupted mid-sentence, looked away, and then came back to say, "Oh, where was I again? Yeah. Ok, so fast forward to..." There are critical gaps in the resolution (and given the very personal nature of the narrative, it may simply be the function of being so close to a thing you can't see it) that leave the reader with some important questions. The swerve is momentary, and he rights the wheel and takes us back into the fold of the story & his family by the end of the book. However, the swerve is perceptible, and I mention it only by way of explanation of the 4-star rating rather than a 5-star rating. The fact that it would otherwise be in contention for a 5-star should tell you something about how truly good the rest of the book is. Now, all that being said, it IS a BEAUTIFUL book, and I would definitely read it again, and would recommend it for any reader who has lived the complications of a long-term relationship with a spouse and/or Iowa City. ;-)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    There was moment when I worried that this episodic, semi-impressionistic, evocative and beautifully-written memoir was going to lapse into a middle-age-man apologia for infidelity, which I have no interest in hearing, but Joe Blair quickly rights the ship... though he does nearly destroy his marriage and lose his family of four kids. And, despite (because of?) a willingness to expose his darkest, most unappealing thoughts and feelings, Blair definitely emerges from this surprisingly-engrossing, There was moment when I worried that this episodic, semi-impressionistic, evocative and beautifully-written memoir was going to lapse into a middle-age-man apologia for infidelity, which I have no interest in hearing, but Joe Blair quickly rights the ship... though he does nearly destroy his marriage and lose his family of four kids. And, despite (because of?) a willingness to expose his darkest, most unappealing thoughts and feelings, Blair definitely emerges from this surprisingly-engrossing, mostly-charming journey as a Good Guy. Which is fine! He is a good guy, it seems. Also a terrific writer, from New England, who happens to wind up fixing air conditioners in small town in Iowa for a living. And one of his sons, Michael, is profoundly autistic and requires an enormous amount of parental attention and patience. So there's a lot of "how did I get here?" going on, but not in a whining way. In fact, it's love, acceptance, and gratitude that wins the day which, in my experience as a 54-year-old man, are the keys to finally settling in to a happy, useful, meaningful life.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Dawn Grimes

    Bar none my favorite memoir - ever. Completely captivated by this author's ability to blend disparate conversations, events and observations through seamless narrative that weaves an endearing - and yet gritty story of life -- with all of it's choices, and challenges, opportunities and obstacles. At no point do you ever feel as though you are being hit over the head by comparisons or metaphor - it is as though you get to take a journey inside the author's heart and mind and come - and see and fe Bar none my favorite memoir - ever. Completely captivated by this author's ability to blend disparate conversations, events and observations through seamless narrative that weaves an endearing - and yet gritty story of life -- with all of it's choices, and challenges, opportunities and obstacles. At no point do you ever feel as though you are being hit over the head by comparisons or metaphor - it is as though you get to take a journey inside the author's heart and mind and come - and see and feel for yourself - what it feels like to live in his skin. I could not put this book down. Delightful, insightful and inspirational.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Mary K

    Beautifully written. The book’s theme is the author’s marriage, love and sexual confusion, but what makes this book rock is his care for their youngest child (one of a set of twins) who is severely autistic and mentally challenged. That the author worked out his confusion and put his marriage back together is, to me, nothing short of astonishing. I have nothing but admiration for this family.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Teresa

    For the 2017 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge Read a book that is set within 100 miles from your location

  12. 4 out of 5

    Dianne

    Not sure exactly how I feel about this memoir. Joe is a man who had big dreams of living a vagabond lifestyle, where he would “never cave in to convention, never settle down.” Joe meets Deb and they jump on a motorcycle and head west from Massachusetts with $7000 hidden in a gym sock. They run out of money in Iowa and buy a small house. Deb becomes pregnant and within six years, they have four children – one of whom is severely autistic. Joe supports his family with his heating and cooling busin Not sure exactly how I feel about this memoir. Joe is a man who had big dreams of living a vagabond lifestyle, where he would “never cave in to convention, never settle down.” Joe meets Deb and they jump on a motorcycle and head west from Massachusetts with $7000 hidden in a gym sock. They run out of money in Iowa and buy a small house. Deb becomes pregnant and within six years, they have four children – one of whom is severely autistic. Joe supports his family with his heating and cooling business and the years roll by. Joe and Deb begin to argue. Joe begins to feel restless with his small life, pressured by the demands of his family and job and caring for his special needs son. Predictably, he has an affair and things come to a head. At this same time, days and days of rain lead to the massive flooding of the Iowa River. Part of me thought Joe was selfish and childish and needed a swift kick in the butt. The other part sympathized – who hasn’t wondered at times, “Is this all there is? I want something different!” The parts of the memoir dealing with his autistic son, Mike, were heart-rending. I can’t imagine what that would be like. All in all, it is an honest and truthful memoir, thought-provoking and well-written.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Eileen

    When you read a memoir, you don't need to love the type of person the author is. You don't need to think he or she has stellar character. What matters is the voice of the author and their motivation for telling their story. I've read two memoirs within the past few months—this one and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. The two books could not have been more different. Whereas Running with Scissors was a boastful and showy attempt at shocking readers, what struck me about By the Iowa Se When you read a memoir, you don't need to love the type of person the author is. You don't need to think he or she has stellar character. What matters is the voice of the author and their motivation for telling their story. I've read two memoirs within the past few months—this one and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. The two books could not have been more different. Whereas Running with Scissors was a boastful and showy attempt at shocking readers, what struck me about By the Iowa Sea is its utter humility and simplicity. Joe Blair is a man who seems to recognize his failings, if sometimes only in retrospect. He is someone with a severely autistic child and this fact is something that weighs on him and chisels away at his hope and his happiness. I don't think he's written this book to invoke sympathy, as some reviewers suggest. He's writing to share something of himself. I loved this book. And I'm willing to forgive an ending that felt maybe a little too pat or idealistic. This is a profoundly moving book that beautifully captures all the complexities of intimate relationships.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jeffe Kennedy

    I've finally decided I think this memoir is brilliant. It's not a comfortable or easy story, though it's simply and compellingly written, making it a fast read. As a memoir it's fascinating because the author and narrator never asks the reader to like him. He never justifies any of his actions or the story as transcendent or having more meaning than it does. There is no magical pizza in Italy, no life-changing epiphany, no wisdom gained. Instead it's a brutally honest story of regular people fig I've finally decided I think this memoir is brilliant. It's not a comfortable or easy story, though it's simply and compellingly written, making it a fast read. As a memoir it's fascinating because the author and narrator never asks the reader to like him. He never justifies any of his actions or the story as transcendent or having more meaning than it does. There is no magical pizza in Italy, no life-changing epiphany, no wisdom gained. Instead it's a brutally honest story of regular people fighting everyday tragedies. And whether they come out of it changed is debatable - but that, too, is part of the honesty. I've read a lot of memoirs (and written some, back in the day) and I found this one almost revelatory in what can be done with the medium. At the same time, I don't think I could ever accomplish what Blair has done here, because I don't think I could achieve that same level of honesty that doesn't try to be more than what it is. Well worth the read!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    Joe Blair, a pipefitter and air conditioning repairman, takes an unflinching look at his life in this beautifully-written memoir about the joys and challenges of marriage and parenting four children, one of whom is severely autistic, in a small Iowa town. Joe's early dreams of adventure turn sour as his life contracts into supporting his family and coming to terms with a son who will never be able to live alone. His marriage is failing, and his dreams disappear into the reality of supporting a f Joe Blair, a pipefitter and air conditioning repairman, takes an unflinching look at his life in this beautifully-written memoir about the joys and challenges of marriage and parenting four children, one of whom is severely autistic, in a small Iowa town. Joe's early dreams of adventure turn sour as his life contracts into supporting his family and coming to terms with a son who will never be able to live alone. His marriage is failing, and his dreams disappear into the reality of supporting a family. A natural disaster turns his town upside down, which gives Joe an unprecedented opportunity to take a good, hard look at what he values. Joe is the best version of everyman in this captivating memoir. I am not a fan of memoirs because I think they are too often a vehicle for a me-more with self-aggrandizing memories. I was drawn to this book because I went to Grinnell College, which is also in small Iowa town not far from Joe's home. When I learned that he is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop, I knew I had to read his memoir. This is a book I will long remember and highly recommend.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    Found this one while perusing the shelves at the library. The title caught my eye and a memoir about middle age seemed what I was looking for. Certainly took some twists I wasn't ready for but enjoyed it for what it is. Found this one while perusing the shelves at the library. The title caught my eye and a memoir about middle age seemed what I was looking for. Certainly took some twists I wasn't ready for but enjoyed it for what it is.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jane S

    This is a surprising gem of a memoir from a writer whose day-job would lead many to regard him as unremarkable and hence unlikely to draw fame or recognition in the normal walk of life, all of which made this book seem all the more powerful and poignant to me. Blair's voice is evocatively reflective, yet self-deprecating and heart-breakingly honest as he recounts his reality as a blue-collar father of 4 children living in small town Iowa, all the while hanging on to the person he was in his yout This is a surprising gem of a memoir from a writer whose day-job would lead many to regard him as unremarkable and hence unlikely to draw fame or recognition in the normal walk of life, all of which made this book seem all the more powerful and poignant to me. Blair's voice is evocatively reflective, yet self-deprecating and heart-breakingly honest as he recounts his reality as a blue-collar father of 4 children living in small town Iowa, all the while hanging on to the person he was in his youth and keeping alive his youthful idealism and dreams of just upping and going with his wife, of relocating to the East Coast and being/becoming the more fulfilled person he thought he should be. This much speaks to probably most of us at some point in life, but the way Blair expresses this and how he reconciles himself with his reality was what got me. He doesn't spare us the painful yet at times archly humorous details of his quotidian concerns, his thoughts of committing infidelity, his struggles in dealing with his autistic son or self-doubts as to whether he loves his family enough. The memoir ended with the family selling up and moving back to Massachusetts, although I noticed that the author bio on the book's dust-jacket stated that Blair still lived in Iowa. His account of their family vacation at Plum Island (which coincidentally added a personal point of interest since I'd recently visited the place myself) in the closing pages of the memoir somehow seemed contrived, almost as if it was pulled together for the sake of ending the book on viscerally complete note. It felt suspect to me somehow but then again, it might simply reflect my wariness of how writing of this nature works. That was a small quibble in the larger scheme of things and does not detract from the narrative. What remained emotionally evocative was the way Blair remained stuck in the moil of life, enduring and trying to keep the faith - which spoke volumes as a kind of love that is more real and tenacious than the hackneyed emotions we tend to associate with almost 'cheaper' and easier notions of love. I tend to be more critical and scathing in my reviews than not e.g. see my review of Joan Didion's Blue Nights, but this is one memoir I'd highly recommend - for its writing, its honesty and unsentimental reflection of (what our modern world would tend to think of as) a small, nameless and modest life elevated all the more for the quality of persistence.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Chad

    So I know that this shouldn't matter necessarily, but I would have liked this a whole lot more if I actually liked the narrator. He's kind of a tool. I'm sure it is not easy to be a father to a severely autistic child, but I can't let that excuse his behavior. He has a lovely turn of phrase at times which kept me beguiled enough to tolerate his exploits and keep reading. He has this to say about the idea of believing in something: "It's belief that brings love into being. As if from thin air. Bel So I know that this shouldn't matter necessarily, but I would have liked this a whole lot more if I actually liked the narrator. He's kind of a tool. I'm sure it is not easy to be a father to a severely autistic child, but I can't let that excuse his behavior. He has a lovely turn of phrase at times which kept me beguiled enough to tolerate his exploits and keep reading. He has this to say about the idea of believing in something: "It's belief that brings love into being. As if from thin air. Belief. An ethereal notion. An idea that has the power to create and destroy. We need it, this belief. This prayer. This hope. So that, in time, when the future is worn away by the present, the past might show that we have held up some kind of light, however dim, in the darkness of the world." His sentences can, at times, have a beautiful rhythm to them. However, he appears pig headed and even misogynistic though he cloaks it in this fake female worship getup. The worst part is the ending. Everything just sort of ends like the tide going out on a slow day. As if nothing had ever happened. Although he tries to draw some conclusions, I don't think he actually learned anything. If it hadn't been for the flood, which he uses as his metaphor, this would really be too mundane to write about. This would have been better as a Carver short story with subtle overtones of redemption and water culminating in events that may or may not have changed the protagonists life. I picked this book up because I have lived and loved in Iowa City, and though I had left it by the time the story took place, I was intimately familiar with the area. I liked Blair's details of the city and spent time looking at maps as I read it, remembering. That and the words were enough to save it for me, though the ending lowered it a full star.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    I can't do 1/2 stars or I certainly would put this at 4 1/2! I so very much enjoyed this book! It is always a treat to read about locales I have a common bond with, but Joe took us on trip so much more real than a restaurant I've visited before or roads and intersections I'm very familiar with. He took us to where he lives and he did so with raw honesty and a a BOAT load of courage!! The whole experience was a 'pay no attention to the man behind the curtain' moment, where just because we see som I can't do 1/2 stars or I certainly would put this at 4 1/2! I so very much enjoyed this book! It is always a treat to read about locales I have a common bond with, but Joe took us on trip so much more real than a restaurant I've visited before or roads and intersections I'm very familiar with. He took us to where he lives and he did so with raw honesty and a a BOAT load of courage!! The whole experience was a 'pay no attention to the man behind the curtain' moment, where just because we see someone one way, so much else is happening. Where the frenzy of a disaster can be a catalyst to stronger construction. Figuratively and literally in the case of By the Iowa Sea. Joe Blair's writing is exquisite! He has an uncanny knack for the heart of the moment and kernel of truth in each situation. Be it with his wife, his coworkers, or his devastatingly autistic son. He doesn't sugar coat anything yet there is such artistry in his prose we hear the heartbeat of beauty even in the pain of a heart breaking. I didn't feel the end of the book was an adequate wrap up. I think I wish he would have waited to publish this book until he ended up back in Iowa (which he did) there would have been a symmetry there. A rainbow, if you will. A new covenant with that dang town and a second chance for that 'river'. Otherwise, I'm so glad I went to the Iowa City Book Festival and had the privileged of hearing Mr. Blair. And saying hello to his wife and Mike. And I'm so very glad he didn't abandon his talent when life's responsibilities came knocking (and oh how loud they do knock) so we could be treated to this fine book. I'm so very much hoping he has plans to add a sequel.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Meagan

    This book started out beautiful and then fizzled out towards the end. Blair's first few pages hooked me right away. They are entrancing, placing the reader right in with the characters watching the storm hit the Coralville mall. The imagery is beautiful and intense and moving. I really enjoyed the different form he used for the book. It is almost as if each chapter is made out of a series of prose poems. But as the book moves along, Blair's laser focus seems to dissipate. He gets nostalgic. The This book started out beautiful and then fizzled out towards the end. Blair's first few pages hooked me right away. They are entrancing, placing the reader right in with the characters watching the storm hit the Coralville mall. The imagery is beautiful and intense and moving. I really enjoyed the different form he used for the book. It is almost as if each chapter is made out of a series of prose poems. But as the book moves along, Blair's laser focus seems to dissipate. He gets nostalgic. The end was especially disappointing for me. I couldn't figure it out until I re-read his bio on the inside of the back cover. It states "Joe Blair lives in Coralville, Iowa with his wife and four children." Yet the end of the book shows him and his family moving to Massachusetts, living out a dream he expresses at the beginning of the book. It makes the ending seem like a lie, one that he is telling not only his readers but also himself. It is a repetition of this urge to run, something Blair has exhibited throughout the book, first in his cross country motorcycle travels and then in his affair with Pamela. The move to Massachusetts, if it happened, apparently hasn't solved anything since, as of the books release, Blair is back in Iowa. One of the most compelling things about Blair is his insatiable hunger for something more. Who hasn't felt like that? It just seems that, by the end of the memoir, our protagonist hasn't learned how to cope with his yearning, not even a little, or if he has, he has not been able to effectively convey it to us.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Rosendahl

    I had high hopes for this book based on the inside cover synopsis. Joe Blair decides at a young age that he will travel for his life. He and his wife elope and ride away from MA on their motorcycle to be - bohemians, basically. They make it to Iowa before they run out of money. 15 years later, they're still there, Joe is repairing AC and they have 4 kids, one of whom is severly autistic, when the Cedar River floods Iowa City. Joe is beginning an affair and is having trouble connecting with his w I had high hopes for this book based on the inside cover synopsis. Joe Blair decides at a young age that he will travel for his life. He and his wife elope and ride away from MA on their motorcycle to be - bohemians, basically. They make it to Iowa before they run out of money. 15 years later, they're still there, Joe is repairing AC and they have 4 kids, one of whom is severly autistic, when the Cedar River floods Iowa City. Joe is beginning an affair and is having trouble connecting with his wife. I expected with this lead up that there would be some real "A-HA" moments where the flooding river is a metaphor for his life, but didn't get that unfortunately. There really seems to me that there was nothing in this book except some self-pitying whining and laments about his life. And the flood itself only takes up a few paragraphs. Plus, he writes a lot of conversations as they happen, which is mostly one person interrupting the other person, or Joe reduced to saying a lot of "umm, well not exactly right now" sort of things, so we as the reader never get the point of the conversation. Sorry Joe - thumbs down from me.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    A compulsive read, with lots of juicy bits -- and some pretty unsexy sex parts. An honest memoir in which the author routinely casts himself in a very unflattering light. Being from the Iowa City area myself, I relished all the geographic details: restaurant names, street signs, area businesses, etc. It was fun to view those familiar places through his non- Iowa-native eyes. He situates the memoir in 2008 during the summer floods and uses the natural disaster as a metaphor for the growing tension A compulsive read, with lots of juicy bits -- and some pretty unsexy sex parts. An honest memoir in which the author routinely casts himself in a very unflattering light. Being from the Iowa City area myself, I relished all the geographic details: restaurant names, street signs, area businesses, etc. It was fun to view those familiar places through his non- Iowa-native eyes. He situates the memoir in 2008 during the summer floods and uses the natural disaster as a metaphor for the growing tension in his marriage, which eventually erupts in a brief extra-marital affair. But the book is actually a love letter to his wife, whom he returns to with newfound love and appreciation. (His wife, as he describes her, is extremely likable, while he, as I said earlier, often comes across as a douchebag.) Great writing, all in all. The sadness and nostalgia he's able to convey is striking.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    I thought this might be interesting as the setting is local to me. Actually, the MOST interesting point was when the author is driving from Cedar Rapids to Decorah and goes through Independence, past Mt. Hope cemetary, and speculates on what the "residents" might be hoping for. Oveall, reading the book made me feel like I'd stumbled into a bar with a quasi-friend who was bent on telling me all the mundane and TMI type details of his life, and I didn't care and I couldn't stop him. The characters, I thought this might be interesting as the setting is local to me. Actually, the MOST interesting point was when the author is driving from Cedar Rapids to Decorah and goes through Independence, past Mt. Hope cemetary, and speculates on what the "residents" might be hoping for. Oveall, reading the book made me feel like I'd stumbled into a bar with a quasi-friend who was bent on telling me all the mundane and TMI type details of his life, and I didn't care and I couldn't stop him. The characters, including the author himself, have no depth. I did not feel like I really knew any of them at the end of the book. The subject of the flood seemed to be only peripheral and, in my opinion, did not succeed in any attempt to be symbolic.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jamie

    This is one of my recent favorite reads. It is a very honest portrayal of a very real life. I loved it from beginning to end and found myself talking back and gasping at the book while reading. I was given very strange looks from my boyfriend. Maybe I loved the book so much because it felt like a very real and personal story and I could relate to it. I'm not sure, but I would recommend it and I have. The book description won it for me and I couldn't be happier that I picked up this book and gave This is one of my recent favorite reads. It is a very honest portrayal of a very real life. I loved it from beginning to end and found myself talking back and gasping at the book while reading. I was given very strange looks from my boyfriend. Maybe I loved the book so much because it felt like a very real and personal story and I could relate to it. I'm not sure, but I would recommend it and I have. The book description won it for me and I couldn't be happier that I picked up this book and gave it a try. I'm glad the author wrote it.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    Very fast read. A little uncomfortable to read when talking about infidelity and messy marriages, but the last 3rd of the book was worth the wait for sure. Especially the very last part/conclusion. Tied in to the flood of 2008 and set here in my own town. 2008 was not an easy year ... but the things that came out of it were absolutely the best (personally) and this book parallels a lot for me in many ways. The flood really jolted many of us awake to assess how we were living and who we were.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    There are very few books I have a hard time putting down, and I was delighted to discover that this was one of them. Blair's writing style is very intimate and honest, and doesn't pull any punches. As a man approaching middle age, it was validating to catch a glimpse inside the mind of someone who seems like a peer--someone who is slightly bored with life's repetition, but who is also striving to see the beauty and meaning in everyday things. There are very few books I have a hard time putting down, and I was delighted to discover that this was one of them. Blair's writing style is very intimate and honest, and doesn't pull any punches. As a man approaching middle age, it was validating to catch a glimpse inside the mind of someone who seems like a peer--someone who is slightly bored with life's repetition, but who is also striving to see the beauty and meaning in everyday things.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sandy

    Like his style of writing - it was written very honestly and openly. Joe Blair gives the reader deeply felt emotion and curiosity about why we are the way we are. He has a philosophical and personal viewpoint on his own life. It is a book that speaks about love. How everything is part of everything and we are just tiny specks trying our hardest to just live and love. I think my favorite parts of this book were his honest musings about being human.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Joanna

    Anyone who offers their life/feelings/experiences up for all to see earns bonus points with me. This book was endearing, heart-breaking, shocking, and honest. If I have one criticism, it is that towards the end, the "parts" were smaller. Perhaps there was nothing of importance to add, but it gave the sense of being rushed. Anyone who offers their life/feelings/experiences up for all to see earns bonus points with me. This book was endearing, heart-breaking, shocking, and honest. If I have one criticism, it is that towards the end, the "parts" were smaller. Perhaps there was nothing of importance to add, but it gave the sense of being rushed.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

    Loved it. Loved his writing style, his words, his honesty. I liked the way he used the storms and hardships of weather in a sort of parallel to his life, raising his autistic son, and relationship with his wife. There was one section I thought "now why did he divulge that information?". I read this in one night..stayed up until 1am. Loved it. Loved his writing style, his words, his honesty. I liked the way he used the storms and hardships of weather in a sort of parallel to his life, raising his autistic son, and relationship with his wife. There was one section I thought "now why did he divulge that information?". I read this in one night..stayed up until 1am.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    I haven't felt so irritated by a book since Gone Girl. Blair kept my interest by making me dislike him so. His life with a severely autistic son is undoubtedly difficult but I loathe his actions when the going got tough. This memoir is brutally honest and sometimes, just TMI. I wonder if his wife actually read it before publication. I haven't felt so irritated by a book since Gone Girl. Blair kept my interest by making me dislike him so. His life with a severely autistic son is undoubtedly difficult but I loathe his actions when the going got tough. This memoir is brutally honest and sometimes, just TMI. I wonder if his wife actually read it before publication.

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