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By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir of Disaster and Love
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By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir of Disaster and Love

3.54  ·  Rating details ·  666 Ratings  ·  172 Reviews
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
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published March 6th 2012 by Scribner
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Timothy Bazzett
May 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Jaclyn Day
Mar 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Apr 19, 2012 added it
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
Stuart Smith
Sep 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
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, ...more

For the 2017 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge
Read a book that is set within 100 miles from your location
Ariana Lisefski
Jul 01, 2014 rated it did not like it
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 ...more
Mar 15, 2013 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Jun 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jeffe Kennedy
Aug 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jane S
Jun 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Michelle Bacon
Nov 28, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 fro ...more
Jan 05, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Laura (The Shabby Rabbit)
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 ...more
Mar 08, 2012 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Jun 16, 2012 rated it did not like it
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 ...more
Jul 24, 2012 rated it did not like it
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,
Dawn Grimes
Nov 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Feb 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads
First of all, let me say, I won this book for free on the Goodreads First Reads Giveaway, Yay!!!!!This was a wonderful memoir. The story of a man who is unhappy with his life and marriage, searching for the answer to what exactly is missing. The book contained funny, sad, happy, and other emotions. I think just about everyone can find some part of this book that they can relate to. The whole time I was rooting for Joe and Deb; you feel like you are right there with them living their life. I just ...more
Apr 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
May 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
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.
Mar 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: People who enjoy memoirs
Recommended to Sandy by: my daughter Jenna
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.
Mar 27, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
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.
Jul 27, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir
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.
May 21, 2015 rated it liked it
Has almost nothing to do with the Iowa floods of 2008. Instead it's about Mr. Blair cheating on his wife and feeling guilty about it. Blair writes with complete openness about his infidelity, but ultimately he's psychologizing something very simple. He writes well and I look forward to hearing more from him.
Apr 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Aug 18, 2012 rated it did not like it
I did not like this book. It was full of selfish adults who thought the fancy of the flesh was more important than the fabric of the family. The flood is such a bigger event than this book gives it credit for and I wish I never bothered reading this book.
Dec 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really like Blair's style of writing and found the book not only interesting but very easy and enjoyable to read. If you like Memoirs, you'll like this one. Just a "Regular Joe" living his life honestly.
Mar 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 5-star-favorites
Beautifully written, raw, and honest. Joe Blair's reflections on life, marriage, and parenthood grabbed me from the first page and held on until the end.
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Joe Blair is a pipefitter living in Coralville, Iowa with his wife and four children. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Iowa Review.
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