By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir

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Heralding the arrival of an original American voice, By the Iowa Sea is a wrenching, unsentimental account of the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and small-town Midwestern life.

After his first cross-country motorcycle trip, Joe Blair believed he had discovered his calling: he would travel; he would never cave in to convention; he would never settle down. Fifteen years later, he finds himself living in Iowa, working as an air-conditioning repairman and ...

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By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir

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Heralding the arrival of an original American voice, By the Iowa Sea is a wrenching, unsentimental account of the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and small-town Midwestern life.

After his first cross-country motorcycle trip, Joe Blair believed he had discovered his calling: he would travel; he would never cave in to convention; he would never settle down. Fifteen years later, he finds himself living in Iowa, working as an air-conditioning repairman and spending his free time cleaning gutters, taxiing his children, and contemplating marital infidelity. When the Iowa River floods, transforming the familiar streets of his small town into a terrible and beautiful sea, Joe begins to question the path that led him to this place.

Exquisitely observed and lyrically recounted, this is a compelling and often humorous account of an ordinary man’s struggle to live an extraordinary life.

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Editorial Reviews

Elle Magaizne
"Eloquently gritty"
Shelf Awareness
"[A] powerfully moving and redemptive account of... reckoning with disasters both natural and personal...[that] hits something close to the divine."
New York Times Book Review
A memoirist with a poet’s soul, [Blair] takes what is arguably the most mercilessly exploited natural resource in all of literature and replenishes it. Blair has an autistic son, Michael…and it is their love story that lends the tempest... and this memoir its observational virtuosity.”
Iowa Press Citizen
"Engrossing, thoughtful, startlingly honest, and, ultimately, hopeful."
“Some memoirs you read for the feelings they inspire, and some you read to find out how in the heck they’ll turn out. By the Iowa Sea manages to do both with an understanding of so-called ordinary life so raw and true you’ll gasp, and a situation so pressing you’ll tear through the pages. The writer’s unflinching reflection about himself and his choices make this book.”
"A beautifully written story about marriage, responsibility and caring for an autistic child."
From the Publisher
"Blair put away his motorcycle and his dreams to do manual labor while supporting four children, one of whom is autistic. Rekindling a sense of purpose took something big: a terrible flood. Not a whiny work; fresh, plain-spoken, and down to earth. Definitely try."
—Library Journal

“A devastating flood provides the backdrop for Joe Blair's moving memoir about crisis and change. If you want to understand how a good man can resolve the conflict between his youthful dreams and his adult sense of duty, read this book. His honesty about the real challenges of marriage and parenting is startling in the best sense, and shot through with refreshing humor.”

—Julie Metz, author of The New York Times bestselling memoir, Perfection

“Joe Blair's passion and courage are evident on each page of By the Iowa Sea. He is among those rare writers brave enough to risk everything for his work and the result is this hypnotic, electrifying book.”

—Alexander Maksik, author of You Deserve Nothing

“Blair’s thoughtful memoir displays the strengths and resilience of committed lovers in a tumultuous relationship.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Joe Blair’s voice is uncommonly perceptive, startlingly honest, and powerfully moving. This is eloquence born of pain, sharpened by humor, and burnished, finally, by understanding and redemption.”
—Ethan Canin, author of Emperor of the Air and America, America

“By the Iowa Sea is a sometimes angry, often startling, and always riveting journey through infidelity, drinking, storms, work, beauty, and the simultaneous frustration and sublimity of raising a disabled child. Blair's writing is vivid, his subjects are heartbreaking, and his ending is flat-out gorgeous.”
—Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall

"Joe Blair portrays family life and his own emotional life with tremendous courage and a searing honesty. I admired the prose and the story as I read. I finished the book admiring the man.”
—Chris Offutt, author of The Same River Twice

“An intimate, startling memoir that honors and elevates our quotidian existence. With his contagious curiosity as to what drives him and what holds him back, Blair writes fearlessly and beautifully about the family he loves and also betrays, the people he treasures and plots to escape from. By The Iowa Sea is funny and unsettling, painful and rock and roll romantic, and it has the invigorating ring of truth on every page.”
—Scott Spencer, author of Endless Love and Man in the Woods

“Joe Blair writes with uncommon openness and pain about the pleasures and difficulties of marriage. He also conjures the beauty of the Iowa landscape—even under water. By the Iowa Sea includes one of the most touchingly funny sex scenes—or should I say—non-sex scenes I’ve read. I am sure women and men will respond to his voice.”

—Anne Taylor Fleming, author of Marriage: A Duet and As If Love Were Enough

The New York Times Book Review
A memoirist with a poet's soul, [Blair] takes what is arguably the most mercilessly exploited natural resource in all of literature and replenishes it. And he manages the feat in territory that could scarcely be more familiar: the storm surge of unruly passion and the lure of adultery at hetero­sexual midlife that threaten to undo a family.
—Paul Festa
Library Journal
A startling, bleak, and thoroughly honest memoir from husband and father Blair, it documents a flood, a marriage in danger, a family in flux, and an inscrutable but mesmerizing boy whose developmental disabilities make his parents’ life a kind of hell but whose lovely, undulating patterns, which he traces in the dirt of their backyard, will stay with readers long after they finish the book. While the midlife-crisis memoir might seem typical, this one isn’t. (LJ12/11)—Molly McArdle

(c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Library Journal
Blair put away his motorcycle and his dreams to do manual labor while supporting four children, one of whom is autistic. Rekindling a sense of purpose took something big: a terrible flood. Not a whiny work; fresh, plain-spoken, and down to earth. Definitely try.
Kirkus Reviews
One man's midlife crisis surrounding love, marriage and parenthood. As a child, Blair imagined his adulthood including motorcycles and the freedom to come and go as he pleased. Years later, he was tied down with a heating-and-air-conditioning repair job, a wife, four children (one of them severely autistic), a mortgage and no motorcycle. He was living the placid life of a middle-aged man whose dreams had been set aside. Blair's existence had settled into a daily rut, and he believed that only "an act of great faith or courage [would] change [his] circumstances when [his] life [was] nothing but a repetition." Every day was centered on work and the constant struggle to help his autistic son maneuver through his life. Blair's honest writing recounts the relentless need to be there for Michael through his seizures and tantrums, and the inner turmoil he felt toward his son--loving the child during tender moments of play and angry at other times when things just couldn't be normal, which caused Blair to feel he was inadequate as a parent. The author's need for a change became more urgent. Excessive drinking and sexual fantasies of his wife with another man were not enough, and Blair, desperate for an escape route, turned to another woman, finding passion and excitement in her arms. Internal confusion over his infidelity collided with the outer reality of his wife's anger, and the resulting changes surprised even the author. The author candidly examines his relationships with his wife and family and the changes they went through to stay together.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451636062
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 3/5/2013
  • Pages: 277
  • Sales rank: 1,279,962
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.38 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Joe Blair

Joe Blair is a pipefitter who lives 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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Read an Excerpt

By the Iowa Sea

  • IT BEGINS WITH RAIN. An innocent enough thing. Rain and rain and rain. Day after day of it. Through February and March and April and May. Forcing us to seek out shelters that will soon, in some cases, be transformed into pontoon boats. While the rain beats down on the roofs of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and Marengo and Oxford Junction like bouncing hammers, the unstoppable thing is happening. The rivers rise up out of their banks, lifting our neat little split-entry lives from their foundations, tearing away electrical hookups and gas hookups and phone lines, bringing us to a place where there are no riverbanks and no street names and nothing else that resembles a city. The rivers will become oceans. And Deb and I will become not lost in the oceans but a part of them: suddenly vast. Subordinate to none. Scooping and hungry.

The wind comes unevenly in cold down-rushes and everyone at the Coral Ridge Mall knows that something unusual is about to happen. If the raindrops were chickens or pancakes, I don’t think we would be surprised. Because anything is possible. The small trees outside Barnes & Noble are showing the undersides of their leaves, their branches confused as to which way to go, pushing downward and then upward and then twisting clockwise. People are gathered in the very place the voice on the intercom tells us not to gather: in front of the large plate-glass windows. We can see everything from here. The crosswalk sign bending sideways. The racing clouds. But it isn’t enough for me. I want to be in the storm. I want to smell it and hear the wind and feel the first enormous raindrops hit my skin. I’m hungry for that.

I push through the heavy doors and wait outside the entrance. The storm excites me. It excites us all. Even though we have worried expressions on our faces, we don’t move from the windows. Because we want the change to come. We all want it. We are on our phones to wives or husbands or children. “Are you in the basement?” “Stay inside!” “Stay away from the windows!” These are the things we say. The sky looks the way ocean waves must look from the bottom of the sea. We are starfish looking up at the waves. And it intrigues us that there is such power in the world. Power enough to twist trees like corkscrews. To rip us all up by the roots.

A blast of wind staggers me. I catch myself from falling by grabbing the crosswalk sign, itself less than stable, oscillating wildly on its channeled steel post. One drop, the size of my hand, in the middle of the crosswalk. Another drop somewhere on the sidewalk. Then hundreds of drops all at once. Then thousands. Falling hard. Drawn to the ground as if by magnetic force. I step back beneath the entrance, afraid. The hunched figure of a woman rushes through one of the double doors clutching a paper bag to her chest and holding one hand over her head, as if to keep her wig on. “Smells like rain!” she shouts over the sound of the mad charge of water from the sky as she bustles past me into the storm. I smile. I take a deep breath. And then I laugh. Because she’s right. It does smell like rain.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Joe Blair
How did you come up with the title, By the Iowa Sea?
It took me two years to write the book. And then another two years to write the title. I’d come up with a title and love it for a day, and then hate it exuberantly thereafter. I can’t tell you how many titles this book had. I tried cute titles: My Darling Flood. I tried biblical titles: Vanity of Vanities. Ironic titles:Beautiful Disaster. Simple, Cormac McCarthyesqe titles: The Flood. I tried paging through the book and looking for a collection of words that sounded cool together, but I couldn’t find any. I recalled a friend of mine who, about ten years ago, threw a title party. She invited a bunch of friends over and the whole aim of the party was to come up with at title for her book. Of course it didn’t work. We spent the time getting drunk. In regard to my title, I was lost. I wanted someone else to simply name my book for me. Just like my wife named our kids. Couldn’t editors name books? Wasn’t that the sort of thing they did?
One morning, I was lying in bed trying to put off the inevitable throwing off of the blankets and I was thinking about the Salton Sea. Ever since I saw the John Waters documentary on that forsaken body of water, I’d been obsessed with it. If only, I thought, I could entitle my book, The Salton Sea. That would be awesome. Unfortunately, my book had nothing to do with the Salton Sea. It had to do with a sea in Iowa that had been created when the Iowa River flooded in the spring of 2008. And of course there were the metaphorical floods. (Flood of passion. Joy. You name it.) And the metaphorical seas. (Sea of heartbreak. Lost love. Loneliness.) And I thought, how about By the Iowa Sea? I could call it that! I pictured a beautiful woman in an old fashioned bikini sitting under a sun umbrella on the edge of a raging, threatening body of water. I loved By the Iowa Sea. I loved it so much, I sent it to my editor immediately. Then, the next day, right on schedule, I hated the title exuberantly. But it was too late. My editor was running with it.
What set you on the path to publish your writing?
At the time of the flood, I was writing every day in that doomed way unpublished authors do. I punished my keyboard every morning in a coffee shop called Terrapin, which was run by two insane Italian brothers who talked too loudly but didn’t seem to mind me clogging up one of their tables for hours at a time. The same people were always there. The smiley woman who would read the book of Psalms in her window seat. The old guys who would do their crosswords while sitting around the table by the gas fireplace. They’d do the Times first and then work their way downhill to the Des Moines Register. I sat near them, maybe so I could pretend to be a part of their daily successes. They’d always ask me questions. Usually about sports. Sometimes about books or movies or geography. And I’d almost never know the answer.
One day, when the lens of the nation was focused on the Iowa floods, I got a call from The New York Times. A friend of mine, a well-known author whom they had already approached, had given them my number, telling them I might be able to lend my “blue collar perspective” to the tragedy. The woman from the Timeswanted something for the op-ed, a “letter,” they called it “From the Flood Plain.” Was I interested? Um…yes. I was. Could I have something for them tomorrow? Sure. I didn’t see why not. “We’re not saying we’re going to publish it,” she warned me. “But we’ll take a look tomorrow and see.” That evening, after work, I drove down to the coffee shop and tried to write something poignant about the flood, but the place was too quiet. The crazy brothers weren’t there. Neither was the smiley Bible woman, nor the old crossword guys. After an hour of flailing failure, I returned home. This, I supposed, was what separated published writers from unpublished writers like myself. Published writers could write. I didn’t sleep much, having missed my big chance. Next morning, I drove to the coffee shop. Said hello to the crazy brothers. Said hello to the smiley Bible woman. Said hello to the old crossword guys. And wrote a short essay about our failed sandbagging efforts on Normandy Drive, where I had lived for seven years. The Times ran the piece the following day. A few weeks later, they sent me a check for three hundred dollars. I don’t know what I spent it on.
Tell us about the process of writing By the Iowa Sea—do you keep a journal? Do you write every day? How did you try to stay true to your memory of the events in the book?
Deb and I had been arguing quite a bit. We were very dramatic. And it always drove me crazy when she’d say something during an argument and then, just minutes later, deny having said it. It also drove me crazy the way, during a fight, we’d both simply repeat our sides of the same argument over and over again without ever resolving anything. I began transcribing our arguments because whipping out a tape recorder seemed crass. Minutes after an argument would end, I’d rush to the basement and scribble down what we each said, at least the way I recalled it. Then, in an act of…I guess you could call it “hubris” or “stupidity” or “vanity”…I’d read the argument back to my wife. I learned that this was not the way to go. Because a new and fiercer argument would inevitably ensue. Memory is faulty. Deb never recalls the arguments the way I do. If she were to transcribe them, I’d be the one fumbling through the crucial stages. Or saying the insensitive thing. The more I transcribed arguments, however, the more I tried, in the midst of our battles, to be fair and compassionate. Not for any moral reason, but simply to look good in the written version. This awareness, on both our parts, of the impending transcription changed the way we communicated. (In this instance, for the better.)
That’s the way with nonfiction writing. You think you’re simply recording things that happen, but your recording of events begins to change the events themselves and before you know it, you get confused as to causality. And purpose. This is the tangle you begin to recognize. The recording of events and then the drawing of conclusions from these recordings of events (AKA “essay writing”) is a real drag for the people I come in contact with. There are dozens of instances, in the recent past, when Deb has turned to me (in the car, in bed, at a restaurant) and said, “You will not use this in one of your essays.” To her, if I were to consider the following essay, I might say, “Of course, sweetheart. I would never do that to you.” But, in the interest of the truth, I have to tell you this would be a lie.
Why did you write By the Iowa Sea? Did you set out to achieve something specific?
Well, I’ll tell you. There was no great, God-inspired reason. What happened was, Dan Jones at The Times accepted an essay I wrote for Modern Love. I had been trying to get a piece in there for over a year, and it was a big thrill for me. For one thing, I really liked the piece he was going to run. It was one of the first essays I had written which dealt with my feelings toward my son, Michael, who happens to be severely and profoundly autistic. I’d had a hard time approaching the topic on paper because it’s such a large and difficult part of our family life and I hadn’t worked out how to accept the heavy responsibility of twenty-four-hour-a-day care for him without self-pity or resentment or that ugly, narcissistic, long-suffering, heroic tone you sometimes read in parental writings on the topic of their special needs children. When I finally did begin to directly address the topic of my special needs son on paper is when I began to grow as a father and a human being in that respect. So, the essay, which The Times entitled For the Boy Who Makes Waves, was very important to me and I also thought it might be important to other fathers or mothers who had a son like my son.
After the essay was published, I heard from a few different agents and they all wanted to know what I “had.” “Well,” I said, “I have a bunch of essays. In fact, I have hundreds of them.” But the agents didn’t much care about essays. They wanted a book. Which, by the way, is much longer than an essay. I realized, with a hint of panic, that what I needed to do, if I ever wanted to be an actual honest-to-God author, was come up with some idea for a book. The straws I snatched at immediately were the two essays of mine that had seen the light of day: the flood piece, and the Michael piece. There was also another line I had been pursuing in my essays, regarding my marriage, which had recently gone through a stern test. I had already written, dozens (maybe hundreds) of essays on these three topics, all of which were firWho have you discovered lately?
Most recently, I read the terrific book You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik. When I discovered that this book was based on Camus’ The Stranger, I drove to the bookstore to buy a copy. I had read Camus before, but I was only a kid, and all I could remember was the voice of the narrator, which was limber and verbose and chilling. I remembered, in particular, the narrator addressing his listener, some guy in a bar, and mentioning something about the subjunctive mood. This bothered me when I was a kid because I didn’t know what the subjunctive mood was. When I arrived at the bookstore a few days ago, I discovered they were out of The Stranger, so I bought The Fall instead. I just finished it. I’m thunderstruck. Truth be told, I feel as though I have just fallen in person / present tense, when I began to piece together a single, cohesive, and (I hoped) compelling story at the center of what I came (eventually) to call By the Iowa Sea.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 22, 2012

    I loved this book!!!! A true honest story about the up's and dow

    I loved this book!!!!
    A true honest story about the up's and downs of one man's life. I hope he writes another one. I would love to meet this guy. He wrote an amazing book!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2012

    I didn't care for the author's writing style. Felt a little wor

    I didn't care for the author's writing style. Felt a little wordy. I found myself skipping a lot of words because they were boring and didn't add anything for me. I also felt like the amount of time spent on any one event was random. I felt like the author meant for the flood to mean more than it did, but that didn't come through because there really wasn't that much about it. I did like that the book addressed the loss of passion that happens in a relationship and the importance of forgiveness.

    Not a very positive review, but I will give the author credit - the sentence or two in the book about how people lost everything in the flood will probably stay with me for a very long time. I appreciate the humanization of the tragedy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2012

    Full of rambling musings

    Needed editing, wordy, uninteresting characters, disjointed, lots of words with no purpose, needed to be more concise, did not enjoy it

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  • Posted April 4, 2012

    A must to read

    I have read a lot of book but this one I could not put down. To open up your life for the world to see in such graphic detail makes this book a page turner. I just hope there is a continuation to this story!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2012

    Good read, Interesting characters

    The neat thing about this book is that there is no wildly dramatic event that shatters lives to set the stage for the drama that is going to unfold. The flood seems like it is going to be this way but it's really just a blip. The characters are well formed though so I got into it quickly. I like how the author displayed the family's dysfunctions without making it ridiculous or cliched. So the whole thing seemed plausible and you felt for the characters and got insight into their thoughts and motives. The author did a good job of getting me to form judgements or opinions about characters and then re-think the, later. Thats skillful. Because of this I really enjoyed the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2012

    Great Book!

    This book is about relationships. I was expecting it would be about a flood but it was actually very little about the flood. Actually, at the end I wasnt quite sure how the flood played a part in the book. Aside from that I couldnt put this book down. It is a no-holds barred look at a reluctant family man. This guy doesnt make himself out to be perfect in any way. The author has an severely autistic son but this isnt a story about autism. My heart went out to him. I've been in his shoes and we arent always perfect. The author doesnt take himself too seriously and there are laugh out loud moments in this book. Good read!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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