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You Must Read This

Friday, March 9, 2012

I read Murr Brewster's blog, Murrmurrs. I love Murr and her writing. So when Murr told me to go check out Joe Blair's blog, I did, and I've never been sorry.  He's a congenitally honest guy, and he writes about his life with such grace and humor and beauty and sorrow that I'm always left exhilarated by it, even though Joe says,  "Our history gains more weight day by day. And the future seems more and more unlikely to be anything cool at all." 

I wrote him a fan letter. He wrote back. I believe in fan letters. I believe in telling a writer (musician, performer, activist...) when he has moved you. I would have written Joe even if he didn't have a cocky snap-brim hat and wise eyes. Once I'd gotten hold of his writing, I was like Pepe Le Pew chasing that poor black and white cat.

When Joe finished his book, By the Iowa Sea, I wrote him and begged for an advance copy. I couldn't wait. Like Murr, I don't write book reviews on my blog. Because even if I had time to read a lot of books critically, which I don't because I take it all so seriously that I literally go back and re-read pages to make sure I'm understanding things, it would take even more time to write the reviews, and writing book reviews is not why I'm here. The bats and the animal droppings and the orchids and the ferruginous hawks and even little Chet Baker would fall by the wayside. And we don't want that. But Joe Blair's book is different. 

I devoured it and disgorged this as-yet-homeless brief review. 

When an early autumn comes to Joe Blair’s marriage, he blunders about trying to figure out what to do with his “one wild and precious life.” There are extenuating circumstances: four children, one of whom will require intensive parental care for the rest of his life. Blair is no Rabbit; he’s in the trenches at work and at home, and keenly aware of the tumbling consequences of his smallest move. In this unflinching look at a marriage on the brink, he reveals himself as devoted father, loving husband, dreamer, and schmuck: fully human, no more or less virtuous than anyone else, but a gifted and fearless writer searching for love and consolation in an often terrifying existence. 

I didn’t want By the Iowa Sea to end; as soon as I realized how much I loved it I started rationing myself to a chapter a night. Blair inspires keen empathy for each of his beautifully drawn characters. And creeping like rising water through the narrative is inexorable, omnipotent Fate, embodied in Iowa’s epic rains of 2008.  The reader can only cheer Joe and Deb on for keeping their noses above the flood. Witnessing their long reach for joy and normalcy in a cockeyed world gives me hope for the emotional lives of parents, yoked to the plow of childcare, and for star-crossed marriages everywhere. It’s a vivid, sometimes stark but gorgeously developed snapshot of love in perilous times.

And I adore the cover. I dreamt about that place last night; a fantastically beautiful and scary tornado came down out of that very cloud and I was trying to get my mother in the storm cellar of an old farmhouse and here comes this flock of bald eagles flying in formation like gulls and I'm on a train watching them and they settle on a bunch of abandoned boxcars and all I can do is smile and shout at the beauty of it all.

And that's what Joe Blair's writing does to me, even in my sleep.

Buy it. Read it. Share it. Wonder at it. Thank you.


I understand loving a book so much you ration yourself. It's what I did with your Eden book. In fact, I wouldn't allow myself to read about a certain season until we were actually experiencing that season, stretching it out to the whole year. I re-read it as each new season begins. (I did allow myself to look at the pictures!) Ha! Now I think I must get this wonderful book, if YOU like it so much! Thanks for the review.

Thanks for your enthusiastic review,and you are so right about those wise and gentle eyes. I'll read it.

Posted by Amy Girten March 9, 2012 at 1:02 PM

Can't wait to read Joe's book and thank you again for leading me to his blog Julie. ♥

5 copies owned in our county library catalog - 4 reserves including mine.
Your review is so very compelling and you just gotta share - thank you. Like Ann Patchett said in her blog
she's not here to recommend "okay books" but rather the very best. Maybe Maureen Corrigan can use a guest reviewer every so often. (Not that I don't enjoy her reviews - I do, but she really *paces* out her thoughts and words - for lack of a better, more polished description.)

Posted by DallasD March 9, 2012 at 3:57 PM

So, today, I'm heading down to Tattered Cover. One of the books I'll be looking for is Iowa By the Sea. Thanks for the heads up.

I want to read this book again based on your review! Wow. You nailed it. I'm sharing on my FB. And subscribing to your blog. Are you on Goodreads?

I bought it on your recommendation and didn't put it down until I was finished last evening. I love the man's honesty and will remember this book long after I've forgotten the title. Thank you.

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