Thursday, May 28, 2009

Do-Over--Robin Hemley (book review)

When I first saw the cover of Do-Over, I thought the poor man had gone back to kindergarten for an entire school year. Then summer camp, then prom. I worried for him.

It was a relief to learn that Hemley only spent a week in each place, as well as redoing several other grades, and the high school exchange program he hadn't completed in Japan. (The Japan trip doesn't appear in the subtitle, but it may be the most entertaining and touching part of the book).

For each "do-over," Hemley begins with an essay about what went wrong the first time--sometimes humorous (flubbing his one line in the school play, by tossing a gift box to The Littlest Angel shouting, "Here's your stupid box!") and sometimes tragic (a literally certifiable kindergarten teacher; a sister's mental breakdown when Robin was in eighth grade). Amongst the memories and adventure, Hemley sprinkles in a thoughtful commentary on the changing face of childhood in America. In the section about summer camp (read an excerpt here), he writes matter-of-factly,
No one paid attention to kids when I was growing up, not parents, not teachers, not counselors. Childhood was something you went off and did until you got over it. And camp was one of those places to which kids were exiled, almost as a form of punishment, a warehouse where you suffered while your parents went on that Norwegian cruise.
At age 48, Hemley finds that the camp experience has evolved--kids are supported in trying new things, accepted for who they are, and camp values are posted prominently and reinforced daily by counselors and staff. Revisiting the camp where he was an unhappy 18-year-old counselor, Hemley realizes:
I guess I haven't moved on. Perhaps if I'd learned better lessons as a camper, I'd have made a better counselor. Perhaps if I'd been a better counselor, I might be a healthier adult, a better father.
And this is what makes Do-Over more than just a lark. Hemley reconnects with people and experiences from his past, but more importantly, he forges ahead with the people from his present--his two daughters from a previous marriage, his wife and young child, and a baby on the way (the new baby provides the opportunity to "do-over" supporting his wife in childbirth, too--he was overseas and missed the birth of their first).

Robin Hemley has written several other books, including books about writing (when not in kindergarten, he's got a gig directing the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa), and a memoir about his sister's mental illness.

What life experience would you do over if you could? Me, I'd want to go back to summer camp, for sure. I had great camp experiences, but I'd love to redo it without the homesickness. What about you?

The soundtrack: I added one of the songs Hemley danced to at the prom: Sean Paul's Give It Up to Me. It's in the playlist in my sidebar for now, or click on the song title to find it on

Title: Do-Over!
Author: Robin Hemley
Publication info: May, 2009 (Little, Brown & Co.) 319 pages


  1. I don't know what I'd do-over. Probably my entire 20's! :-)

  2. Because they were so fun, Marie, or because you botched them the first time around? LOL.

    If I had my 20's to do over again I'd go out dancing more, and see more shows & concerts. And then sleep in.

  3. Good review. I'm liking the sound of that.

    I think I'd like a go at re-doing the first few weeks of Secondary school (11-16 here in the UK). I hated it initially as I was VERY introverted and cried solidly.

    After about a month I fell in love with the place, but I'd love the opportunity to go back and start over just to see how different the first month could be - minus the crying!

  4. Kit, I have a hard time imagining you as an introvert! So glad you got more comfortable as the school year wore on, though. 11 can be a tough age to be.

  5. TOO HARD!! What would I want to do over!? Actually, the first thing that comes to mind is I wish I had taken my Dad's offer of money over all that cash spent on a silly wedding. But we also would have blown it anyway so maybe it was good to have the affair, afterall. I think - now I'm really thinking - I wish I had spent more time demanding that counselors in HS actually help me consider a GOOD career idea path. Such the devil's advocate, I wouldn't have listened to them... HARD QUESTION.

  6. I've been wondering what this book is about and whether or not it was any good. It sounds like it would be a fun and thought-provoking read. Great review!

  7. Care, that's funny because I'd be tempted to do another wedding here in Portland, where we could invite all our current friends. We married only a year after moving here, so the wedding was in Wisconsin with family and old friends.

    Alyce, I think you'd find the book interesting.

  8. Ali, DO have another wedding/party! why not? Love IS a celebration, yes? Just don't spend $600+ on a new dress you'll never wear again.

  9. My mom made my original wedding dress, I think it cost about $120, if I remember right. Wish I could still fit into it!

  10. This sounds like a movie with Adam Sandler - I think it was Billy Madison. I'm not sure what I'd do over - maybe high school?

  11. Wow, great review! This book sounds fun and interesting.

    If I had a do-over I'd probably choose Jr. High - I was a bit of a snob during that time. I'd probably try to spend more time concentrating on learning than on the whole clique mentality, instead of waiting till high school to realize what was important.
    Then again, I'd be too afraid of what one change may do - that whole butterfly effect theory scares the crap out of me :)

  12. Joanne, middle school would be scary to do over, because you'd want to be a nicer person, but I wonder if a person who's nice in an adult sense would survive? In Hemley's case, he didn't have to worry about the butterfly effect because he went back as an adult--which was kind of hard for me to envision, actually, but I took his word on it. Wish he'd taken video, I'd like to see him on the kindergarten playground.

  13. Hi, if interested here is a link to a book reading by Robin Hemley in Iowa City, IA: