Saturday, January 22, 2011

How To Read the Air; Dinaw Mengestu

Title: How To Read the Air
Author: Dinaw Mengestu
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Edition: Hardcover and Audio Book
Source: Personal copy and Library audio book
Date Completed: 1/18/2011
Setting:  Illinois and New York City
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Recommend: Yes

How To Read the Air, tells the story of the immigrant experience in America across two generations.

Jonas Woldemariam is the American born son of Ethiopian-immigrant parents, Yosef and Mariam. As an only child, Jonas bore witness to the tumultuous relationship of his parents on a somewhat regular basis, and according to him, he was acutely aware of a shift in the air prior to any outburst. 
"As soon as my father said the last two words of that sentence, he felt an abrupt and dramatic shift in the air that precedes any violent confrontation. Something vibrated, buzzed ."
As an adult, Jonas meets and later marries Angela, a woman he met while working at a refugee center in New York City. Angela is a young attorney and later Jonas finds work as an English teacher at an academy in the city. He talks about pursuing his Phd in literature, but never takes action. He is aloof,  passive, emotionally numb, avoids conflict, and has never seemed to fit in, even as a child. His wife Angela has had a less than perfect childhood as well, and brings baggage from her past into the marriage.

When Jonas' estranged  father dies, he decides to take a breather from his frayed marriage, leaving his wife, his job, and New York behind as he sets out on a cross country journey to trace the path his parents took some 30 years earlier as they began their life together in the US. By tracing his parents belated honeymoon trip from Peoria, Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee, he begins to understand his roots, the emotional wounds of war, and the isolation and insecurities his parents faced after escaping Ethiopia.

As Jonas, tells the story of his life as well as his family's history, the reader is never really sure as to what is real, and what has been fabricated or embellished from his memory as a child.  The reader sees early on that lying, or embellishing the truth seems to come easily to Jonas, his mother, and even to his wife, Angela.  His mother for example, says that she came from royalty in Ethiopia; Angela made up stories about her own childhood, and Jonas embellishes the paperwork of refugees at the agency he had worked, to make their stories sound more interesting. He also lies to his class when telling him a story about his father.

As Jonas searches his parent's past, the reader is taken on a journey into war-torn Ethiopia, where his parents grew up, as well as a glimpse at their hopes for a better life here in America -- all through he eyes of a son who tells it, as he imagines it.  Jonas' stories are compelling as he tells of Yosef and Mariam's volatile relationship. He recalls the numerous times his mother packed and unpacked their suitcases, waking him in the middle of the night to say that they were going on a road trip, but rarely getting any further than a local motel or shelter.
"Life for my mother was lived in the spaces between departures".
As a child, Jonas learns how to avoid conflict and stay out of the way.
"I realized that all I had to do to avoid him was to blend into the background. That knowledge followed me from there, so eventually I thought of my obscurity as being essential to my survival. Whoever can't see you can't hurt you. That was the reigning philosophy of my days."
There was so much I liked about this book. I started out listening to the audio book; the narrator, Corey Allen was excellent, however, some of the passages really seemed to resonate with me, so that I found myself frequently referring to the hard cover edition as well.  The writing is beautiful and detailed and the story intimate. The way the story unfolds is extremely satisfying. I love introspective stories, and this one gets high marks in that area. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

I enjoyed this video by and about the author and his book. I hope you like it as well.


  1. I enjoyed your review and the video. I like the part where Dinaw Mengestu explained at the end about why he always wanted to be writer and the feeling after you read a powerful good book. Spot on. I'm putting this book in my wishlist.

  2. I like immigrant stories very much (mainly I think because my three children live elsewhere!) I have however not read anything with an Ethiopian background and would really like to find this book. I am noting it down on my wishlist!

  3. I really want to read this one. It sounds so good. Thanks for your great review, Diane.

  4. I loved the sound of this book so I'm really pleased to see that it is as good as it looked.

  5. Sounds pretty interesting. I can read the air and can whiff ID most anything!!!

  6. The cover of this book intrigues me, so I've been curious about it. I do love an immigrant story and this one sounds divine, so I'm adding it to my wish list.

  7. A book well worth reading - history and experience. Enjoy our week!

  8. That's an interesting title. Glad you enjoyed the book so much - it really does sound like a powerful read.

    Rev up your snow shovel(s) - looks like you're in for a lot of snow. Stay safe and warm, Diane.

  9. I was looking forward to your review of this one Diane. I got it for Christmas actually and just haven't gotten to it. I read his first novel a couple of years ago and really loved it so I'm hoping I'll enjoy this one as much. Sounds like I will!

  10. This sounds like a really interesting read! I can't help but be drawn to this book and now I want to read it myself. Great review!

  11. I love intimate books and look forward to reading my copy!

  12. This sounds almost reminiscent of some of James Michener's works ... I cannot wait to read it : ) Thank you so much for reviewing it!

  13. I haven't heard of this one before. I love the cover, but don't know if the description would have drawn me in. I still don't know if it's something I would like, but I'll have to think about it.

  14. This is one that I would have probably passed over. However, now that I've read your review I think I would enjoy it.

  15. Great review ... it sounds like an involving book.

  16. I read about 50 pages of this book and loved it. I didn't get time to get back to it, but I should!

  17. I'm really looking forward to this author. He was one of the 20 Under 40 I was less familiar with, but this one sounds fascinating. I'm glad to hear you loved it!

  18. Great, great review. You've really made me want to read this book.

  19. I haven't read Mengestu's second novel yet. I did read his first novel The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. I'm hoping to get to How To Read The Air soon.

  20. Thanks for the book recommendation and excellent review! You don't hear or read much about the Ethiopian immigration experience..sounds very interesting.

  21. I'm a little ambivalent about immigrant stories but I have this book already on my TBR and it actually does sound very interesting. Thanks for the review.


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