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How to Read the Air Paperback – October 4, 2011
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Top Customer Reviews
There are several separate stories here: Jonas' father's exodus to America; Jonas' parents' road trip through the Midwest; Jonas' present-day retracing of that trip; and the recently past storyline of Jonas' rocky relationship with his wife, Angela. There is the potential for this to be somewhat disorienting to the reader but the author handles the multiple threads well. For the reader, it becomes difficult to tell what's real and what is not in the narrative, thereby not just telling but showing the reader about the disorienting experience of immigration. The author captures the psychological impact of being an immigrant--the shaky identity, the past with gaping holes, the difficulty connecting in a solid way to people around you or even to your own future.
This was a very interesting read that was hard to put down, and a very worthy addition to any collection of literary fiction that focuses on the immigrant experience.
Briefly, it is the story of a man named Jonas, who attempts to reconstruct his parents first years in the US when they emigrated from Ethiopia. Their marriage was fractured and strange, and in the wake of his own disastrous marriage, he hopes to find answers to his personal identity by going back to his parent's lives. He believes that by better understanding them, he can make sense of his own awkwardness. He describes his youth:
"I had always suspected that at some early point in my life, while still living with my parents and their daily battles, I had gone numb as a tactical strategy, perhaps at exactly that moment when we're supposed to be waking up to the world and stepping into our own."
However, rather than being a straightforward story of nostalgia, Mengestu deepens the narrative by showing, immediately, that Jonas is not exactly truthful. He works for an agency that helps new immigrants acquire legal citizenship in the US, and he's known for his smudging the lines of truth to create more sympathetic experiences for his clients. In other words, he lies, boldly yet with the awareness of remaining credible. Thus, we learn our narrator is unreliable. How much truth will be revealed as he relates the story of his parents and his own marriage? This creates suspense and makes understanding the characters that much more complicated. A reader is forced to examine each statement and weigh it for accuracy, and consider what Jonas may be trying to hide.
First, we learn of his parents. They emigrated separately, his father first with his mother coming a year later.Read more ›
In his verison Jonas imagines a better outcome for his parents. He dreams for them if only for a moment. Mengestu's writing throughout was gorgeous though it was in these moments that I was completely wowed and found myself rereading passages.
The novel alternates between Jonas' story of his parents, his life and failed marriage. Jonas lives in New York. He meets his wife Angela working at a refugee resettlement center, while punching up (the sadder the better) immigrants' stories in hopes of getting them American citizenship.
Thanks to the book synopsis I knew Jonas got divorced. The author put so much care into Jonas relationship, I still found myself hoping for a different outcome. Though their marriage didn't last, at times Jonas and Angela reminded me of George and Coco from Mama Day by Gloria Naylor. I loved Mama Day and the portrayal of George and Coco, so this is not a comparison I would make lightly.
How to Read the Air is a beautifully layered story. Mengestu is a very talented writer and should not be missed. I can definitely [see] this novel on a few best of lists at the end of the year.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
What happens to the next generation after living through some of the told and untold immigration story? Laying the before and now side by side...Published 11 months ago by Edna M Rankine
I read 'All our Names' first and liked it so much that I got this book. I didn't enjoy this as much as a story; maybe because the other has a happy ending. Read morePublished 18 months ago by Patricia Stimpson
As an Ethiopian visiting the States, Mengistu's book gave me a new perspective of the diaspora from Africa. Read morePublished 19 months ago by Zenaye Teferra
Honestly the jumping and skipping around in this book made it so hard to follow. Also the wording was that of a man trying to sound too intelligent. Read morePublished 23 months ago by J. Birgy
I will read everything he writes. Amazing how deep he is. I feel great when I can't put a book down. Read morePublished on January 4, 2014 by cynthiawarrenclark
Presumably "modernist" novel about writing and story telling. Except the story is boring, the characters unsympathetic. Read morePublished on September 24, 2013 by Jack Kaufman
Dinaw Mengestu writes about the immigrant experience with a fresh voice. His characters are maddeningly real--no stereotypes here--and frustratingly self-destructive. Read morePublished on December 30, 2012 by Alice M. Rivlin