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How to Read the Air Paperback – October 4, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2010: Early on in How to Read the Air--the second novel from the author of the widely acclaimed debut, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears--Jonas Woldemariam and his soon-to-be wife Angela attend a party, where they tell casual, false stories about Angela's absent father and arrive, all of a sudden, at the fulcrum of this elegant and unusual novel. "To them," Angela notes, "it's all just one story told over and over. Change the dates and the names but it's the same." It's a theme that Dinaw Mengestu revisits as he selects the chapters from many different stories that converge in Jonas. Chief among them is Yosef and Mariam's story: they are Jonas's Ethiopian parents, estranged from each other in a violent, loveless marriage, each striving more for America's security than for its dreams. Mengestu takes common ideals of how we're supposed to live--ranging from the importance of material progress to the popular notion that there's nothing more American than road trips and country music--and investigates them quite beautifully in characters who are genuine and visionary and do, as Jonas notes, "persist, whether we care to or not, with all our flaws and glory." --Anne Bartholomew --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Mengestu (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears) stunningly illuminates the immigrant experience across two generations. Jonas Woldemariam's parents, near strangers when they marry in violence-torn Ethiopia, spend most of the early years of their marriage separated, eventually reuniting in America, but their ensuing life together devolves into a mutual hatred that forces a contentious divorce. Three decades later, Jonas, himself moving toward a divorce, retraces his parents' fateful honeymoon road trip from Peoria, Ill., to Nashville in an attempt to understand an upbringing that turned him into a man who has "gone numb as a tactical strategy" and become a fluent and inveterate liar--a skill that comes in handy at his job at an immigration agency, where he embellishes African immigrants' stories so that they might be granted asylum. Mengestu draws a haunting psychological portrait of recent immigrants to America, insecure and alienated, striving to fit in while mourning the loss of their cultural heritage and social status. Mengestu's precise and nuanced prose evokes characters, scenes, and emotions with an invigorating and unparalleled clarity.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (October 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594485399
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594485398
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #393,880 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Live2Cruise VINE VOICE on October 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Mengestu's second novel explores themes of the immigrant experience in America. The protagonist, Jonas, is the son of Ethiopian immigrants. Out of contact with his parents and disconnected from his roots, Jonas struggles to construct an identity for himself, often inventing stories about himself and his family, to the point that fact and fiction become entangled.

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.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Meg Sumner TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover
How to Read the Air is the latest book from Dinaw Mengestu, and it's one that manages to explore the subtle differences between what we believe and what may be true.

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.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By DAC VINE VOICE on October 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Jonas Woldemariam was the first person in his family born in the United States. His parents are from Ethiopia. Jonas didn't have great relationship with them. Now in his 30's Jonas decides to retrace his parents life in America beginning with a road trip.

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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth Hendry VINE VOICE on November 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Megestu is an excellent novel of the American immigrant experience that explores the power of, and the need for, both storytelling and lying, delving into the grey areas between the two. The novel is narrated by Jonas Woldemariam, the son of two immigrants from Africa. He weaves his story (and his lies) from the current day with the story of his parents when his mother was first pregnant with him, three decades earlier. Jonas' marriage and his parents marriage fall apart almost in tandem, separated by those thirty years. But really, Jonas is imagining, supposing what happened to his parents. Is he lying to the reader, is he telling stories? What is the truth? How to Read the Air is an imaginative and entertaining work that shifts effortlessly between the current day and Jonas' past, between what are most likely lies and what are probably the truth. This is an interesting read, well-told and well-written. Dinaw Megestu is a talented writer and storyteller. Enjoy!
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