Excerpt from How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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How to Read the Air

by Dinaw Mengestu

How to Read the Air
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2010, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2011, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Judy Krueger

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The four large oak trees that lined the driveway were the last of their kind. The largest and oldest of the group stood just a few feet away from the two-story duplex that my mother and father shared with a frail, hunchbacked older woman with milky-blue eyes who hissed under her breath every time she passed my mother on her way in or out of the house. The oak trees cooled the living room in the summer, allowing the afternoon light to filter through seemingly oversized leaves that Mariam thought of as deliberately keeping the worst parts of the light out, leaving only the softer, quieter shades. Now that it was September and supposedly the harshest of the summer heat had passed, she noticed as she prepared to leave the apartment that the leaves nearest the tops of the trees had begun to turn; a small pile of dead ones had already grown around their bases. So this was fall. A woman at the Baptist church had told her just a few weeks earlier, "Oh, just wait until fall. You'll see. You'll love it." Her name was Agnes and she wore a curly black wig to hide the bald patches in the center of her head. A-G-N-E-S, Mariam wrote on the back of a church pamphlet that went on in great detail about the agony of Christ, which prompted her to write, after their first meeting, A-G-O-N-Y, on the back of the pamphlet, and next to that, Agnes is in agony, which was a simple sentence, with a subject and verb, which formed a declarative statement that Mariam decided was more likely than not absolutely true.

At the time my mother had thought to herself, I could never love anything called "fall." There was fall and Fall. To fall was to sink, to drop. When my mother was nine, her grandfather came out of his bedroom at the back of the house wearing only a robe with the strings untied. He was deaf and half blind and had been for as long as Mariam could remember. He walked into the middle of the living room, and having reached the center, where he was surrounded on all sides by his family, fell, not to his knees, but straight forward, like a tree that had been felled, the side of his head splitting open on the edge of the fireplace mantel, spraying the wall and couch with blood. That was one way to fall.

One could also fall down a flight of stairs, as in, your husband falls down the stairs while leaving for work one morning. She had this thought at least once, sometimes as many as three times a week. She pictured him tripping, stumbling, feet over head, just like the characters in the cartoons she had grown addicted to watching between the hours of one p.m. and four p.m. In those shows the characters all shook the fall off after a few seconds, bending an arm back into place here, twisting an ankle there. The cartoons made her laugh, and when she thought of her husband falling down the steps, his tall, narrow body perfectly suited to roll uninterrupted down the shag-carpeted stairwell, stopping perhaps briefly at the one minor bend that led to the final descent, it was only partly with those cartoon images in mind. When real bodies fell, as Mariam knew well enough, they did not get up. They did not bounce back or spring into shape. They crumpled and needed to be rescued.

Despite my mother's best efforts to resist fall, she found herself taken by the season more and more each day. The sun set earlier, and soon she learned, an entire hour would be shaved off the day, an act that she sometimes wished could be repeated over and over until the day was nothing more than a thumbnail sketch of its former self. The nights were growing marginally but noticeably cooler. Leaves were changing, and children who over the course of the summer had ruled the neighborhood like tyrants were once again neatly arranged in groups of twos and threes each morning, beaten (or so Mariam thought) into submission by the changing rules of the season. There was enough room in the shrinking day to believe that the world was somehow sensitive to grief and longing, and responded to it the same way she did when she felt convinced that time had been arranged incorrectly, making the loss of one extra minute nearly every day a welcome relief.

Excerpted from How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu. Copyright © 2010 by Dinaw Mengestu. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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