Summary and book reviews of How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

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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About this Book

Book Summary

A heartbreaking literary masterwork about love, family, and the power of imagination, which confirms Mengestu's reputation as one of the brightest talents of his generation.

Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, earned the young writer comparisons to Bellow, Fitzgerald, and Naipaul, and garnered ecstatic critical praise and awards around the world for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience. Now Mengestu enriches the themes that defined his debut with a heartbreaking literary masterwork about love, family, and the power of imagination, which confirms his reputation as one of the brightest talents of his generation.

One early September afternoon, Yosef and Mariam, young Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their new home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Soon, their son, Jonas, will be born in Illinois.

Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas needs to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. How can he envision his future without knowing what has come before? Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, Jonas sets out to retrace his mother and father's trip and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents' youth to his life in the America of today, a story - real or invented - that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

Part I
I

A It was four hundred eighty-four miles from my parents' home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, a distance that in a seven-year-old red Monte Carlo driving at roughly sixty miles an hour could be crossed in eight to twelve hours, depending on certain variables such as the number of road signs offering side excursions to historical landmarks, and how often my mother, Mariam, would have to go to the bathroom. They called the trip a vacation, but only because neither of them was comfortable with the word "honeymoon," which in its marrying of two completely separate words, each of which they understood on its own, seemed to imply when joined together a lavishness that neither was prepared to accept. They were not newlyweds, but their three years apart had made them strangers. They spoke to each other in whispers, half in Amharic, half in English, as if any one word uttered too loudly could reveal to both of them that, in fact, they had never understood each other; they ...

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INTRODUCTION
Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, earned him comparisons to Bellow, Fitzgerald, and Naipaul, and garnered ecstatic critical praise for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience in America. Now he enriches the themes that defined his debut in a novel that follows two generations of an immigrant family.

One September afternoon, Yosef and Mariam, Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Just months later, their son, Jonas, is born in Illinois. Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas is desperate to make ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

How To Read The Air is not a great novel, but it is a good one... In the end... I was soothed by the beautiful writing; prose that has been polished to a luster, characters who are unique without a whiff of stereotype, and emotion so seamlessly melded into the story that it feels true to life. Though Mengestu may have attempted too much in terms of the social, political and psychological implications of immigration from destroyed countries and the dubious benefits of finding asylum in so-called functioning countries, he manages to integrate these heavy themes into an aesthetic whole.   (Reviewed by Judy Krueger).

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Media Reviews

The New York Times - Miguel Syjuco

The book lingers in the mind as personal — not in the characters’ specifics, but in their frustrated dislocation in the world. Now that the remarkably talented Mengestu has successfully explored these ideas in two books, one looks forward, excitedly, to watching the author’s gaze expand to the world beyond his own experience.

O, The Oprah Magazine

[Q]uiet and beautiful…thanks to uncanny empathy and a deep understanding of history, Mengestu transcends heartbreak and offers up the hope that despite all obstacles, love can survive.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Mengestu's precise and nuanced prose evokes characters, scenes, and emotions with an invigorating and unparalleled clarity.

Library Journal

Starred Review. In authoritative prose that flows like liquid gold, Mengestu tells an absorbing story of how we learn that simply going forward is in fact to triumph. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Elegant, confident prose brings this tale to life, and though the trope of the road as a journey to self-understanding is a very old one, Mengestu gives it a fresh reading.

Reader Reviews

Elizabeth

Different
It started out as not too interesting of a lead in, but it does get better as you share the characters' lives and see why they ended up the way they did and how the lives of immigrants is not always a pleasant one. There were a lot of powerful, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

About the Author
Dinaw MengestuDinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. In 1980 he immigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, joining his father, who had fled the communist revolution in Ethiopia two years before. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and of Columbia University's MFA program in fiction. He has also reported stories for Harper's and Jane magazine, profiling a young woman who was kidnapped and forced to become a soldier in the brutal war in Uganda, and for Rolling Stone on the tragedy in Darfur.

His first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007) brought him admiration and recognition: a glowing review in The New York Times, a Guardian First Book Award as well as inclusion ...

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