Customer Reviews for

How to Read the Air

Average Rating 3.5
( 25 )
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  • Posted September 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Add this to the top of your list!

    How To Read The Air by Dinaw Mengestu should be on everyone's must read list for the year. It is beautifully written with such depth in his characters that you feel not just that you know them but that they are part your family, for better or worst. While I didn't always like them I loved their story. I won my copy from Goodreads First Reads and have already passed it on to my best friend to read (with the understanding I get it back of course!).

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Truth and Lies---can you tell the difference?

    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. They are two incredibly different personality types: his father is perceptive and quiet, with a gift for noticing his surroundings and an almost sixth-sense for staying out of trouble. His focus on intangible concepts makes him reserved and wise. His mother, on the other hand, is obsessed with the tangible: possessions made her feel safe and contented in Ethiopia, where her status was high. Now in the US, her position in the world has changed, and as a minority with less wealth than she's used to, she is insecure and angry.

    Jonas himself married Angela, another lost soul who finds security in squirreling money away, while occasionally succumbing to a pair of Jimmy Choos for their therapeutic benefit. Angela is the most fascinating character to me, and in one of her conversations, she also reveals what she thinks of 'telling the truth':

    "There's no such thing as kind of true. If I told you the whole story, you could say it's true, but you don't know the story. [.] Everyone thinks they know the whole story because they saw something like it on television or read about it in a magazine. To them it's all just one story told over and over. Change the dates and the names but it's the same. Well, that's not true. It's not the same story."

    Angela is beyond needy, and her outlet for her insecurities is to control others as much as possible. She pushes Jonas to change every chance she gets. Despite her success as an attorney, her deep unhappiness is revealed in snarky remarks and a mistrust of everyone. Jonas and Angela are doomed by their inability to know truth. Significantly, Angela is portrayed much like his mother-focused on concrete items she can see and own, while Jonas is more cerebral and al

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2013

    I learned so much from this book

    :)

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  • Posted January 10, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    What a disappointment

    This was the most annoying piece of drivel I have read in a very long time. I suffered through this book. I have read "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" by this author in the past. While I wouldn't give it rave reviews, it was ok. I purchased this book because I wanted to support an Ethiopian author, as my husband is Ethiopian.
    This is not a novel - it is a 320 page essay of pure fluffy words. If, and when, there was dialogue between Jonas and his wife, it was stilted. The author never gives any character development which leaves the reader feeling absolutely nothing for the main character, nor his immigrant parents. The book jacket description is a false lure into a storyline that does not exist. How can Jonas "set out to retrace his parents steps" when he doesn't talk to either one of them? He just made up stuff he "thought" might have happened as he went along. What reconciliation? What redemption? How this book received such "high literary acclaim" is beyond my reach.
    If you want to read books by literary talented Ethiopians, I suggest the following two books. They are brilliant.

    Notes From The Hyena's Belly by Nega Mezlekia

    Beneath The Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste

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    Posted June 4, 2011

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