How to Read the Air

How to Read the Air

by Dinaw Mengestu


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A "beautifully written"* (New York Times Book Review) novel of redemption by a prize-winning international literary star.

From the acclaimed author of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears comes a heartbreaking literary masterwork about love, family, and the power of imagination.

Following the death of his father Yosef, Jonas Woldemariam feels compelled to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, he sets out to retrace his mother and father's honeymoon as young Ethiopian immigrants and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn country of his parents' youth to a brighter vision of his life in America today. In so doing, he crafts a story- real or invented-that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594487705
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date: 10/14/2010
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and was named a “20 under 40” writer to watch by The New Yorker. Mengestu’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Granta, and other publications. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Part I

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 had never really known who the other person was at all.

Learning a new language was, in the end, not so different from learning to fall in love with your husband again, Mariam thought. While standing in front of the bathroom mirror early in the morning, she often told herself, in what she thought of as nearly flawless diction, "Men can be strange. Wives are different." It was an expression she had heard from one of the women at the Baptist church that she and her husband had begun attending. A group of women were standing in the parking lot after the sermon was over, and one of them had turned to Mariam and said, "Men can be so strange. Wives are just different."

At the time she had simply repeated the words back, almost verbatim, "Yes. That is true. Men can be strange," because that was the only way that she could be certain that what she said was understood by everyone. What she would have liked to say was far more complicated and involved a list of sizable differences that by any other standards would have been considered irreconcilable. Regardless, since arriving in America six months earlier, she had pushed herself to learn new things about her husband, like why, for example, he spoke to himself when no one seemed to be looking, and why some days, after coming home from work, he would sit parked in the driveway for an extra ten or twenty minutes while she watched him from behind the living room curtains. On some nights he would wake up and leave the bedroom, careful not to rouse her but always failing because most nights Mariam hardly slept at all. He would lie down on the couch in the living room naked, and from the bedroom she would eventually hear him let out a small whimper followed by a grunt, and he would return to bed and sleep soundly until the morning. My mother learned these things and filed them into a corner of her brain that she thought of as being specifically reserved for facts about her husband. And in just the same way, she pushed herself to try new words and form new sentences in English, because just as there was a space reserved for her husband, there was another for English, and another one for foreign foods, and another for the names of streets near her house. She learned to say, "It was a pleasure to meet you." And she learned individual words, like "scattered" and "diligent" and "sarcastic." She learned the past tense. For example, I was tired yesterday, instead of: I am tired yesterday, or Yesterday tired I am. She learned that Russell Street led to Garfield Street, which would then take you to Main Street, which you could follow to I-74, which could take you east or west to anywhere you wanted to go. Eventually they would all make sense. Verbs would be placed in the right order, sarcasm would be funny, the town would be familiar: past, present, future, and husband, they could all be under stood if given enough patience.

At this point in their marriage they had spent more time apart than together. She added up the days by rounding up some months, rounding down a few others. For every one day they had spent together, 3.18 had been spent apart. To her, this meant a debt had to be repaid, although who owed the other what remained unclear. Is it the one who gets left behind who suffers more, or is it the one who's sent out alone into the world to forage and create a new life? She had always hated numbers, but since most of the English she heard still escaped her, she now took comfort in them and searched for things to add. At the grocery store she calculated the cost of everything she brought to the register before she got there: a can of peas, seventy-eight cents; a package of salt, forty-nine cents; a bag of onions, forty cents. The smiling faces behind the register always offered a few words out loud before saying the total. All of them were lost on her, but what difference did it make if she didn't know how to take a compliment, banter, or understand what the phrase "two-for-one" meant. She knew the number at the end, and that number, because it didn't need translation, was power, and the fact that she knew it as she went up to the register filled her with a sense of accomplishment and pride unlike anything she had known since coming here. It made her feel, in its own quiet fleeting way, as if she were a woman to be reckoned with, a woman whom others would someday come to envy.

She never knew what her husband had gone through in the three years they had been apart, nor had she ever really tried to imagine. Say America enough times, try to picture it enough times, and you end up with a few skyscrapers stuck in the middle of a cornfield with thousands of cars driving around. The one picture she had received during those three years was of him sitting in the driver's seat of a large car, the door open, his body half in the car, half out. He kept one arm on the steering wheel, the other balanced on his leg. He looked handsome and dignified, his mustache neatly trimmed, his thick curly hair sculpted into a perfect ball that highlighted the almost uncanny resemblance his head had to the globe that her father kept perched on top of his chest of drawers.

When she first saw the picture she didn't believe the car was his. She thought he had found it parked on the side of the road and had seized the opportunity to show himself off, which was indeed almost exactly what he had done. Still, that didn't stop her from showing the picture to her mother, sisters, and girlfriends, or from writing on the back, in English: Yosef Car. She expected other pictures would eventually follow: pictures of him standing in front of a large house with a yard; pictures of him in a suit with a briefcase in hand; and then later, as the days, weeks, and months collided, and two years was quickly approaching three, she began to wait for pictures of him with his arm around another woman, with two young children at his side. She had secretly feared the latter would happen from the day he first left, because who had ever heard of a man waiting for his wife? The world didn't work that way. Men came into your life and stayed only as long as you could convince them to. She even named the children for him: the boy Adam and the girl Sarah, names that she would never have chosen for her own children because they were common and typical, and Mariam's children, when they came, were going to be extraordinary.

When no such pictures arrived, she wanted to write him and tell him to show her a picture of him in the middle of something, a square, a city park, a picture in which he played just one, minor role.

"Show me a picture of you doing something," she had wanted to write, but that wasn't it exactly. What she wanted was to see him somehow fully alive in a picture, breathing, walking, laughing, living his life without her.

On the morning they left for Nashville, my mother packed a small suitcase with two weeks' worth of underwear, three heavy wool sweaters she had bought at a garage sale for two dollars apiece, and pants and shirts suitable for summer, fall, and winter, even though it was the first week of September and so far the days had been nothing but mild, sunny, and occasionally even too warm for the thin cotton tank tops she had seen other women wearing as they walked casually through the aisles of the grocery store, through shopping malls, and down the deserted Main Street. Those women were neither slim nor graceful. They were plain, pale, and average, and to her eyes entirely indistinguishable one from another, which was precisely what she resented and envied the most. The trip was supposed to last from start to finish four nights and five days, but as she stuffed her suitcase to its limits, she decided it was best to always be prepared for the unexpected, for the broken-down car, for the potential wrong turn, for the long walk at night that for one reason or another never ended. She had packed up her entire life once before, and now six months later, if she had learned anything at all about herself, it was that she could do with far less. She could, if she wanted, get away with almost nothing.

Her husband, Yosef, was already waiting for her outside in the red Monte Carlo he had scraped and saved for more than a year to buy and now could hardly afford. It was not the same car as the one in the photo. She couldn't have said how or why, but it was less elegant, smaller perhaps, and even though the picture had been black and white, she thought of the Monte Carlo he was waiting in as being a shabbier shade of red than the one she imagined.

The car horn honked twice for her: two short high-pitched bleeps that could have gone unnoticed but did not because she half expected, half prayed for them. When they came she pictured a bird—a dove, or something dovelike—being set free, its rapidly fluttering wings disturbing the air. Had she known more words in English she would have said the sound of the horn pierced through the silence, pierced being the operative word here, with its suggestion that something violent had occurred.

If he honks one more time, my mother said to herself, I will refuse to go. It was a matter of principle and conviction, or at least something that so closely resembled the two that even if it was merely pride or rage in disguise, she was willing to fight and tear down the house to stand by it. She had, after all, waited for him for years—a virtual widow but without the corpse and sympathy. If she was owed anything now it was time. Time to pack her clothes, fix the straps of her dress, and take account of everything she might have missed and would perhaps potentially later need.

If he honks again, she told herself, I will unpack my suitcase, lock the bedroom door, and wait until he leaves without me.

This was the way most if not all of my parents' fights began. With a minor, almost invisible transgression that each seized upon, as if they were fighting not about being rushed or about too many lights having been left on, but for their very right to exist, to live and breathe God's clean air. As a child I learned quickly that a fight was never far off or long in the making, and imagined it sometimes as a real physical presence lurking in the shadows of whatever space my parents happened to occupy at that given moment—a grocery store, a car, a restaurant. I pictured the fight sitting down with us on the couch in front of the television, a solemn black figure in executioner's robes, a caricature of death and tragedy clearly stolen from books and movies but no less real as a result. Ghosts are common to the life of any child: mine just happened to come to dinner more often than most.

The last fight they had had before that morning left my mother with a deep black and purple bruise on her right arm, just below her shoulder. The bruise had a rotting plum color and that was how she thought of it, as a rotten plum, one pressed so fast and hard into her skin that it had broken through the surface and flattened itself out underneath. She found it almost beautiful. That the body could turn so many different shades amazed her, made her believe that there was more lurking under the surface of our skin than a mess of blood and tissue.

She waited with one hand on top of the suitcase for the car to honk again. She tried not to think it, but it came to her nonetheless, a selfish, almost impregnable desire to hear even the accidental bleating of a car horn crying out.

Just once more, she thought. Honk just once more.

She held her breath. She closed the lid of the suitcase in complete silence. With her hand pressing down on the top, she zipped it halfway shut. A tiny stitch of blue fabric from a pair of padded hospital socks picked up two weeks earlier peeked out over the edge. She pressed the sock back in with one finger, granted the zipper its closure, and with that, acknowledged that on this occasion her husband had won. He had held out long enough for her to complete the one minor task that stood between her and leaving, and despite her best efforts, that was how she saw it, as a victory won and a loss delivered. She was going. Even if he pressed on the horn now with all his might she would have to go, would have to walk down the stairs and apologize for having taken so long, because he had pressed her just far enough without going too far. Sometimes she suspected that he knew the invisible lines she was constantly drawing. There were dozens of such lines spread out all over their one-bedroom apartment like tripwire that, once crossed, signaled the start of yet another battle. There was the line around how many dishes could be left in the sink, another around shoes worn in the house, and others that had to do with looks and touches, with the way he entered a room, took off his clothes, or kissed her on the cheek. Once, after an especially rough night of sleep, she felt her husband's breath on the back of her neck. It was warm and came in the steady consistent bursts of a man soundly asleep. She didn't know which one she really hated—the breaths or the man breathing. In the end, she created a wall of pillows behind her, one she would deny having made the next morning.

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.

My mother could never have said she loved fall, but as she walked down the steps with her suitcase in hand toward the red Monte Carlo her husband had been waiting in for nearly an hour, she could have said that she respected its place as a mediator between two extremes. Fall came and went, while winter was endured and summer was revered. Fall was the repose that made both possible and bearable, and now here she was with her husband next to her, heading headlong into an early-fall afternoon with only the vaguest ideas of who they were becoming and what came next.

Reading Group Guide


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 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 his job in New York, Jonas sets out to retrace his parents' trip and, in a stunning display of imagination, weaves together a family history that takes him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents' youth to a brighter vision of his life in the America of today, a story—real or invented—that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.


Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. His first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, received a 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation, the Guardian First Book Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award, and was named a New York Times Notable Book, among other honors. He lives with his wife and son in Paris.

  • Should Mariam and Yosef have stayed married to each other? Can a relationship survive a long separation?
  • Who is more responsible for the failure of Jonas and Angela's marriage, Jonas or Angela?
  • Was it wrong of Jonas to lie to the board member? Or was it more wrong of him to invent a story for his students? Do you agree or disagree with the school's handling of his fabrications?
  • Do you think reenacting his parents' trip will help Jonas?
  • Jonas is mostly estranged from his father before he dies, and mostly estranged from his mother before the end of this novel. Is there ever a reason to cut family members out of your life, or is it better to maintain close relationships whenever possible?
  • Given all she had suffered at the hands of Yosef, was Mariam justified in causing the car accident in Missouri? Why or why not? Is there ever an instance in which violence should be answered with violence? How did the violent episodes in Jonas's parents' marriage shape him?
  • Why did Jonas lie to Angela about his position at the academy?
  • Why does Jonas get so swept away with rewriting the personal statements of the immigrants seeking asylum? In what other ways does he reimagine his world and the world around him? Does this tendency help him cope, or does it hurt him?
  • Where do you think Jonas's trip takes him in the end? What kind of future do you see for him?
  • Customer Reviews

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    How to Read the Air 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
    starlitehouse More than 1 year ago
    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!).
    cransell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    How to Read the Air is the second novel by Dinaw Mengestu. Like his first, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, it is beautifully written. This book follows the protagonist, Jonas Woldemariam, as he retraces the steps of his parents' road trip from Peoria to Nashville, trying to make sense of his and his parents' lives. It's not really an uplifting book (Jonas's parents had an unhappy and abusive marriage and his mother left once he was in college, Jonas's marriage is falling apart) but as the story unfolds I found myself caring just as much as Jonas about what had happened and how the characters found themselves where they are.
    Quiltinfun06 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This was my first time reading Dinaw Mengestu and I absolutely love his use of words and he eloquent writing. However, the story was extremely under whelming and disjointed. I found at times that I was getting into the groove of the story and then there would be something that just didn't seem to fit or make sense.Mengestu is obviously a brilliant writer and I am sorry that I didn't appreciate the book more.
    RachelPenso on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I thought this book was just okay. I didn't really like the main character, which may have been one of the reasons I didn't really love the book. I found the main character incredibly weak and he was a pathological liar (as was his mother). There were basically three stories going here. One was of the main character, Jonas and his job and his relationship with his wife. The second was of how Jonas' father first left Ethiopia, but I had a hard time figuring out which parts were supposed to be true and which parts were Jonas' fabrication. The third, the only one I really enjoyed, was about Jonas' parents as a young married couple and new immigrants from Ethiopia. I liked the author's writing, but the story could have been better.
    brittpenn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I was torn- I would give Mengestu's writing style 5 stars but the story 3, so I averaged out at 4. The book was enjoyable to read because the writing flowed so poetically. Mengestu shares the stories of Jonas and his Ethiopian Immigrant parents, intertwining the stories to explore themes like identity and the relationship of the past to the present.Like several other reviewers, I had trouble getting attached to the main character. Jonas struck me as a weak and passive. I found the end interesting, but a bit unfulfilling. All in all, I loved the writing but I had to push myself to finish because I didn't grow attached to the story.
    porch_reader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I received this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. This is Mengestu's second novel. His debut was The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, which I also enjoyed. Jonas Woldemariam is the son of Ethiopian immigrants. He grew up in Peoria, Illinois, but when we first meet him, he is living in New York City and working for an organization that helps immigrants from around the world gain asylum in the United States. A large part of Jonas¿s job is retelling their stories to increase their chances of gaining asylum. This idea that life stories are constructed and reconstructed pervades the book. As Jonas seeks a future for himself, he must make sense of his past. Through flashbacks to a trip that his parents took to Nashville before he was born, we gradually piece together the histories of Yosef and Mariam and come to understand how Jonas¿s childhood experiences continue to impact him today. There were moments while reading this book that I was completely drawn in. Mengestu is one of those writers who chooses precisely the right words and details to evoke emotion and let readers inside the heads and hearts of the characters. This is a beautifully written novel.However, there were also moments while reading this book that the story was a bit hard to follow. The details of Yosef and Mariam¿s life in Ethiopia, escape to the United States, and relationship as husband and wife were provided slowly throughout the book, and sometimes it was difficult to separate fact from reconstructed life story. Because of this shifting picture, it was hard to be sympathetic to either of these characters, or even to feel like I really understood Jonas. It wasn¿t until I had turned the last page that I realized that was the point. Although we think that we understand the histories and experiences of others, life stories are complex. What we believe to be true reverberates throughout our lives and our relationships. It is not just the story that conveys that message ¿ the message is reinforced through the experience of reading the book.
    jsiegcola on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Being born and raised in the United States...Midwest, no less....I have found myself reading a large number of books about the immigrant experience. It has allowed me to expand my viewpoint as I travel the minefields of immigration, assimilation, and finally, acceptance of each character's life choices. Most of the books I've read were fiction, though the author is often an immigrant themselves, or at least second generation, and inserts a modicum of truth to their fictional protagonists, allowing the reader to delve into an experience we natives will never have. Dinaw Mengestu is one such author who brings his own family story to bear in his latest book "How To Read The Air". With a poetic touch as his muse, he slowly peels back the layers of his main character, Jonas, whose parents immigrated to America from a worn-torn Ethiopia in the 60's. The story threads its way between the present world of Jonas and his failing marriage, his parent's unhappy relationship that scarred him, and his father's tale of escape from Ethiopia that Jonas contrives for himself and the students he is currently teaching at a New York City private prep school. Though the fabric of the story can feel like it's drifting apart at times, his clear writing style holds everything together. At times Jonas describes his indecisiveness nature as someone who is "bobbing out to sea with nothing, not even so much as a life vest of companionship to hold onto."[ p. 54] So much of what Jonas wrestles with in this novel is where he belongs and how to achieve this feeling of acceptance for who he is. His explanation to his wife about the order of his class syllabus reveals his philosophy of life when he tells her, "We accumulate memories and in doing so begin to make our first tentative steps backward in time....And from there our lives grow into multiple dimensions until eventually we learn to regret and finally to imagine." [ p. 97] . Having read such books as "The Namesake", "The Inheritance of Loss", "What Is the What", and "Little Bee", I have come to the conclusion that adapting to life in a culture other than the one you were born to, or being children of first generation immigrants, is fraught with danger, delusion, and depression that affects the lives of all these characters and the authors who have tried to write about this unique experience. We in America have so many immigrant stories to tell, and Dinaw Mengestu's is one of the exceptional ones many readers will cherish.
    bagambo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    How To Read The Air is one of the most compelling books I have read in a long time. The story of immigrants whose lives are constantly interrupted by the volatile nature of life. Yosef and Mariam have spent the beginning of their marriage apart and once they are reunited they discover that they no longer fit together as a couple and as a result wind up divorced. Their son, Jonas, has never gotten along with either of his parents and so at the age of 30, decides to retrace his parent's life via a road trip - in an attempt to understand them better. This book has two stories within it - the story of Yosef and Mariam and the story of Jonas - both of which are beautifully written and intertwined in a fluid manner. I found the whole book to be rather engrossing and wound up getting lost in the lives of these sad people. Such a wonderful book to read - one I would definitely recommend.
    libsue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    How to Read the Air -a metaphor for trying to figure out ones life? This a beautifully written book about a man, Jonas, who tries to travel back in time through his parents desolving marriage. Why? To figure out is own tattered marriage? To find out why he's been adrift his entire adulthood? Travel with Jonas for a sad look at life, yet a worthwhile trip.
    DBettenson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    ¿How to Read the Air¿ by Dinaw Mengestu is a thought provoking novel, telling the story of an immigrant family. Intertwined in the story of the troubled marriage of Jonas and Angela is the story of Jonas¿s parents; of whom his father suffered greatly in his bid to reach the United States.Dinaw Mengestu¿s novel also enlightens the reader to the difficulties faced by many immigrants - the prejudice and difficulties they must endure. ¿How to Read the Air¿ even touches on the affects of the 9/11 attacks and the many who lost their job as a result.For anyone searching in life, ¿How to Read the Air¿ tells the tale of an immigrant family and the searches for happiness that each sought.I received this book for free, to review from the Penguin Book Club. Also a member of, and Bookdivas.comD Bettenson
    tomgirl571 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I really loved this book. It was a very quiet, subtle book, but it was very powerful. I really liked the way it was written, with Jonas as the narrator. I thought the characters were all really well developed, and it was interesting to see how Jonas' parents messed up relationship took a toll on him and ended up affecting his own marriage. Definitely recommend this to anyone who likes a good quiet read that is really well written.
    SignoraEdie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This book did not grab me and I stopped half-way thru. So many books, so little time. Felt slow-moving and ponderous.
    mojomomma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Ever had a main character that just needed a good shaking, or perhaps a slap upside the head? Jonas certainly qualifies in my estimation. The only son of Ethopian refugees, he is raised within a highly abusive marriage by individuals who are damaged by their refugee experience. Jonas manages to screw up his life and his marriage by never fully committing to ANYTHING. This is the antithesis of the immigrant boot-strap story we've come to expect. I guess its good to be reminded that not everything is sweetness and light, but I found Jonas annoying. I was hoping he'd get his stuff in a pile, but he never did and I was left disappoined by the lack of a happy ending.
    Boobalack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This is the story of two couples from two generations: Yosef and Miriam, the parents of Jonas; and Jonas and his girlfriend-then-wife, Angela. The title comes from Yosef¿s ability to sense danger and other things in the change in the vibrations in the air. Jonas has this ability to a lesser extent.Jonas is the narrator and uses alternate chapters to delineate the lives of both couples. He works at a center for immigrants who are trying to gain asylum in the United States, which is ironic, as his parents emigrated from Ethiopia.To understand Jonas, one must understand, or at least try to understand, his parents. Yosef and Miriam were only married for six months when Yosef was arrested and jailed on the night before he was to escape Ethiopia with a friend. He was in sympathy with the rebels, though he never actively took part in any attempts to overthrow the government. His worst crime seems to have been running off his mouth in public. He was eventually released from the prison and made his way to the Sudan, where he worked for a long time at menial jobs until he finally was able to stow away on a ship, which transported him to Europe. From there, he made his way to London and eventually to the United States. The previous brief description does not do justice to the hardships he endured, near starvation being one of them. He finally earned enough money to send for Miriam and met her at the airport with a pitiful little bouquet of flowers. He was not even really sure he wanted her to come to him.Miriam and Yosef apparently got married out of desperation. A revolution was happening all around them, and when one of her father¿s friends introduced them, one thing led to another, as ¿they¿ say. Miriam was actually quite content without him. She had a decent job in an office and was able to do pretty much as she pleased with her salary. Everyone almost convinced her that Yosef was dead, and since she hadn¿t heard from him in a very long time, she started believing it, herself. When Yosef was able to do so, he began writing to Miriam and preparing for the day when they would be together. One gets the impression that both of them were, at this point, acting out of a sense of duty. As the story wears on, one discovers that they don¿t even love each other any more if ever they did. Miriam felt that her station in life was much better before she left Ethiopia. Sad to say, but it appears that she was correct.Jonas doesn¿t actually lie ¿ he makes up the truth. Most of the time, he seems to believe his fabrications, some of which are based in reality, but even those are embellished to the hilt. He was such a lonely, scared little boy, that it¿s easy to understand the man he has become. When he was quite young, he learned how to make himself so inconspicuous as to be invisible to his father, thus avoiding confrontation and blows. His mother was not so lucky and bore the brunt of Yosef¿s anger many, many times. There are no gory details, but you can almost feel the abuse. Little Jonas watches his mother walk down the street after taking him to school, hating for her to disappear, for he has learned that bad things happen to women when they are out of sight ¿ they take horrible hits and sometimes come to your bed at night feeling that you can protect them. Jonas was estranged from his father almost from the time he was old enough to know him and never did connect with him as they both got older. Jonas did go to see him a few times. Even though he loved his mother and wanted to protect her, they also grew apart. Miriam didn¿t want Jonas to visit very often and preferred to be left alone. I think the sight of Jonas brought back more painful memories than she could handle. She always asked him if he were happy, and I think that¿s the only way she could let him know that she loved him. Angela had an equally awful childhood. Her father left her and her mother, though it isn¿t clear just how or when, as she had many s
    BlackSheepDances on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    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 aloof. Does he realize how he has replicated his parent's dynamics?Plot aside, the prevarication that Jonas is prone to makes reading this that much more interesting. It¿s difficult to know what facts to accept or disregard, and he gives himself away at times. For example, at one point he describes his mother playing mind games with his father by making him wait endlessly in the car as they leave for their honeymoon. At one point she pretends to forget something and runs back into the house-she¿s having a meltdown. Yet, her melt
    SilversReviews on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    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, thought-provoking messages throughout the definitely isn't just a "surface" read. My rating is a 4/5 for interest and a 5/5 for the author's writing style....he is excellent at character development, scene description, and of course storytelling.The book began describing a scene of the narrator's parents leaving on a vacation and then moves into his life and the life of his girlfriend who work as a social worker and an attorney in an immigration center. It continues with incidents about their life in and out of the immigration center. The book goes back and forth describing the narrator's parents and then his life and the problems all of them had with the main focuses being: relationship problems, lack of communication, family, love, and finding out who you really are. The book also followed Jonas through his childhood and talked about how his life was in that house with his parents who really wanted nothing to do with each other....not a pleasant childhood. It also traced the path of his father from Ethopia to the United States. It was sad hearing what kind of life Jonas' mother had and how they didn't really keep in touch after he was an adult. Also very sad was the description of his relationship with his father and how it completely affected his life. Taken from page 101 concerning his relationship with his father...."and, I realized then that all I had to do to avoid him was blend into the background. That knowledge followed me from there so that eventually I thought of my obscurity as being essential to my survival."
    GaltJ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This is a layered story with three plot-lines woven together. I really enjoyed the author's use of language. I felt a little saddened by the main character's difficulty connecting with anyone, although by the end he realizes that he is, in fact, a part of everyone close to him. The story he creates for his father's history is fascinating and I really liked how it was presented as a story he told his class. I have added Mengestu's other novel to my wish list and will look for future books as well. Thanks Early Reviewers for this book!
    faceinbook on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I loved this novel. Liked the way the author used two story lines to tell his tale. Especially liked the main character who was plainly affected in many ways by the lives of his parents. I found Jonas (the main character) to be likeable despite the event flaws in his character. The author did a wonderful job of creating a character who was refreshingly "real". Jonas was not a second generation immigrant who was able to "over come".......he was deeply affected by the process through which his parents found themselves in the Midwest of the U.S. In doing this I think that the author was able to give his character depth and/or soul. Having been born and raised in the United States with both sides of my family settled here for several generations, I am far from able to imagine the life of an immigrant. Mengestu was able to take me as close as one could come without actually experiencing it myself. The prose in this book is beautiful. This is a novel I will read a second time, not only for the story but, probably more for the writing style and the emotions conveyed through Mengestu's sentences.Mengestu will be added to that list of author's whose books I buy as soon as they are published. I have a feeling that this young man's writing's will never disappoint.
    Litfan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    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.
    kidzdoc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Jonas Woldemariam, the American born son of Ethiopian immigrants, has recently lost his teaching job in Manhattan and separated from his wife. He seeks to recreate his late parents' journey from Peoria, Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee, in an effort to learn about their lives and to understand his own confused and troubled past.Jonas was born in the Midwest, not quite American nor fully African, and he is ostracized and treated as an exotic by his classmates and neighbors. His home is not a sanctuary, due to his father's violent outbursts towards him and his mother, and he copes by internalizing his thoughts and feelings, and making himself as invisible as possible to his father. He obtains a bachelor's degree in literature, moves to New York, and takes on a series of odd jobs. While working at a center that provides legal aid to recent immigrants he meets Angela, an African-American law student, and the two eventually marry.Angela loves Jonas, and through her connections at work she is able to get him a job teaching English literature at a private Upper East Side school. On the surface it would seem as though Jonas would be content; however, his self isolation and inability to express or articulate his feelings and his frequent tendency to lie or spout half-truths frustrate Angela, who throws herself into her work and spends less time with her husband as a result.After the couple separate, Jonas finds himself completely alone, as he has no friends or family. He has no clear sense of who he is or what he should do now that he is completely free. He realizes that he must go back to the past, to recreate his parents' journeys and lives as best he can, in order to determine what he should do with his life.[How to Read the Air] has some roots in the author's past, as he did grow up in Peoria, but it is far from an autobiographical novel. On my initial reading I was somewhat lukewarm toward this book, despite its beautiful writing and richly portrayed characters, mainly because I could not identify or understand Jonas. However, after reading several recent interviews of Mengestu and thinking about the book over the past few days, I have come to appreciate it much more, as I find that this book, and its protagonist, have a lot to say about the life of an immigrant to America, along with anyone who finds himself caught between cultures or engaged in a struggle of self discovery. The book is filled with melancholy, yet it ends on a hopeful note, as Jonas is a sympathetic character despite his many flaws and shortcomings.
    phebj on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    To me this was a beautifully written, multi-layered story of survival and self-discovery and one I will go back to to re-read all the passages I've marked.When we first meet Jonas Woldemariam, he¿s at the beginning of retracing a trip his parents took across the Midwest 30 years ago, just before he was born. During this journey, he recalls a number of unfortunate recent events in his life--his father¿s death, his failing marriage and the loss of his job, which is related to the story of his father¿s tortuous immigration to the United States from Ethiopia. Pretty quickly you realize that Jonas is good at making things up and so you¿re not really sure how much of what he¿s telling you is true. The narrative jumps around a lot chronologically and that can also be disorienting. But eventually I realized that the main journey is the one Jonas is making emotionally.His father was an angry man who lashed out verbally and physically and Jonas perfected the art of ¿blending into the background¿ as a child so as not to be noticed by his father. ¿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.¿ Unfortunately, his childhood coping skills have become a major problem for him as an adult.Mengestu¿s writing has a melancholy tone and the story was occasionally almost too painful to continue reading. But I loved the ending and was glad I finished Jonas¿ journey. Early on Jonas is thinking about his father and says: ¿He had realized at a young age . . . that the world was a cruel and unfair place, and yet despite that, he . . . couldn¿t stand to see some days end.¿ You¿re never sure whether his father ever actually said this but by the end you know that Jonas could have and that he¿s finally arrived at a better place.Highly recommended--4 ½ stars.
    phlegmmy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Basically this is a story of a man who lies. He lies to his spouse, he lies as a part of his job and he lies to his students. But we understand his need to lie, as it makes the most difficult parts of parts of his life more bearable. This book is beautifully written and I am already looking forward to Mengestu's next novel, having become a true fan after reading The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears,
    LoisCK on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    ¿We accumulate memories and in doing so begin to make our first tentative steps backward in time, to say things such as `I remember when I was.¿ And from there our lives grow into multiple dimensions until eventually we learn to regret and finally to imagine.¿ Dinaw Mengestu¿s ¿How to Read the Air¿ explores the belief that memory is the story of what has been, might have been, or never was. If two people experience an event, whose memory of the time is real? Can the telling of a memory enlarge and change it¿s very shape? Jonas, a teacher, is a memory teller. He tells the story of his own life with his wife, Angela, and that of his parents via his memory, with his interpretations and embroideries. He speaks of his childhood memories of his home life: ¿¿it was easy for terrible things to happen to women when they were out of sight. They took hard hits, and then later slept in your bed where you could protect them.¿ He tells his students of his father¿s flight from Ethiopia: ¿And while this part of the story wasn¿t true to anything I, or anyone I knew had ever experienced, it had an air of serendipitous salvation that struck me as being so unlikely that one had to believe it had occurred that way.¿ He ruins his marriage to Angela with his embellished memories and outright lies. He is a great storyteller; and he is a superb liar. He is lost emotionally because he has lost his family; knowing them mostly through memory rather than contact. Mengestu employs descriptive prose that is powerful and believable; sometimes realistic and sometimes almost mystical as he explores the concept of memory. ¿We persist and linger longer than we think, leaving traces of ourselves wherever we go. If you take that away, then we all simply vanish.¿ This book is a wonderful read that keeps you contemplating it's themes for days.
    handy1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I have mixed impressions of this book. Much of the writing is lovely, with apt metaphors and astute observations about people and relationships. The story, however, frequently dragged. The behavior of many of the characters was extremely frustrating in that it was so often absurdly illogical and frequently detrimental. All of the characters also lacked real passion, and seemed resigned to their respective fates and unmotivated to grow or change their self-defeating behaviors.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago