How to Read the Air

I picked this book off the ARC shelves at Blue Willow about a month ago because I loved the title. And the very simple cover. And there were several copies so I didn’t need to worry about reading it quickly and getting it back to the store.

In the past few months I have read both Little Bee and Cutting for Stone and I was expecting How to Read the Air to be another story about immigrants, but the assimilation of an Ethiopian family into America is merely a backdrop to this fine story. The story is told by Jonas, a young adult living in New York City.  After the death of his father, he finds himself retracing a road trip that his parents took, their first vacation together in America. He tells his own story, including the breakup of his marriage, interspersed with tales of his parents’ marriage and his father’s journey out of Ethiopia to America.

There are really only four characters in the book. Yosef, the violent husband/father, a man who needs to be in control. Yet who could be less in control of his own life than this man forced to flee his native country, dependent of others for survival and escape, who strives to become American, but seems constantly reminded that he is not what he wishes most to be? Mariam, brought to America by the husband she barely remembers. Yosef might have successfully escaped from Ethiopia, but Mariam spent her life dreaming and plotting of escaping from him. Jonas, who spent his childhood trying to hide, avoiding confrontation, and imagining a different life. And Angela, Jonas’ wife, who above all craves security in her life.

Dinaw Mengestu is a fabulous writer. He’s recently been named to the NY Times “20 Under 40” list of up-and-coming young authors. Although I recapped the characters above, and gave nothing away in doing so, Mengestu develops them slowly and meticulously with passages like this one where Jonas decribes himself:

Without ever thinking about it, I had become one of those men who increasingly spend more and more of their nights alone, neither distraught nor depressed, just simply estranged from the great social machinations with which others were occupied. After the forced intimacy of childhood was over, I found I had a hard time being close to others.

There’s a lot to talk about with this book and I think it would make an excellent choice for a bookclub. I marked no less than 12 passages in the book that I wanted to go back and reread.  Mengestu really has a knack for packing a lot of meaning into a single sentence.

I found this to be an especially hard book to review, and I don’t feel I’m doing it justice. The more I think about How to Read the Air, the more I like it. If you like good writing and strong characters, seek this one out.

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