three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-How to Read the AirDinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and raised in a Chicago suburb. He earned critical praise for his debut novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007), which highlights the African immigrant experience in the United States. He was recently named one of the New Yorker's best 20 writers under 40.

The Story: Yosef and Mariam Woldemariam, Ethiopian immigrants, have been separated for most of their three years of marriage. Finally reunited in America, Yosef, who escaped in a crate on a cargo ship, and his pregnant wife embark on a belated honeymoon, a disturbing road trip filled with violence and despair. Thirty years later, in the present day, their alienated son Jonas, who works in a refugee center revising immigrants' asylum statements and then as a teacher who fabricates his own parents' history, ends his own marriage to a young trial lawyer. When Jonas decides to leave Manhattan and retrace his parent's long ago trip, he reflects upon his parent's volatile union, his turbulent upbringing, and the underlying reasons for his own failed marriage.
Riverhead. 305 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781594487705

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[R]ichly imagined. ... He's pulled off a narrative sleight of hand, weaving two--or is it three? -- beautiful fictions, while reminding us subtly that the most seductive may be the least true." Carolyn Kellogg

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"By the end, How to Read the Air grows into a tragic and affecting paradox, a demonstration of the limits of fiction, the inability of stories to heal or preserve. And yet there it is, this novel--wholly contrived--offering up its wisdom about the immigrant experience with the kind of power mere facts couldn't convey." Ron Charles

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Jonas is equal parts liar and elegant storyteller, a survival skill acquired from his mother which he relies upon to cope with his stagnant marriage and career. ... Mengestu's lyrical prose makes each layer upon layer of story a satisfying read, despite the book's sometimes unbearable sense of foreboding." Karen Gaudette

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[D]eeply thought out, deliberate in its craftsmanship and in many parts beautifully written. ... At times Mengestu doesn't seem to trust his reader to get his point, while the momentum of poetic prose, of a well-turned phrase or astute observation, often continues two clicks too long, detracting from the narrative's velocity." Miguel Syjuco

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The book drags as Jonas details the slow-motion car crash of his parents' marriage. But like the volatile Yosef, who could feel ‘the abrupt and dramatic shift in the air that precedes any violent confrontation,' Mengestu is attuned to nuances of conflicts and relationships." Anne Shulock

Critical Summary

There is no question that Dinaw Mengestu is an extremely talented young writer, having earned the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, a New York Times Notable Book mention, and many other accolades for his first novel. Despite the overall positive reviews for his second novel, several critics admitted to preferring The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, describing How to Read the Air as a "baggy reprise" that "both illuminates and fatigues" (New York Times). Other reviewers were slightly put off by the story's overwhelming melancholy. Many readers, however, should find How to Read the Air a compelling read, one that effectively illuminates the realities of immigrant life in the United States and the families' often painful backstories.