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How to Read the Air

3.16  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,664 Ratings  ·  352 Reviews
From the prizewinning international literary star: the searing and powerful story of one man's search for redemption. 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 exper ...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 14th 2010 by Riverhead Books (first published 2010)
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Room by Emma DonoghueThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg LarssonThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca SklootOne Day by David NichollsFreedom by Jonathan Franzen
New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2010
46th out of 100 books — 654 voters
Cutting for Stone by Abraham VergheseThe Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw MengestuThe Emperor by Ryszard KapuścińskiThere Is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay GreeneThe Hospital by the River by Catherine Hamlin
Books Set in Ethiopia
40th out of 112 books — 60 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jan 10, 2011 MomIsReading rated it did not like it
This was the most annoying book 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 char
So maybe this isn’t exactly five stars, it certainly has its flaws but for the few parts here and there where it drags there are dozens of other bits that sneak up on you and cut you, just cut the living shit out of you. Mengestu’s alternating, gradually merging, story of an abusive immigrant father told (often invented) by his thirty-something son in midst of the dissolution of his marriage covers a range of themes but what is most striking is the brutally honest depiction of human isolation, t ...more
Apr 26, 2014 Debbie rated it really liked it
Surprisingly very good.

First let me say this book is getting a solid 4 1/2 stars and I mean this in the best possible way. I've had this book in my possession for a while. I've even started it a few times only to put it down but this time, it was as if the book was whispering to me from the shelf. With a wave of a hand a curling of its figurative finger it enticed me to come closer. Keep coming in a little deeper. Just a little deeper, I have a story about a story and some lies and truth to t
Ron Charles
Dec 14, 2013 Ron Charles rated it really liked it
The eerie calm in Dinaw Mengestu's new novel, "How to Read the Air," is almost never broken. There are flashes of violence -- a black eye, a broken lamp -- but those strikes interrupt an atmosphere of smothered despair. Named one of the New Yorker's best 20 writers under 40, Mengestu earned high praise for his 2007 debut, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," about a lonely Ethiopian working in Logan Circle, and his new novel concentrates that theme of alienation even further.

The story contr
Bob Lopez
Dec 29, 2010 Bob Lopez rated it liked it
After a while, I found the book sort of rote? It felt like it was written by an MFA graduate by which I mean it was well written, intelligent, but it lacked something. Spirit? Sincerity? The great impetus for the narrative wasn't that great, wasn't much of a narrative. The disintegration of the relationships were dealt with in manners I've read before: unexplainable ennui, boredom, random, for the sake of it.

I couldn't get into the perspective either. It worked when he was describing his relatio
Nov 25, 2010 Toni rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
How to Read the Air is the parallel story of two marriages as the participants struggle to connect with each other and find truth in themselves. One couple, Yosef & Mariam, are immigrants from Ethiopia who embark on a road trip from their home in Illinois to Nashville. The trip highlights the fragility of their relationship and their inability (and unwillingness) to make it right. The other couple that the novel depicts are Jonas (Yosef & Mariam's son, still an embryo on the aforemention ...more
Nov 07, 2010 Jill rated it it was amazing
Somehow, I missed Dinaw Mengestu’s impressive literary debut – which garnered reams of ecstatic praise – so I’m a little late to this party. But after turning the last page of How To Read The Air, I can see what all the fuss was about. This is an exquisite multi-layered book, an extraordinary look at immigrant’s identity, the downward spiral of violence, the power of story-telling, and the vision of redemption. It is rich, complex, and very, very good.

His protagonist, Jonas Woldemariam, is tread
Tara Chevrestt
Aug 28, 2010 Tara Chevrestt rated it did not like it

What I was expecting: A novel about a married immigrant couple from Ethiopia and the trials they faced there and then and here and now.

What it is: A novel about the immigrant couple's son, his divorce, his retracing his parent's honeymoon.

I read a quarter and very little, maybe ten pages at that point followed the parents and what unlikeable people they are!!! I don't advocate spousal abuse, but I gotta be honest.. If I was the husband, I would slap that woman into next year. She's got it comin
Jan 03, 2011 Rashaan rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2010, fiction
What a flat tire of a read this turned out to be and with all the hype that ensued I shouldn't have to question why.

All the elements for a possible fantastic novel were omitted in exchange for a series of ridiculous hard to follow sub stories. It was just too many and really not necessary. Technically, it is well written and Mengestu uses every trick in the bag to spin this tiresome tale of his. Yes, I said tiresome because of it's lack of passion and spark. No life or soul could I find between
Apr 26, 2014 Jeff rated it really liked it
My second adventure into Dinaw Mengestu's world was more engrossing, as this book is clearly more carefully constructed than his first novel. Again, it deals with the African immigrant experience after coming to the US, or growing up as the first born generation of a tortured and dysfunctional family of new arrivals. By telling the story of Jonas' parents as well as a few hints about his wife's unhappy upbringing, we're treated to unique but parallel perspectives on our current civilization.
Ndeye Sene
Jun 10, 2013 Ndeye Sene rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
7 things I like about “How to read the air”

1-I like the title. See, “how to read the air” basically refer to the fact that when you live in some dangerous environment, knowing how to read the air is essential for your survival. You must possess a sixth sense that allows you to detect the change in the Air, which announces imminent danger. How do I know this? euhh… it’s in the book. Yosef was at a rally in Addis Ababa, when the army descends on them. One nasty soldier was targeting him, that’s wh
Apr 02, 2011 Deena rated it really liked it
"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." -p.6

"Without ever thinking about it, I had become one of those men who increasingly spent more and more of their nights alone, neither distraught nor depressed, just simply estranged from the great social machinations with which others were occupied." -p.17

"There were vast swaths of both city and normal life that I had failed
Jan 05, 2011 Rosa rated it it was ok
Tedious, so much so that I'm not sure how I even finished it. In fact, I actually fell asleep 3 times during the last 40 pages. The book seems more intent on depicting a certain feeling or state of being than a 3-dimensional protagonist. That might work in a short story or even a novella, but not for 305 pages of navel-gazing inertia. None of the supporting characters were believable or consistent. There were some nice sentences here and there, but for the most part, the whole thing left me cold ...more
Aug 09, 2014 Columbus rated it did not like it
After The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, this was pretty dreadful to be honest. I won't rehash the story because it has already been done here and it will bring back bad memories of my reading experience. In other words, I think the sophomore slump has hit Mengestu as well.
Jane Brant
Aug 25, 2011 Jane Brant rated it it was ok
I had high hopes for this book, immigrant experience, relationships, etc. What follows is a slow moving, repetitive tale of family dysfunction with marriages that fail because of abuse, unmet expectations, etc. Depressing, dismal, dysfunctional, distressing... "d" words leading me to "dislike". This is not the TIME for me to read this book....mixed reactions blended with disappointment.
Apr 22, 2014 TinHouseBooks rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-we-love
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): This Friday, I find myself in that delectable liminal space between books. After work, I get to go home and muss through the five stacks of books next to my bed in search of this weekend’s reading. Where to begin? Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, barely pried from the hands of a friend who wanted but didn’t want to lend it? Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air, passed along by another? On Deception, gifted by me to my dad and then sn ...more
Mar 19, 2014 Jodie rated it really liked it
This is an amazing book. The 2 page paragraph that begins on p. 142, for instance, might be one of the most beautiful paragraphs i've ever read.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Oct 15, 2013 Linda rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Serious readers
Recommended to Linda by: NY Times article & Borders
Like Mengestu's first book, this book was deeply introspective. It is as though he were writing from the very depths of his soul. Jonas is the main character and narrator. His parents were immigrants from Ethiopia. The marriage back in Addis had been hasty. Jonas' father, Yusef, was arrested during a political demonstration. Once freed he experienced a horrific journey out of the country, first to Sudan, eventually to Italy, England and finally the US. After 3 years he is living in an apartment ...more
Dec 19, 2012 Caren rated it really liked it
OK, so a lot of my students did not really enjoy this novel when I assigned it in class, but I like it alot--and not just because it is by a smart, hip Ethiopian-American and deals, well, with smart, hip Ethiopian-Americans. Mengestu also explores family relationships in a gently meditative way that tones down the drama without sidestepping the fact that some dreadful things can happen between people. The premise of the novel is an adult son's retracing of the route his parents took when they we ...more
Carolyn Kellogg
Nov 09, 2010 Carolyn Kellogg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
Book review: 'How to Read the Air' by Dinaw Mengestu
A narrator provides an intimate account of his immigrant parents' journey in the U.S.
November 05, 2010|By Carolyn Kellogg | Los Angeles Times

Dinaw Mengestu's "How to Read the Air" opens audaciously — the unnamed narrator writes of his parents with impossible intimacy. He knows what his mother thinks as she stands before a mirror a year before he is born, what she hears in the middle of the night, what she
Susan Santos
Apr 15, 2014 Susan Santos rated it it was amazing
I love this book. I love the pace of the story, the characters, the tension, the prose, the story itself, the flashbacks. ALL OF IT.

It's elegantly written, and the story sucked me in immediately. My parents were both immigrants (although my father was a citizen, having been born in Guam) so I found the story quite relatable from that aspect. Jonas' strategy of learning about himself by learning the truth about his parents makes complete sense to me, and Mengestu presents the story beautifully.
Jul 19, 2011 Kera rated it really liked it
I enjoyed knowing that the protagonist in this book relishes in his ability to tell stories; as I read each of the 3 stories he wove together, I didn't always know his fact from fiction, only that we were treated to his side as told through elegant prose. A good example might be,

"She was surprised to find how cold it had gotten, as if all the warmth accumulated over the course of the day had been casually abandoned, let loose with no regard for the people who lived here, and instead been replac
Nancy Werking Poling
Apr 15, 2014 Nancy Werking Poling rated it it was amazing
Masterfully written. The language was eloquent and the story unfolded at its own pace. It's about domestic violence, but it's not about domestic violence. It's about uprootedness, but it's not about uprootedness. It's about marriage, but it's not about marriage. If that sounds confusing, it's because the book shows the complexity of immigrant lives. Perhaps the complexity of all our lives.
Jul 28, 2013 James rated it it was ok
A novel that I could not wait to read based on the prior novel by the author I had enjoyed immensely. The story revolves around a young man struggling to overcome the sadness and abuse in his childhood. His father never recovered from the trauma he suffered in escaping from Ethiopia via Sudan, Italy, England and finally arriving in the Midwest USA. In the promised land the chances for happiness are tragically wasted. Despite the intense subject matter the novel was flat and in some cases boring. ...more
Deon Stonehouse
How To Read The Air by Dinaw Mengestu has achingly beautiful prose and conflicted, complex characters that give this story life. Jonas’s father escaped from Africa, landing in the USA as a refugee never able to shake his past. Quick to use fists to salve his hurts, Jonas’s mother’s body bears the marks of his father’s pain. Jonas grows up trying not to take up space, to avoid notice. With his marriage on the skids, Jonas retraces a road trip his parents took before his birth. Stepping into their ...more
Barksdale Penick
Aug 11, 2013 Barksdale Penick rated it it was ok
I am almost finished with this book and am disappointed. I loved The Beautiful Things That Heaven bears, his first book, but this book is seriously in need of editing. The parallel stories of his parents and his own marriages breaking up are sad, sure, but there aren't a lot of convincing parallels and the characters are never sympathetic, even if they have crosses to bear. I kept wincing at statements, such "I had achieved my goal" when the goal seems to be fabricating tales to his wife for no ...more
This book is not for those craving a superficial read. It requires engagement with every exquisitely constructed sentence. If you're reading merely for plot, this gets annoying pretty quickly. But I could have spent another 100 pages in Mengestu's sentences. He has a way of writing about human sadness that feels entirely new and yet obviously true at the same time. Like in describing the father's love of country music: "he would have to say that the song reminded him of a certain type of sadness ...more
Oswego Public Library District
In this psychological portrait of immigration across two generations, Dinaw Mengestu eloquently illuminates the struggles many people endure before they come to the United States and also the additional struggles of acculturation. Jonas was born in Illinois, but his parents brought a lot of pain with them from Ethiopia and Sudan that shaped his entire childhood. Being emotionally distant or emotionally numb is a regular theme throughout. Jonas' father became abusive, his mother became lost in he ...more
Full Stop
Jun 13, 2014 Full Stop added it
Shelves: spring-2011

Review by Nora Sharp

Dinaw Mengestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air, is frustratingly hard to get into, despite being the brand new book by a young writer whom many people seem to love. The novel chronicles two disintegrating relationships, as experienced by African immigrants to the United States and their children.

Mengestu’s picture of disintegrating relationships and emotional trauma—focused by slow tales of romantic death and reflected in refugee hi
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Left Ethiopia at age two and was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Graduated from Georgetown University and received his MFA from Columbia University. In 2010 he was chosen as one of the 20 best writers under 40 by The New Yorker.
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“There is nothing so easily remade as our definitions of ourselves.” 8 likes
“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 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.” 7 likes
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