From the Media Capital, to the Global Ethiopian Community
Wednesday October 27th 2021

Book Review: How to Read the Air

‘After an award winning debut novel, The Beautiful Thing That Heaven Bears, Dinaw Mengestu has returned with a beautifully crafted novel that speaks to the heart.’

Author of How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu.

I’ve heard the term succulent being used on many occasions to describe certain foods, plants, etc, but never a book.  And yet succulent seems like the perfect word to describe Dinaw Mengestu’s second novel, How to Read the Air.

Like a piece of steak smothered with the right amount of fiery barbeque sauce with rosemary skewers sprinkled on top, How to Read the Air was just as succulent.  Only thing is at the end of reading, I wanted more as though second helpings of the book was sitting on my shelf.

After an award winning debut novel, The Beautiful Thing That Heaven Bears, Dinaw has returned with a beautifully crafted novel that speaks to the heart.

As soon as you read the first few lines, the journey has begun.  You’ll visit two generations: one with rich customs and eccentric ideologies plagued with instability and the other full of uncertainty.  As I got deeper into the story, I found myself easily relating to both.

The story is narrated by the main character (Jonas) who is the American son of Ethiopian immigrants.  He is essentially at a pivotal moment in his life when he leaves everything behind to retrace the trip his parents took thirty years before: his father has passed away and his marriage has deteriorated.  Ultimately searching to uncover his past so that he can foresee his future, Jonas’ voyage holds significant meaning.

At the end, Jonas comes to a profound realization that shapes the novel brilliantly.

Jonas is the iconic symbol of the search we all have, immigrants and non-immigrants, to find that answer that speaks to who we are.  To uncover that vital narrative that can somehow connect our past and present, even if it means having to create parts of it ourselves.

Like its title, the book leaves much room for interpretation.  The title hints at a lesson to be foretold in reading the air only there isn’t none.  It relates to a character in the book who believes he can sense changes in the air before something violent is about to occur.

During many occasions characters resort to telling inaccuracies.  As a high school teacher, Jonas lies to his students about his father.  Mariam, his mother, tells the social worker that her family in Ethiopia is royalty.  While it can be safe to assume that this novel is an examination of dishonesty, Dinaw likes to think of it as an argument for both the necessity of imagination as well as an argument for the necessity of clarity and accuracy.

Dinaw first began writing this novel in late 2005 amidst the understanding that the government had lied in the days leading to and aftermath of the Iraq War.  And while reporting from Africa, Dinaw has seen journalists exaggerate what they saw because it plays into the ideas of violence and brutality that are anticipated.

We live in a world where there are fine lines between what is and what isn’t, many times the facts- or lack thereof- playing out in front of us on screens. How Dinaw has intertwined this throughout the novel is nothing short of phenomenal.

Dinaw is on my list of writers to follow.  And no, I don’t mean Twitter.

How to Read the Air is scheduled to be released in October 2010 by Riverhead Books.  It is available for preorder at Amazon.

Dinaw Mengestu received his B.A. in English from Georgetown University and his MFA in fiction from Columbia University.  His family left Ethiopia when he was two years old, and he was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.  He currently lives with his wife in Paris.

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