Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review: How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

How to Read the Air

Wooh.  Long time no blog.  What with lots of school work, the 4 year anniversary with Boyfriend, and French Club stuff (and now trying to find a new president because the one we've had since September suddenly had to step down), I haven't had anytime at all to blog.  I've been reading, but mainly stuff for school.  I do have some reviews to post, like this one today, but it's just been really hard to find the time to write them.  So sorry if you won't be hearing from me much!  I'm sad that I don't have more time to devote to my blog right now, because it seriously is sometimes the only thing that keeps me sane when I have lots of stressful things going on.

But anyway, on to the review.  I've been doing homework nonstop since getting up this morning, so please ignore anything that makes no sense ;)

I'm really surprised that there hasn't been more hype about Dinaw Mengestu's How to Read the Air.  I thought it was brilliant and beautifully written.  It's about a man named Jonas (who is also the narrator), who lives in New York City and works as a subsitute English teacher.  But really, it's so much more than that.  The story opens in the 1970s with the beginning of a trip his parents, recent Ethiopian immigrants, are taking from their new home in Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee.  Right away we learn about the problems that Mariam and Yosef have.  They can't communicate with each other and they are very unhappy together.  The novel flip flops back and forth from Jonas' life in modern day NYC to his parents' lives back in the day.  Both their stories are quite disfunctional, but they are told in a way that makes you feel really sad for them all. 

The first thing that I noticed when I started reading this book was the writing.  It flows so well.  It's a very quiet, subtle story, but when you finish it, you're kind of like, "wow."  Even though it's quiet, it's intense.  Jonas' parents fled war-torn Africa to make a better lives for themselves, and their characters reflect all the heartache that they went through.  Jonas' father is abusive, but the way we learn his story through Jonas makes you almost pity him.  His mother in a way aggravates things and is very unhappy with her husband.  I'm sure she loved him once, and throughout the story I kept reading because I kept asking myself, "what led them to this?"  They were married too soon and didn't get to spend enough time together right after their marriage.  It's heartbreaking to think that they could have been extremely happy together if things had played out differently.

The disfunction in his homelife is reflected in Jonas' relationships later on in life.  He basically doesn't know how a real relationship works and everything he does just makes things worse and draws lines between himself and his wife.  He lies to make things better, but they can only get worse.  I think he wants to make his wife happy so badly that he lies and says whatever she wants to hear.  Very slowly, we start to see their relationship faulter.  They become more and more distant with each other.  While all this is going on, we are also learning about Jonas' past and his parents.  I think this made the story really interesting because we are always going back to the past and seeing what his parents did wrong that may now be effecting him.

There were times where I became very frustrated with Jonas and just wanted to scream, "dude, you are screwing up!  Tell the truth, don't ignore your wife, blah blah blah...!!!!!"  Of course, I could have done all the screaming I wanted and he wouldn't have listened.  Jonas is only human and he makes mistakes.  It's just that his are all pretty small, so he doesn't realize he's messing up his life until much later when all his little mistakes pile up on top of each other.  Another thing that sometimes got to me was Jonas' total lack of effort.  Sometimes he just wouldn't even try to make things better between himself and his wife.  This is I'm sure a direct effect of his parents' strained relationship, but it still annoyed me to no end. 

Even though I got annoyed with Jonas, I couldn't really blame him for anything that happened.  I was close to tears sometimes because I felt so bad for not only him, but his wife and his parents.  I highly recommend this book.  As I said above, I really am shocked that it hasn't had more press.  I haven't read many reviews of it in the blogging community.  I say do yourself a favor and read it.  It's a very quiet story, but it's a very powerful one.

And now for some favorite quotes (my copy is an ARC and I haven't gotten around to buying myself a final copy, so please be aware that some of the things I quote may have changed, and are probably on different page numbers now):
Page 92: 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.
Page 140: The air smelled different here-dead, damp leaves, mud, even the trees gave off a scent of their own.  She walked a few steps farther, until she was more in the forest than out, and looked back at the spot she had just left.  How completely different it seemed from this perspective.  The stone that she had been sitting on wasn't that large or rough at all.
Page 195: My father was never an exceptionally cruel man, despite so much of what he said and did in his life, and here is further proof of that.  A simple thank-you set his heart briefly racing, although he wouldn't have known how to say in which direction.
Page 206: In our rush to presumably better ourselves we had both missed what had otherwise always been obvious-that it often didn't take much more than careful consideration of each other's needs to secure a degree of happiness. 

Title: How to Read the Air
Author: Dinaw Mengestu
Date of Publication: October 14th, 2010
Number of Pages: 320
Genre: Fiction
Source: Review Copy from LibraryThing.com

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