Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Read the Air and Tinkers

Jonas Woldemariam, part-time English teacher at a prestigious New York Academy, tells intricate narratives in order to engage his students. In fact, on a day when he should be teaching the demanding syllabus expected of him, he instead tells his curious students about “where he came from” [since they knew he wasn’t from here] by making up his father’s immigration to the Unites States with an elaborate story of imprisonment, kidnapping, mystery, and violence.  Jonas notes, “while it was common even among the most disciplined teachers to allow for small fabrications, from the beginning the stories I told my students existed on a more ambitious plane.” This time, however, the “ambitious plane” took off and had trouble landing as the back story for his father ended up taking up a week of class time and grew into -- well, it grew into something bigger.

Thinking that his marriage to Angela, a lawyer in a impressive firm in the city, would make him plan for the future, Jonas also wrongly misleads her about his job, his own plans, and his past. After a particularly bad fall out from his latest woven tale, Jonas takes off from his marriage and his work and seeks to retrace a trip his parents attempted thirty years before to Nashville, Tennessee.

The only son of Ethiopian immigrants and raised in Peoria, Illinois, with a violent father, Jonas’s restlessness and unsettledness, as well as his lying, seem all part of the upbringing where his mother and he constantly attempted but never succeeded in running away from their life. Now, perhaps, he can.

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu relates a story of immigration, but this writer somehow captures something different --  the lyrical prose might be what makes this story more stirring.

BTW: The title comes from his father’s story --- once his father escaped from Sudan, he had this uncanny ability to feel danger in the air -- thus, he learned how to read it. Mengestu uses this “air” motif in unusual ways throughout the novel.

This is Mengestu’s second novel -- I’ve now put his first The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears on my list.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Tinkers by Paul Harding, proves itself a worthy read. Even though the main character, George Crosby lies dying, [the novel opens with "George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died"], his memory lives vividly in the past.

As his family sits on death watch, Crosby’s mind flits to his hard-scrabble youth as well as to his years as a clock repairman. Harding, in fascintating detail, relates the inner workings of clocks and their repairs, and as tedious as that might sound, it’s Harding’s capable language that makes this work beautifully. Harding uses it metaphorically to emphasize the complexities of Crosby’s life.

Crosby’s father, Horace, an epileptic, makes his living by selling his wares in the back-country of Canada, and his wife, Kathleen, a bitter woman who hates her lot [she reminded me of Addie Bundren of Faulkner fame] determines, after one of his particularly violent fits, that her husband should be institutionalized. Their story, as well as Crosby’s own, meld together in this powerful novel of nature [there are some fabulous descriptions], family, love, and loss.

Both of these books made me feel like an English major again. As I read these, I knew I was reading the work of exceptional writers.

Note: This was Harding's debut novel.



  1. I love books that make me feel like an English major again, too.

    Are you on goodreads?

  2. I loved "Tinkers." I'll have to check out "How to Read the Air." Thanks for the recommendations.