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All Our Names
Cover of All Our Names
All Our Names
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From acclaimed author Dinaw Mengestu, a recipient of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 award, The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, comes an unforgettable love story about a searing affair between an American woman and an African man in 1970s America and an unflinching novel about the fragmentation of lives that straddle countries and histories.

All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart--one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and the other into the safety of exile in the American Midwest. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the beloved friend he left behind, the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.

Elegiac, blazing with insights about the physical and emotional geographies that circumscribe our lives, All Our Names is a marvel of vision and tonal command. Writing within the grand tradition of Naipul, Greene, and Achebe, Mengestu gives us a political novel that is also a transfixing portrait of love and grace, of self-determination and the names we are given and the names we earn.

This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
From acclaimed author Dinaw Mengestu, a recipient of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 award, The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, comes an unforgettable love story about a searing affair between an American woman and an African man in 1970s America and an unflinching novel about the fragmentation of lives that straddle countries and histories.

All Our Names is the story of two young men who come of age during an African revolution, drawn from the safe confines of the university campus into the intensifying clamor of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, the friends are driven apart--one into the deepest peril, as the movement gathers inexorable force, and the other into the safety of exile in the American Midwest. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the beloved friend he left behind, the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.

Elegiac, blazing with insights about the physical and emotional geographies that circumscribe our lives, All Our Names is a marvel of vision and tonal command. Writing within the grand tradition of Naipul, Greene, and Achebe, Mengestu gives us a political novel that is also a transfixing portrait of love and grace, of self-determination and the names we are given and the names we earn.

This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
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  • From the book

    HELEN
    When I met Isaac, I was almost what my mother would have called "a woman of a certain age." That in her mind made me vulnerable, though I never felt that way, not even as a child growing up in a house where it would have been much easier to be a boy. My mother was a whisperer. She spoke in soft tones, in case my father was upset or had entered one of his dark moods, a habit which she continued after he had left. We lived in a quiet, semi- rural Midwestern town, and decorum for her was everything. What mattered most was that the cracks that came with a family were neatly covered up, so that no one knew when you were struggling to pay the mortgage, or that your marriage was over long before the divorce papers were signed. I think she expected that I would speak like her--and maybe when I was very small I did, but my instincts tell me that, more likely than not, this was never the case. I could never have been a whisperer. I liked my voice too much. I rarely read a book in silence. I wanted to hear every story out loud, so I often read alone in our backyard, which was large enough that if I yelled the story at the top of my voice, no one in the house closest to us could hear me. I read out there in the winter, when the tree branches sagged with ice and the few chickens we owned had to be brought into the basement so they wouldn't freeze to death. When I was older, and the grass was almost knee-high because no one bothered to tend to it anymore, I went back there with a book in my hand simply to scream.


    That Isaac said he didn't mind if I raised my voice was the first thing I liked about him. I had driven nearly three hours, across multiple county lines and one state line, to pick him up as a favor to my boss, David, who had explained to me earlier that morning that, although, yes, tending to foreigners, regardless of where they came from, wasn't a normal part of our jobs, he had made an exception for Isaac as a favor to an old friend, and now it was my turn to do the same.

    I was happy to take Isaac on. I had been a social worker for five years and was convinced I had already spent all the good will I had for my country's poor, tired, and dispossessed, whether they were black, white, old, fresh from prison, or just out of a shelter. Even the veterans, some of whom I had gone to high school with, left me at the end of a routine thirty-minute home visit desperate to leave, as if their anguish was contagious. I had lost too much of the heart and all the faith needed to stay afloat in a job where every human encounter felt like an anvil strung around my neck just when I thought I was nearing the shore. We were, on our business cards and letterhead, the Lutheran Relief Services, but there hadn't been any religious affiliation--not since the last Lutheran church for a hundred miles shut down at the start of World War II and all of its parishioners were rechristened as Methodists.

    It was common among the four of us in the office to say that not only were we not Lutheran, but we didn't really provide any services, either. We had always run on a shoestring budget, and that string was nipped an inch or two each year as our government grants dried up, leaving us with little more than a dwindling supply of good intentions and promises of better years to come. David said it first and most often: "We should change our name to 'Relief.' That way, when someone asks what you do, you can say, 'I work for Relief.' And if they ask you relief from what, just tell them, 'Does it really matter?' "

    Mildly bitter sarcasm was David's preferred brand of humor. He claimed it was a countermeasure to the earnestness that supposedly came with our...

About the Author-
  • DINAW MENGESTU is the award-winning author of two novels, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears(2008) and How To Read the Air (2010). He is a graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University's MFA program in fiction and the recipient of a 5 under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation and a 20 under 40 Award from The New Yorker. His journalism and fiction have appeared in such publications as Harper's, Granta, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal. He is a recipient of a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant and currently lives in New York City.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from November 18, 2013
    Immigrant stories are often about self-invention, but in his latest novel, in which an African escaping to America cannot leave his past behind, McArthur Fellow Mengestu (How to Read the Air) portrays the intersection of cultures experienced by the immigrant with unsettling perception. Each of the two narrators—one speaking from the past in Africa, one in present-day America—has a relationship with a young man named Isaac, and the two take turns describing these relationships. The African narrator, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, recounts how he leaves his rural village to subsist on the margins of a university in a city that he simply calls “the Capital.” There, he finds a friend in the magnetic Isaac, a young revolutionary who draws him into an antigovernment insurgency. The second narrator is Helen, a Midwestern social worker, who takes under her wing and into her heart an African refugee named Isaac, knowing little about his situation and nothing of his history. The action is set after the first flush of African independence, as democratic self-rule proves elusive, while in America racial and social divides persist. In Africa, Isaac, the revolutionary, endures beatings and torture before confronting his own side’s penchant for violence. In America, Helen and the man she calls Isaac face their own intractable obstacles. Mengestu evokes contrasting landscapes but focuses on his characters—Isaac, the saddened visionary; Isaac, the secretive refugee; Helen, the sympathetic lover—who are all caught in a cycle of connection and disruption, engagement and abandonment, hope and disillusion. Agent: P.J. Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from February 1, 2014
    What's in a name? Identity of a kind, perhaps, but nothing like stability, and perhaps nothing like truth. So Mengestu (How to Read the Air, 2010, etc.) ponders in this elegiac, moving novel, his third. Himself an immigrant, Mengestu is alert to the nuances of what transplantation and exile can do to the spirit. Certainly so, too, is his protagonist--or, better, one of two protagonists who just happen to share a name, for reasons that soon emerge. One narration is a sequence set in and around Uganda, perhaps in the late 1960s or early 1970s, in a post-independence Africa. (We can date it only by small clues: Rhodesia is still called that, for instance, and not Zimbabwe.) But, as in a V.S. Naipaul story, neither the country nor the time matter much in a tale about human universals, in this case the universal longing for justice and our seemingly universal inability to achieve it without becoming unjust ourselves. The narrator, riding into the place he calls "the capital," sheds his old identity straightaway: "I gave up all the names my parents had given me." Isaac, whom he meets on campus, is, like him, a would-be revolutionary, and in that career trajectory lies a sequence of tragedies, from ideological betrayals to acts of murder. The region splintering, their revolution disintegrating, Isaac follows the ever-shifting leader he reveres into the mouth of hell. Meanwhile, Isaac--the name now transferred, along with a passport--flees to the snowy Midwest, where he assumes the identity of an exchange student, marked by a curious proclivity for Victorian English: "I remember thinking after that first afternoon that I felt like I was talking with someone out of an old English novel," says the caseworker, Helen, with whom he will fall in love. Neither Isaac can forget the crimes he has witnessed and committed, and the arc of justice that each seeks includes personal accountability. Redemption is another matter, but both continue the fight, whether in the scrub forest of Africa or at a greasy spoon somewhere along the Mississippi River. Weighted with sorrow and gravitas, another superb story by Mengestu, who is among the best novelists now at work in America.

    COPYRIGHT(2014) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    February 15, 2014
    Mengestu's previous novels (The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, 2007; How to Read the Air, 2010) established him as a talented writer interested in the imaginations, memories, and interpersonal collisions of African immigrants in the U.S. His latest, which presents the parallel narratives of a melancholy social worker in the American Midwest and a bookish witness to revolutionary violence in Uganda, returns to themes of alienation and exile but also explores the challenges and possibilities of love amid bleak circumstances. Both of his protagonists are drawn to a man named Isaac. Both stories take place in the early 1970s, a time of conflict in African states emerging from colonial rule as well as a time of persistent racial tensions in the U.S. The author highlights the dense slums of Kampala with the same intensity as he does the flatness of his midwestern farm town. But Mengestu is less interested in photographing a particular historical moment than he is fascinated by the dangers each setting imposes upon his vulnerable protagonists and their fragile relationships. And in the end, despite the bleak settings, tenderness somehow triumphs.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2014, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from March 15, 2014

    "I came for the writers and stayed for the war," says one of the narrators in this latest book from Mengestu (How To Read the Air), which in its focused and lean, beautiful writing is his best book yet. Mengestu blends this narrator's story of an African homeland rent by warfare he helped foment with that of Helen, the social worker with whom he becomes involved after escaping to America. Through his characters, the author examines Africa's plight (paralleled by continuing racism in America), the risks of revolution, the lure of power, and, especially, the enduring strength of love. Our young man in Africa has arrived in the city from the hinterlands, eager for an education. He learns something very different from what he expected when he meets the charismatic Isaac, who stirs an uprising at the university (where he isn't even registered) and finally pulls his new friend into a rebellion that turns shockingly bloody, sometimes hurting those it would help. Woven into the story of this essential friendship is the socially reticent Helen's fierce and touching involvement with the client she knows as Isaac. VERDICT A highly recommended read that's as absorbing as it is thought-provoking; the ending is a real punch. [See Prepub Alert, 9/9/13.]--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    October 1, 2013

    Winner of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 Award, The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 Award, and a 2012 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Mengestu opened his career with the bittersweetly tantalizing The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, then truly proved himself with How To Read the Air. Here's his next work, set in an African country racked by revolution. The hero abandons his university studies to join the uprising in the streets, then finds idealism fading into heedless violence and flees to America, where he's haunted by memories of what he has done. He also recalls the revolutionary leader who brought him to the streets and thereafter assured his safe passage from the country through personal sacrifice. With an eight-city tour.

    Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from July 1, 2014
    Here Mengestu ("How To Read the Air") uses the story of an affair between Helen, an American social worker in the Midwest, and Isaac, an African immigrant posing as an exchange student, to examine questions of loyalty and community. Do not come to this novel expecting a "traditional" immigrant narrative. Mengestu uses the framework of geography and immigration to tell his sad and often harrowing tale of identity, responsibility, and love. Helen and Isaac relate their own parts of the story in alternating narratives read beautifully by Saskia Maarleveld and Korey Jackson. This structure lends grace notes to a moving, lyrical novel. VERDICT A wonderful listen. ["A highly recommended read that's as absorbing as it is thought-provoking; the ending is a real punch," read the starred review of the Knopf hc, "LJ" 3/15/14.]--Wendy Galgan, St. Francis Coll., Brooklyn

    Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Boston Globe "You can't turn the pages fast enough, and when you're done, your first impulse is to go back to the beginning and start over . . . While questions of race, ethnicity, and point of origin do crop up repeatedly in Mengestu's fiction, they are merely his raw materials, the fuel with which he so artfully--but never didactically--kindles disruptive, disturbing stories exploring the puzzles of identity, place, and human connection. Mengestu began this exploration with his dazzling first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, and extended it in How to Read the Air. Good as they were, those books now look like warm-up acts . . . All Our Names is a book about an immigrant, but more profoundly it is a story about finding out who you are, about how much of you is formed by your family and your homeland, and what happens when those things go up in smoke . . . Like the best storytellers, Mengestu knows that endings don't have to be happy to be satisfying, that mysteries don't need to be explained, that discriminating between what can and can't be known is more than enough. And he is generous enough to imbue his characters with this awareness as well . . . The victories in this beautiful novel are hard fought and hard won, but won they are, and they are durable." --Malcolm Jones, The New York Times Book Review (cover) "Deeply moving . . . Great lyricism and ferocity . . . An elegiac quality oddly reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited . . . Mengestu writes from the points of view of Helen and Isaac with poignancy and psychological precision, deftly evoking their very different takes on the world. He also manages to make the reader understand the many things they have in common . . . Mengestu is concerned here not only with the dislocations experienced by immigrants, but also with broader questions of identity: how individuals define themselves by their dreams, their choices, the place or places they call home." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times "Disarmingly tender . . . Finely calibrated . . . The author perceptively explores the way that alienation serves as the handmaid of idealism . . . Leavening the attendant sadness if the fact that Mengestu's characters never altogether abandon their hope--it survives not in political or social revolt but in the true and moving depictions of love and friendship." --The Wall Street Journal "Mournful, mysterious . . . Tantalizingly laconic . . . Delicately drawn . . . The emotional power seeps through lines that seem placid . . . Devastating." --Washington Post "Extraordinary . . . Taut and swift as a novella with an abiding mystery driving it forward . . . Mengestu masterfully plays these two storylines off one another. In both threads, the narrative revolves around what is visible and invisible in a person's character, and how this duality can lead to problems when one is charmed . . . The raptures at the heart of All Our Names have a steeling quality . . . One reads to the end with a kind of desperate intensity."
  • Meg Wolitzer, NPR "A subtle masterpiece . . . Mengestu uses love and war to powerfully explore a third, equally dramatic theme: identity . . . We see, in this novel, the way people become radicalized and get worked up for a cause; and the way at other times, people get worked up for love. Both can be directionless and, in the end, impossible . . . Mengestu tracks both themes with authority and feeling. His book is a powerful look at who we aren't, and even, sometimes, who we are."
  • San Francisco Chronicle "Profoundly moving . . . Mengestu's voice is a finely tuned instrument . . . It conveys the easy banter between buddies as well as the paradoxical wit of political slogans. Counterintuitively, it also captures the elliptical convolutions of human psychology . . . Its words may be simple, but All Our Names speaks volumes. It sounds a great reverberation."
  • Booklist "Fierce and touching . . . As abs
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