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My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time Hardcover – August 26, 2002


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What If? by Randall Munroe
From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, find hilarious and informative answers to important questions you probably never thought to ask. Learn more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First edition (August 26, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670031097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670031092
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #506,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The literary world isn't lacking for memoirs about growing up, especially lately, but it could certainly use more like Birkerts's. Author of The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts presents here a collection of essays about life as the offspring of Latvian immigrants, languorously telling stories about his grandparents and parents before moving on, almost reluctantly, to his own youthful tales. They are presented as flashes of memory, always leading back to his roots. He writes, "I do not have a sustained narrative to present, only a cluster of episodes and characterizations. I want to understand my relation to the family past, to figure out why the contemplation of it should unsettle me so." He speaks of familiar things: the Hardy Boys, a best friend, pellet guns. After adolescence, he describes hippie nights, early jobs and searching for a girlfriend. He infuses every topic with a sense of curiosity about his place in the world and in his family. Every riff about going barefoot or drinking wine has the kind of grace achieved only through the combination of hindsight and exceptional writing skill. The book gets its title from a line in Dylan Thomas's poem about childhood, "Fern Hill." It's appropriate, because Birkerts often adopts Thomas's dreamy tone and knack for crisp language. As his ruminations about being a kid gently give way to descriptions of adult excursions, there's a sense of maturation, both in the writing and the subject matter. Although the realm of early experience is overly trod terrain, Birkerts makes it fresh, compelling and well worth another trip.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Essayist and critic Birkerts (Mt. Holyoke Coll.; The Gutenberg Elegies) here offers a splendidly crafted set of essays interweaving his youth as the son of immigrant parents during the Sixties with tales of his ancestors in Latvia. Born in 1951, Birkerts grew up in suburban Detroit and looked to books as a means of self-identification. He describes his struggles with his traditionalist parents as he attempted to submerge his Latvian heritage in American culture, his adventures in the counterculture, and the gradual process by which he came to peace with himself and discovered his gifts as a writer and literary critic. Those gifts are evident here, as Birkerts takes us on a journey at once deeply reflective of American culture and touchingly his own. This book is highly recommended for academic libraries, where students can use it to explore the writing process, and for larger public libraries as well. Mark Bay, Hagan Memorial Lib., Cumberland Coll., Williamsburg, KY
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Zinta Aistars on January 17, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having grown up in much the same time period and with much the same ethnic background (my family, too, came to the United States from Latvia during WW2), even in the same approximate area (lower Michigan), I picked up Birkerts' book (and, as chance would have it, I found it in the bookstore in Ann Arbor he describes as his place of employment) with immense curiosity. Just how similar would his experience be to mine? Initially, it was rather exhilirating to read this memoir that spoke of so much that I, too, knew so well, down to the ethnic bone. As I read of his discomforts and anxieties about learning a new language other than the one spoken in his home, his sense of being something of a misfit in both the Latvian and the American communities, I identified in most every detail. Ah, yes, this too I felt on my adolescent thin hide... Mine, I felt simultaneously as blessing and curse, as perhaps, in conclusion, did Birkerts.
In later years, of course, Birkerts' experiences forked away very much from my own... but no matter. I didn't need to look into a mirror to sustain my interest. Indeed, that is the whole appeal of this book - it is not only for the multicultural reader. The writing is excellent, and my exhiliration at sharing in a similar experience soon veered to an exhiliration simply in reading a book so well written. Perhaps that is one of the blessings of being bilingual, this ability to approach a second language with greater awareness. Birkerts' use of language is vibrant and lush and frequently stunning. His insights and perspective on his work, his relationships, the inner workings of his developing self.... all are richly portrayed. No matter from what backgrounds we come, we all question ourselves and our life choices, we all struggle with similar demons at one time or another.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Doug Anderson VINE VOICE on October 27, 2003
Format: Paperback
A few themes run through these memoir-essays: rebellion against the father, books as an escape from life. Ok just two themes. The fifties and sixties (Birkerts was born in 1951) are what might be the most documented decades in the history of man. Its very difficult to write a memoir about this time that doesn't sound cliched.
Birkerts parents were from Latvia and spoke Latvian in the Michigan family home. Ok thats new. But Sven who insisted on being called Peter was a rebel with a cause as a young man: he wanted to conform and be American. As he got older he traded in the desire to conform for a desire to be different and so he became a hippie and he did all the things hippies do: drug experiences, sex, travel, Woodstock. Though well written this kind of book is routine. Birkerts is strongest when he is talking about his grandparents but he is at his weakest when he is talking about the counterculture and his various girlfriends. Birkerts' first love is not women but books. When he is discussing a book all the lights come on in his head but when he is talking about a woman the room remains dim.
Memoirs are reckonings and the person the writer is really attempting to reckon with is themselves. I get the feeling however that Birkerts has not quite gotten there yet. In this self-portrait the artist hides behind a series of 1950's and 1960's cliches; the experiences Birkert's describes just seem too generic. It is as if his mind is clouded with the popular view of 1950's-60's and he cannot see beyond that to form his own view of the times. Also there just isn't enough of his inner life in this book; no sense of intellectual evolution, no great awakenings to the world except in the most cliched kind of way, and no sense of love for his craft.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Timothy J. Bazzett on May 26, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I can't even remember now how I came to find Sven Birkerts, but I think it was by way of a book jacket blurb he provided for some other writer. That's the kind of reader I am. I read the blurbs, the acknowledgements, all that stuff on the copyright page, etc.

Birkerts, like me, is obviously a book-person. His whole life is a testament to that. He decided early on, around age 14, that he wanted to write, but it took him another dozen or more years to finally find his niche as a writer. After struggling throughout high school and college at writing poetry and fiction - and coming up empty - he finally began to write about what he knew: other people's books. And since then, over the past few decades, he has become recognized as a preeminent literary critic and essayist. But even at that, hey, I'd never heard of the guy.

But in MY SKY BLUE TRADES he tells of his own life. It's certainly not a rags-to-riches sort of story, since he grew up in Bloomfield Hills (a wealthy Detroit suburb), son of Gunnar Birkerts, a successful and respected architect. What makes his life story unique and interesting is that his parents were both emigrants from Latvia, so he grew up bilingual and always feeling just a bit 'different.' There were generational-cultural clashes between Birkerts and his father, an ultra-practical and orderly man. His memories of his grandparents play a big role in his development too. He attended the private and exclusive Cranbrook School, and then went on to UM in Ann Arbor. But although Birkerts comes from an upper class background, his coming of age has an element of commonality. The music of the sixties, the constant trying to fit in, a few best friends, experimenting with drugs and drinking, crushes, etc. It's all in there.
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