Wednesday, January 12, 2005

My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time by Sven Birkerts

A book review by Zinta Aistars

* Hardcover: 288 pages
* Publisher: Viking Books, 2002
* ISBN: 0670031097
* $24.95

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. Family dynamics are not so different, I'm sure, no matter what the ethnic background.

Birkerts' `My Sky Blue Trades' is a valuable portrayal of the immigrant experience for more than one generation, but is also of value simply as a well written book.

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