cover image MY SKY BLUE TRADES: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time

MY SKY BLUE TRADES: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time

Sven Birkerts, Author . Viking $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-670-03

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. (On sale Aug. 26)