100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared –Book Review

41s8fLqmoSL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

In his memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How my Brother Disappeared, Kim Stafford pieces together fragmented memories of the life of his brother as a means of understanding and coming to terms with his suicide. The memoir, separated into four “books” begins with memories the author has of the last few months of his older brother Bret’s life, leading up to the moment he took his life. Stafford muses on the long held belief he has been holding onto that he could have prevented Bret’s death. What follows is a series of anecdotal memories from the two boy’s lives growing up together, and their journeys into adulthood, both together and separate, that have become meaningful to Stafford in his attempt to understand and grapple with the loss of his brother, and closest ally in life. Through these memories, we witness Stafford’s journey to rediscover the memories of his brother that have been clouded by his death. A large majority of the memoir consists of Stafford’s childhood memories both directly and indirectly involved with Bret. Through these memories, we see the differences between Kim and Bret, having Bret in Kim’s life was the single most integral factor in shaping him into the person he became in adulthood. In one section of the book, Stafford describes a memory in which he and his brother had ventured away from their boy scout camping trip, on a solo hike up a mountain, connected by a length of rope tied between them for safety. The image of the rope connecting them becomes symbolic to the reader as more and more of their brotherly bond is reviled, and we understand the deep connection that they felt with each other growing up.

As we read, and more and more memories of friendship and understanding from the boys’ childhood surface, our recollections from the beginning of the book become all the more haunting. As Stafford muses in the opening sections of his memoir, in Bret’s final days on earth, he felt completely alone and in a place that Kim and the rest of their family was unable to reach or even to detect. As Stafford muses on Bret’s behavior in his last weeks, he discovers changes in him that only became visible after it was too late. In the later sections of the book, Stafford reflects on his time with Bret saying “In my life, I observe–in both myself and others–a different habit: we talk about different things at the same time. This is marked by the relative rarity of the following sentence in the flow of our conversations: “Tell me more.” When I remember life with my brother, always eager to tell him what I was accomplishing, I said this too rarely.”

The experience of reading this book was not at all what I expected it to be. I thought the book would be about having a loved one with depression and experiencing their suicide. The book was this in some way, but it was not at all a story of Bret’s death, but rather a story of his life, and for this reason I found the book all the more compelling. As Stafford reflects in the afterward of the book, “I set out to write the story of how my brother disappeared–from the world, and from my family’s conversation–but by writing I find he begins to reappear as a rich dimension in my life. If I did not listen deeply enough to my brother when he was alive, I have been listening since he died.” This assertion that Stafford makes at the end of the memoir was a clarifying moment for me as a reader, who was looking for some kind of unity in the memories that were being recounted. In a way, I feel this is one of the things that makes Stafford’s work so masterful. I did not understand the lesson he had learned, and in turn was passing off to me, until the final page of the book.

For this reason, at times some of the parts of the memoir felt a bit disjointed. Many of the memories that Stafford chose to include did not even include Bret, but in some ways I think this worked for the type of story he was trying to tell. By the end of the book, my understanding as a reader is that the creation of this book, and the compilation of these recollections from the author’s past worked as both a tribute to the life of his brother, but also as means of imparting the truth he has found in these memories. For Stafford, the book is a way of as he puts it,“talking bravely,” which has been something he has recognized as a weakness in not only his own family, but the world at large.

While the message of this book and its lasting impact were insightful and impactful, there were some moments in the narrative that felt inauthentic in the sense of memoir writing. There were moments in the narrative where I felt as if Stafford was blurring the lines between what he felt in the moment, and his feelings about that moment as an adult living in the present. In some cases, it felt like he projected his reflective musings onto his earlier self, often making it seem as if he had found that particular wisdom in the moment, when it seemed more likely that the true meaning of the moment came to him in later contemplation. At times it was difficult to distinguish the difference between what he understood in the moment, and what he now understands the moment to mean.

That being said, the strong aspects of Stafford’s style in the memoir far outweigh the weak. The stylistic choice to divide the story into individual memories made it easy and enjoyable to read. Overall, I think this is the sort of book that anyone can appreciate. In fact, I think for many reasons, the narrative that Stafford has created is one that many people need to hear in this day and age, when hatred and suffering are such prevalent parts of our day to day lives.

Interestingly, I discovered this book during an author panel at the 2017 AWP writer’s conference that was centered around the idea of empathy. In discussion, Stafford mentioned that after writing this book, a friend of his read it and then gave it to both of his sons to read. He felt that it was a type of “medicine” he could give them to help them in the world we live in today. In many respects I think the purpose of this book is to be a kind of medicine for an audience that is programed to hide their vulnerability. Through revealing his own failings, Stafford both atones for the lack of vulnerability he shared with his brother, and coaches his reader on how to find this kind of openness in themselves.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared

Kim Stafford

200 pages. Published by Trinity University Press. $16.95

The Bald Soprano: UMF Production

This weekend, when I attended UMF’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, I paid careful attention to the set and the props that were used. I was very curious after reading the play, how the actual production of it would look, and I made some interesting observations about the artistic choices that were made. Due to the absurdist nature of the play, I was curious as to how this might impact the practical appearance of the set, the costumes and the props.

What I noticed about the set to begin with, was that it was almost normal, but there was a very slight feeling of absurdity to it. It was almost realistic, but wasn’t. The walls of the living room were an exaggerated shade of blue, the portraits on the wall were comically large. The clock on the wall, one of the main focal points, was also exaggerated to be larger than usual. Everything about the set, props and costumes felt almost normal but slightly of kilter.

I thought the aesthetic was perfect for this play. On the surface, The Bald Soprano has the allusion of being a normal play, and the set helps create that illusion. As the story progresses, and the play reveals itself as being more of an anti-play, the aesthetic of the set begins to feel less realistic. The clock on the wall looks like a normal clock, but it does not operate like one, eventually going out of control and swinging back and forth on the wall. Similarly, on the surface the play looks like a normal play, but it does not operate like one.

In addition to the actual set, there were other elements of the visual appearance of the play that contributed to the feeling of absurdity. I was surprised by the effect that the lighting had on the general mood of what was going on. As things got more and more absurd, the lighting grew dimmer and changed colors a bit, creating a feeling of unease or abnormality. Occasionally a spotlight was used for dramatic effect, but what was being dramatized by the use of the spotlight was impossible to differentiate from the absurd drama of every other scene that it just added to the disjointed humor. The set and lighting subtly created the feeling of one losing touch with reality, without fully letting go of it.

The costumes were realistic to what people in the 50s might actually wear, and I think having the characters look relatively normal made a nice contrast to the way they were behaving. By making the characters seem like rational and proper adults, it only made what was actually going on all the more absurd.

The set was not very elaborate, and neither were the costumes, props or lighting, but the combination of these things was just the right balance of normal and abnormal. It left me second guessing what was normal and what was askew and I think this was a fitting sensation to experience during this particular play.

“The Uncanny” in The Prisoner of Azkaban

In his essay The “Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud says that what is uncanny “is undoubtably related to what is frightening–to what arouses dread and horror.” He attempts to discuss the different ways the uncanny is interpreted, which typically includes the assertion that to be uncanny has a quality of “intellectual uncertainty.” He describes the way the aesthetic qualities of certain works can contribute to this air of uncanniness.

To a certain extent, it can be argued that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban carries an uncanny aesthetic. The plot of the novel is essentially guided by what Harry doesn’t know, and this creates a feeling of uncanniness. One very obvious example that creates a feeling of unease throughout the story is the appearance of the dementors. From the beginning, Harry and the other students are told that the demetors are there to protect Hogwarts from Sirius Black. For something that is meant to be protection, Harry has several instances with the dementors that actually prove to be very dangerous. This sets up the subliminal feeling that what is going on in the plot might not actually be what we are led to believe, along with Harry. At the start of the novel, Harry is told that Sirius Black is a threat to him, and the dementors are there to protect him from that threat. Later we discover that Sirius is the opposite of a threat to Harry, and the dementors–who are still very dangerous–were an unnecessary risk in protecting him. Throughout the story, Harry has many uncanny experiences that provide a sense of unease, and cause a sort of misdirection to the reader. We can sense a feeling of danger, but it is not exactly what we think it is.

Unknown

Another part of the story that contributes to the uncanny is the introduction of divination class. Professor Trelawny represents a sort of superstitious, unreliable side to the magical world that Harry, Ron and Hermione are not familiar with. Hermione, a character who relies on reason, rejects Trelawny’s class because she thinks it’s a load of nonsense. Harry however, feels uneasy about it, because he is already growing cautious about what is happening around him. He starts to piece together the things that have been going on, like the hunt for Black, and the appearance of the dog figure, and going to divination just adds to the uncanniness of what he is experiencing. It reflects the fact that Harry cannot count on what is going on around him. When Ron looks at Harry’s tea leaves he sees one message, but when professor Trelawny looks at them she sees another. This is reflective of the uncertain nature of the story’s plot. It may seem as if one thing is happening, but really it is something else entirely.

Aside from elements specific to the plot of The Prisoner of Azkaban, the Harry Potter books in general have an uncanny aesthetic. The details of the wizarding world, while at times fanciful, also have an uncanny nature. Rowling uses names and details such as naming the castle”Hogwarts” to create a mood for the story that isn’t all fairytale. There is a dark spin on the wonders of the wizarding world and the dangers that the characters face. In the film adaption of the movies, the directors do an excellent job of depicting this. Often the colors of the sets are dark and muted, the costumes are not lavish, but dark and dull. Even the setting of the bleak English countryside speaks to the uncanny aesthetic of the story.

 

Unknown-1

Ultimately, there are many elements of the novel that create the feeling of uncanniness for the reader. The predominate theme of things not being as they seem takes on a real form at the end of the novel when the use of time travel comes into play. In addition, revealing that the rat is actually the disguised Peter Pettigrew, is in itself a physical example of the theme of misdirection that manifests itself through the entire plot. Along with the many small details that create a feeling of uncanniness, the way in which the story is told, and the way we receive the information all serve to contribute to the uncanny feeling of the story.

Barthes’ “Toys” Applied to Modern American Advertising

By: Annie Moloney

In his essay “Toys,” Roland Barthes describes how French toys are “essentially a microcosm of the adult world.” He says “they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man […]” In the essay he goes on to explain the way French toys almost exclusively reflect adult society and do not offer children the opportunity to invent the world in which they play, only to use a world already created for them. He attributes this idea to “the fact that the adult Frenchman sees the child as another self.” Because toy making is left to the adult members of society, Barthes is making the point that they are inherently infused with adult issues.

In many respects, this idea applies to the modern toy market we see in American society today. Many of the toys marketed for American children are based on the concepts of a smaller, more simplified adult world. They are geared toward the child pretending to me “like mommy” or “like daddy” while completing tasks that adults typically don’t do for enjoyment, or view with a considerable measure of responsibility. One such example is a line of baby dolls sold by Fisher Price called “Little Mommy.” In this advertisement for a particular doll known as “the Little Mommy Very Real Baby” a girl is shown caring for the dolls basic needs. The type of play the toy suggests is to simulate the world of a real mother, caring for a child’s wounds, feeding the baby, and putting her to sleep. The name alone is an obvious indication of what is being pushed here. It is the concept that the child’s idea of play should be pretending to have adult responsibilities, and the type of toy the market provides is celebrated as being “very real.” Watching the advertisement through this lens is almost surreal. The attempt to force the adult role of motherhood on a young girl in such an overt manner has the capability to be extremely off-putting if one takes a moment to ponder what is strange concept it is. However, it is a common practice, and most consumers are so inundated with products like this, that there seems nothing odd about it. What other reason would an adult think to create such a toy for a little girl if not for Barthes suggestion that it is in an effort to “condition her for the future roll as mother.”

The point about the meaning behind French toys that Barthes is getting at in his essay is very true of the American toy industry. The fact that the toys are created by adults reduces the child to the user of whatever is provided for them, and often what is provided is geared toward adult interest, rather than the child’s. The Little Mommy doll is just one example.

In addition to toys that simulate adult life, the American toy market is also replete with toys that are geared toward some type of fantasy world. While this might not be as obvious an attempt at recreating the adult world, it subtly reflects what Barthes suggests about adults seeing children as “another self.” The child is not responsible for creating the toy, the adult is, and what might seem appealing to an adult is the type of game that allows one to escape reality. These type of toys often come from movie franchise or books such as Star Wars and Harry Potter, that are actually geared toward an older audience, but have merchandise that is targeted at younger children.

Barthes’ assertion that, “French toys are usually based on imitation” and that, “they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators” is something that can be traced to the American toy market as well. The type of toys found on the shelves of Toys R Us and Walmart are the type geared toward creating consumers not creators. In today’s capitalist market, most messages from the media and advertising world prompt this sort of consumer behavior. From a young age, children are taught what type of toys they are supposed to play with, and those toys are supposed to prepare them to grow up and conform to certain societal standards. Most of the toys available today encourage conformity into adulthood, rather than embracing the creativity of childhood.