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Know the West

Sippings of memory: a review of "100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do"


100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared
Kim Stafford
202 pages, softcover: $16.95.
Trinity University Press, 2012.

One of the happy consequences of reading Kim Stafford is that he makes you want to become a better person. The Portland-based author of 12 books of poetry and prose writes with a quiet gentleness, intimacy and kindness.

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared is a personal and introspective memoir chronicling Stafford's relationship with his older brother, Bret, who took his own life at the age of 40, with very little warning. In 82 chapters, some only a few paragraphs in length --  "sippings," as Stafford has called them elsewhere -- the writer searches his "tunnel of memory" for clues to the painful mystery that still haunts him.

"For the work of memoir," Stafford writes, "is to put personal memory in a form that may serve the memories of others." For Stafford, most memories are consoling, and 100 Tricks shows us a man -- who just happens to be a gifted writer -- looking back, struggling to make sense of tragedy. "I have written in this book what the philosopher José Ortega y Gassett called 'salvations' -- short narratives that seek to apprehend and save essential stories and discoveries: a moment, a fleeting glimpse, any episodic evidence toward understanding."

Stafford's economic and deft use of language is one of the book's strengths. This comes as no surprise: Like his famous father, former U.S. Poet Laureate William Stafford, Kim Stafford is first and foremost a poet. "My soul has pockets," the younger Stafford writes, "and into these pockets gather the places and moments that mutter my brother's life." Stafford also has a history of offering wisdom with Zen-like simplicity and 100 Tricks does not disappoint: "Happiness is born in struggle and even in failure," and "Each story will seek the right listener."

Ultimately, many of Stafford's questions remain unanswerable. Though 100 Tricks centers on his brother's suicide, it is neither glum nor depressing. Instead, it's a heartwarming and touching investigation into family and memory -- a book about love and living well above all else.