Anne Ursu

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"The Disapparation of James"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 20, 2003)

It is Greta Woodrow's seventh birthday and to celebrate she is at the Razzlers Circus Stage Show at the Lindbergh Performing Arts Center with her family -- her mother, Dr. Hannah Woodrow, a physician and the family breadwinner; and, her father, Justin Woodrow, a very content and competent stay-at-home Dad; and, her 5-year-old lovable brother James. Of the two orange-headed Woodrow children, Greta is the louder and far more agitated child, a difficult baby from birth, yet a smart little girl "skilled at the art of interrogation," which she delivers with an ever more shrilling voice. James is the opposite; he is quiet; sometimes a little too quiet. James is the kind of kid who is content to sit in a corner with his building blocks hour after hour, an easy child whose developmental growth is going at its own pace. But on this evening, James is not his normal self; he's acting out just like any other excited kid waiting for the circus to start, bouncing about and kicking the chair in front of him.

Read excerptWhen the circus gets underway both kids are enthralled, Greta expresses herself by yelling, "This is so GOOD," while James' excitement is not as perceptible, a nod of the head when asked if he's enjoying it. So when Mike the Clown asks for volunteers, neither parent is surprised when Greta raises her hand - actually stands on her chair and shrieks - along with all the other kids. And then James raises his arm and stands stiffly hand in air waiting. Perhaps Mike the Clown chooses James because "he seems like an alien among all these screaming 'pick me'-ers." Yet once up on the stage, James is a natural entertainer, making the audience laugh and laugh. He is adorable and the Woodrow's are so proud of him.

Then Mike the Clown does his final balancing act; he has James sit in a chair and he balances James and the chair on his chin. Then, in a moment of sheer magical brilliance, James disappears into thin air. He truly disappears. The show ends and James does not return. Justin thinks this is not such a good trick after all because a nice touch would have been to have the boy reappear, "because usually when someone or something disappears during a trick, they reappear again --- that's part of the whole trick, really it's the payoff." Yet, the show ends, everyone leaves the stage, the audience files out to the lobby. And James is not among them. Nor is he in the lobby with Mike the Clown. Nor is he backstage stuck in a secret chamber or other hiding place. He is just plain gone.

Panic ensues as the police are called to the crime scene, the theater patrons are locked in and Mike the Clown is arrested. Then the numbed parents are brought to the police station and interrogated separately. Finally, they are together again and a viewing of a videotape of the performance reveals to Hannah and Justin the worst of the worse. No one took their son. They discover a tear in the fabric of the universe, one where little boys disappear into thin air and it seems that only Hannah and Justin understand this; but in their individual grief and shock they can't talk to each other about this anomaly of reality. The police go about their normal procedures for finding missing children with the key suspect being Mike the Clown. And as procedures dictate, they post reluctant bachelor Officer Tom to stay at the house of the family, to watch their behavior, as well as to protect them from press, neighbors, friends and even other family members if need be.

Much of the book is about what happens with Hannah, Justin and Greta, and even those close to the situation such as Mike the Clown, after James' disappearance. Hannah sleeps so she can dream of James, Justin wants to take action and waits for a chance to break from the house to kill Mike the Clown (even though he knows it won't help), Greta concentrates on learning magic in the hopes that she can figure out this fantastic trick and bring her brother back. Since neither Justin nor Hannah seem to be watching Greta, Officer Tom awkwardly takes on this responsibility along with his other tasks.

The best part about this novel is how she portrays this healthy family unit; the fact that it is so healthy is refreshing. She illuminates the most sincere, deepest love between each family member, and from that we instantly see the risk that comes out of so much love. This understanding compounds the sheer helplessness when James "disapparates," because how can your love ever be safe if you can't trust the universe? It's a whimsical way to deal with our worst fears, but it does allow her more creative room in building the character of the family. For example, she has one chapter that begins "In another universe, there is a Saturday morning like any other, in which the Woodrows wake up to an ordinary day, which whatever happened did not happen..." and proceeds to take us through how the day should have/could have gone, especially since this is the day of Greta's kid birthday party. This succeeds in pulling us closer to this very likable family. Then she brings us through how the day actually moves along. Though I wouldn't call this an emotionally wrought novel; it does offer a lot of emotional truth or what seems like it would be true if you lost a loved one to the ether (or worse).

Reading this novel is like stepping into a vivid dream, one where you seem to know exactly how something feels even if you have never, ever (thankfully) experienced it yourself. As in this case, the dream can even be about a horrible thing, but we don't experience the horror, instead we find ourselves curious in an out- of-body-sort-of-way about how indeed we'd feel or act. Ursu's writing style seems to skip something conventional that usually occurs to us in the reading process; instead her hypnotic words go straight to the subconscious level of the brain, that semi-awareness place that happens in a pleasant dream state that allows us to work out bad things without feeling the full pain. But then, I think maybe I've just described what it is to be in a state of shock, which is exactly what the Woodrow family is in.

From the first page of this book, when she describes the parents all over the auditorium as "shushing and soothing, cajoling and threatening -- a steady murmur underneath the screeches, babbles, and cries of the ten-and-under set," I felt the excitement that I was about to read another poetically visual Anne Ursu novel, and felt assured that her first novel, which I really enjoyed, was no quirk. Personally I like this writer's style. However, when it comes to books of this nature, dealing with such an emotional subject, it's hard to say who will and will not like it. (Should parents who have had a child abducted in real life read it? I don't know. For that matter, should any parent read it?) This book does not offer a solution to our fears, but somehow reading it makes us aware its universality. I do believe that this book and this author will appeal to anyone who enjoyed The Lovely Bones because here again is a light-easy treatment of a subject matter that traditionally only appears in heart wrenching novels or as (cheap) plot motivators in mysteries and thrillers. The Disapparation of James is a uniquely constructed, carefully written novel and a very pleasant reading experience. In fact, I'd say it reads like a dream.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 23 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Disapparation of James at MostlyFiction.com

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"Spilling Clarence"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 12, 2002)

"Perhaps the mind's ability to make the past malleable is essential for our survival. Because we've all made horrendous mistakes, suffered trauma, committed troubling acts in our lives. What would happen if we could remember them all, call them up with just a smell or a word? What would it do to us if we remembered our childhoods, our whole lives, every day?"
- From Professor Singer's psychology lecture

The denizens of Clarence, Minnesota are about to experience an event, but they won't actually realize it while it is happening. When the local psychopharmaceutical company catches fire the town is briefly quarantined. For a few hours, there's a desperate hope that this is one of those life-threatening moments that you live to retell; but at the end of the day, they are merely told to go home from wherever they are. And to stay home for one whole day with the reassurance that the smoky air will clear and all will be back to normal. This is essentially a nonevent in a world bent on disaster news. ("The air goes out the collective psychic balloon with a languid hssssss.")

If anything, there is the possibility that a chemical compound called deletrium, a compound normally combined with other psychoactive drugs, has been leaked into the air; and if it has, some, like the students at Mansfield University with personal experience using psychopharmaceutical drugs, can't see how this could be too bad a thing. Shouldn't it just make Clarence a really happy town?

Yet, no one is happy. Some Clarence residents are seeing their doctors without satisfaction of diagnosis, though if they could read the label they'd know their symptoms are similar to deletrium's side effects. There is much crying and weeping at the Sunny Shades Elegant Living Retirement Community. Throughout the town, there are many pauses in conversation as the speaker finds himself remembering the minutest detail that they hadn't thought about in all these many years. And phones are ringing off the hook for travel agents, psychologists, Realtors, continuing education officers and career counselors; people are lining up at Madame Z's Fortunes and Future.

Seasons change. Interior dialogues fill the air with silences as the town attempts to go through its ritual Halloween practices. At night the residents lie in bed, twitching. They find themselves "awake awake" in the middle of the night but unable to concentrate on reading or television or even a midnight snack. And as the days pass, a general languor starts to settle upon the town.

Then the snow falls and all outside activity comes to a stop. The residents of Clarence are in their beds reliving moments both good and bad. Obviously the experience is different for each person heavily weighted by their age and the severity of their past experiences.

Bennie Singer and Susannah Korbet are two of the people sitting in the Davis and Dean cafe on the day of the "spill" (as so sensationalized by the local TV station even though it is more of a leak). They do not know each other, yet they have much in common, most particularly the need to stay focused on the present. And it's those who protectively reside in the present that are hit the very hardest when the deletrium seeps into their brains and opens the doors of the past.

Spilling Clarence is a surreal picture of what it would be like to remember everything in detail. Through this unusual accident Ursu explores what would happen if we really were able to recall everything we ever knew, saw, or felt at least for a brief period of time. Can there be benefit in remembering childhood cruelty or in reliving a marriage that is long over? How would this serve a soldier who had seen Dachau? And what if you were the one driving the car when your wife, the woman you loved with all your heart, died? Is this what it is like for a person suffering mental illness? And what if you believe a memory is your own, but what you remembered happened to somebody else? Is it as Freud says, that there is a reason for every forgotten word, name or deed?

This is a beautiful and heartwarming novel. Although the idea behind the novel is intriguing, I was skeptical as to how well it would be pulled off. What I discovered is a writer who is not sentimental, but instead playful and introspective, bouncing between the sociology and the psychology of the town and its characters. Yet, the success of the book is not only the stories that she finds to tell (even the animals lose their mind) but also the way she writes about them. She has a unique style that both captures the essence of behavior and conveys its emotion. For example, in the opening chapter, the bookstore customers look out the window and see "creatures covered in yellow billowy plastic." What follows is a paragraph of community inner conversation that crescendos in near panic: "What the--- Yellow guys do not just happen. Yellow guys are not in my life. Yellow guys do not just emerge out of thin air. Yellow guys are in the movies. Yellow guys are not real. Yellow guys are for Chernobyl, not Clarence. Why don't I have a yellow suit? I do not have a yellow suit. Where the hell is my yellow suit? I quite clearly need a yellow suit." And even when she isn't using this technique to portray what is happening to Clarence, she carefully choose her words resulting in some very pregnant sentences, such as "The line between accident and anecdote is a fine one."

Anne Ursu explores just about every aspect related to the study of memory. Therefore its not surprising that one of the recurring themes throughout the novel is that of the way the town smells. Susannah moved to Clarence because of her fiancé Todd but does not find anything she likes about this Podunk town. She being one that likes to "pander to her olfactory glands" is appalled by the smell of the town, which of course is produced by the factory resulting in a "revolting stink that emanates from it and permeates Clarence's every corner." When the factory burns the town no longer smells, at least not the bad smell. ("Breathe in. Separate out the whiffs of crumbling leaves and humbling regret, and there! Do you smell that? That lingering aroma, tinged with bitter almonds and burnt dinner.") If memories are often triggered by smells, if you live in a town that has a perpetual stench, would this limit your ability for spontaneous memories? Perhaps, the release of deletrium in the air combined with the cessation of the odor is why, of the many possible "doors" the deletrium could have opened, memory was the most natural. (Since the author wrote this novel while living in Maine, I can't help but wonder if the paper mills might have influenced this part of the novel.)

In the end, the deletrium does go away, a new factory is built, and the odor does not return. And the reader is left with the notion that just maybe there might be more good than harm done if we could remember more. Maybe, just maybe, we would not be so mean to each other. On the other hand, it may be that remembering all the details isn't such a good idea. As for Susannah and Bennie, this spill might be the only way to free them from the everlasting present to find their future. So, what role does the necessity to remember the past influence our ability to choose a future?

Spilling Clarence is a well crafted novel. In fact as I think about it, Ursu has written a really great love story. (Yes, what is love without our memories?) If you like to read for the precision of language as well as its poetry, I highly recommend this novel. Because of the ideas and the many, many characters, I think this would make an excellent choice for a reading group discussion. As for me, this stays in my collection for a future reread so that I can relive it and not ever, ever forget it.

I have to add in one more comment here before I close this review and that is in response to the unkind review posted by Publishers Weekly found at Amazon.com. Since I so enjoyed this novel I have a really hard time understanding why the reviewer didn't. (Note: Lisa Bankoff is Ursu's agent, not the review writer.) On one level it makes my blood boil to think that someone could be so careless as to almost ruin a first time published writer; but then I have to marvel at how the Internet has really leveled the world. With the ability for individuals to provide their own feedback, Ursu will not disappear into oblivion because of one bad "professional" review. Amazon.com gets its share of good and bad press, but there is no doubt they changed the rules of the publishing game when they initiated the ability for everyone to speak up. I am not at all surprised to see that everyone has voted the same way - this novel is worth a solid five out of five stars.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 51 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Spilling Clarence at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

The Cronus Chronicles:

Kids books:

 

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About the Author:

Anne UrsuAnne Ursu was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Brown University. She has worked in the children’s department of a major book retailer, as the theater critic for City Pages (Minneapolis), and as an arts writer for the Portland (Maine) Phoenix. She currently lives in Mountain View, California, where she is at work on her second novel.

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