Wednesday, May 18, 2011

T.M. Doran's /Toward the Gleam/

I have on my shelf The Mammoth Book of Jacobean Whodunits, an anthology of short stories set in England's post-Elizabethan era. The stories draw in a surprising number of period characters. Shakespeare, Pocahontas, Henry Hudson, and even King James are among the notables written into the tales. This seems to reflect an emerging tendency to people fictional stories with well-known characters from other contexts. These days, everyone from Beau Brummell to Fitzwilliam Darcy are showing up as characters in mystery novels, suspense stories – even horror tales.

I bring this up to prime readers for what to expect from T.M. Doran's Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011). I purchased the book partly from shameless self-interest in encouraging Ignatius to publish more fiction, and certainly out of interest in the contents (besides – who can resist a book with a trailer?) But even as I ordered it, I was unclear exactly what type of story it was. I know it had something to do with the Inklings, but the synopses and even the trailer left me wondering: what is this story about? There were hints of a primeval threat and the darkest years of the 20th century, but even as I began reading, I didn't know what to expect.

It turns out that Toward the Gleam is a modern suspense/intrigue novel peopled with well-known historical characters. The protagonist, John, is transparently J.R.R. Tolkien himself, even down to his wife and children's names. The premise of the story is that the saga which became Middle Earth was not imagined but discovered in the form of a carefully hidden book, sealed in a metal box of wondrous make and hidden deeply in a nondescript cave in the English countryside. (There are even hints that it may be the Red Book of Westmarch itself, but that's never made clear.) The mysterious book is written in runes which John, with his philological training, eventually able to translate, and the story of the Great Ring comes to light.

The main tension of the story comes about when John, casting about for scholarly assistance in his efforts to understand his discovery, draws in a mysterious character named Alambert who embodies the ruthlessness of that time in Europe. This antagonist is wealthy, intelligent, and obsessed with any hints of primeval civilization, which he ties to Atlantis. But where John seeks to present the story as a source of wisdom and caution, Alambert seeks the ancient knowledge as a source of power and control. John is very circumspect about his treasure, never even admitting that he has found anything. But the cunning Alambert discerns that John is hiding something rare and – dare we say? - precious, and attempts every means to acquire it.

Thus the story unfolds, the retiring Oxford don matching wits with the unscrupulous rogue. Through its pages wander Chesterton (who warns John against ever contacting Alambert – advice he ignores to his regret), Churchill, Agatha Christie – even Conan Doyle gets an honorable mention. Of course the Inklings are there (without Charles Williams – the body of the tale takes place in the mid-30s), ensconced at the Bird and Baby. It is a classic mystery/intrigue story, with visits to exotic European locales, assassination attempts (which Dolan uses as partial explanation of Tolkien's dread of spiders), a seductress, and even a one-eyed pirate.

Those concerned that Doran may have turned the beloved but retiring Tolkien into a cloak-and-dagger figure can rest easy. Though the plot takes John into some unusual circumstances, it never stretches believability beyond the breaking point. John remains “in character”, responding as one would expect him to. Perhaps the climactic final encounter with the villain is a touch melodramatic, but not so much to spoil the story. Doran is clearly working hard to cast the characters into his plot as the people they were, and render their behaviour accordingly.

Overall, Doran tells a good tale, keeping it reasonably believable (even the Famous Personages), well plotted, and moving along briskly. It might disappoint anyone expecting mythopoeic fiction, but as a suspense/intrigue tale it is worth picking up - though I do wish they'd published a paperback version.

One thing I must admit that mystified me a little, though perhaps this is just me being dense: even as I finished the book, it was never quite sure just what "the gleam" was, and who or what was moving toward it. Maybe Doran could have been a bit more clear about that.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Luminous Times

Those were luminous days.

Glowing smiles and shining rings,

Six yellow-clad girls wandering down a long aisle.

A tiny kitchen bathed in morning light,

Breakfasts at a table only big enough for two.

A living room just large enough to turn round in,

A tub too small even for that.

Bookshelves full of books all mixed together,

A crib full of a smiling little turtle.
Those were luminous days.

Those were luminous weeks.

Mine measured by classes, and projects,

and long days away; a college rhythm.

Your forty (again! surprise!) measured by drives

to Algonac, with stops at McDonald's.

Two whole bedrooms, and a living room!

With a front window overlooking a parking lot.

A contraband Christmas tree festooned with lights,

A hobbit in the doorway and another fuzzy head to love.
Those were luminous weeks.

Those were luminous months.

A house of our own and a blue station wagon,

Summer sun streaming across the front lawn.

My first real job, long early commutes,

So many adopted aunts to share our home.

Drives to Richmond, classes beneath the grain elevators,

A walk to the corner in a blizzard.

Peepers, and Bulldogs, and Squiggys,

And one you wouldn't mind if he was the last.
Those were luminous months.

Those were luminous years.

Flashing past, season by season,

Almost too quickly to track.

A giant van with a funny name,

And great passenger miles per gallon.

Halftime shows and quiz bowl meets and dance recitals,

Lean years and rich years and “Cago-Mento” years.

Star fields in the front window and

A peppermint from the ceiling.
Those were luminous years.

Those were luminous decades.

A familiar white house, living now only in memory,

An upstairs hall lit by summer sunsets.

A deck in the morning breeze,

Counting down months to a midwinter retreat.

Nestlings making nests of their own,

A homestead under the shadow of loss.

A surprise find; grapes among the bushes,

An Advent sacrificed and a house remade.
Those were luminous decades.

Yes, there were shadows.

The ones we never got to hold,

The family lost and friends who followed.

The encroaching fear, the misunderstandings and conflicts,

Some days heavier than lead.

But looking back at the clouds and brightness,

A Glorious Face emerges,

And the shadows are enveloped

By the light.
Indeed, there were shadows.

Now we live.

In a house full of light,

Rich, warm wood and fresh-painted walls.

Bush surrounded, bird beset,

The kind of place your dad would have chosen.

Filled with quiet and calm,

and peace, except when

It is filled with laughter and clutter

and peace.
Now we live.

These are luminous times.

30 years, 360 months, 1565 weeks,

10957 days.

Illuminated by Radiance

Not of this world.

If what is to come is half as blessed

As what has been.

Then the time shall pass joyfully at your side,

And the days will be light.
These are luminous times.

On August 15th of this year, I will celebrate 30 years of marriage with my wonderful bride Ellen. This is for her.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

A Mother's Day tribute

My poor wife hasn't had a proper Mother's Day in decades.

You know, one where dad & kids get up early, make breakfast to bring to her in bed with a little vase on the tray and cards tucked under the plate.  One where she didn't have to lift a finger to cook or clean all day because her appreciative family took care of all that for her.  She can't remember the last time she had one of those, if she ever has.

It wasn't that the kids and I didn't love her and want her to have a good Mother's Day.  The main reason was that our local right to life chapter offered roses at local parishes on Mother's Day as a fundraiser.  This meant setting up on Saturday afternoon, staffing the tables for the vigil Mass and all the morning Masses, and then packing up, bringing the remnants home, and packing them away.  Typically we wouldn't all be done until 2:30 or 3:00, at which point all of us wanted to do nothing more than rest.  Thus for years my dedicated wife sacrificed her Mother's Days to the pro-life cause.

This year was supposed to be different.  I was rallying a few KofC members to help with the tables, and our youngest son was home from college.  She was going to be singing at two Masses anyway, but she wasn't planning on staffing tables, at least.  She might not get the breakfast in bed, but she wouldn't have to shoulder much of the burden of the fundraiser.

Then the phone rang last Thursday.  Our eldest daughter, who is well along with twins, was having hard, regular contractions at 33 weeks - not a catastrophe, but worrisome enough.  She was being admitted for observation, and Ellen was needed to watch the little ones and run the house while daughter and husband were at the hospital.  This wasn't completely unexpected, so Ellen packed up and headed down.  Fortunately, things didn't go so far as premature delivery: rest and a few appropriate medications slowed the contractions down to the point that my daughter was sent home from the hospital today with a prescription for strict bed rest. 

For Ellen, that means what we expected it would mean when this pregnancy got near this stage: she's managing our daughter's home for the remainder of the pregnancy (which will probably be no more than a couple of weeks at best.) She'll tend to dinners and kiddos and laundry and diapers and all the other things that will need tending while my daughter is restricted to bed for the sake of the babies she bears.  Ellen will have the help of sisters who live in the area, and Arwen's helpful husband (when he's not at work), but the brunt of the household management will fall on her.

Just in time for Mother's Day.

Which means, once again, my longsuffering wife is giving up her Mother's Day for the sake of unborn children.  This time it happens to be her own grandchildren, who she'll be able to hold before very long, but it's still a sacrifice.  In years past I've assured her that the Lord will make up to her all these Mother's Days she gave up for the sake of others.  And, given what He's asked her to do over the decades, I'm sure it'll be quite a reward.

It can't come a moment too soon.

Happy Mother's Day, precious wife.