Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Cassia," by Lanette Kauten: a brief review

Cassia, the second published novel by Lanette Kauten, is the story of a romantic relationship between two women in Deep Ellum, an arts district of Dallas, Texas, around 1990. It is also a tale about our world asking important questions about meaning and significance.

Tanya Falgoust is a young journalist covering the local arts scene for an alternative newspaper who finds herself unexpectedly seduced by a mysterious performance artist with the stage name Cassia who has become a local sensation. From early on the relationship is both passionate and tempestuous, as Tanya struggles to deal with her infatuation in light of obvious dysfunction and manipulation -- Cassia refuses even to divulge her real name to her lover. While Tanya -- and her friends -- are disturbed about the relationship, her attraction to Cassia prevents her from breaking it off, resulting in a rollercoaster ride that will be too familiar to many readers, heterosexual and otherwise.

Among other things, the couple disagree strongly over the significance of their sexual connection. To the inexperienced Tanya, sexuality has meaning with regard to an emotional bond and deep connection. Cassia, who is more hardened, regards sex as more about having a good time, and she torments Tanya with advances suggesting expanding their liaison to include other friends. The interactions call forth the questions: what does physical intimacy really mean? Does the existence of a passion mean that someone should indulge it?

Of course, sex is not the only area of life for which modern men and women have questions about ultimate meaning. We ask similar questions nowadays about art, music, culture, and even religion. Perhaps especially religion. Do these areas of life possess any sort of transcendent value or meaning, or do they exist purely for individual taste and enjoyment? If they do have meaning, how is that impacted by those who hawk them? Do investors and salesmen enhance art, music, culture, and religion by making them available to a wider audience, or do they cheapen them by turning them into commodities? The novel asks those questions through the prism of Tanya and Cassia's relationship.

While the book deals with serious questions such as these, it does so while remaining an engaging page turner with complex and eccentric characters, as well as a riveting plot. Bonnie, who is Tanya's roommate, is a tattoo artist and medical school student with a talent for getting men to buy her drinks. Rodney, an aging Jesus freak who owns a bar in Deep Ellum that doesn't sell alcohol (readers who find that far fetched should know that such an establishment existed at the time), worries that investors are turning Deep Ellum into "Shallow Ellum." Nick, a pothead in his 30's, is still hoping beyond hope to get his break as a singer. His longstanding love interest in Tanya goes tragically unrequited and barely noticed.

That the opening chapter of the novel, which occurs 20 years after the remainder of the book, finds Tanya married to a man and wondering where Cassia is means that it is not a spoiler to suggest that their relationship would not last. A shocking, yet unforced, plot twist drives the plot to an emotional conclusion.

Cassia is both a story for our times and an engaging read. While Amazon and B&N currently only show it for sale as an e-book, I understand that it will soon be available in print form, as well. I encourage you to check it out.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Regarding VA Hospitals

Regardless of what you may have heard, the "V" in "VA" hospitals would seem to stand for Veterinary. That is the only kind of excuse I can think of for a total lack of communication between a physician and a patient regarding his medical condition.

Those who served our country deserve good treatment. They don't deserve to be treated worse than barn animals. It is a national disgrace.

And, no, you haven't heard what I really think. I don't type those things out loud.

Friday, November 29, 2013

"Coolidge:" a brief review

I just finished reading Amity Shlaes' biography of Calvin Coolidge. Having previously enjoyed Ms. Shlaes work on the Great Depression, "The Forgotten Man," I was initially disappointed that this book seemed a bit of a slog. However, the pace picked up as Coolidge entered politics, beginning locally in Northampton, Massachusetts. I ultimately found it an enjoyable read.

Mr. Coolidge, an introvert known for speaking sparingly, differed markedly from any national political figure since his time in that he made a virtue of inactivity. Taking the presidency following the death of President Harding in the midst of scandal, President Coolidge restored credibility to the executive branch while also focusing on reducing both the debt and uncertainty generated during the progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. A hater of debt -- the Coolidges never owned their own home because of their unwillingness to take on personal debt -- Mr. Coolidge managed, despite congressional opposition to his spending reduction plans, to pay down more than a third of the federal deficit while also reducing taxes and seeing strong national economic growth. At the end of his presidency, he was aware that the stock market was overheated and that a correction was coming, and he feared that Herbert Hoover's activist approach would make the downturn longer and more severe, a prediction that turned out to be true. Mr. Coolidge died before Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated and doubled down on Hoover's activism.

This was a good read about a President most of us know little about.

Friday, November 08, 2013

"House of Thistles" by Lanette Kauten: a Book Review

In Lanette Kauten's page-turning debut novel, House of Thistles, 35 year old Allie Baxter is rapidly losing her grip on reality. Orphaned at age five and having bounced around the Texas foster care system for the remainder of her childhood, Allie remembers little of the event that took her parents' lives and left her physically and emotionally scarred. Though embittered by the rootlessness and isolation of her adolescent years, she has managed various coping mechanisms in adulthood, some less destructive than others, but it all unravels following a traumatic incident involving her adopted daughter, and Allie shows signs of becoming increasingly unstable. Angry at the world in general, and her two siblings in particular, and strangely drawn to a new man in her life that she does her best to push away, Allie determines to find out what really happened on that day in childhood that changed her life.

The story is narrated in the first person from Allie's point of view, and Ms. Kauten deftly handles the development of that character.  In fact, it is a remarkable achievement for a new author to manage to create a sympathetic character who is at the same time so unlikable.  While Allie's cynical attitude toward life may be understandable, it results in her being unkind -- at times even cruel -- to those around her.  Her unkindness to her brother and sister, erratic attitudes toward her boyfriend, and impulsive passion and then anger toward the man with whom she has an afternoon tryst should lead us to dislike Allie; yet, the reader finds himself agonizing with her as she endures tragedy and rooting for her to ultimately find her way.

In addition to her handling of Allie's character, Ms. Kauten also distinguishes herself by her management of the ebb and flow of the story.  This is an intense tale of broken people enduring trauma and tragedy, and just when the reader feels overwhelmed by it all, the story shifts and lightens, giving the reader an emotional break without losing the movement of the overall story. Uncovering the truth of what happened on that fateful day proves heart rending; yet, that revelation leads to a conclusion that is both satisfying and believable.

While intense, Ms. Kauten's writing style is also sparse, and at times it is too sparse. Even so, this novel makes for a great read. I highly recommend it.

Full disclosure:  the author of the novel is the wife of this blogger.  However, in the review, I call them like I see them.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Republican Bail Out of Obama

While people who consider themselves the only essence of the conservative movement in pure form decry the debt ceiling agreement (as though opposing an increase in the debt ceiling is a rational way to control budgetary spending), and accuse Republicans who helped pass it of treason against the cause (or worse, being a RINO), the truth of the matter is that they have led a circus that may have sav...ed the Obama presidency from oblivion.

Six weeks ago, the national conversation -- increasingly acknowledged even by the media -- was centered around Obama administration scandal and ineptitude: through abuse of power at the IRS, through abuse of power at the NSA, through the amateurish pushing us to the brink of war in Syria, and, to a lesser but growing extent, the cover up over Benghazi. Inexplicably, in the most misguided Washington act of self destruction since Bill Clinton dropped his trousers for Monica Lewinsky, Ted Cruz and his gaggle of Sancho Panza's in the House of Representatives decided to change the subject. The Obama scandals dropped out of view, Obama's polling has since started moving upward, and Republicans have polling numbers just above what they had in Missisippi in 1862.

On top of that, Republicans opposed to Obamacare have saved its present failure from being the front page story that it should be. Three weeks into the grand opening of the health care exchanges: they still don't work, and according to the health care experts I read, many of whom favored Obamacare, they are nowhere close to working. That should have been on the front page for 3 weeks running, thus adding to the story of Obama administration ineptitude. Instead, it is buried behind the Republican strategy of shutting down the government as a means of supposedly stopping the implementation. Obamacare's technological failure should still become front page news, but you have bought him 3 weeks, and a weakening U.S. economy, blamed inaccurately on the congressional stunts, may buy him more time.

Of course, Republicans will blame the media for not covering the story accurately. OK, let's accept that premise. Now, most of you believed beforehand that the media would be against you, so what was your strategy for winning this battle? What was your tactical plan? What was your realistic outcome that would have had a chance of prevailing outside of your echo chamber?

Sadly, the bill that passed means that we will go through this again in early 2014, making it more likely to be a story in the lead up to the 2014 elections. Republicans who don't think they like this House will be really displeased with the one that may be coming.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pastor Jeffress and the Church's "Diminishing Minority"

Robert Jeffress, who makes his living as the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, has an extraordinarily obtuse column in the Washington Post today. The blinders are most apparent in this paragraph:

"Yet evangelicals need to remember that we are a diminishing minority in America. If we care about winning elections with candidates who will push back against abortion and immorality, then we have to be willing to compromise on some secondary issues to form a winning coalition with other Republicans."

So, to be clear, Mr. Jeffress is acknowledging the decline of the Church ("diminishing minority in America"), yet he wishes to focus his concerns on garnering "a winning coalition with other Republicans."

There can be little doubt, as Mr. Jeffress suggests, that this would be good for the Republican Party, which during better days has ridden evangelical foot soldiers to political victory. However, the minister never bothers to ask about the impact of this on the church, which has raised hostility toward itself for reasons that frequently have had nothing to do with the Church's commission. The reduction of evangelicals to the place of a voting block has not helped their cause, and when the public at large hears about a bully pulpit, they now think of it as more bully than pulpit.

While Mr. Jeffress, and others, are right that the church should take stands on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, it is questionable whether subordinating the church to the Republican Party has really been the right way to go in that regard. In addition, the positions that the religious right have taken on matters such as the separation of church and state, not to mention the propriety of voting for a Mormon, have frequently manifested historical and theological ignorance, as well as a failure to develop a philosophy of the goals and limits of public policy engagement (note Mr. Jeffress vague assertion about wanting candidates that push back on "immorality," a rather broad goal that would require a very un-conservative expansion of government authority).

The public knows very well what evangelical leaders think about the Republican Party. Unfortunately, they have little idea what those leaders think about justification by faith. The Church will be better off when that is reversed.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reformation Day 2012

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany and, thus, unwittingly, launched the Protestant Reformation. Far from being stale history, this unleashed powerful religious, cultural, and intellectual forces that altered the course of western civilization. Secularists can appreciate the blow that Luther's hammer struck in behalf of the concept of freedom of conscience. Those who understand Luther's religious message have even more to appreciate. Unfortunately, many sectors of American Christianity have forgotten or even deny that message, and that has contributed to the impoverishment of the church's teaching, both to congregants and to those outside the church.

Luther was a volatile personality given to both emotional and rhetorical excess, but his early career gives testimony to the vacuity of the religion of do more and try harder. Luther read the biblical phrase "the righteousness of God," and he was terrified by the notion of a perfect and all powerful righteousness and justice that contrasted sharply with his own failures. Luther knew himself to be a lawbreaker and cowered at the idea of standing before the bar of justice of One who was perfect light. But what could he do to bridge that chasm?

As a monastic priest he spent hours in confession and flagellated himself at night in hopes of ridding himself of the sin lurking within him. Rigorous effort brought no peace, because he recognized that efforts at self-improvement and religious commitment could only take him so far. They could not rid him of the soul gnawing guilt that afflicted him. Liberation came with the understanding that "the righteousness of God" was not only the righteousness that God embodies and requires, but it is the imputed righteousness that God gives freely by His grace. By Christ's sinless life and substitutionary death, an exchange of accounts takes place: all of my sin was deposited upon Christ, who suffered for it; all of His righteousness was deposited in my account, and I am counted righteous as a result. Justification comes not to the one who works, but to the one who believes. Peace with God is His accomplishment, not ours. Thus, we can believe with gratitude.

Luther's soul liberating message centered around five "solas" (alones). Justification, he came to contend, was 1) by grace alone; 2) through faith alone; 3) through Christ alone; 4) for the glory of God alone. Ultimate religious authority was found in 5) Scripture alone.

Many churches now consider this message to be irrelevant to modern hearers, and so they provide congregants with a sort of light legalism of how to's: steps to a meaningful life, how to be a better leader, how to love your wife, and so forth. These are sometimes nice things that one doesn't need a church for. As the chief end of religion, they can bring guilt and more effort, but they cannot justify. These supposedly relevant churches fail to offer the message of true liberation from the slavery of sin and death, and of the joy of life for the glory of God. Churches don't need to go back to Luther to find this, but they do need to go back to the Bible and rediscover Luther's gospel.

Happy Reformation Day. And may churches experience a new reformation turning back to the primacy of the gospel in the 21st century.