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.