An exuberant, one-of-a-kind novel about love and family, war and nature, new money and old values by a brilliant New Yorker contributor. The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that's as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its words, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now.
A young couple on the brink of marriage - the charming Veblen and her fiancé, Paul, a brilliant neurologist - find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other's dysfunctional families to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress to an intimate tete-a-tete with a very charismatic squirrel.
Veblen (named after the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term conspicuous consumption) is one of the most refreshing heroines in recent fiction. Not quite liberated from the burdens of her hypochondriac, narcissistic mother and her institutionalized father, Veblen is an amateur translator and "freelance self"; in other words, she's adrift. Meanwhile, Paul - the product of good hippies who were bad parents - finds his ambition soaring. His medical research has led to the development of a device to help minimize battlefield brain trauma - an invention that gets him swept up in a high-stakes deal with the Department of Defense, a bizarro world that McKenzie satirizes with granular specificity. As Paul is swept up by the promise of fame and fortune, Veblen heroically keeps the peace between all the damaged parties involved in their upcoming wedding until she finds herself falling for someone - or something - else.
Throughout, Elizabeth McKenzie asks: Where do our families end and we begin? How do we stay true to our ideals? And what is that squirrel really thinking? Replete with sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying experience.
©2016 Elizabeth McKenzie (P)2016 Recorded Books
Former editor at The New York Times and Farrar Straus & Giroux. Looking for work.
Actually, I consider the time spent listening to this book to be a waste of several hours. Maureen Corrigan on NPR raved about this book. But I was mostly annoyed. The "squirrel theme" was silly beyond measure. It was hard to understand what "Paul," the male protagonist found interesting/charming about the young woman, or even why the two of them where together, except for a coup de foudre. And the fact that everyone in the book is either venal, mentally handicapped, cute or crazy did not make it easy to choose sides.
Nope. I don't have much tolerance for whimsy or fantasy. I should have know from the beginning to avoid the book.
The narrator did a heroic job, one that required her to speak Norwegian and "squirrel." However, she seemed to have only one voice for women of a certain age, so both mothers tended to sound alike. And it was a strange accent, kind of upper clas mid-Atlantic, which didn't seem to match the California setting. Oh, and another thing: the author seems to have confused PTSD with schizophrenia. The endless worry about whether her daughter and inherited her father's "crazy" gene, when it is said over and over that he was shell shocked and maybe had a traumatic brain injury. What? Especially in a book that tosses around so much scientific terminology.
I couldn't take another one, thank you very much. I'd return this one, but I 'read" it all the way to the end, hoping it would improve, or make sense.
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson
The Portable Veblen is a love story as well as a satire or social commentary about the pharmaceutical and medical professions. The writer, Elizabeth McKenzie, is very clever and funny. I wouldn’t say I laughed out loud, but I did emit a few little minor guffaws and did enjoy the humor in the book. I think her ability to put feelings and ideas into words was both excellent and unique.
(minor spoilers below... fyi)
This book serves as a foil in presenting the opposite side of the pharmaceutical industry and to some degree the medical profession from books such as When Breath Becomes Air or Being Mortal. In those books, the doctors are mostly so very, very ethical, compassionate, etc. In this book both professions come off as at best jaded if not completely corrupt. The corruption portrayed in the book was very serious, but the author treated it in a way that was humorous, for example when the spoiled brat kid, Morris, plays with a serious medical tool that punctures a whole in ones skull and ends up using it inadvertently on his mom, who was the evil bitch of the story. She got her comeuppance. Ha ha.
McKenzie’s choice of words and ability to describe feelings was interesting, sometimes surprising, and unique. At one point she described LOVE: “Saying ‘love’, Veblen felt something break inside herself that was brilliant and deafening, a desperate roar. It was a pinch, a crack, a tear. It was a roaring, sweeping, aching, bending, a torrent carrying her away.”
Another time she talks about sitting and eating pretzels with the “pretzel crumbs powdering the floor, the dandruff of food.” Ha, that sounds like me at my desk on most days.
Overall, however, I found the storyline pretty predictable and not that exciting. Uptight, conventional boy meets quirky, eccentric girl. They fall in love, realize their differences, but in the end her lovability and quirkiness win him over and he is much improved and moves away from his middle class sensibilities. All their differences with their very strange families seem neatly tied up in a bow.
I read an interview of the author about this book after I finished listening. She spoke about writing this book to express the anger she felt about war and injured vets. I did not get a sense of anger from this book but the callus treatment of the seriously wounded vets was one of the themes. I had a stronger sense of the survival tactics we all use in order to cope with living in general. There was a sly sense of humor,irony and quirkiness combined with a great deal of subtle caring/love that keeps this story interesting and somewhat positive. A worthy read.
I loved Velben's world view; her naturalist sensitivity. I loved all the quirky denizens in the world of this novel. Most of all, I loved Velben's relationship with the squirrel.
Velben, of course...and the squirrel.
Velben was the one who most intimately reached me, and Julia Gibson brought her vividly to life. But she transitioned seamlessly to very different characters, such as Paul, his mentally handicapped brother and hippie parents, and Velben's neurotic mother.
Velben's night in the motel with her squirrel; also the decision Paul makes which culminates in is being hit by the car [I can't reveal any more without being a spoiler.]
This unique novel is a quirky mix of philosophy and famililial dysfunction, written with the lightest touch. The story dances off the page [or rather, out of my earbuds.] But the subject matter is far from trivial. The use of animals in pharmaceutical research; brain injuries of veterans; our consumer culture; just how much of one's self should be compromised for love? These are just some of the subplots in this wonderful novel. I miss Velben already. I envy those of you about to embark on this journey!
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