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The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
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The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
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Nov 01, 2016 | ISBN 9781101981597

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    Nov 01, 2016 | ISBN 9781101981597

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  • Jan 19, 2016 | ISBN 9780698411142

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“A literary novel with a squirrel subplot may sound improbable, yet McKenzie adroitly skirts the line between plausible and the absurd. Veblen, the book’s heart and spirit, wins us over with her sense of wonder about the natural versus the man-made world — a wonder that suffuses the entirety of this quirky, engaging novel.” —The New York Times Book Review

“McKenzie has crafted a story that beneath an entertaining, clever surface, is deep and wise and complicated….With so light a touch and yet more serious and beautiful and relevant than many a weightier novel, The Portable Veblen has the feel of an instant, unlikely classic.” —Jeff VanderMeer in the Los Angeles Times

“Riotous …A delightfully knotty synthesis of psychological study, philosophical inquiry, romantic page-turner, and economic critique.”—Electric Literature
“A delightfully cockeyed love story that enfolds two splendidly dysfunctional families and a winningly persistent squirrel.”—More Magazine
“‘Funny and engaging and imbued with a very particular sensibility that might be described as ‘quirky’ if that term had not become trivialized by its overuse; despite being full of jokes and turns of phrase that make a reader laugh out loud…The Portable Veblen is a serious and, at times, sad book. And there is a talking squirrel.”—Chicago Reader

“Full of vibrant passages that practically leap off the page and twirl around the room. Veblen and Paul become richer, more nuanced characters as the book continues, thanks in part to McKenzie’s deft and amusing exploration of the conflicts between them and their parents. She also unleashes her satirical powers on Big Pharma and the defense industry.”—Dallas Morning News

“[Veblen] is a rich, well-rounded character…McKenzie…weaves in historical and cultural factoids about the Bay Area that truly make the novel zing…Satirical, funny, and satisfyingly clever, The Portable Veblen weaves multiple narrative threads into a seamless whole.”—KQED

“Irresistibly comedic…McKenzie…has an appealingly light, playful touch…‘The Portable Veblen’ is about how very squirrelly family dysfunction can be — and about how, as many of us never get tired of reading, love sometimes can conquer all.”—Seattle Times

“Modern romance, Big Pharma, and one very intuitive squirrel collide in McKenzie’s clever, winningly surreal novel…McKenzie has a pitch-perfect ear for a certain kind of California kookery…It’s hard not to be charmed by Veblen’s whimsy. Grade: A–.”-Entertainment Weekly  

“A sweet, sharply written, romantic comedy about the pitfalls of approaching marriage… McKenzie imbues her characters with such psychological acuity that they, as well as the off-kilter world they inhabit, feel fully formed and authentic…With its inspired eccentricities and screwball plot choreography, McKenzie’s novel perceptively delves into that difficult life stage when young adults finally separate—or not—from their parents.  In the end, The Portable Veblen is a novel as wise as it is squirrely.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s Fresh Air

“One of the great pleasures of reading Elizabeth McKenzie is that she hears the musical potential in language that others do not…Her dialogue has real fizz and snappity-pop. It leaves a bubbled contrail. Ms. McKenzie’s ear is not her only asset. There is also her angled way of seeing things. The hats on all of her characters sit slightly askew…For all its charm, bounce, radiant eccentrics and diverting episodes involving drug companies and squirrels, that is what ‘The Portable Veblen’ is about: shaking the demented ghosts of our youth so that we can bind with clean spirits to someone in our adulthood…A novel of such festive originality that it would be a shame to miss.”—Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

“A winning satire of contemporary mores…McKenzie has written a funny, deeply critical book with the heart of a cynic and the texture of a soufflé.”—Boston Globe

“A smart charmer about a brainy off-center couple who face up to their differences — and their difficult, eccentric families — only after they become engaged…[The Portable Veblen] is ultimately a morality tale about the values by which we choose to live…McKenzie’s delightfully frisky novel touts…a world in which ‘underdogs and outsiders’ like Thorstein Veblen, her appealing cast of oddballs and nonconformists, and even bushy-tailed rodents feel ‘free to be themselves.’”—

“Clever…This novel is like vegetables cut on a bias: slightly skewed, pleasing to look at, and, thanks to its skilled chef, a joy to consume…A funny and well-written novel about family, love and the perils of misplaced ambition.”—BookPage

“Ambitious…[McKenzie’s domestic scenes] accurately and funnily capture the complexities of modern families, made knotty by the work we’re encouraged to do in our individual lives. Think The Corrections meets The Wallcreeper—where the warring wants of career-centric success and familial harmony converge, tension and comedy emerge.”—Huffington Post

“[A] funny, philosophical novel…Oddball characters and plot turns abound, including talking squirrels and bureaucratic ironies worthy of ‘Catch-22.’ But a sober question occupies its core: Do our parents’ best intentions do us harm?”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A wild ride that you will not want to miss… rambunctious and sober, hilarious and morbid, [with] strong echoes of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut…This unforgettable novel offers a heartfelt and sincere investigation into the paradoxical nature of love, familial as well as romantic.”–Elizabeth Rosner, San Francisco Chronicle

“No matter how many novels you’ve read, it’s safe to say you’ve never read a novel like The Portable Veblen. The Portable Veblen brings together its disparate themes and worlds with confidence and dexterity, making the standard well-made novel seem as timid as—well, as a squirrel.”- Slate

“McKenzie skewers modern American culture while quoting from a panoply of voices, with Frank Zappa, Robert Reich, and, of course, Thorstein Veblen among them. The result is a wise and thoroughly engaging story in a satirical style comparable to the works of Christopher Moore and Carl Hiaasen.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“Will these kind, if somewhat confused, young people find their ways out of the past and to each other and a happy shared future? The reader can’t help rooting them on. McKenzie’s idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully unexpected directions as it progresses toward its satisfying end and scattering tasty literary passages like nuts along the way.” —Kirkus, starred review

“Offbeat and winning…McKenzie writes with sure-handed perception, and her skillful characterization means that despite all of Veblen’s quirks—she’s an amateur Norwegian translator with an affinity for squirrels—she’s one of the best characters of the year. McKenzie’s funny, lively, addictive novel is sure to be a standout.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A clever morality tale set against the verdant paradise of Palo Alto.  McKenzie’s story of an ambitious young neurologist and the seductions of the darker side of the medical economy is both incisive and hilarious.” -Abraham Verghese, New York Times bestselling author of Cutting for Ston 

“Man oh man, do I love this book! I have never read anything like it. I can’t believe how funny it is given that we’re dealing at times with pharmaceutical fraud, irreparable brain injury, and comatose veterans. (Family dysfunction, on the other hand, is always funny)… Audacious, imaginative, and totally wonderful: The whole books zips and zings.”-Karen Joy Fowler, PEN Faulkner winner for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselve 

The Portable Veblen is the squirreliest novel I ever read.  I enjoyed it completely.”-Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness

“Wildly entertaining and overflowing with piercing emotional truths, this audacious novel gives us an irresistible portrait of a sensitive young woman navigating the kaleidoscopic freakscape we call modern America. With casual aplomb, Elizabeth McKenzie tosses off sentences that will delight and bowl you over with their insight and hilarious truth-telling….An elegy for our dying empire, full of wisdom and finely tuned grace notes about the secrets of the human heart.”-Gabe Hudson, author of Dear Mr. President

The Portable Veblen is an authentically strange—and genuinely funny—depiction of how the dysfunctions of childhood stubbornly follow us into adulthood.”-Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and Kapitoil 

“Only Elizabeth McKenzie could make a novel—a great novel—with such weird and wonderful ingredients. The Portable Veblen gives us squirrels, love, family dysfunction, sex, marriage, medical science, and something called the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, all swirled into a funny, beautiful, heartbreaking story. The Portable Veblen is about all of these things but mostly it’s about that most important of subjects: what it is to be human.”-Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals and The Infinite Tides

“A deeply observed universe where heroines are named for economists and the high stakes of capitalism are set to collide with the chatter of small wild animals. In a work both humorous and wrenching, everything casts multiple shadows while McKenzie tracks the distance between individuals, measuring the wildly human hope that love, might in the end, conquer all.” —Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else and Mr. Splitfoot

 “In scalpel-sharp prose, The Portable Veblen’s gleefully perverse narrator seduces us with the story of a charming young woman soon to wed a handsome doctor. But strange shadows flicker just off the page and then begin to bleed into the story of the romance. The ethics of parenting, the disasters of war, corporate greed, the essential meanings of translation and invention, and the sacrifices of self to wedlock: these are some of the themes that surface in this extraordinary book. Oh, and also–what really is the soul of a squirrel? I was knocked out, giddily so, by The Portable Veblen.”-Nelly Reifler, author of Elect H. Mouse State Judge and See Through

“The Portable Veblen is a funny, modern love story, but also the story of everything that comes before love, its dark prerequisites and murky prequels…A wonderfully insane novel with talking squirrels and lunatic parents and comedic plot twists…populated by some of the most real, fully written characters I’ve met on any page. Don’t miss it.”-Lydia Netzer, author of How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky 

Praise for Elizabeth McKenzie’s Stop That Girl

“Vibrant and clear, these connected stories present a portrait of a family whose members are funny and hurtful and real, and watching them touched by time and change is very affecting. There is a lovely expansiveness here; surrounding the humor is the recognition that life is a serious deal.”-Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteredge 

“McKenzie is an accomplished humorist and a developed stylist, and she wastes no time dazzling the reader with her clean direct language, her simple but searing use of metaphor and her unflinching eye.  The paragraphs are put together with razor sharp concision, and the book is rich in both narrative and linguistic surprise.  An original.”-The New York Times Book Review 

Praise for Elizabeth McKenzie

“A wonderful talent.”-Jane Hamilton, author of The Book of Ruth and The Map of the World 

“McKenzie has a wonderful eye – and a relishing appetite – for the craziness that is everywhere in ordinary things if you know how to look.”-Tessa Hadley, author of Married Love and Accidents in the Home 


National Book Award Nominee LONGLIST

Author Q&A

An Interview with Elizabeth McKenzie:

1. What was your original inspiration for the novel: squirrels, Thorstein Veblen, or something else altogether?

It was a bunch of things coming together, all the things I was interested in finding out more about at the time. The puzzle was seeing where the connections were. The mistreatment of patients in clinical trials was probably the initial hot spot. Basically I was in those days thinking about:
·         neurology and traumatic brain injury
·         the military industrial complex and Veteran’s issues
·         conspicuous consumption and Thorstein Veblen
·         Richard Rorty and the philosophy of hope
·         the pros and cons of marriage
·         family baggage
·         the environment and the natural world
Squirrels intruded without forethought!
2. If you could have dinner with either Thorstein Veblen or Beatrix Potter, whom would you choose, and why?

Thorstein Veblen. Not only was he quite handsome, but everybody who knew him said he was the smartest person they ever met, and not the kind of smart that’s pompous or full of hot air. He mumbled and shuffled along and you had to listen closely. From reading his letters you get a sense of his dry and somewhat goofy sense of humor. I do really like Beatrix Potter’s mushroom drawings, and I’m sure she’d be a perfectly splendid dinner partner as well.
3. Both The Portable Veblen and your previous novel, MacGregor Tells the World, are set in Northern California. What is it about this part of the world that is so ripe for storytelling?

Probably it’s animated for me because I’ve lived in the area most of my life, and because it’s morphed so dramatically since my childhood, so there’s a “lost domain” quality that I feel a little haunted by.
4. How have you evolved as a writer since you published your first book?

Good question. With each book I’ve tried to expand the scope, bring in more characters, develop more points of view. With my first novel I had a vision of the whole shape of it when I started. With The Portable Veblen, not the case. I had all those topics I mentioned, only connected to each other through my own psyche, and no idea where they would take me. This made it a lot more challenging to proceed, more of a risk, something I would have been afraid to do before (but was still afraid of anyway!).
5. Why did you intersperse small photos and images throughout the text of the novel? Do you feel a picture conveys information that words cannot?

Those started as intertexual decorations to amuse me during the months and years I was working away, staring at my screen. After a while they seemed to belong there, as if they were artifacts of Veblen’s rather than mine.
6. Did you base Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals on a particular company? Or is this a question you can’t answer without risking legal trouble?

It’s an amalgam of all unscrupulous corporate bodies.
7. How did you come up with the idea of the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch?

There are devices for performing craniotomies and craniectomies in the operating room but none specifically for performing them in the field—until now!
8. Your depiction of Melanie and her string of real or imagined maladies is convincing. Do you have a hypochondriac in your own life?

Hmmm. Maybe there’s a little bit of one in all of us?
9. Did you ever participate in a school science fair? If so, what was your entry?

Let’s just say that the question of whether snails scream or not was something I once wanted an answer to.
10. Between writing about “post-wounded” combat veterans and Justin’s limited mental abilities, you tread a fine line between humor and pathos. Was it difficult to maintain the balance?

I go to that line by default. It’s kind of how I see things. But it’s important to make sure it translates into the feeling you’re looking for in a given scene.
11. Who are some of your favorite writers?

There have been so many favorites over the years. Now it’s Tolstoy, Murakami, Ishiguro, Shirley Hazzard. I recently read two New York Review of Books Classics that were amazing, Stoner by John Williams and Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban.
12. Did you ever consider pursuing a career other than writing? What advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?

I’ve tried a few other things, but I like writing and editing the most. Prepare to suffer. Prepare to measure your achievements with different markers than others. Keep a low overhead. Read all the time. Don’t take criticism too hard but don’t ignore it either. The advice that’s meant a lot to me: writing without hope but also without despair. Don’t get any more worked up about a success than a failure.
13. What are you working on now?

Nothing I can easily describe. Three or four chunks are vying for credibility, and some new stories are coming along. I’ve been slow to get going since finishing this novel, but I think it’s about time again.

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