Friday, January 13, 2017

We discuss "The Portable Veblen" at our In-store Lit Group, in advance of Elizabeth McKenzie's visit on January 23, 7 pm

I know what you're thinking. We chose The Portable Veblen as our In-Store Lit Group discussion book for January because there was a charming squirrel on the cover. You're thinking that with my obsession with woodland creatures from my gift buying, I couldn't say no. But the truth is that the squirrel was passed over for the fox, and never even got as much traction as the raccoon, and if you want to ask us which animal icon is ascendant in the gift world, we'd have to say it's the llama.

Or maybe it was the aqua cover. I've mentioned before that aqua has become a bit of a signifier for smart comic novels, what with the success of Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette? and Emma Straub's The Vactioners.

Or maybe because the original Veblen, who our heroine is named after, has Wisconsin roots. The economist/sociologist Thorstein Veblen was born in Cato, and his parents lived in Milwaukee before moving to the Manitowoc area, after which they settled on a farm in Minnesota. Veblen is well-known for popularizing the idea of conspicuous consumption.

Or maybe because it's set in Palo Alto, which you'd think would be rather commonsplace, with the number of great writers graduating from Stanford every year, and the town being a bit a synechdoche for Silicon Valley, an important part of any modern person's consciousness. Am I using synechdoche correctly? My favorite Palo Alto novel contines to be Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, with that stanza dedicated to the late Printers Inc. bookstore.

Or maybe it's the award nominations. The Portable Veblen was longlisted for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize. That certainly led to me buying a copy of the hardcover at Volumes Bookcafe in Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago.

When Penguin asked us to be on the paperback tour (our event is Monday, January 23, 7 pm), all these things came into play. And because of the awards, the book was moved up to November, giving us enough time to discuss The Portable Veblen in January.

So now more about the book (McKenzie at left). Veblen Amundsen-Hovda lives in a very small but still affordable cottage on Tasso Street in Palo Alto. She's working at a science lab where she meets Paul Vreeland, a researcher. They hit it off, but Paul is soon lured away to a for-profit for his device that he's testing, a skull punch that can relieve brain injuries and possibly save lives.

Of course there are a few problems. There are her parents, who are a bit of a mess (as Scarlett Thomas noted in The Guardian**, "the most horribly accurate portrait of a narcissist hypochondriac I have ever read"). There's Paul's stress from the job, which is sort of compromising his integrity. And there's Veblen, who seems to have befriended the squirrel that is terrorizing her home.

They say (well, someone customer Carl says) that any two books can be connected by the reading experience, and I was sort of taken aback by the ways in which last month's selection, Hannah Rothschild's The Improbability of Love and this month's, The Portable Veblen. were linked).

1. Each novel was set in a world where money had taken something with good intentions (art in the first, drug research and care for veterans in the second) and shown how absolutely corrupted it could be.

2. Both novels have themes that weigh heavily on the psychological burden that parents put on their children. In the case of Rothschild, both heroine (Annie) and anti-heroine (Rebecca) must come to terms with their parents shortfallings, and Veblen and to a lesser extent, Paul, must do so as well. In the case of McKenzie's novel, Jennifer Senior sums it up in The New York Times: "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."

3. And that's another connection. Both Improbability and Veblen were reviewed by Jennifer Senior in The New York Times, and knowing that she also loves All My Puny Sorrows, I'm waiting for her to review and love something else in this way, so I can read it. Alas, she wasn't as crazy about History of Wolves as I'd hoped, but many other people are loving it.*

4. And finally, both books have something seemingly talking that shouldn't be - a painting or a squirrel.

Did I mention that both books were finalists for the Bailey's Women's Prize in 2016? What won? It was a first novel called The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney, which hasn't done well with us at all, despite being featured in our awards case. I think it's the cover.

LitHub asked McKenzie "What about Veblen’s medication? Melanie and Linus, her stepfather, ask her if she’s taking them several times, but they’re not specified" and McKenzie replied "I’ve never really talked about Veblen’s modalities and antidepressants. She has struggled with depression, but it wasn’t my intention to go into a lot of detail about the illness itself." But while I was reading this book, Maria Bamford's television series Lady Dynamite came to mind. I would definitely recommend The Portable Veblen to someone who enjoys this series.

Another artist whose work was called to mind while reading McKenzie's novel was Laurie Colwin. I was particularly reminded of Happy All the Time, which is also about what makes a relationship work, and had a similar fairytale quality about it. I would greatly excite me if more talented authors were inspired by this much beloved, still missed writer. Amie and I agreed that our favorite is Goodbye Without Leaving. My friend John's favorite is Another Marvelous Thing, and Marcy's is definitely the aforementioned Happy All the Time, which I should note that I liked enough to read twice. Another book that Marcy recommended to me decades ago that seemingly has had a resurgence if Barbara Trapido's Brother of the More Famous Jack. I'm just saying that you should probably listen to her when she tells you to read something.

As long as we're discussing book tie ins, there is the aforementioned Thorstein Veblen-penned The Theory of the Leisure Class, which is discussed in earnest in the novel. Another book that has a good amount of play is Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Are you surprised?

So what did the book club think? It's so interesting that what order we weigh in can really affect the tone the discussion takes. In this case, the most negative people spoke first, and while it got much more positive by the time we got to the halfway point of the table. Like Eileen, anyone in the helping professions seemed to like it more, and I also suspected that fans of the book might skew younger than our group. One attendee actually compared it to Eileen, which I was surprised about - I didn't think the books could be more different, but I thought her points, when raised, were valid.

One argument that was raised again was how we felt about satire. One of our most enthusiastic attendees loved the skewiering of the medicula industrial complex and thought the book was filmed with sharp humor. i should note that Elizabeth Rosen in the San Francisco Chronicle offered agreement: "I can’t help finding within these pages some strong echoes of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., which is to say, literary forebears who dared to map the landscape of dark humor in modern warfare, and others like them who were early to expose the perversity of corporate-style hospitalization."

And McKenzie has noted that The Portable Veblen, which was written over a number of years, was originally meant to be more of an anti-war novel. As she noted to Bethanne Patrick in the LitHub interview: " While some of those characters were inspired by families and people I observed and met at the Menlo Park VA hospital, I’m also blending in something that concerned me from the beginning: The issue of being a participant in a clinical trial. One of my family members was in a clinical trial. I’m one of the people I’m describing and creating. One of those people waiting to hear the good news. Unfortunately, we didn’t understand that the trial wasn’t going to do anything for our loved one. We had a lot of regret: Why did we put everyone through this?"

And another one of our enthusiastic participants compared the book to A Confederancy of Dunces.

But I'll give one of our negatives a little more space. She didn't like any of the characters and wished she was at home reading Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life.

Why squirrels, one participant asked? Squirrels are an animal that live in close proximity to but completely independent of humans. Of course they are not the only animals like this. Perhaps they are not as scary as rats or as cute as rabbits. Every so often we spot raccoons and opossums in our yard, and we've even seen a few coyotes. In London, the fox is the most talked about urban prowler. But McKenzie chose the squirrel and aside from one of our booksellers having a very strong hatred for squirrels and so she wouldn't read it, there doesn't seem to be any harm in that.

I have no idea how you'll feel about reading The Portable Veblen after reading this essay, but I'm hoping you are intrigued enough to try it. I enjoyed it a lot and think it makes for a great discussion. Other interesting reviews to check out are Jeff VanderMeer's in the Los Angeles Times and Maureen Corrigan's essay on Fresh Air, which gets extra points for calling the novel "squirrelly."

For the next few months, we'll be meeting at 6 pm, due to event scheduling.

On Monday, February 6, we'll be discussing Brit Bennett's The Mothers at 6 pm. We'll start off sans author, but Bennett will join us for a little spoiler question-and-answer at around 6:40, before doing her talk/reading to the general public at 7.

And on Monday, March 6, we'll discuss Paul Beatty's The Sellout at 6 pm. At 7 pm, we'll break so that we can attend Will Schwalbe's presention of Books for Living. Looks like we'll be talking about satire again.

On Monday, April 3, we'll be back to a 7 pm start for Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, held in conjunction with the Milwaukee Public Library's The Big Read. I believe we'll have at least one attendee from the Library to talk with us about the book and discuss the Big Read process.

 *Emily Fridlund will be at Boswell for History of Wolves on Friday, January 13, 7 pm, in conversation with Daniel Goldin.

**It is interesting to note that while I wouldn't instinctively recommend The Portable Veblen to our buyer Jason, the fact that Scarlett Thomas and Jeff VanderMeer, two authors he really likes, reviewed it enthusiastically, makes me think he might enjoy it.

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