Palo Alto might be famous for its professors and entrepreneurs, but the media rarely notices one group of very active residents: our squirrels. Love them or hate them, squirrels are everywhere in Palo Alto, chirping from the treetops and scampering across lawns and gardens. We even hit one while riding a bicycle through Riconada Park! (No one was hurt.)
That’s why we so thoroughly enjoyed reading Elizabeth Mckenzie’s “The Portable Veblen,” an entertaining, funny and thought-provoking book about love, family, relationships and modern ethical dilemmas. And squirrels.
Familiar Palo Alto setting with a unique perspective
While Mckenzie lives in Santa Cruz, she situates much of the book in a small house on Tasso Street near downtown and peppers the novel with many familiar Palo Alto markers, such as Teslas, soaring home prices, and biotech millionaires. But the beauty of “The Portable Veblen” is that although the surroundings are familiar, Mackenzie creates a refreshingly new perspective on modern themes such as the role of technology and the ethics of war, without being preachy or predictable.
Esconomics and materialism and crazy families
The main character in the novel, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, is named after Thorstein Veblen, famed ‘rogue’ economist and Stanford professor who lived in a cabin in the foothills of Sand Hill Road in 1907, long before that street became famous for its venture capital firms and inflated sense of global importance. He is most well known for writing, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” which skewered the rise of consumer society in the ‘Gilded Age.’
In the novel, Veblen’s relationship with her namesake is deep and complicated- she feels a kinship for his rejection of material life but wonders if by being named after Thorstein, she is doomed to a life like his of shattered relationships and professional self-sabotage. Veblen also frequently wonders what he would think of rampant materialism in Silicon Valley, which rivals and probably surpasses whatever Thorstein observed at the turn of the century.
The counter weight to Veblen’s somewhat extreme moral compass is her fiance Paul, a neurologist whose drive for success is fueled by a desire to break from his upbringing in Humboldt County, which featured nudity, pot farming and communal life. Paul leaps at the chance to gain legitimacy for his research by accepting funding from a giant pharmaceutical corporation with dubious interest in helping the veterans his invention is targeted to save.
And of course- squirrels
Where do the squirrels come in? Everywhere. They live in the crawlspace above Veblen’s tiny house on Tasso Street, gnawing the wires and scampering all night long, a sound that is charming for her and torture for Paul. One particular squirrel stands outside Veblen’s window, silently communicating his doubts about her relationship with Paul in a way only she can hear. (If this seems hard to believe, you have never had – as our family did- a squirrel that stared at our breakfast table every morning, mocking our cereal choices while he stuffed acorns in his fat cheeks).
As Paul’s invention hurtles through trials at the local Veteran’s Hospital and Veblen travels with her squirrel on a road trip to see her estranged father, the novel’s pace picks up and it’s pure reading pleasure to ride along for Mckensie’s deft observations, witty descriptions and engaging plot. Will Paul and Veblen end up together? Will the squirrel ever make it back to the woods? Will the industrial war machine take over Paul’s invention and ruin his chance of gaining the recognition he so craves? Will Veblen’s crazy mother get over her hypochondria long enough to come to the wedding? Only the squirrel knows for sure, and he isn’t talking. Or is he?
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