Arts

From Stanford to squirrels, engaging new novel set in Palo Alto captures local color

Photo: Kelly Humphrey, Associated Press

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.)

"The Portable Veblen" is a new novel set in Palo Alto

“The Portable Veblen” is a new novel set in Palo Alto

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.

Thorstein Veblen, Stanford economist and key reference point

Thorstein Veblen,

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?

Photo by Palo Alto Free Press

Photo by Palo Alto Free Press

The Portable Veblen is available from at Books Inc. in Palo Alto and also online.

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About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of GreatSchools.org , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.

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