The Portable Veblen

  • by Elizabeth Mckenzie
  • Narrated by Julia Gibson
  • 12 hrs and 47 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Not what it was cracked up to be

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

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.


Has The Portable Veblen turned you off from other books in this genre?

Nope. I don't have much tolerance for whimsy or fantasy. I should have know from the beginning to avoid the book.


Did the narration match the pace of the story?

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.


Do you think The Portable Veblen needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?

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.


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- Linda "Former editor at The New York Times and Farrar Straus & Giroux. Looking for work."

Clever and Well-Written

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.


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- KP "There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 01-27-2016
  • Publisher: Recorded Books