Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen (2016)

The Portable Veblen

There are a few things you might see differently after having read The Portable Veblen—squirrels, marriage, clinical trials, mental health, consumerism, Thorstein Veblen. What I’m trying to say – this is a novel that’s as quirky as it is serious. But the best of all: the voice is stunning and as witty as it is clever. Looking at some of the topics this novel explores—dsyfunctional families, PTSD, pharmaceutical companies, mental illness— one wouldn’t think it would be funny, but it is. I really loved this book and it’s main narrator Veblen Amundsen-Hovda.

Veblen, named after Thorstein Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, is a self-declared “cheerer-upper” with a narcissistic, hypochondriac and controlling mother. Veblen is obsessed with squirrels, translates from the Norwegian in her free time and is highly suspicious of everything that whiffs of consumerism.

Veblen espoused the Veblenian opinion that wanting a big house full of cheaply produced versions of so-called luxury items was the greatest soul-sucking trap of modern civilization, and that these copycat mansions away from the heart and soul of a city had ensnared their overmortgaged owners – yes, trapped and relocated them like pests.

She’s engaged to Paul, a neurologist who works for a shady pharmaceutical company and gives her the most ridiculously huge engagement ring. All of her life, Veblen has been crushed by her mother. Her dad is in a mental institution and her step-dad always takes her mother’s side. Nonetheless, her mother and her mother’s opinion are important. So far, neither Veblen nor Paul have met their respective parents. Both are wary of a meeting. Veblen because she’s afraid of what crushing things her mother might say about the engagement and her fiancé, and Paul because he’s ashamed of his parents, hippies who were anything but good parents.

Just to give you an idea of what Veblen has to deal with. That’s her thinking of telling her mother about the engagement:

She had an internal clock set to her mother’s hunger for news, but sometimes it felt good to ignore it.

Then she went back inside and grabbed the phone to spring the news on her mother. Nothing being fully real until such springing. And nothing with her mother ever simple and straightforward either, and that was the thrill of it. A perverse infantile thrill necessary to life.

And this is how the phone call goes:

“Well. Did you say yes for all the right reasons?”

The coffeemaker gurgled and hissed, a tired old friend doing its best. “I think so.”

“Marriage is not the point of a woman’s life. Do you understand that?”

“By now.”

“Do you love him?”

“I do, actually.”

“Is everything between you, good, sexually?”

“Mom, please! Boundaries or whatever.”

“Don’t say boundaries like every teenage twerp on TV.”

It bothered Veblen’s mother that most people were lazy and had given up original thought a long time ago, stealing stale phrases from the media like magpies.

 

The main question at the heart of the story is: should anyone get married, especially when coming from a dysfunctional family? It takes Veblen a long time to make up her mind – the whole novel – and most of it involves hilarious scenes. Her mother is one of those parents that, while toxic, still has a lot going for her. I loved all the scenes that involved her. I equally enjoyed the passages in which we see Veblen on her own. Some of the chapters are told from Paul’s POV and those weren’t my favourites. He’s not a character that could stand on his own, he always needs to clash with another one to be interesting.

This might be one of the wittiest books I’ve read in a long time. But it’s also charming and profound. I’ve seen a few people comment that they found the book confusing. I didn’t. Most of the crazy moments are due to Veblen’s attempts at staying sane. Dissociation and escape into a fantasy world in which squirrels communicate with her, are coping mechanisms. As cheerful as Veblen seems, she is someone who has been crushed and whose lack of self-confidence is painful. That a lot of her composure comes from taking medication, is equally tragic. It may sound paradoxical, but given her upbringing, she’s doing well.

As I said, I enjoyed The Portable Veblen a great deal. It’s s such a clever book.

I wasn’t surprised to find it on the short list for the 2016 Bailey’s Prize for Fiction.

Three Short Reviews – Eileen (2015) – The Loney (2014) – Saturday (2005)

Ottessa MoshfeghScreen Shot 2016-04-15 at 09.37.31Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 10.16.27

I finished so many novels recently that I will never be able to review them all. That’s why I decided to do a post with shorter reviews. It doesn’t mean that the books weren’t as good as other books I’ve read. Just bad timing review-wise. I’ve added some blurb quotes at the beginning. Either as a contrast to what I wrote or to emphasize my opinion.

Ottessa Moshfegh

Fully lives up to the hype. A taut psychological thriller, rippled with comedy as black as a raven’s wing, Eileen is effortlessly stylish and compelling. – Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Times

First up is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. The tale of a crime that is instrumental in freeing the main character. Now this is a book I’m not likely to forget. The writing is so assured and strong. The voice of the narrator is original and the way the book was told worked remarkably well. The narrator, who was once called Eileen, is now an older woman, looking back at something that happened a long time ago. Back then she was an insecure woman who lived with her alcoholic father in a very dirty, sordid home and worked in a boy’s prison. When the new counselor, the glamorous Rebecca, arrives at the school, things first get very exciting for Eileen and then they get out of control. Eileen is a very unpleasant character. It’s not always a joy to be inside of her head. She has perverse fantasies and some of her hidden habits are really gross. The reasons why I enjoyed this taut noir so much, is that the older Eileen constantly adds information about her future life and because we sense that things will go wrong, we wonder how she managed, in spite of everything we are told, to have an almost normal life. I also enjoyed that it’s never really clear whether she’s totally unreliable or just completely deranged. Ottessa Moshfegh has been on my radar for a while. Many of her short stories have been highly praised. She certainly is a very assured and very talented writer. I’m really keen on reading more of her stories and hope she’ll write another novel soon

If you’d like a more detailed review here’s Guy’s post on Eileen. I discovered the book on his blog.

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‘The Loney is not just good, it’s great. It’s an amazing piece of fiction’ Stephen King

The Loney won the Costa Prize in 2015. I received the novel as a Christmas gift. I’d never heard of the book before but the person who gave it to me, knows that I like dark and gothic tales. I’m really glad that I’ve read it but not entirely sure I liked it. The atmosphere is amazing. It’s set in a bleak desolate part of England, near the coast in Lancashire. The Loney is a stretch of land that gets cut off and turns into an island during high tide. Getting lost between the land and the sea is very dangerous. The tide comes in quickly and surprisingly. The narrator is an older man. The story he tells takes place when he’s still a young boy. For a long time it’s not clear if what happens in the book is just the result of religious fanaticism or whether there is really a haunting. I found that interesting but wasn’t too keen on the ending. The story takes place during Easter. The narrator’s parents, especially the mother, are fanatics. They hope that they will be able to cure the narrator’s older brother through prayer. The mother is a really chilling charcater and sounded a lot like Jeannette Winterson’s mother.

What didn’t work so well was the subdued tone. The writing is deliberately old-fashioned, but takes, in my opinion, too much time. The atmosphere is spooky from beginning to end; the mood depressing, but there’s no real climax. It’s very well written though. I’ll keep an eye out for other books by this author. This was Andrew Michael Hurley’s first novel.

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“A book of great moral maturity, beautifully alive to the fragility of happiness and all forms of violence… Everyone should read Saturday… Artistically, morally and politically, he excels” (The Times)

I know that a lot of people love Ian McEwan. Many even think he’s an outstanding writer. While I find him entertaining, I don’t really think he is all that good. The whole time I was reading Saturday I kept turning the pages quickly, which means I was captivated by the story, but at the same time I couldn’t help but think that this was a lot like Grey’s Anatomy in book form. Captivating but also a bit trashy. Saturday tells the story of one day in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. The details are so minute that it actually made me laugh. You can sense that McEwan did a lot of research but did he have to pack all of it into his book? I found this very heavyhanded. Almost like the novel of a beginner. Now, the neurosurgery part was actually OK. Not the most fascinating topic for me, but OK. But since he wanted to add other subjects, we get a lot of information on literature—one of Perowne’s kids is a poet, and so is his father-in-law— and information on music— his son is a musician. After a while, I felt like being invited to one of those boring dinner parties where everyone has a “great career”, reads the latest books, has seen the latest movies and talks a little bit about politics and endlessly about food. There’s even a recipe in this book. Ha! Perowne and his entourage are the kind of people I’ve seen referred to as “Champage Socialists” here in Switzerland.

At the beginning of the day, Perowne thinks he witnesses something horrible. He’s unsettled. Later, he really experiences something terrible. It all left me completely cold. I’d lost patience with the character. All in all, yes, I was entertained. In a way it felt like spying on someone or like living someone else’s life for a day. Nonetheless, I can’t say I found it great or that it’s a must read.

Have you read any of these?

Nicci French: Friday On My Mind (2015) Frieda Klein 5

Friday On My Mind

I just finished the fifth novel in Nicci French’s Frieda Klein series, Friday On My Mind. I really like this series although not all the books are equally good. Part of the appeal is that they are set in London, so, understandably I wasn’t too keen on book four, in which Frieda is returning to her childhood home and which therefore takes place mostly outside of London.

In this novel, we are back in London. It’s quite different from the other books, but I’m happy to say it’s one of the best of the series. Frieda isn’t only  looking for a perpetrator, no, she’s on the run and desperately trying to clear her name. A body has been found in the Thames. The dead man has a hospital tag with Frieda’s name around his wrist. His throat has been cut, so he’s clearly a murder victim. For various reasons, the police suspect Frieda.

Hiding in London proves to be very difficult. And dangerous. The police are hunting her and with CCTV everywhere, she might be discovered all too soon. But the danger doesn’t come from the police, it comes from the murderer who chases her as well.

As usual, Frieda does a lot of foolish things and puts herself and her friends in danger.

I really enjoyed this fifth installment. I liked the story and I like Frieda and her circle of friends who play an important role in this book.

Another aspect I enjoyed was that because Frieda was on the run, she came into contact with people who live on the margins of society and under precarious circumstances. This gave the book depth. On a side note—This is  the second UK novel I’ve read recently, in which the killing and/or abuse of homeless people plays a role. I felt tempted to google this and was shocked to find out how often this really happens. It’s appalling.

The sixth book is due in June (Saturday Requiem) but I will probably wait until it’s available in paperback.

Here are the links to the reviews of the other books in the series:

Blue Monday

Tuesday’s Gone

Waiting for Wednesday

Thursday’s Child

Linda Pastan’s The Happiest Day

Heroes in Disguise

I don’t read a lot of poetry. Maybe one or two books a year, often less. Last year, I discovered the poems of Linda Pastan. One of my favourites is The Happiest Day.

It’s from her collection Heroes in Disguise.

The Happiest Day

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day–
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere–
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.