If you’re a fan of the whimsical highbrow movies of filmmaker Wes Anderson, you’ll love The Portable Veblen, the new novel by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s a compelling modern-day love story set in Palo Alto, California, with an appealing quirky cast of characters, including a persistent and possibly symbolic squirrel.
Paul and Veblen are engaged, but will the marriage ever happen? They come from such different worlds. Named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen does administrative work at a hospital. In her free time she dabbles in translating documents from Norwegian and studies the teachings of her namesake’s work. How can she possibly be comfortable wearing the ostentatious diamond engagement ring Paul was so proud to give her?
She lives modestly in a rented bungalow she lovingly restored from a dilapidated condition. Veblen is quite fond of the squirrel who has taken up residence in the attic, a point of contention between herself and her beloved, who has a goal of eliminating the rodent. Veblen sees the squirrel as a new friend who wants to tell her something. Paul embraces her many personality quirks, finding her endearing. But it seems as if he doesn’t really know her (it’s been a whirlwind courtship) and meeting her domineering, hypochondriac mother and enabling stepfather might be the thing that tears them apart.
Raised on a commune by hippie parents, Paul revels in his new money and status as a neurosurgeon. He wants to distance himself from his odd upbringing, especially his mentally disabled brother Justin, who gets all of the family’s attention. He’s most excited by the device he’s pioneering, the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, intended to help treat head trauma on the battlefield. But Paul has fallen in with the ruthless head of a major medical and pharmaceutical company that has its own plans for Paul’s invention.
The Portable Veblen is a storybook for adults. The over-the-top characters are all memorable, and author McKenzie sets up scenes that reveal as much about Paul and Veblen’s individual pasts as they hint about their future together. So much literature these days weighs the reader down with heavy plot lines and depressing circumstances, and although The Portable Veblen trades in dysfunctional families and relationships, it soars as a comic satire. This a book I looked forward to picking up and falling into, and now I’m sorry to leave Paul and Veblen behind.
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a publishing phenomenon. Released mid-January, it debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, where it remains. This poetic memoir of life and impending death has the feel of an important book, one that will be read and talked about for years to come. It shines a light on what it means to be human.
Kalanithi was about to complete his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, when he began experiencing crippling back pain and weight loss. Initial X-rays looked fine, but the possibility of cancer was always in his mind. He chalked up his symptoms to long, grueling days in the operating room and his aging 36-year-old body. He admitted that while he was an authoritative surgeon, he was a meek patient.
Weeks later, when fierce chest pains began, he was forced to confront what he knew all along. A CT scan and subsequent tests revealed stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful examination of a life cut short, a memoir rich in introspection and unsparing in emotion. When his health problems began, Kalanithi was under a tremendous amount of stress. The completion of his residency was all-consuming. His wife Lucy, an internist herself, had some doubts about their marriage and was planning some “alone time.” His diagnosis proved a game-changer.
Not only did his wife stay, but the couple decided to accelerate their plans to have a baby, continuing the circle of life. Kalanithi shared his most intimate hopes and fears with readers, as he witnessed his daughter’s birth from his own fragile, uncertain state of health.
He underwent various treatments, soldiering forward not knowing how much time he had remaining. He continued to work on the manuscript that became this book, all the while buoyed by faith and his large family. When he died in March 2015, Lucy completed the book, adding an epilogue of her own to fill in her husband’s last weeks. This section is both wrenching and cathartic for anyone who has sat with a loved one during their final hours. Kalanathi’s dying wish was to leave behind a legacy in print. A true polymath, Kalanithi held both a BA and MA in English literature; he was also a student of philosophy. All of this informs his writing. When Breath Becomes Air ensures he will live on, remembered not only for his story, but for his eloquent words.
Some books take a little while to get going, but that’s not the case with the Ruth Wariner’s memoir The Sound of Gravel. It’s hard to stop reading after the first stunning sentence: “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” Wariner grew up in what was supposed to be a utopian Mormon colony, founded by her grandfather. The rural farming community Colonia LeBaron was established in Mexico as a haven for those who believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings — including polygamy.
Wariner never knew her father, once the prophet of the community. He was murdered by a member of a rival church — headed by his own brother — when she was just three months old. Her mother Kathy’s remarriage as the second wife to a colony member three years later defined her chaotic, hard-scrabble childhood. Short-tempered and selfish, Lane showed little fatherly attention to his stepchildren and children, eventually becoming predatory. He was a poor provider despite his strong work ethic, housing Kathy and her children in a rodent-infested, two-bedroom house with one unfinished bathroom, an outhouse for the meanwhile, and no electricity.
Wariner’s unique coming-of-age story is marked by poverty as much as it is by belonging to a religious cult. While Lane worked on their farm, it was up to Kathy to travel with the kids by bus to pick up government assistance checks over the border in El Paso like other colony wives as part of a complex, necessary scam.
Complicating life was a “difficult” older sister who was prone to fits of violence, a developmentally delayed older brother and a constant stream of new half-siblings to help take care of. Although her mother was loving and devoted, she always chose her husband over her children when it came time to take sides, defending Lane time and again for repeated abuses.
The Sound of Gravel is as engrossing as it is horrific. Wariner’s honest, revealing prose transports the reader to a world few would choose to visit, let alone live in. Wariner’s grit and rejection of a god that would will such horrible things gave her the strength to leave the community at the age of 15. Readers who enjoyed Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club will want to pick up The Sound of Gravel.
Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
In Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes), Drew Smith delves into everything you ever wanted to know about the briny bivalve, and then some. Smith takes a fascinating, in-depth look at the oyster's place in history — important in the diet of many cultures throughout the years but also to their economies. You would be hard pressed to find a better source of overall nutrition than the oyster. Low in fat and calories, it’s high in protein, calcium, vitamin B12, thiamine, riboflavin vitamin C and zinc, with trace amounts of other vitamins. Oysters eventually became an important industry in the colonies, with jobs for harvesting, opening, washing, measuring, selling and, eventually, canning. These jobs often went to those who would otherwise have had difficulty finding employment, including African Americans, women, immigrants and children. While people think of crabs when they hear Baltimore, we have been an oyster mecca for far longer. Baltimore was the first to become a canning center (way before any other city) in the early 1840s, where the stock was also labeled and shipped.
Oysters have long been celebrated in writing as well as art — and of course they have a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac. Smith has included numerous color illustrations, photographs and maps to enhance the reading experience. There are recipes throughout the book, and even recommendations on what to drink with oysters. This scholarly yet entertaining and accessible look at oysters would make a great gift for the foodie and/or historian on your gift list. Fans of Mark Kurlansky’s microhistories Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World or Salt: A World History will be entranced by Oyster.