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Excerpt from The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Portable Veblen

A Novel

by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie X
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2016, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2016, 448 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Print Excerpt

Chapter 2: Sauerkraut and Mace

As it turned out, Paul had gone shopping for more than breakfast.

She watched from the window as he wrestled something from the trunk of his car. Under a clearing sky, a newly minted object threw its shadow onto the walkway, coffin-shaped, about two feet long.

"Oh my god, a trap?" she said, at the door.

"It's my stated goal to keep pests out of our lives," he announced, and she thought nervously of her mother.

"What if we don't agree on what's a pest?"

"Veb, I got no sleep last night. You should be glad I didn't get the guillotine kind." The packaging boldly proclaimed:

Humanely TRAPS, not KILLS:
Squirrels
Chipmunks
Shrews
Voles
and other Nuisance Critters!

"I hate the word critters!" Veblen said, displacing her negative feelings onto an innocent noun.

He persisted, pointing to the fine print. "Look at this."

Squirrels can cause extensive damage to attic insulation or walls and gnaw on electrical wires in homes and vehicles, creating a fire hazard.

"Paul, don't you see, that's propaganda to motivate you to buy the thing."

"But it's true."

"This morning it came to the window - I think it wants to befriend me," Veblen said, quite naturally.

"You can make other friends. This squirrel isn't a character in a storybook. Real animals don't wear shawls and top hats and write poetry. They rape each other and eat their own young."

"Paul, that's an excessively negative view of wildlife."

Nevertheless, he seized the wooden chair from beside her desk, took it through the bathroom door, and dumped it in the bathtub, to stand on it and shove aside the square of white, enameled plywood covering the opening to the attic. She provided him with the flashlight from her bedside drawer. His thighs flexed like a warrior's. A strange little riddle began in her head:

The man pops squirrels, the man pops mice -
(What man? Not Paul?)

With a riddle-me-ree he pops them twice;
(Twice? Isn't once enough?)

He pops his rats with a riddle-me-ree
(Oh no, it is Paul!)

He popped my father and he might pop me.
(How terrible! Was Paul experimenting with squirrels?)

"Nesting materials in the corner," he yelled. "God. Looks like fur on the beams!"

Was this the stuff married life would be made of, two people making way for the confounding spectacle of the other, bewildered and slightly afraid?

"Paul, did you know, the year Thoreau spent at Walden Pond, he spent a lot of time totally enchanted by squirrels?" If squirrels were good enough for Thoreau, after all, what was Paul's problem?

"No, I didn't."

"Have I told you about the great squirrel migrations of the past?" She steadied the chair.

"You must have been saving it up."

"Yeah. Squirrels are actually one of the oldest mammals on earth!" she told him, with curious pride. "They've been in North America at least fifty million years. That's a long time, don't you think? I mean, people brag about their relatives coming over on the Mayflower in 1620, so I think squirrels deserve a little respect, don't you?"

She could see him scanning the corners of the attic for entry holes, and he didn't reply.

"Anyway, settlers and townspeople across North America wrote in their diaries about oceans of squirrels that would flood through the fields and over the mountains, as far as their eyes could see! Can you imagine it? It was like an infinite gray blanket. At times, whole tides of them were seen swimming across rivers, like the Hudson, and the Missouri, and the Ohio. Even Lewis and Clark witnessed a migration! In 1803. In southern Illinois in the 1880s, it was reported that four hundred fifty million squirrels ran through this one area, almost half a billion!"

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Excerpted from The Portable Veblen by Sophie McKenzie. Copyright © 2016 by Sophie McKenzie. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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