The Saturday Read – The National Book Award ‘Long List’

This past week The National Book Foundation announced the ‘long list’ of nominees for The National Book Award to be announced on November 16. The books nominated fall into four categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature.

A quick review of the titles provides a cultural snapshot of the issues we face as individuals and society as a whole. ‘The Saturday Read’ this week offers a list those nominated in the  fiction and non-fiction categories.

The fiction nominees includes an Oprah Book Club pick, my favorite of the past year, and an anticipated new novel to be released in October.

In non-fiction, racism is a common topic; echoing the theme of last year’s ‘required reading’, 2016 award winner, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘Between the World and Me’. The nominees in this category remind us why we read non-fiction: to listen, to understand the world in all its complexity, and to make thoughtful decisions about our future.


Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special (W. W. Norton & Company)

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan)

Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group)

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (William Morrow/HarperCollinsPublishers)

Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking Books/Penguin Random House)

Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen (Penguin Press/Penguin Random House)

Lydia Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (W. W. Norton & Company)

Brad Watson, Miss Jane (W. W. Norton & Company)

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (Doubleday/Penguin Random House)

Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn (Amistad/HarperCollinsPublishers)


Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History
(Random House/Penguin Random House)

Patricia Bell-Scott, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice (Alfred A. Knopf /Penguin Random House)

Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (Penguin Press/Penguin Random House)

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press)

Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
(Harvard University Press)

Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Crown Publishing Group/Penguin Random House)

Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale University Press)

Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (Pantheon Books/Penguin Random House)


The Saturday Read ‘The Portable Veblen’ by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Saturday Read this week,‘The Portable Veblen’ by Elizabeth McKenzie is about the life choices we make, via a different kind of Silicon Valley story.

The heroine of the novel is Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, a not so typical,’gig’ economy participant, making a living by combining assignments as an office assistant in Neurology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, translating for the Norwegian Diaspora Project in Oslo, and writing about her namesake Thorstein Veblen. (Yes, that witty critic of capitalism who invented the term ‘conspicuous consumption’.)

Or as the author describes her “independent behaviorist, experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self, who was having a delayed love affair with the world due to an isolated childhood and various interferences since.”

When we meet Veblen she has just accepted a marriage proposal from Paul Vreeland scientist, and inventor of the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch.

Did I mention the squirrels?  One in particular, who appears at her window just after her engagement, seeming to ask: “How well do you know yourself, and all the choices you could make?” 

In her review of the novel, NPR’s Heller McAlpin captured the theme that continues to resonate long after the reader arrives at Appendix G (in Norwegian), “this is ultimately a morality tale about the values by which we choose to live.”

If you have spent time in academia you will appreciate the absurdity of naming your child for the subject of your unfinished doctoral dissertation. You will also recognize the financial pressures of ‘technology transfer’, and ‘monetizing research’ that drive Paul’s decision to work for Big Pharma.

What if you invented something that could save lives? Wouldn’t you choose a firm that promised unlimited resources to expedite the process to market?

It’s easy to understand Paul’s choice. But in the world of bright shiny incentives he misses the point of who he will become as part of an unscrupulous conglomerate.

Fortunately for our couple and squirrel(s), good triumphs over evil in a series of memorable scenes that prove ‘what goes around, comes around’.

In ‘The Portable Veblen’, author McKenzie utilizes humor to narrate this story of choices, change, and consequences. If you’re looking for the perfect read for the recent grad, or are working through conflicting values at work, spend a few hours with Veblen, Paul and a supporting cast of frisky, philosophical squirrels.