My Postwar Life

My Postwar Life:

New Writings from Japan and Okinawa

Elizabeth McKenzie, editor

Foreword by Karen Tei Yamashita


“The war haunts everything.  It is the blot that names:  zainichi, hibakusha, Okinawan, nisei, renunciant, POW, comfort woman, Merikan, juri.  War’s occupation will control and censor every outcome, will obliterate the aftermath of starvation, black markets, and prostitution, will reinstate the zaibatsu and create an economic miracle and subservient ally.  The artists and writers here were and are the born-into recipients of all this.  This is their memory.” –from the Foreword by Karen Tei Yamashitaauthor of I-Hotel, National Book Award Finalist

This selection of new work by some of Japan’s most eminent observers and artists offers a richly nuanced perspective on the complex relationship between Japan and the U.S. in the long aftermath of war.

Over 100 photographs and illustrations/Reader’s Guide Included

Reviews of My Postwar Life 

The Asian American Literary Review

by Anna Kazumi Stahl
My Postwar Life: New Writings from Japan and Okinawa. ed. Elizabeth McKenzie. Chicago: Chicago Quarterly Review Books, 2012. 328 pp.

Anthologies on war and its effects can move us, certainly, and they can also do the important work of revising the partial, biased, or even explicitly incorrect narratives we may have been taught about influential historical events. This anthology not only moves and revises, but it also orchestrates what I would call a “multi-dimensional experience”—we can read the two-dimensional text on the page, but the experience also acquires a sense of palpable spatial volume as we are invited to skip around inside it to read a poem from the later pages first and then pick up an essay with similar terms from the beginning, or to read texts while looking back and forth at the photos from differing sections. Add to this the fourth dimension of time, the play of memory against current reconsiderations, the cobbling together of historical moments and today’s experiences, the folding of time’s fabric in on itself so that—like in Malick’s The Tree of Life—it might double and repeat insistently, or expand to encompass eons in one stretch, or suddenly, shockingly shrink to focus on a pinpoint realization. More than the opposite of the thinking inherent in the “Superflat” aesthetic, this collection includes it, incorporating it along with other modes, so that ultimately, one is brought into a different way of constructing and treating meanings.

The case in point is post-World War II from the Japanese perspective, but it is also the workings of memory, collective and individual, in more encompassing terms. In that light this anthology’s particular way of arranging its contents has special value as it invites us to read using intuition as much as reason, being as attentive to logical progression as we are to nuanced echoing and reiterations in images. We can begin to see from new angles; we can be surprised, perhaps even awakened. This is why I find My Postwar Life so pertinent to our age. As it has us skip actively from essay to poem, from image to narrative, from page 30’s “bamboo stalks imprinted” to page 176’s “dreamlike touch,” we become more able to navigate less stable conceptual terrains, such as political memory (war history, national history), with suppler and more intuitively acute minds.

The order of the book’s various pieces is intriguing. In a dissembling but in the end enlightening gesture, the table of contents is organized by genre but the pages have a different order, a more poetic one, whereby we read and topics emerge and pass, only to resound in echoes a few texts later, perhaps being treated first in a clear-eyed chronicle and then later dropping through lines in blank verse, or having appeared first insistently in the epigraphs of photos and then being treated in a critical analysis, or as a noticeable absence in a soldier’s diary (“Old town Manila was diverse and multi-colored” and “The native people came close and held up a bunch of bananas shouting `Trade, trade,’” the soldier writes in 1943, and one flips back and forth between his pages wondering, “Where is the War in this diary”?) that then unexpectedly unfurls with forceful explicitness in the first-person discourse of a veteran. This kind of thing also prompts an unexpected but constructive doubt about how I may too quickly presume prescribed values for fiction versus eyewitness testimony. One might ask: how could My Postwar Life be relevant to me if I am not related to anyone Japanese, not interested in anything Japanese, not even all that into Japanese food or fashion or fads? The answer could be as (non)abstract as that idea that a molecule exhaled by Socrates as he spoke his apologia is present in molecules you or I might breathe in today. The answer could be as (non)abstract as that other idea so poignantly expressed in the washing ashore of a Japanese boy’s soccer ball—battered and faded, but still legibly signed—onto Middleton Island in Alaska, more than a year after March 11, 2011. The answer could be as (non)abstract as the idea of an ancient gene pool shared by East Asians and Amerindians, or as that of depleted uranium used in the U.S.’s “Desert Storm” operations coming home now on a soldier’s boot or wristwatch or hairs and, hence, entering a Starbucks just ahead or after you. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but on the other hand: yes, I do.

Karen Tei Yamashita notes in her foreword how “war haunts everything” and historical time “folds” into the now. Interestingly, the other text that prefaces the main contents—by Elizabeth McKenzie, the compiler—talks of the book as an almost intimate endeavor, relevant to a “me” and “my father,” before going on to set in motion the powerfully and delicately orchestrated symphony of diverse elements that comprise the anthology. This is a set of text experiences (readings as well as images) that works less like a book (numbered pages advancing in order from 1 to 324) and more like a theatre piece. Yet it goes a step further still, to be less like a theater piece or a film (which would advance progressively and linearly from an “Act I” or a minute “00:01” through to “The End”) and ultimately more like an installation piece, which you walk through and view/read on your own, going right or left or circularly as per the order your body’s pace and your day’s mood allow, and the message(s) of which you understand by observing its parts and intuiting their meanings belatedly and interrelatedly.

Everyone may have had that anguished thought of the half-century folding over onto itself, so the 1945 A-bombs came crashing through the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe, but the labyrinthine braided threads of victimhood-versus-guilt challenge us—when we read the testimony of a foot soldier whose mind is clouded with nationalist and fundamentalist strictures, or perhaps less extremely when we later read of a poet’s inspired hunger for volcanic formations and his sudden vanishing in an apparent fall from a volcano’s ridge. Throughout the selection of texts and documentation, there are subtler echoes that catch our attention and get us reflecting in new ways about what we read: at one point we are handed off from an eyewitness’ authoritative domain to the presence of multiple circling pseudo-guides at the Hiroshima Peace Park. Indeed, the careful selection presents us consistently with illuminating, mobilizing complexities: we go from a broadly drawn and persistently significant Japanese-North American problematic to more complex layers beneath or within that problematic—such as the troubling, insufficiently addressed status and history of the Ainu minority in Japan, or (as the volume’s title itself makes palpable enough) the odd inside-outside status of Okinawan cultural heritage vis-a`-vis a Japanese national story. In a most powerful essay covering reportage and family history, the layers of the nuclear plant’s catastrophic crisis are peeled back from “tsunami-born tragedy” to reveal other dimensions: suspect complicities between government and industry, dangerous echoes between a rhetoric of community solidarity and a nationalist racism, and at a very intimate core: the settling and (for?) employment of a people whose culture had once been based in a flowing mobile relationship with tides and fish in aquatic migrations.

From analytical monograph to rhapsodic poem, from photodocument to fantastical fiction, the collection harbors and involves those many discourses using a transversal logic to wonderful advantage. It plays different modes of expression and different approaches off one another, so that in the gaps and transition spaces the reader him/herself begins also to reflect and to produce on the topic of history’s consequences and the murky mouthpiece called memory.

If there ever were an anthology that is like a memory park, this is it. One wanders through it, learning as one goes. The cover already sets the tone of active interpretive reading/viewing as the key: its evocative abstract image can suggest nerve endings and synapses as much as trees, whether they be barren branches in a devastated postwar landscape or one hundred cherry trees given in peace-time to the former enemy nation, as a bounty of good wishes, though each petal opens also its own darkling recollections.

Anna Kazumi Stahl is a fiction writer and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. In 1995, she relocated to Argentina and began to experiment with writing in a foreign language. A collection of short stories resulted: Catástrofes naturales (Natural Disasters, 1997). Her novel Flores de un solo día (Flowers of a Single Day, 2003) was a finalist for the prestigious RoÅLmulo Gallegos prize and came out in Spain as well as Latin America, with later translations in France and Italy. She is currently working on a new novel in Spanish and teaching at NYU in Buenos Aires.

Publishers Weekly

My Postwar Life: New Writings from Japan and Okinawa
Edited by Elizabeth McKenzie. Chicago Quarterly Review Books (, $19.95 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-0-9847788-0-5

This engaging anthology of short fiction, essays, poetry, photography, and more illuminates the interconnected past of the U.S. and Japan, from WWII up to 2011′s earthquake. Ryuta Imafuku’s essay, “Nagasaki. And Scattered Islets of Time,” is a walk through the suspended reality of post-atomic Nagasaki, accompanied by Shomei Tomatsu’s powerful photos of burn victims, detritus, and seared bamboo stalks. Deni Y. Béchard’s story, “The Deleted Line,” tells of Yukio, a translator who censors a textbook regarding the Battle of Okinawa and is subsequently reprimanded by an old karate master, who explains that to erase the past is “like saying we must let go of our minds, of our spirits.” “The Emperor and the Mayor” is Stephen Woodhams’ candid interview with Hitoshi Motoshima, former mayor of Nagasaki, who was castigated by some for blaming Emperor Shōwa for Japan’s role in WWII. Hiroshi Fukurai’s “Disaster Memories” investigates the radioactive threat of the recently damaged Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, and Noboru Tokuda’s beautifully illustrated diary from his stint as a young soldier in the Imperial Army during WWII is particularly moving. McKenzie’s (MacGregor Tells the World) collection is a stunning testament to a country’s literal rise from the ashes–casual readers and academics alike will find many of these selections rewarding and informative. Photos & illus. (Sept.)

Asian Review of Books  

Reviewed by Todd Shimoda

We in the West are still fascinated with Japan, although the focus of this fascination had changed from the country’s more classic arts toward popular culture such as anime. Even sushi has become so mainstream that its roots are starting to blur, like pizza in America which is less and less like pizza in Italy. Most of the original fascination with Japan lies in its many centuries of distillation of its high arts, aesthetics, and ways of thinking. But more than perhaps any other culture, its current state has been defined by justtwo days—the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan began an immense transformation in the blink of an eye.

In this collection of essays, fiction, poetry, plays, and other documentation, the change from the aftermath of the War to today’s modern state is captured and explicated. In reading this volume, I recommend starting not at the beginning and going straight through, but picking out a genre or a few of the pieces that sound most interesting. I chose “Superflat Tokyo”, an essay by Roland Kelts; “The Art of Passing Through Walls”, a short story by Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani, the illustrated “Diary of Noboru Tokuda, Soldier in the Imperial Army”; and the poem “Walking” by Keijiro Suga. Kelts uses his dual residences in Tokyo and New York to provide an aerial view of the differences of the two mega-cities, neither entirely representative of their respective countries, but the two most well known, each the center of finance and culture, and the government in the case of Tokyo. “Superflat” refers to a Japanese artistic style that lacks shading for perspective, and has also been used to describe the thinning of technology (as in superflat television screens). Kelts uses the term to describe the ubiquitous train station neighborhoods of neon-lit karaoke bars, noodles shops, izakaya (small food and drink bars), fast food counters and elegant hostess bars. “Wherever you alight in the City of Tokyo this is what you expect and this is what you get. Superflat. … after decades on the world’s stage, it remains as much a cipher as Hello Kitty—tantalizing and expressionless, massive but hidden, an empty vessel you can fill with your densest dreams. Oh, what a town.” In contrast to Kelts’s broad, visionary sensibilities for Tokyo, Lowitz and Oketani take a more modest and intimate portrait of rural Japan, seen through the eyes of Rika, a Japanese American and recent high school graduate visiting her grandfather in Japan for the first time. The elderly man is amazed to learn Rika knows the Japanese martial art of stealth and invisibility called sozu, although she doesn’t know it is called this. Her mother passed some of its skill to her, and now the grandfather teaches Rika an advanced level of the art called “passing through walls”. Learning this secret and others, she also learns more of her identity and that of her mother, and the realization astounds her. “The Diary of Noboru Tokuda” is a fascinating diary made of sketches drawn by a young Japanese sailor who was trapped on a small island in the Philippines near the end of war. He was eventually captured and interned in Singapore until he was returned to Japan. The sketches are vivid examples of the horror and self-reliance required to survive in the chaotic finish of the war. The sketches were annotated by the sailor’s wife after he returned. Several sketches show how they were cut off from supplies and had to forage and hunt for food while running for shelter from regular bombings. “When I think about how the infantry barracks were later reduced to worthless splinters by a bomb, I remember how chills ran up and down my spine.” “Walking” by Keijiro Suga is a narrative poem of the emotive thoughts of a person walking through a vast changing landscape. The feeling imparted is a floating journey through history as much as across shorelines and mountains. “Finding our way between the mineral world and the vegetal world, We went on, climbing the northern slope of summer. The path became a stream, then mud, Then occasionally stairways hard to climb because of exposed roots. The path was situated between the mud and the sky.” In the end the walker can no longer distinguish light and dark, earth and sky, self and not-self. A couple of other works I recommend are the erudite and informative essay “The Atomic Bomb Survivors: A Jungian Contribution” by Janice Nakao and the surreal short story “Passing into Twilight Alley” by Tami Sakiyama. Overall, the collection has consistently high quality works, a credit to the editor, Elizabeth McKenzie. Each work provides unique insight into what Japan has become from where it was before the singular events sixty-seven years ago.

–Todd Shimoda’s latest novel is Subduction.

Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing–Received and recommended

The Japan Times: Making a Life After Surviving the War

Santa Cruz Sentinel: Author Dives Into the Japanese Psyche with new book on the Lingering Aftermath of WWII


Annotated Table of Contents  

From the opening words of Nagasaki. And Scattered Islets of Time we are suspended in the rich voice of cultural anthropologist Ryuta Imafuku and the essence of “Nagasaki Time” emerging from Shomei Tomatsu‘s renowned and haunting photographs. At 11:02 am on August 9th, 1945, the city of Nagasaki ruptured, and this essay unfolds the half-century journey of one artist to catalogue that rupture. Through Tomatsu’s lens we are able to witness the striking damage forever imprinted on the land and the people of Nagasaki. One moment, suspended in time forever.

Blast by Goro Takano is a kaleidoscopic dreamscape in the guise of an obese, senile writer struggling to navigate the spaces between delusion and inspiration, creation and violence.

The Diary of Noboru Tokuda: A Soldier in the Imperial Army, is the illustrated journal kept by Tokuda during his time stationed as a soldier on the islands of Seram and Kai. Upon his return to Japan, he explained the drawings to his wife, who annotated them in beautiful calligraphy. Through his sketches of life in the Imperial Army we are able experience time on these strange and elegiac islands. Tokuda includes everything in his sketchbook from local fruit to stories of starvation and abandoned bombs found laying about the island.

In Last Time I Saw You by Kentaro Yamaki, a Japanese veteran divulges the secrets of war to his loved one, unveiling the horrors of his time spent stationed in Papua New Guinea. Touching on the vast estrangement felt by soldiers returning home after war, Last Time I Saw You weaves a remarkable tale of hardship, loss, and most importantly, hope.

In The Deleted Line by Deni Y. Bechard, Yukio, a translator for a large publishing company is visited by an old karate master, who comes in search of lines missing from a textbook on the Battle of Okinawa that Yukio translated. In the series of events that unfolds, Yukio is faced with a past that he cannot erase.

The Emperor and the Mayor: A Conversation with Hitoshi Motoshima by Stephen Woodhams is a provocative interview with Hitoshi Motoshima, former mayor of Nagasaki and celebrated survivor of an assassination attempt, who offers a unique perspective on destruction and the dropping of the bomb.

Never before translated, Don’t Arrogate Hiroshima! is Hitoshi Motoshima‘s call to action and reconciliation for Japan. Centering on the controversial nomination of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial as a World Heritage site, Motoshima lays out some of the often overlooked circumstances surrounding the dropping of the bomb.

A Landscape of Words by Akutagawa finalist Tami Sakiyama delves into the rift between personalized local language and standardized urban language, inviting us into her memories of growing up on an Okinawan island filled with dialects. By confronting the standardization of language, Sakiyama is able to open a space for the protection and inclusion of traditional dialects.

The Silver Motorcycle by Katsunori Yamazato is the entrancing story of a young man’s summer spent working for his unraveling aunt, who he refers to solely as “the woman.” In the scorching heat their relationship unfolds in an unimaginable way.

An Exchange For Fire by Christopher Blasdel, director of the U.S.-Japan Creative Arts Program, recounts the touching story of American poet Craig Arnold who journeyed to Japan on pilgrimages to Mt. Aeta and Sakurajima, both active volcanoes. Consumed by his passion, Craig disappeared, never to be found.  This is his story, and the story of community that came together to find him.

C-Lit and Yaoi Desire by Mari Kotani discusses the popular manga Song of Wind and Trees and its main character, an over-sexed young man who is drawn in the popular shojo style. Through an in-depth analysis of the text and comparison to other forms of media, Kotani is able to outline the new archetype of the homme fatale and the C-sensibility.

Tales from Fin de Siecle Japantown: The Japanese Working Students of San Francisco byTakayuki Tatsumi traces the paths of the author’s great-grandmother, who left Japan for America at age sixteen and became one of the first female Tufts graduates, and grandfather, who went to America and then London, working to establish himself as a banker. Through these personal stories and other examples the author examines the dawn of the self-made Japanese working student.

In Superflat Tokyo, noted critic Roland Kelts delves into the world’s most densely populated metropolis, home to a wild hybrid of cultures, ideas, and individuals. Through an analysis of artist Takashi Murakami’s work, Kelts opens the door on the ever-changing city, welcoming us to fill it “with our densest dreams.”

The Atomic Bomb Survivors: A Jungian Contribution illustrates aspects of Janice Nakao’sintensive study of the hibakusha. Through the personal narratives of survivors, she traces the long-term psychological impact of atomic trauma, and presents therapy based on the work of American psychiatrist Robert J. Lipton for survivors to cope with their extreme experience.

In his poem Walking, Keijiro Suga leads the reader along paths lined with the silent presence of the dead; through fields where ancient things have gone to rest. These paths are paved with opposing elements, carved from the space “between the mud and the sky,” “between the mineral and vegetal world,” and filled with the final words of fallen soldiers. In this land of impossible schisms, the poet leads us to a place of unity.

In the full-length play Park City by avant garde playwright  Masataka Matsuda, the main character Shima becomes increasingly fixated on the link between his name and Hiroshima as he journeys there for the first time. Matsuda wraps us in different dimensions of temporality as we follow Shima on his dreamlike journey through the city, into the heart of an international tragedy.

Zainichi Poet Kim Shi-Jong beautifully captures the complex relationship between human memory and the memory that exists outside of ourselves in Behind the Summer Rain.  At the Heart of the Pale Blue Sky is the haunting lament of a voiceless narrator, abandoned by language and therefore without place, purpose, or the ability to atone for debt. In Oh, April, my Distant Days! Shi-Jong weaves together beautiful sequences of images (a raven on the forked branch of a tree, a burning village, the “white dust through the flowering apricots”) that speak to the seeming impossibility of existence beyond extreme tragedy.

The poem Gama by Okinawan poet/activist Ben Takara reveals how the islands of Okinawa and their sacred caverns came to foster both life and death. A Matter of God calls upon a child to return to its native village in the spirit of renewal, to hold tight to the gift of language and wield it as a tool of praise and regeneration.

In Passing into Twilight Alley by Tami Sakiyama, we wind our way through the narrator’s memory to the mystical alley known as Akou-kurou-gai, the state between brightness and darkness. In this twilight place we bear witness to events that unfold between the unlikeliest of strangers.

In The Art of Passing Through Walls by Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani, a young girl named Rika travels to the mountains of Aomori to meet her grandfather for the first time and “discover her roots.” What Rika gets is much more than she bargained for, and in the heart of the mountains, her family’s secrets begin to unfold.  With illustrations by Manga artist  Kentaro Sasaki.

In the striking phantasmagoria Dream Corridor, Kyoto Journal editor Stewart Wachs tells the story of how he came to dwell in Japan. By following his night visions and the echoes of a past life Stewart began a journey towards transformation and unity.

Small Fish by Iona Sugihara is the story of four lives that intertwine across generations. Shizu and her granddaughter, Ellie, and Duane and his grandson, Leon. The hidden pain possessed by the grandmother and granddaughter overlapping with brutality and joy.

Disaster Memories by Hiroshi Fukurai is a comprehensive look at Japan’s most pressing current nuclear threat: the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Through a discussion of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 and the ongoing deception by Fukushima and government officials, Fukurai (whose hometown of Natori was wiped out by the tsunami) calls for a critical evaluation of nuclear policy and national sovereignty.

The Hiten Project: Zero Gravity Dance presents the choreography of Setsuko Ishiguro. Performed on the International Space Station as a “prayer for world peace,” dancers move through zero gravity in an imitation of Hiten, traditional Buddhist figures of praise.



Chicago Quarterly Review Books

Stop That Girl


New York Times Book Review:  “In her first book, a novel in stories, Elizabeth McKenzie introduces us to Ann Ransom, a funny, ferocious and intensely likeable narrator.  McKenzie is an accomplished humorist and a developed stylist, and she wastes no time dazzling the reader with her clean direct language, her simple but searing use of metaphor and her unflinching eye.  The paragraphs are put together with razor sharp concision, and the book is rich in both narrative and linguistic surprise.  An original.”

Click here to read the Reader’s Circle discussion questions

Talk of the Nation
Summer Reading List

CONAN: Let’s see if we can get one recommendation from each of our – our reviewers before we have to wind this up. Oscar Villalon in San Francisco.

Mr. VILLALON: I have one more I’d like to recommend. It’s Elizabeth McKenzie’s Stop That Girl. It’s very – it’s extremely funny. It’s essentially a bunch of stories about an 8-year-old girl growing up in Southern California, and how all the sort of zany, for lack of a better word, things that happen to her as she gets older. Particularly just trying to fit in, her family, she feels sort of a misfit. She has this grandmother who’s a doctor, Dr. Frost, who also seems to be a little bit out of her mind. She’s kind of like Holly Golightly at 70, and keeps dragging her out of her normal existence and putting her in very awkward situations. I think people may really, really dig that one for the summer. Again, it’s one of very few things I’ve read that made me laugh out loud. You know, there’s a lot of things you read that are somewhat funny, you kind of, you know, snicker a little bit, but start cracking up like a madman on the bus and people look at you!

Alan Cheuse, NPR’s “All Things Considered”   “Within 15 pages Ann has broken Granny’s arm and begun her discovery that the world is a wide and various place filled with all sorts of odd people with weird ideas and motives, which pretty much describes the world of the rest of these stories, populated by angry mothers, voracious boyfriends, laid-back California entrepreneurs, an odd Australian environmentalist .Hilarious . Call these anti-fairy tales, stories that seem so true you’ll say to yourself, ‘Oh, these awful and sometimes lovely things must have actually happened.’ That’s always the mark of a convincing writer.”

C. Michael Curtis, The Atlantic Monthly:  In Stop That Girl, Elizabeth McKenzie’s observations prove to be droll, shrewd, fair-minded , and irresistibly entertaining. This is a writer whose modesty and ingenuousness threaten to disguise the range and subtlety of her gifts.”

Village Voice  “Stop That Girl is full of unexpected incidents-the damage is quirky but no less acute.  Candid, perceptive . [McKenzie’s] tales flail with reckless energy . Appealingly idiosyncratic, sharpened throughout by a keen sense of humor.”

Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Olive Kitteridge:  “Vibrant and clear, these connected stories present a portrait of a family whose members are funny and hurtful and real, and watching them touched by time and change is very affecting. There is a lovely expansiveness here; surrounding the humor is the recognition that life is a serious deal.”

Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain:  “Elizabeth McKenzie takes two difficult forms-the novel-in-stories and the coming-of-age tale-and makes them work brilliantly together. Stop That Girl  is one of the funniest and smartest fiction debuts I’ve read in a long, long time.”

Los Angeles Times Book Review  “McKenzie’s take on childhood is so smart, funny and fiercely observant.[she] keeps delivering such delicious paragraphs.Gets the youthful intimation of mortality down to perfection.”

San Francisco Chronicle  It would be easy to give up on the quirky, girly coming-of-age novel, except that when it works, there are few forms more pleasurable to read. AndStop That Girl works, on just about every level . McKenzie has produced a lovely, funny, lucidly written account . her sentences are beautifully, cleanly made, with no excess nonsense . She’s single-handedly reinvigorated the coming-of-age genre. Here is a writer towatch, and a book to breeze through with glee.”


O Magazine  “Why is it such a kick to read Elizabeth McKenzie’s “Stop That Girl?” Certainly Ann Ransom, the impulsive schoolgirl who comes of age in these interconnected tales, has more than her share of heartbreak.  Ann pursues life with a wary insight that couldn’t be more engaging. A smart, swift-paced debut.”

East Bay Express  [McKenzie] is funny, and her stories are wry and tuned to pop culture and politics.  They inspire fantasies about being her best friend.”

 Tessa Hadley, author of The Past: A deliciously intelligent novel, funny and original and exact. McKenzie has wonderful eye-and a relishing appetite-for the craziness that’s everywhere in ordinary things if you know how to look.”

Santa Cruz Sentinel  [A] delightful novel about a girl growing up in the mosh pit of family . Ann is wise beyond her years; she’s also a wiseacre. Her rebellious, buoyant nature gilds her words as well as her deeds . Smart girls everywhere will see themselves in Ann’s smart mouth. Still-it’s Ann in action that hallmarks the irrepressibly upbeat coming-of-age novel . [Stop That Girl] leads us to consider our own childhoods, and it does it in a way that is both poignant and optimistic.”

Rocky Mountain News   “Lively . Ann is an engaging heroine with keen observations and self-deprecating humor. Through her, McKenzie explores the myriad dynamics of family and friendship in evocative and graceful prose.”

Library Journal   “Mature and well wrought; although Ann is sometimes baffled by the choices of her loved ones, she does her best to respect and honor them.  This tendency, along with her humor, loyalty, and humility, makes Ann a completely likeable character in a completely likeable coming-of-age novel. Emotionally reverberant, this book is highly recommended.”

The Charlotte Observer  “Delightful and wrenching…a dynamic and honest portrait of a girl’s journey to womanhood.”

Cincinnati City Beat  The nine stories in this collection are laugh-out-loud funny, but often poignant enough to bring a lump to your throat. An intelligent, original read.”

Jenny McPheeauthor of No Ordinary Matter   “As is eminently apparent from the elegant style, sharp wit, and captivating voice in Stop That Girl, there will be no stopping Elizabeth McKenzie in her literary career. This is a superb book.”

San Francisco Magazine  Shockingly assured. What’s most wonderful about these thoroughly entertaining stories is how subtle they are.”

Daily Candy  How about a coming-of-age story with a little imagination?  Ann’s voice and sensibility give the book an extra touch of fun. (Dig the car chase that involves an estranged grandmother and Allen Ginsberg.) Stop that girl? When you get a load of her, you definitely won’t want to.”

Kate Walbert, author of Our Kind  Stop That Girl runs at breakneck speed from beginning to end; this is a wildly original, unforgettable debut, funny and poignant and perfect for anyone who has survived childhood.”

7x7 SF Magazine  Stop That Girl chronicles the heartfelt stops and starts of a California girlhood. Refreshingly sweet.”

Booklist    “Ann Ransom is unstoppable. McKenzie shows us that life in a series of stories that are linked like chains . Ann tells us of her eventful life in a matter-of-fact, deadpan voice-often wildly funny but just as often thoughtful and sad-that will appeal to both adults and YAs.”

Publishers Weekly  Wry, clever.McKenzie’s humor, Ann’s touching bravado and the collection’s subtle evocation of emotional undercurrents make this a poignant, incisive debut.”

Jane Hamilton, author of Disobedience  Stop That Girl made me laugh out loud, not only because it’s funny, but also from sheer delight.  At the same time, the novel provided that perfect companionable sadness that can only be found in a good book. Elizabeth McKenzie is a wonderful talent.”-

The Daily Trojan  Absurd situations, celebrity cameos, and lyrical writing. a witty and insightful look at the glue that holds dysfunctional families together.”

Book Lust  Stellar.Clever and bittersweet.Elizabeth McKenzie is definitely an author to watch out for.  Her writing is crisp, sharp, hilarious, touching, and utterly original.”

Kirkus Reviews  Deftly captures one woman’s life . A fine first book, alive with energy, wit, and real promise.”

Rachel Cline, author of What to Keep  “Starting with a mynah bird who says ‘Kill me!,’ Ann Ransom views her world with mordant glee. Reading Stop that Girl was like remembering a life I’ve never lived-a lucid, wistful pleasure of the keenest sort.”

Lucinda Rosenfeld, author of Why She Went Home  “Elizabeth McKenzie renders a nineteen seventies adolescence with fresh images and quiet power. I couldn’t get Stop That Girl out of my head.”

Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge  “Stop That Girl is sharp enough to make you howl with laughter, poignant enough to bring on tears. Ann Ransom, McKenzie’s brave and unforgettable protagonist, can survive her turbulent childhood only by being gorgeously, fiercely herself. This is a terrific book.”

Elizabeth McKenzie’s Stop That Girl is a series of chronological stories that, taken together, uncover the life story of Ann Ransom, a native Californian who moves from childhood to adulthood with poise, intelligence, and humor. The state of California itself serves as an important supporting character, helping to keep Ann rooted in time and space as she moves through each chapter of her life.While each story is unique in its own right, McKenzie’s lyrical style makes it easy to string each episode together to form the consistent thread of Ann’s life. In one of the early stories, ten-year-old Ann attends a neighborhood party on her own, apologizing to the host for her parents’s absence while attempting to fulfill the family’s social obligations with the grace of someone well beyond her years. (“I make it my business to look as enterprising ad possible, a team player, someone you can count on, someone who never lets you down…”) As she gets older, Ann continues to play the role of “normal one” in a family of eccentric personalities, while simultaneously attempting to forge her own identity as a young woman. In one climatic story, Ann’s grandmother pays her a visit at UC Santa Cruz on the same day as a monumental appearance by Allen Ginsberg. What follows is a car chase that culminates in a showdown between Ann, her boyfriend, and her grandmother that perfectly illustrates the push-pull dynamic which seems to define Ann’s life. For Ann, each step forward brings with it a reminder of a past that she doesn’t necessarily want to forget. It is this haunting inability to escape her past, to in fact embrace her past in order to move on, that make Ann such an endearing character and her creator such a gifted storyteller.
–Gisele Toueg

“A book I always recommend is Stop That Girl by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s a book of short stories set in Los Angeles…the book is serious and sad at the same time. It’s a stunning work about what is lost and broken in families.”
–Caitlin Flanagan

 Stop That Girl included in Best American Nonrequired Reading (Audio CD)


Stop That Girl
by Elizabeth Mckenzie
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Format: Trade Hardcover, 224 pages
ISBN: 1400062241
Format: Trade Paperback, 224 pages
ISBN: 0-8129-7228-7

MacGregor Tells the World


MacGregor Tells the World
A Novel

An inventive and dazzling debut novel–at once a mystery of identity, sly literary satire and coming of age story–capturing a young man’s impossible and heroic first love. Macgregor West, orphaned as a boy, is on quest to understand the mystery surrounding his mother’s untimely death.  On a foggy San Francisco evening, guided by a stack of old envelopes, Mac finds himself at the mansion of cultural icon Charles Ware and encounters the writer’s beautiful and enigmatic daughter, Carolyn. Soon Mac is seduced into the world of the eccentric Ware family and a love affair with a woman whose murky history may be closely linked to his own.

MacGregor Tells the World is a poignant and hilarious ride through present day San Francisco, a city brimming with memorable characters who help Mac discover just what story is his to tell.

“Elizabeth McKenzie’s wonderful, winning and sympathetic novel frees you by enchanting you. Her hero, MacGregor West, glides around San Francisco, dappled in the liberal summer light of first love, wolfing tacos, suffering truths. When MacGregor begs his girlfriend not to freak out but to freak in–to stick by him and his dizzy, determined way of reckoning with the world, make sure you take his dare. You’ll want to buy a drink for this kid and for the first-rate author who gave him to us.”
David Schickler, author of Kissing in Manhattan and Sweet and Vicious

“Mac West makes you want to rack your brain and the dictionary for a weightier and more glorious word than tragicomic because his story is a tragedy (think Oedipus, think Romeo and Juliet), a comedy (divine in so many ways), a quest narrative (he seeks, simultaneously and nearly every waking second, his lost father, his dead mother, and true, abiding love), a coming of age tale (and he does, he grows up, but in a good way), a love letter to the city of San Francisco, and, above all, a romance of the very highest sort. It’s also teeming with writing that is startlingly inventive, witty, audacious, and often just plain beautiful, but that also reveals the author’s admirable sense of proportion when it comes to her own gifts (the prose never becomes a dog-and-pony show, although she must have been tempted!). Like Mac (whom I miss already), this book is a charmer and a heartbreaker, both.”
Marisa de los Santos, author of Love Walked In and Belong To Me


By Lynna Williams

MacGregor West is endearing and damaged, a free-spirited citizen of San Francisco — if free spirits have mother issues, abandonment issues and a long list of other issues, some with issues of their own.

“MacGregor Tells the World,” Elizabeth McKenzie’s charmingly off-center first novel, follows Mac’s unraveling of the mysteries of his mother’s life and, especially, her drowning death in Paris after he was shipped off to his aunt in California at age 9. The search is perilous– How much can a son bear to know? — but necessary, because Mac’s misery runs deep and wide:

“When his socks weren’t right, he felt restless and cursed. When miserable, he festered with images of people drowning, of oil spills spreading in the seas, of serial killers. . . . He worried that some form of recklessness or depravity lay sleeping like a wolf in every cell of his body. His mother had all but told him so.”

Before his quest begins in earnest, a short list of the best things in Mac’s stalled life reads like this: “[E]ating tacos, drinking bourbon until he passed out, and turning the pages of a book his cousin’s husband, Tim, had in the bathroom called Women of the Sud- Tyrol.” The life Mac saves will definitely be his own.

When his aunt sends him a shoe box filled with his mother’s “loose ends,” a stack of envelopes inside have the return address of a mansion in Pacific Heights. He’s there one day, trying to summon the nerve to knock, when fate hands him a girl trapped in a rollaway bed. It’s Carolyn Ware, older daughter of faded literary lion Charles Ware, and she recognizes Mac’s stash of envelopes as her father’s personal stationery. Carolyn’s family is intact — father, mother, sister — but she has issues even Mac’s issues haven’t imagined yet. They bicker; Mac gives her a tip about a taco stand with free radishes; they kiss; something blooms in a guarded but semi-life-altering way. Carolyn will be Mac’s entr?e, not just to a world of money and privilege but to his own longed-for history.

“She was a princess!” Mac thinks after their meeting. “Could it really be happening? The daughter of Charles Ware? And had he forged a link between his mother and the known world?”

He has. But the Ware family has secrets; each new discovery pushes him closer to the complicated truth and further away from believing in Carolyn as a lifeboat in his own sea of troubles. The novel’s plot works off a series of revelations, each more unexpected than the last, and also slyly suggests that literary lions may be more teeth and mane than substance. It benefits, too, from some tart observations about money and culture in America, and Mac’s obvious love affair with San Francisco. But it’s MacGregor West’s character, finally, that makes the novel work. What’s not to love about a young man this alive to his own senses: “He snorted his upper lip to his nose, and it smelled like a Bacon Thin he’d eaten in third grade.”

“MacGregor Tells the World” is full of sharply observed detail and moments both comic and poignant, all of them courtesy of a special character’s world view.
Lynna Williams, a short-story writer, teaches at Emory University in Atlanta.

“A couple of years ago, a first-time author in Santa Cruz came out with a thoroughly entertaining “novel in stories” called Stop That Girl. The first person protagonist was so vivid and real, with such an engaging sensibility, you almost felt she was alive and growing up somewhere in California. It’s good to know Elizabeth McKenzie is still creating characters like that. This time we meet MacGregor West, an acerbic, deadpan guy who never knew who his father was and at 22 still has not come to grips with the mysterious death of his mother when he was 9. As the novel opens, he is approaching a home in Pacific Heights; its return address is on a batch of empty envelopes he recently found in a shoe box “full of his mother’s loose ends”, and his first clue in uncovering her past, and thus, his own. Here he meets another beguiling mess, Carolyn Ware, trapped in a fold-up bed by her much younger sister. So begins a tale that’s part mystery, part coming of age love story, part whirlwind tour of San Francisco. The end..feels true to life for these real if severely quirky characters. More, please.”
Pamela Feinsilber, San Francisco Magazine

“Reading MacGregor Tells the World was like being kidnapped and carried off. I found myself peering into cryptic yet fully rendered lives and eavesdropping on delicious conversations…and completely unable, unwilling to tear myself away. Elizabeth McKenzie’s writing spirited me away to a stunning denouement on a carefully crafted tide of wit and words that can only be described as irresistible.”
Alfredo Vea, author of La Maravilla and Gods Go Begging

Anna North

“MacGregor Tells the World,” Elizabeth McKenzie’s first novel, is a story for romantics. Its main character, 22-year-old MacGregor West, is a literature-loving lost soul whose mother has drowned herself in the Seine. MacGregor, or Mac, spends the book uncovering his scandalous family history while romancing a San Francisco heiress and teaching a little boy about great literature.
It’s a heady mix, and has its share of pleasures. The heiress, Carolyn, is the child of aging literary lion Charles Ware. Charles is a wonderfully pretentious blowhard, and his circle of hangers-on is amusing and well rendered. As a young writer, Charles befriended a poor Italian American youth named Bill Galleotto, and the two began a decadeslong love affair that may or may not have been platonic. Charles immortalized their relationship in the barely fictionalized “Tangier,” and he’s now planning a sequel. Because he is estranged from Bill, however, he may lack for material.
With this groundwork in place, McKenzie seems poised to consider the importance of male friendship in literature and the relationship of a middle-class author to his working-class subject. She even throws in a parallel in Mac’s own life — a friend named Cesar, tragically killed in a motorcycle accident just after his high school graduation. She soon pushes these elements to the wayside, however, in favor of the growing love between Mac and Carolyn and Mac’s attempts to find out about his mother.
Carolyn is an unconventional character, combining a deep care for her younger sister with a tendency to throw money around. But her relationship with Mac is heavy on articulate banter and light on real passion. Mac’s mother never emerges as a fully realized person. We learn about her tragic childhood and her dissolute youth, but Mac never succeeds in his quest to render her whole.
Or perhaps he does. In one of his first conversations with Carolyn, Mac likens his mother to the Colossus of Rhodes — she’s a “wonder of the world” and he wants to “rebuild” her.
At heart, “MacGregor Tells the World” is not a realist novel. Its characters — particularly such supporting players as the drawling, toothless groundskeeper Glen — are over-the-top. Its set pieces, such as Carolyn Ware’s appearance on a fold-up bed, are straight out of daydreams. This is why the novel works best when it deals with the stuff of literary legend. The story of Charles Ware and Bill Galleotto — hints of Jack Kerouac notwithstanding — is larger than life. Globe-trotting celebrities with big egos and big appetites, these two mesh perfectly with McKenzie’s sensibilities. They have far more in common with the Colossus of Rhodes than Mac’s mother does, and they make far better monuments.
They have a lot of competition, not just with Mac’s mother but with a host of other supporting characters. “MacGregor Tells the World” is chock-full of plotlines, some far-fetched and some decidedly not. The novel seems to straddle the line between the real world and McKenzie’s world, raising uncomfortable questions. Take Mac’s hyper-responsible cousin Fran, whose idea of fun is buying household appliances, for instance. Would this woman really let Mac stay with her rent-free and never pressure him to get a job? McKenzie has a gift for thinking big and a knack for developing offbeat characters. Her deliciously nasty portrayal of the aging genius Charles Ware suggests that she might make a master satirist. Whatever she turns her pen to next, may she give her imagination free rein.

MacGregor Tells the World
by Elizabeth Mckenzie
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Format: Trade Hardcover, 272 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6225-6 (1-4000-6225-X)

The Portable Veblen


The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

Penguin Press | Jan 19, 2016 | 448 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9781594206856

A philosophical novel about love and family, war and nature, new money and old values.

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 pages, 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 tête-à-tête 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 deadpan photos and sly appendices, The Portable Veblen is at once an honest inquiry into what we look for in love and an electrifying reading experience.

Advance Praise for Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen

“Offbeat and winning…McKenzie writes with sure-handed perception, and her skillful characterization means that despite all of Veblen’s quirks—she’s an amateur Norwegian translator with an affinity for squirrels—she’s one of the best characters of the year. McKenzie’s funny, lively, addictive novel is sure to be a standout.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“McKenzie skewers modern American culture while quoting from a panoply of voices, with Frank Zappa, Robert Reich, and, of course, Thorstein Veblen among them. The result is a wise and thoroughly engaging story in a satirical style comparable to the works of Christopher Moore and Carl Hiaasen.”—Library Journal, starred review

“Will these kind, if somewhat confused, young people find their ways out of the past and to each other and a happy shared future? The reader can’t help rooting them on. McKenzie’s idiosyncratic love story scampers along on a wonderfully zig-zaggy path, dashing and darting in delightfully unexpected directions as it progresses toward its satisfying end and scattering tasty literary passages like nuts along the way.” Kirkus, starred review

Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone:
“A clever morality tale set against the verdant paradise of Palo Alto. McKenzie’s story of an ambitious young neurologist and the seductions of the darker side of the medical economy is both incisive and hilarious.”

Karen Joy Fowler, PEN Faulkner winner for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves:
“Man oh man, do I love this book! I have never read anything like it. I can’t believe how funny it is given that we’re dealing at times with pharmaceutical fraud, irreparable brain injury, and comatose veterans. (Family dysfunction, on the other hand, is always funny)… Audacious, imaginative, and totally wonderful: The whole books zips and zings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, author of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness:

The Portable Veblen is the squirreliest novel I ever read. I enjoyed it completely.”

Peter Ferry, author of Old Heart and Travel Writing:
“Make no mistake: McKenzie has written big; this is important stuff.  Dave Eggers meets Beatrix Potter!”

Scott Hutchins, author of A Working Theory of Love“Oh Palo Alto! Oh California! Oh war-torn, war-tired, science-obsessed U.S.A.! The bright, rollicking tone of this brilliant book is a testament to its absolute artfulness. We shift seamlessly from high humor to Mckenzie polishing her satirical blade. Intellectually supple, full of squirrels and Thorstein Veblen, that hero of American thought, this novel bursts with Mckenzie’s first-rate insight and multi-pronged, ever-surprising prose.”

Gabe Hudson, author of Dear Mr. President:
“Wildly entertaining and overflowing with piercing emotional truths, this audacious novel gives us an irresistible portrait of a sensitive young woman navigating the kaleidoscopic freakscape we call modern America. With casual aplomb, Elizabeth McKenzie tosses off sentences that will delight and bowl you over with their insight and hilarious truth-telling….An elegy for our dying empire, full of wisdom and finely tuned grace notes about the secrets of the human heart.”

Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine and Kapitoil:
The Portable Veblen is an authentically strange—and genuinely funny—depiction of how the dysfunctions of childhood stubbornly follow us into adulthood.”

Samantha Hunt, author of The Invention of Everything Else and Mr. Splitfoot:
“A deeply observed universe where heroines are named for economists and the high stakes of capitalism are set to collide with the chatter of small wild animals. In a work both humorous and wrenching, everything casts multiple shadows while McKenzie tracks the distance between individuals, measuring the wildly human hope that love, might in the end, conquer all.” —

Nelly Reifler, author of Elect H. Mouse State Judge and See Through:
“In scalpel-sharp prose, The Portable Veblen’s gleefully perverse narrator seduces us with the story of a charming young woman soon to wed a handsome doctor. But strange shadows flicker just off the page and then begin to bleed into the story of the romance. The ethics of parenting, the disasters of war, corporate greed, the essential meanings of translation and invention, and the sacrifices of self to wedlock: these are some of the themes that surface in this extraordinary book. Oh, and also–what really is the soul of a squirrel? I was knocked out, giddily so, by The Portable Veblen.

Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals and The Infinite Tides:
“Only Elizabeth McKenzie could make a novel—a great novel—with such weird and wonderful ingredients. The Portable Veblen gives us squirrels, love, family dysfunction, sex, marriage, medical science, and something called the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, all swirled into a funny, beautiful, heartbreaking story. The Portable Veblen is about all of these things but mostly it’s about that most important of subjects: what it is to be human.”

Lydia Netzer, author of How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky:
The Portable Veblen is a funny, modern love story, but also the story of everything that comes before love, its dark prerequisites and murky prequels…A wonderfully insane novel with talking squirrels and lunatic parents and comedic plot twists…populated by some of the most real, fully written characters I’ve met on any page. Don’t miss it.”