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#1 – Still Life with Woodpecker

January 2, 2008

let’s not forget ourselves good friend, i am flawed if i’m not freeBecause the summer reading concept of this blog is about to become obsolete, as I’m graduating in four months and finally entering the real world, I thought I would stop keeping track of exclusively the books I read in the summer months and just start a running tally for 2008.  This might be a pointless idea, as I’m probably not going to read anything extracurricular for the next four months, but we’ll see.

Still Life with Woodpecker is my introduction to Tom Robbins, but I was into it from the first page.  Robbins’ writing is a twisted amalgam of many of my favourite authors; he’s kind of like an optimistic Kurt Vonnegut crossed with Douglas Adams, if he was interested in philosophy and romance instead of science and misery.  It feels like there was a dozen other points of reference along the way, too.  Regardless, as familiar as Robbins’ writing seemed it never once felt derivative, and I’m really looking forward to getting into more of his stuff.

I don’t even know how to give a synopsis of Still Life with Woodpecker, because the story is kind of all over the place.  The subtitle “A Sort of a Love Story” on the cover is completely accurate, because that’s about the only common thread throughout the book.  The story takes place through five or six different countries, and just when you think you’ve figured out what the plot is doing, Robbins takes a 180 and suddenly shoots off in an almost random direction.  It never stops being unpredictable or entertaining.  The main characters, anyway, are a left-leaning princess in exile named Leigh-Cheri, and some kind of libertarian fugitive bomber called The Woodpecker, a self- (and oft-) described “outlaw”. His constant philosophizing on what it means to be an outlaw, the cultural significance of living outside the law as opposed to merely being a criminal, seemed melodramatic at first, but quickly became fascinating and hilarious.

One of the highlights of this book was definitely the surreal analogies Robbins uses throughout, again, much like Douglas Adams.  I was going to make a note of some of the better ones, but there were so many brilliant turns of phrase, I can probably flip to any given page in Still Life with Woodpecker and find a great one:

  • “The birds would sing.  A bird full of berry pulp is like an Italian full of pathos.”
  • “Tequila may be the favored beverage of outlaws, but that doesn’t mean it gives them preferential treatment.”
  • “The lung of the smoker is a naked virgin thrown as a sacrifice into the godfire.”

Remarkable.  And that’s not even the best of it, that’s just a random sampling from hundreds of examples of his surreal humour.  Suffice to say, Tom Robbins is a writer with a ton of interesting ideas and a brilliant way with words.  Also, after unravelling the plot of Still Life with Woodpecker, I’ll never look at pyramids, or the moon, or redheads in the same light again.  And I couldn’t even begin to explain why if you haven’t read it.  Recommended, if you like a good dose of weirdness.

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7 comments

  1. My husband suggested this to me awhile back and I’ve been putting off picking it up. Your review makes it sounds very interesting.


  2. Some shout, “Jesus!” Some chant, “Buddha.” Me, I just smile and whisper, “Tom Robbins…”

    Thanks for a great review. (Love really IS the ultimate outlaw!)


  3. I agree Calum. Tom’s career has overlapped Vonnegut at the beginning and Adams at the end. We’ reading Woodpecker one page per day over at Dharma Yum. http://aftrlife.blogspot.com


  4. Thanks, sleepyheadagain! I always end up putting other peoples’ reading suggestions to me on the back burner too, and I usually feel weirdly guilty around them until I finally get to their book. If you like the other authors I mentioned you’re almost definitely going to be into Still Life with Woodpecker too.

    Thanks to you too, Mary. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the rest of his work, and if it’s all this good, I can see myself becoming another disciple of Robbinsism.

    Dale – One page a day? That’s a really interesting project, and I admire your self-restraint. There’s no way I’d be able to pull that off, after I got to “If this typewriter can’t do it, I’ll swear it can’t be done” I couldn’t stop reading for a few hours. I look forward to seeing your progress.


  5. Stumbled on your blog post during my regular searches for TR. I’ve often said reading Tom Robbins is like swallowing a handful of xanax. Still Life was my first Robbins. But since then I’ve read each of his novels multiple times. They’re all great but SL holds a special place in my heart. Be careful though…you may join the Tomheads.


  6. Thanks for stopping by, Ruby. I’ve actually been pretty surprised at the response this post has had, because I’d never even heard of Robbins before my friend lent me Still Life. I’m definitely going to have to keep reading him now. She tells me that Jitterbug Perfume is where I should head next, so I’m adding it to my list.


  7. I have read only this and Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins, and both are great. I look forward to reading more, although I think I can only handle his books here and there. One of my favorite quotes from Still Life is: “Funny how we think of romance as always involving two, when the romance of solitude can be ever so much more delicious and intense.”



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