The Princess and the Outlaw – Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker

Still life with woodpecker cover

If you’re looking for a fast-paced read that makes you contemplate the larger questions of life and simultaneously keeps you wondering what will happen next, this is the book for you. Still Life with Woodpecker is the story of a royal family in exile, a princess who can’t decide whether to devote her energies to the betterment of the world or to her romantic interests, and an accomplished bomber with serious principles. When the princess meets the outlaw, it’s as if the universe explodes, setting in motion a chain of events that has sheiks, revolutionaries and the CIA scrambling to make sense of it all. Written in a truly unique style where the story is constantly interspersed with lessons on the functions of an outlaw, treatises on the unique properties of redheads, and interludes detailing the author’s experiences with his fancy new typewriter as he tells this tale, the book takes the reader on a wild ride that is guaranteed to be unforgettable.

Tom Robbins’ prose is strange and beautiful; a pleasure to read. The way he strings words together makes me feel able to taste them in my mouth: sometimes metallic, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, sometimes tangy. The level of skill involved in writing this way, with the unusual style and the interludes about the typewriter, is immense and Robbins is masterful in the way he wields this skill. From the very first page, I was hooked. I had to read more of this weird, rambling writing that discussed way too many subjects in one go and yet somehow managed never to get boring despite the intimidatingly long passages on pyramids and outlaws and god knows what else.

As for the story itself, it may be a love story, but it’s not just that. It may be a theory of the power of redheads, but it’s much more than that. It may even be an ode to Camel cigarettes, or, at any rate, the packaging they come in, but it means so much more when you put all these discrete parts together. It’s a story, a living, breathing, coiled-up python of a story that will strike you with its beauty and magnificence as it crushes and devours you. Stretched between Seattle, Hawaii and the Middle East, this, if it was not clear to you already, is no ordinary novel. It can teach you the purpose of the moon and the secrets of pyramids. It will leave you with an appreciation of true love like you’ve never had before. And it will provide you with some of the most beautiful quotes you will ever read.

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I received this book as a present from a writing workshop batchmate who may not have gifted it to anyone had she known of the number of times the book mentions sex and masturbation, but I am so glad she did, because I may never have read it otherwise. This is a book that can give you shivers each time you think of it and can change the way you view the world. Read it. You won’t regret it.

On Nostalgia, Owen Wilson’s Piggy Eyes and the Roaring Twenties

Midnight in ParisI just re-watched Midnight in Paris for the fourth or fifth time, and it’s amazing how this movie captures my imagination. It makes me want to go back to Paris and walk about without any sort of plan. It almost makes me want to roam around my own city in the middle of the night, but then sense prevails: I live in India, and this would probably not be the wisest thing to do.

Midnight in Paris follows a Hollywood screenwriter, Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), on a trip to Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her overbearing parents. Tired of flitting from wine tastings to pretentious museum visits with his travel companions who don’t appreciate his rapturous (and classically Woody-Allen-esque) monologues on what it must have been like to be part of the lost generation in Paris in the 1920s, Gil takes to walking the streets of Paris at night and finds himself being transported to the very era he romanticises. In the twenties, he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali and, most interestingly, a young woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who starts out as Picasso’s mistress, flirts with Gil, goes off on a random vacation with Hemingway, then comes back and then…well, I won’t spoil it that much.

This movie leaves me inexplicably hopeful and a little sad at the same time. It’s a wonderfully romantic film (in both senses of the word), and it makes me appreciate life in a way that I haven’t before. The film deals heavily with the theme of nostalgia and a yearning for the glories of a past era, what a thoroughly enjoyable Michael Sheen playing a pedantic, know-it-all professor in the film calls golden-age thinking.

What is nostalgia? Where does it come from? How can one be nostalgic about a time one has never witnessed, only read about and heard about? And if we were to be magically transported to that time, like Owen Wilson’s character is in the movie, would we also come to all the glorious and meaningful realizations of the sort that he comes to? Would life’s great questions be answered? Or is that just the purpose of books and movies, to create a conflict and then resolve it? In a way, I suppose it is. Then again, these things are based on life, aren’t they? Nostalgia is a powerful thing, it seems to be able to make people blind to the beauty of their present. Is that what Woody Allen is trying to communicate? That we should stop being nostalgic and stop living in the “what ifs” of life, and stay in the present? But the journey Gil takes is so beautiful, so magnificently exciting. How could one be expected to give a chance like that up? I certainly wouldn’t be able to!

Watching a movie after a while, and watching it for the second or third or fourth time makes you notice little things about it that you didn’t notice in the first viewing. Strangely, I didn’t remember that Inez (played by Rachel McAdams, who skillfully makes the viewer dislike her) is having an affair with Paul (the ever-enjoyable Michael Sheen). It was the first time I really thought about it. Owen Wilson’s eyes were another thing I noticed, seemingly for the first time, today. The way he widens them, then shakes his head and shrugs while watching Josephine Baker (never mind that she wasn’t actually in Paris till a few years after the movie is set) dancing – that moment when he realises just where he is and when he is – is quite remarkable. He has these small, almost piggy eyes, but they’re quite expressive, as men’s eyes go. This was the only film in which I could stand Wilson. His whiny voice suited the role perfectly, and I genuinely mean that as a compliment, believe it or not. The third thing I noticed today was rather interesting. Watch the movie and tell me if you notice this too – in all the party scenes set in the twenties, most people seem to be quite young, only in their twenties or thirties, but in the Belle Epoque scene, the average age of the crowd seems higher, possibly in their forties. I wonder why that is.

Marion Cotillard and Owen WilsonI’m listening to the soundtrack of the film as I write this, and it makes me want to dance the Charleston. If I was offered the chance to learn a dance form, I would love to learn the Charleston. It’s incredibly lively and represents so much in cultural history. Watching this movie helped cement my infatuation with the roaring twenties. This infatuation started with Sophie Kinsella’s adorable book, Twenties Girl, but I only really got interested in the period after this movie. I even did a project for college on the cultural transformation in New York at the turn of the 19th century, and how the twenties, with their flappers and speakeasies and cabarets, were the epitome of this great breaking-out from the binding corset that was Victorian morality. I’ve read some Fitzgerald and some Hemingway, and I’m even reading an account of the lives of the Fitzgeralds while Scott was writing The Great Gatsby (Careless People by Sarah Churchwell).

I love this movie. It’s visually beautiful, it provokes thought, it’s romantic, it’s got great music, it’s filled with incredibly interesting characters, it’s got some great dialogue and comic moments, and features a whole slew of talented actors giving delightful performances. It’s even more enjoyable after you’ve had a couple of drinks. Really, what more could one ask for?

Juliet, Naked

juliet-nakedI read a book a couple of years ago that absorbed me into it completely. For two days, I found myself glued to the book, constantly thinking about it if I wasn’t reading it. The book was Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby, and it connected very deeply with me, although I don’t actually seem to have anything in common with the characters or the setting.
Juliet, Naked is the story of a woman named Annie, close to forty years old, who lives a dull existence in Gooleness, a tiny town in northern England. She has invested a decade and a half in a relationship with a childish, uninteresting man named Duncan, who spends all his free time obsessing over an American musician called Tucker Crowe. This musician was very famous in the mid-1980s, but one day suddenly stopped recording music and went into a reclusive retirement. When a new Tucker Crowe album comes out after twenty-odd years, Duncan is the first to publish a review of it online, crowing about how wonderful and honest it is (it is a collection of raw, unpolished recordings of Tucker’s last album). Annie personally thinks it’s horrible, and decides to publish her own review saying so. Sparks fly, leading to the most excitement she’s had in a long time and a break-up, leaving Annie free to find and pursue true love. She is highly sceptical of the chances of this happening in Gooleness, but can’t bring herself to leave there either. So when Tucker Crowe himself strikes up a conversation with her over email, it gives rise to an interesting, if slightly far-fetched possibility.
Juliet, Naked is essentially the story of two unfulfilled lives. Annie has wasted the last twenty years of her life doing work she doesn’t enjoy and living with a man she most categorically does not love. Tucker has wasted the last twenty years not doing what he does best (making music) and not doing much else, either. It is also a love story, and a cross between a mid-life crisis and coming-of-age story.
What I liked about it was that the characters were real, with very real flaws. The story was believable, and wasn’t filled with ridiculous, grand gestures and unlikely situations. Those are fun, too, and I have been known to go weak at the knees at many a Meg Cabot novel or movie in the style of The Holiday. But this book was quite refreshing in its lack of adherence to the usual format for romances. This was my first Hornby, and I think I quite like the chap.

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