Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Catching Up With An Old Friend: Missy Frederick on Still Life With Woodpecker

Catching Up With An Old Friend is a series in which readers, authors, and other bookish people share their favorite books. Read more about the project or see all the past entries. To participate, e-mail


Today's favorite book is from Missy Frederick, a reporter and columnist for the Washington Business Journal covering restaurants, retail, hotels, arts business and tourism. Her column and blog, Top Shelf, chronicles restaurant and retail comings and goings in the D.C. region. She is also the founding theatre critic for the Web site; her work there earned her the National Endowment for the Arts 2008 fellowship in theater journalism. Missy does most of her reading in Falls Church, Va., where she lives with her fiance.

Like Amy, I felt conflicted on how to answer the question of "What's Your Favorite Book"? I feel like my knee-jerk response to the question is often Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, but let's be serious. That's a scholarly answer, not a real one. I adore Hugo, and the long passage where Jean Valjean mulls whether to reveal his identity when another is accused of his crimes can bring me to tears in an instant. But how often am I going to re-read a 1,000+ page book with entire meandering chapters devoted to things like Waterloo, French sewers and obscure dialects? Come on.

If I go the "most influential" route, a natural choice would be an Ayn Rand novel, like The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. But while Rand is someone who had a formative affect on my transition from childhood to adulthood, the books just don't hold up now in terms of literary quality, and while I respect many of her concepts (individualism, atheism, independence), as I've developed, I've started to move away from many of the ideas the books represent. So that's out.

What about the books for which I hold the most affection? Those feelings tend to be mixed with nostalgia, and so this is where many of my childhood favorites end up. Books like A Wrinkle In Time, Dealing With Dragons, and even young adult books I've discovered in adulthood, like the Harry Potter series and His Dark Materials, come to mind. I'm tempted to write about the latter (Philip Pullman's books are as rich to read now as they would be for any teenager), but something has me still looking elsewhere.

Let's think about my favorite authors. Neil Gaiman. Orson Scott Card. Christopher Moore (Moore's Lamb is another serious contender here). Tom Robbins. Tom Robbins! I think that's where my search ends. There are few books for which I have such a vivid memory of my actual reading experience as I do Still Life With Woodpecker, so that's the novel I'm going to talk about today.

I think my friend Kevin Holler recommended that I give Tom Robbins a try back in college. Reading a little bit about the author, his works sounded up my alley. Lots of humor, lots of non sequiturs, a little fantasy thrown in, and some philosophy for good measure. That's the kind of fiction I gravitate towards, and Robbins was no exception. I remember picking up Still Life With Woodpecker and becoming almost breathlessly engrossed by it. Who IS this Robbins guy? Why are his characters so vivid, so enthralling, so renegade? How can a book be this bawdy and so genuinely sexy at the same time? I love that feeling where you're reading a book and truly feel like you're discovering something new and fascinating, and that's how I felt when I read Still Life for the first time.

Still Life is a love story between two unlikely figures — a vegetarian, activist princess and a redheaded outlaw. It's a passionate, tangential work that ruminates on a lot of romantic ideas, but always in service to its zany, fast-paced story. Reading it as a college student seemed like appropriate timing — you manage to relate to Leigh-Cheri's more idealistic, world-changing mindset while finding something rather profound in her companion's more concrete, live-in-the-moment approach. A more cynical reader might find some of Robbins' pronouncements pretentious, but I found them eye-opening and amusing.

I devoured everything Robbins wrote after I read Still Life. Some works I loved (Jitterbug Perfume), others I liked (Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates), others, well, I didn't get that much out of (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, I'm talking to you). None will ever hold quite the same place in my heart as Still Life, but despite my own lack of psychedelic rebelliousness, Robbins remains one of those authors with whom I feel a strong connection.

And that's why it's only fitting that a passage from the book will be read at our wedding this May. I love his characterization of love as a rule-breaking, life-changing, ultimate adventure. I hope you'll get something out of it too.

“Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won't adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words "make" and "stay" become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.” — Tom Robbins

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