Old World Romance in Book # 17 Valentine Picture Story Library

Blond hair, teased into a glamorous pile on top of her head, with curls tumbling around her ears, and framing her face.  Long-legged and slender-waisted, clad in a slim skirt and balanced on pencil heels – the heroine in each one of the six stories compiled in the Valentine Picture Story Library, fits the fantasy/stereotype of another era. One where all the women, with their immaculate hair and Jessica Rabbit figures, lounged about in impossibly glamorous clothes, swilling martinis and smoking cigarettes out of two  inch-long holders (or maybe not).

All the men seemed to have been formed by a cookie cutter too. Square-jawed and dark haired, with athletic bodies modestly clad in well-cut trouser suits, although there was a hint of rakishness in the cut of their belted trench-coats,  the way they bit their cigars, tilted their hats just so and downed one peg of neat scotch after another. Very Jon Hamm from Mad Men.

And just as these men and women seem like they were all cut out of the same sheet of paper, so do their stories seem to come from the same limited imagination. Tall, dark and handsome Gary Stu and blonde, chic and slim Mary Sue are in love with each other. The love story is progressing fine, until they come up against a major hurdle – usually in the form of a financial obligation or an uncongenial relationship. A misunderstanding ensues, there’s a temporary estrangement, but then all ends well with a kiss and a fade-out.

"...I tried to pull free, but he crushed his lips to mine..."

I don’t generally go for these stories. Sure, I admit, I read my share of Mills & Boons, with their salacious covers and heavy panting on the inside pages. In fact, when I was in college, reading a hot Doctor-Nurse story or the tale of the headstrong heiress who is tamed by the burly gameskeeper, was a good way to unwind,  when preparing for the final exams. But since I left college, I haven’t picked up a hectic romance novel.

And then one day, about a month or so back, I saw a copy of Valentine Picture Story Library: full of just the kind of stories that once made schoolgirls blush (although now, they would need something a lot stronger; perhaps a sex tape?). As far as I can gather, Picture Story Library had regular issues, with different themes – Doctor-Nurse, Businessman-Secretary, and so on. The one that I bought is titled True Love and has, as the blurb on the cover states, “six dramatic picture story romances, inspired by classic songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s”. These songs include Elvis Presley’s Treat Me Nice, Cliff Richards’ Livin’ Lovin’ Doll and No Turning Back, Russ Conway’s You Made Me Love You, Pat Boone’s Say It With Music and Adam Faith’s What Do You Want.

Treat Me Nice combines a bizarre spy caper with a more conventional love story

But don’t be misled by the song titles. They have little to nothing to do with the stories. Livin’ Lovin’ Doll is about a rebellious young teenager who comes to stay with her older cousin after she’s orphaned. She dresses provocatively, drinks and smokes, gets up to foolhardy pranks and even tries to seduce her cousin’s very attractive fiancé.  What Do You Want is about a pair of twin sisters, one of whom is a movie star, exchanging places because the movie star sister has had enough of fame and just wants a regular vacation. Naturally, their little ruse confuses everyone, movie fans, to co-actors and directors to even their respective boyfriends.  All the stories are similarly fluffy and frivolous: “very light, attractive reading” as Jeeves would say.

But I didn’t really pick up this book for the stories.  What really drew me in were the illustrations, which truly are beautiful. Of course, it’s impossible to anyone in real life to be quite as attractive as the people in these stories. But they’re so wonderful to look at – the women with their full lips, thick eyelashes and long, slender fingers, and the men with their Gregory Peck jawlines and intense eyes.  Just reading this book was like stepping into a time-machine (please forgive the cliché. It’s 1 am). There are vintage Cadbury chocolate ads, pictures of the era’s heart-throbs Elvis and gang, not to mention the fact that they all give such a great glimpse into the social mores of the time. The protagonists are invariably all white. Almost all the women have ‘gender-appropriate’ jobs like teaching or stenography or working in a library, and the one woman who dares to dream of being a successful novelist, finds that her ambition has driven the love of her life away from her. It’s all so quaint and last-century, that even I didn’t feel offended by the content.

I mean, what is the point, really? Getting mad about gender stereotypes and racial blindness in comic books from another era is just as pointless as getting annoyed by the stereotypes in Enid Blyton books. PC fanatics try to make the contents in these well-beloved books more appropriate for our highly sensitive era, and those of us who grew up reading these stories feel offended. After all, just because all the French girls in Blyton’s books are sneaky little liars, didn’t make us think that real French girls were the same way. We just enjoyed the stories and the adventures of the characters and these offered a great chance to escape into another world.

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Birthday Wishlists and Books

I recently celebrated my birthday, and in anticipation of the usual queries from family and friends – “what do you want for your birthday this year” – I posted my Flipkart wishlist of books on my Facebook page. It got a lot of hits, and at least three of my friends were good enough to go through it and get me something from there. But, and here’s the thing, they were a little taken aback when I said that this year, all I want is books.

You see, I’ve long been a materialistic sort of person: I like getting dresses, bags, shoes, makeup and perfume as gifts. Which is kind of weird, if you’d known me as a kid. Back then, I was happiest when receiving books. I was also at my best, when giving books, which is not something that everyone appreciated. But I get their point of view: why should I impose my hobby on others?

Anyway, as I grew up and moved out into the world, I began to wonder if there is more to life than books. I acquired a taste for pretty clothes, high-heeled shoes, and bags in all shapes and sized. My collection of jewellery is massive and I have so many quirky, colourful pairs of socks, they’re beginning to fill me with guilt. In fact, that’s when I decided to hit the STOP button. My overflowing wardrobe, bags of shoes and cartons of bags were filling me with guilt. Not because they’re awful, or mistakes in judgement. I’m sure if they belonged to someone else, they would have been well-used and abused by now. It’s just that they belong to me, and I’m not the best custodian of these things. There is one pair of jeans that I faithfully wear, and maybe half a dozen shirts and tops that I feel comfortable in. Contrast that with the dozens of pretty, flattering dresses that I have worn but once or twice. If I’m being honest with myself, I know I’ll probably never wear them again, simply because I don’t want to step out of my comfort zone. Ditto for all my shoes, bags, jewellery, scarves and make-up (the only caveat here applies to my collection of fragrances, which I’m greatly addicted to).

Anyway, this realization dawned on me when I understood that I have an obsessive-compulsive hoarding personality.  I’ve hoarded clothes, bags, music, movies, books, but of all these items, the ones that I feel least guilty about are the books. So if I have to be true to who I am – a compulsive hoarded – I suppose I should just stick to acquiring books.

Now books, I admit I hoard. But, I also read them – eventually. On my birthday week this year, I read a wonderful book (Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders) that I had received as a gift two years ago. Currently, I’m reading another book (Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies) that I acquired two years ago; this one when I was whiling away time at the second-hand bookstores at King’s Circle.  It makes me very happy when I leafing through a brand new book, looking forward to the day when I’ll crack open the spine and immerse myself in the words.  I read all sorts of books, so even if, on a whim, I buy a completely out-of-character book – such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – I know that I will, one day, be curious enough to read it. There was a time, when I could’ve confidently added that I would finish these books, but I’m not so foolish. There are many books in the world and life is too precious to read and finish bullshit like Atlas Shrugged or P.S. I Love You.  (I’m not saying Cosmos is crap.)

So anyway, people, what I want to say is, don’t worry if all I ask from you is a book. There are no hidden layers to my request, and I certainly am not pretending to be undemanding just so you’ll feel bad and gift me something more expensive. I really do want a book.  But before buying, just confirm that I haven’t already read it, or don’t already have a copy.

By the way, just so y’all know: these are the books that I got this year as gifts.

1)      Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

2)      Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

3)      Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

4)      Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

5)      Barbara Vine’s The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy

The Hotel at the End of the World by Parismita Singh: tales of mystery and romance from Northeastern India

IN one of the most striking panels in Parismita Singh’s The Hotel at the End of the World it is revealed that a regular father and husband is,  in fact, not mortal at all. He’s a nightwalker – one of Death’s porters. He’s a ‘chosen one’ and has a Godlike demeanor when he’s going about his fearsome duties.  But once his task is completed, he turns pale and sickly. Devoid of all energy after the monumental struggle between his soul and his duty.

This is just one of the supernatural elements that walk in and out of The Hotel at the End of the World so casually. A full glass of drink set out for the ghost of a Japanese soldier. An island floating free of this world of violence and mistrust.  One could almost call it a good example of magic realism.

It’s also a profoundly Indian book. Sure, it doesn’t have the typical Hindu North Indian names one is used to reading and hearing in popular culture. Here the characters aren’t Raj or Simran. They’ve got names like Pema and Keising, and the folklore – borrowed from the Northeastern region of the country –  isn’t familiar to a lot of us. But that’s precisely what’s so refreshing about it. At least this isn’t another Ramayana/Mahabharata-inspired tale, because the wealth of inspiration that the two epics have provided have made them a little trite as sources.

Various stories are woven together to form the main plot of The Hotel at the End of the World. This is a hotel located somewhere in the densely vegetated hills of North Eastern India. One can’t be sure which state this is located in, not only because it’s never mentioned, but also because of the peculiar time and space that the story seems to occupy. A couple of the stories discuss the very real history of the region, with one character fearing another Chinese invasion and a lost Japanese soldier’s ghost from the Second World War still trying to figure out what happened to his comrades and how he can get back home. On the other hand, as mentioned before, there are many supernatural elements, which definitely place the story in another sort of world. This is an issue that Singh never resolves and that’s perhaps all to the good: the gentle allusions just make the story throb with so much mystery .

I’m glad I wasn’t looking for a solid plot, with a clearly demarcated beginning, middle and end in it, because I didn’t get any such thing. Time, in this book, has its own rhythm, and every character has bizarre tales to tell, which don’t all tie in together. As one reads, one senses that Singh is trying to say more than what the stories say, that she’s trying to make some great big comment about the world we live in. But that statement never appears so baldly and one is left to one’s own conjectures.  I like that: why should a book do all the hard work of laying out a story cleanly? Why shouldn’t we exercise our own brains and try to figure out what the author might have been trying to say. We might never arrive that the exact answer, but the journey towards this destination could provide some interesting and insightful detours.

I can’t really comment on the artwork, since I have no expertise in this area. But as a layperson, I found it mostly functional, although certain panels were highly effective in how they conveyed the ambiguous reality that the book’s characters inhabit. Particularly haunting, for me, was the panel with the Nightwalker in all his fearsome glory.

Usually, I’m not a fan of graphic novels. Very often, I just find them pretentious and much too self-conscious. The coloured illustrations offer great scope for depicting violence as sensationally as possible – 300 is a very good example of a book, where the main motive of the author seemed to have been to show as many different acts of violence as possible.  Often, I also find that they take themselves too seriously. The experience of reading Watchmen, for instance, was occasionally marred for me because I kept imaging Rorschach’s voice like that of the hardboiled, cynical anti-heroes in bad noir flicks.  There was not even a glimmer of humour in the author’s self-appointed task of writing a Great American Graphic Novel.

The Hotel at the End of the World, however, was a different reading experience for me. It was peppered with a winking, knowing sort of humour. The kind that brings in stock characters like the reticent innkeeper and his efficient wife, the enigmatic prophet and the boisterous, happy-go-lucky friends. But Singh gave each of them an ambiguous, unnerving backstory which takes all your preconceived notions and tosses them out the window.