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Sunday December 30, 2012

When the going gets tough

Readers find inspiration in characters who strive to overcome all odds. And also in ... erotica?

WE wanted to find out which book had the most impact on you in 2012, so we embarked on the Book-Marked! survey. And, surprise, surprise, one of the first things we learnt was: If romance is only for women, then erotica, its less selective sister (or brother), holds a special kind of appeal for the gents. Yes, there were more men than women who chose Fifty Shades Of Grey by E.L. James as the book (or series, in this case) that affected them the most, albeit for different reasons. The men focused on the young, good-looking and very wealthy protagonist Christian Grey, generally saying that with his raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour, it is no wonder that he can do all that he does in the novels, which includes aggressively pursuing his female partner in crime – or in bed.

“I’m sure more men would love to be in Christian’s shoes,” writes a teacher in his 50s, who marvels at how the author managed to “weave such erotica into such a romantic setting”.

A 39-year-old optometrist says that such a book will “surely spice up a monotonous sexual relationship” and that being a man, he is “sometimes confused about how women react”, but that this book provided some insight into the mysterious workings of women.

On an even more personal level, a copywriter in her 30s says that she was drawn to the three books “like a moth to a light bulb” despite the trilogy being “no literary gem”: “They kept me warm on those cold, lonely nights after my painful breakup. With no love or sex life to speak of, I indulged in the lustful longings of Christian and Ana and was drawn deeper into their lives as the web of torrid plots pulled me in ... it is the Fanny Hill of this century,” she says (Fanny Hill is an erotic novel by John Cleland first published in 1748.)

Another book that has a bit of a cult following is Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie from 1997, a non-fiction work that recounts the time the author spent with his sociology professor who was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the book, the 78-year-old says, “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live” – words uttered by a dying man that clearly haunted some readers and gave them a different perspective on how to live life.

“We only live once, and our only regret should be having regrets,” writes a 16-year-old student about the book’s impact.

A tuition teacher, 51, shares that the book taught him that life is fragile and that he needs to get more involved in life and savour the wisdom and complexities that it offers. “This book has opened new, exciting chapters in the book of my life. Don’t wait till Wednesday, as we may not see the day!” he writes.

The theme of death and, by extension, living, resonates deeply with some readers.

Story Of A Beautiful Woman by Rachel Simon tells the tale of a young woman’s love for her baby girl, the product of rape. “Abandoned by her parents in a mental asylum, she does not want her offspring to be condemned to the same fate ... she escapes and hands over the new-born to a stranger, saying, ‘Hide her!’. She is caught and lives the next 40 years longing for her child,” a 70-year-old retired teacher describes the book, going on to write, “I found the mother’s plight cathartic, for I lost my only son in a drowning accident over 30 years ago. Does a mother ever stop thinking about her child, lost due to death or other circumstances?”

In Thirteen Reasons Why, a young adult novel by Jay Asher, a secondary school student records the reasons that made her take her life and sends them to 13 people who played a role in her eventual death.

A 14-year-old reader who laments that she has “no words to describe her life (so far) as a teenager” says that she has “no real friends” and feels like she’s not worth anything. “But the book gave me a new hope after showing me that there is someone else out there who feels worse than me. Now my motto is that I can ruin a perfectly good present by worrying about the past and future,” she says.

Yes, we received heaps of entries from teenagers – several angst-ridden ones, a few with uplifting messages, and mostly entries that are a combination of both. Whoever is convinced that young people don’t read should have been in our office when the mail started coming in!

There were many refreshing views that brightened our day, including one from a 13-year-old who had always dreamt of being a demi-god. She was immediately hooked on Rick Riordan’s Heroes Of Olympus: The Last Hero, the moment she set eyes on it (the book’s protagonist dreams of being special and finds out that he is a demi-god). “This is the most exciting book I’ve ever seen. Every time I read it, I think I’m inside the story. It’s so magical to me. Sometimes when I’m on my own in my room, I will even jump on my bed and act as the character in the book,” she says.

Lovely to hear of such enthusiasm, but you might want to go easy on those bed springs!

Other authors that were crowd favourites include J.K. Rowling (for the Harry Potter series), Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper and House Rules), Nicholas Sparks (The Last Song and The Best Of Me), Nick Vujicic (Life Without Limits and Unstoppable), Stephanie Meyer (the Twilight series) and Yann Martel (Life Of Pi and Beatrice And Virgil).

Fans of the tortured love story between mortal Bella and her sparkly vampire boyfriend Edward of the Twilight series were clearly an enthusiastic bunch; so eager were they to express their being “unconditionally, irrationally, irresistibly and irrevocably in love” with the books (to quote one reader) that most of them delivered many times over the 100-word limit imposed. To those who went over the world limit: if Edward can practise restraint, you might want to aspire to be like him....

The world of boy wizard Harry Potter is indeed alluring, prompting a Form Six student to write in to say that Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, the last book in the series, inspired her to get a scholarship to study in Britain! “There, I will feel closer to the fantastic world behind Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station. It has inspired me to strive for excellence in my studies. It may sound simple and laughable, but it has motivated me to reach out for my dream,” she says.

Dystopian young adult novels such as The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and Divergent, a debut novel by Veronica Roth about teens undergoing a deadly initiation, made it into the top few books that had the most impact on readers this year – from readers who are barely into their teens to university students, all equally inspired by the young protagonists’ determination to overcome all odds.

“I would have broken down in tears if I were in her place, I would have literally been useless. I admire her bravery and how she manages to overcome the very worst that life throws at her,” says a 13-year-old fan of Katniss in Mockingjay, the third book in The Hunger Games trilogy which has young people sent to battle to the death in an annual competition.

An engineering student in university shares that the books motivated her to keep her head above water when the going got tough – specifically, the responsibilities that came with being the eldest daughter in “an almost-broken family”: “No matter how small the chance, you can make a change by trying to survive. I have thought about giving up, I have considered suicide as an option, but reading this book made me think that if someone like Katniss can try, then so can I,” she says.

On another note, Malaysian author Cheeming Boey had a couple of hits with his compilation of stories, drawn semi-comic-book-style, about his childhood days.

When I Was A Kid reminds me of my own childhood when things were simpler and life was carefree. This piece of work is not just a masterpiece; it is concise, hilarious, truthful and is a perfect kaleidoscope of Malaysian culture and heritage. It is simply addictive,” says a 34-year-old doctor.

We also had old-time favourites popping up: Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Enid Blyton (the Malory Towers series), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) and Roald Dahl (Revolting Rhymes).

The retirees and above 50s (mostly language tutors, doctors and managers, we noticed) who wrote in demonstrated intriguingly diverse book choices, from Oliver Jeffers’ Stuck to Cry No More by Linda Howard; The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes to Piers Paul Read’s Alive; J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit to The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka.

Our readers clearly hold family close and dear in their hearts – many took the time to tell us that it was something buried in the pages of a book that made them work towards strengthening family ties.

In the case of a 43-year-old clerk, Escaping Daddy by Maria Landon (a true story about a girl and her abusive father) made her count her blessings. “It made me thankful to be gifted with a great father, unlike the one in the book. This book made me appreciate my family more and I made the effort to strengthen family bonds. For without my family, I am no one.”

Top titles

HERE are the top five books that made the most impact on readers this year:

> Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

> Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

> The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

> Life Of Pi by Yann Martel

> My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

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