January 2021 In Books: Women, Men, and Money Problems

As we were all expecting, 2021 is turning out to be the overhyped sequel to 2020. The virus is still a reality for most countries, and here in the Philippines the vaccines are finally available – but not quite yet, though at the very least they have distributed the forms. Indefinitely I am still stuck to working from home, and so I’d decided to make the best of it by filling every remaining hour reading books and binge watching Korean dramas on Netflix with the girlfriend.

I decided that this was the year I finally addressed the dwindling page count of the books in my reading list. I’d mentioned it here before that after I graduated college, I entered a lull in my reading activity as I struggled to find space for it in the middle of commuting for work, nine hour grinds at the office, and finishing my masters degree. And while I did eventually got my book count up, I noticed that the books I was finishing were getting shorter and shorter.

I may be reading more now, but I have been reading more slowly, within shorter packets of time: in the small breaks that I could manage after eating my lunch and before I had to be back at my desk at work. On the bus ride going to and from the office. The little snatches of time waiting for the professor to start the class. Finding those two to three hour windows that used that I could spend leisurely with a book had become close to impossible, and if I were to take on the same doorstoppers like Anna KareninaCrime and Punishment, or The Brothers Karamazov that were the crowning jewels of my college reading lists, it would take me too long that by the halfway point I’d already forgotten a lot of what I’d read. So rather than dejectedly putting down books half-read, I had made the conscious decision to focus (temporarily) on shorter volumes: no more than 300 pages, books I could read and finish in a month given my pace and dwindling attention span.

This year, however, I’m making it one of my goals to up my average page count (at least on Goodreads) to 400 per book by finally getting around the long books I’d left untouched from the previous years’ TBR piles. Books I purchased on impulse but that I had avoided until now usually for their sheer length. Since it looks like I’ll be languishing at home indefinitely for the time being, I might as well pick them up now, while I have the time. At the same time, after lurking on their subreddits for two years, I’m finally picking up the challenge to read 52 books this year, equivalent to about one book per week.

One of the longest standing of my “untouched” books was Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, purchased all the way back in 2015 and only, finally read this month (one of the perks of having a database for all your books is that you can guilt trip yourself about buying books you never get around to reading, like this one). I’d been avoiding it all this time because I was afraid it was going to be boring. After all, the Penguin Classics edition is more than 500 pages on very small font, and the first page is an entire paragraph dedicated to describing the English afternoon tea.

But finally getting around to it, I was surprised by how (relatively) quick it was to read: I finished the book within a week, reading more than a hundred pages from it per day, moved from one chapter to another (the shortness of each chapter also helped) tantalized at the fate of its heroine, Isabel Archer, who stumbles into wealth after the death of her wealthy landowning uncle. Isabel travels through Europe, intent at witnessing everything life (and wealth) has to offer, at least until she is ensnared into marriage by an American dilettante. Isabel’s sudden rise and downfall make for very moving drama, in a narrative that is handled masterfully – though quite verbosely – by James.

From the 1891 illustration by Joseph Syddall (Wikimedia)

After Portrait Of A Lady, I found myself wanting to read more old-timey English literature, so I ordered a copy of Tess Of The D’Urbervilles online through Fully Booked (unlike last time, Fully Booked came through and delivered my order within a week). Tess is also the story of a woman corrupted by wealth, though she never herself touches a penny. After Tess Durbeyfield’s father finds out that they are the descendants of a historically wealthy landowning family, the D’Urbervilles, she immediately becomes the pawn in her parent’s plan to reclaim their lineage’s lost nobility.

Not long after, they learn that another family by the name of D’Urberville lives just nearby, and they send Tess over to claim kin and ask for assistance from their wealthier relatives. But as things never turn out well for the people in these novels, it turns out that these D’Urbervilles are not part of the old clan and instead are new money types who have purchased the name of for social climbing purposes. And to make things worse, the family’s libertine son, Alec D’Urberville, becomes attracted to Tess and rapes her.

Though Tess would eventually escape from the D’Urbervilles, the damage has been done: she gives birth to a child that immediately dies. She goes away to a dairy farm outside their village to avoid scandal, but there falls in love with and is relentlessly pursued by another bachelor, Angel Clare. Though Clare is much more polite towards Tess, Tess now struggles to balance her affection towards Clare and her anxiety concerning her past. Through much of their courtship, Tess is unnerved at the prospect of telling Clare.

The novel reaches a dramatic climax, much more dramatic than Hardy ever ventured with in Portrait (hint: it happens at Stonehenge), but never one loses its sympathy towards Tess’s tragic fate. From what I’ve read of other people’s thoughts on the novel, readers are very likely to be divided as to whether Clare is as angelic as he is presented to be, but one sure conclusion is that this Victorian novel still holds an important place in shelves today. If not for its pure entertainment value (Hardy’s prose just moves), then surely for its message of how women’s lives are systematically cornered by society and careless men (Tess would have turned out okay if only she never had to deal with these men).

In total I read about five books this month, which puts me one book ahead in my goal to read one book per week this year. And in pages, that’s a total of 1,890 pages, or an average length of 378 pages. That’s somewhat below my goal of averaging 400 pages per book, but it’s a good enough start for the year.

This Month’s Books:

  1. South Of The Border, West Of The Sun (Haruki Murakami)
  2. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (Oliver Sacks)
  3. The Portrait Of A Lady (Henry James)
  4. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)
  5. Breakfast At Tiffany’s And Three Stories (Truman Capote)

If you’d like to see my ratings and reviews for each of the books above, follow me on Goodreads!

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