I've never been on a Reading Retreat, but I've heard of them. Comfy accommodation in some secluded, scenic spot; meals provided; evening gatherings of other retreat attendees to discuss bookish things. No television, no phone, no obligations--nothing to do for a week but read, read, read. I've no immediate plans to go on such a retreat either, as paying handsomely to do something I can just about get away with at home with some forward planning always seems just a little too extravagant. But gosh, I'd like to. And sometimes I imagine what it would be like, and what books I'd take. Thus, about once every four months (I'll shoot for around 1 April, 1 July, 1 October, and 1 January), I'll share what I would pack for a reading retreat if I were lucky enough to be heading out to one soon.
I've done my share of packing for regular vacations, of course. And I always take too many books. It's just so hard to choose, and I'd hate to get there and realize that the book that I really want to read, the book that would be just perfect, is the book I left behind. The knowledge that I will almost surely be someplace where I can get another book, or borrow a book from a friend, has no effect on my overpacking. The books I pack tend to fall into one of three categories: something I've never read, or books that are new to me; books I've read before and would like to visit again, or old favorites; and one or two books that catch my eye after I thought I'd finished packing, or those that are just in case. So in each "Packing for a Reading Retreat" post, I'll pick three books that are new to me, three old favorites, and one just in case--and I'll say a little about each one. That's may still be too many books for a week, but who could choose?
New to Me
The Mirage, by Matt Ruff
From the front flap: "11/9/2001: Christian fundamentalists hijack four jetliners. They fly two into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, and a third into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh. The fourth plane, believed to be bound for Mecca, is brought down by its passengers." Chilling. And tantalizing. I have steered clear of, or been disappointed by, books I've read that center around 9/11, but this one intrigues me. Perhaps it is a suspicion that reading about those events turned on their head will be easier to stand, while still providing some insight. Perhaps it is just that I am fascinated by speculative fiction, with things that posit "but what if it were just this way?" Either way, I've heard good things, and this is the first 9/11 novel I've really wanted to read, rather than just thought I probably ought to. Here's hoping.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey
Gemma Hardy loses her parents and then a kind guardian and is left in the care of a mean aunt. She subsequently goes away to school, hoping for a better life, only to find the conditions living there little better than staying with her aunt. Eventually she takes a job as an au pair, and finds herself intrigued by her employer. Yar, it's Jane Eyre, and consciously so. If there's anything that fascinates me more than speculative fiction, it's a retelling. And Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books, not only because I loved reading it, but because it was one of the few classics I read as a teenager entirely because I wanted to. It wasn't for school, it wasn't suggested by my mother, it wasn't to help me pass any kind of test. I'm a little wary of Gemma Hardy for that reason, but I've heard really good things about this one, too.
Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, translated by John. E. Woods
I had to read Death in Venice for one of my comps a few years ago, and I expected it to be a slog. Au contraire! I loved it. Since then I've been picking up John E. Woods's translations of Mann's major works, but I've yet to sit down and read one of them. The Magic Mountain always seems like a too-intellectual introduction to Mann in long form, and I shy away from Doctor Faustus fearing it may wreck me somehow. Buddenbrooks strikes me as the least intimidating. And such a long novel would be the perfect thing for a weekend of uninterrupted reading.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Yes, yes, I hear many of you crying foul, claiming this is too obvious, demanding I pick something else. But this is no knee-jerk, I-always-want-to-read-Rings-again kind of a choice. M just reread The Hobbit the other week, and we've been dipping into the films of an evening here lately. And I've realized that it's been quite a while since I've read Rings in its entirety. There are always new things to discover in Tolkien, no matter how many times you've read him, and I always think that Rings suffers greatly from being read in snatches. One should really sit down with it for hours at a time and let oneself settle comfortably into Tolkien's style, let oneself get caught up in Middle Earth.
The Sound of Summer Voices, by Helen Tucker
My mother read the first chapter of The Sound of Summer Voices to me when I was home sick from middle school. (It was probably a nasty headache, otherwise I likely would have read it myself.) The story has a mystery to it, though it is not a mystery story, and I remember calling out what I thought were deeply important clues as she read. The story involves a pre-adolescent boy who decides that one of his aunts must actually be his mother, and follows him as he tries to find out the truth. Tucker has a knack for capturing small town life and the characters who live in them. And the plot is fun. I've been meaning to read this one again for a long time.
Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier
You gotta take along one slightly creepy book in case of thunderstorms. Rebecca is probably my favorite "slightly creepy" read. The atmosphere DuMaurier creates is tangible, and the mysterious goings on at Manderley hold up brilliantly even when you already know what all the fuss is about.
Just in Case
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
I can practically recite Pride and Prejudice without looking at the pages. And that's largely why it's here. It's an old, comfortable favorite, and will serve splendidly in cases of homesickness, duds, or freak-outs caused by The Mirage. Austen's language is so smooth that her sentences have a kind of soothing, inevitable rightness to them. And the characters are just delicious, the plot just twisty enough, and the humor just delightfully pointed.