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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Talk: *Tolstoy and the Purple Chair*, by Nina Sankovitch

This week and next, I'll be posting my reviews of the Indie Lit Awards Biography/Memoir short list, working my way up to the top two.

(Also: Have you entered my Blogiversary Giveaway?)

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
Nina Sankovitch (Facebook) (Twitter)
Harper Perennial (2012), Paperback (ISBN 0061999857 / 9780061999857)
Nonfiction (memoir/books), 256 pages
Source: Purchased e-book (Kindle) (ASIN B004MMEIWI)
Reason for reading: Indie Lit Awards Short List (Biography/Memoir), E-Book Reading Challenge 2012, Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

Opening lines: “In September 2008 my husband, Jack, and I went away for a weekend, leaving our four kids in the care of my parents. We went by car from suburban Connecticut out to the Atlantic beaches of Long Island. We had a Windsurfer lashed to our roof and a bike shoved in the back on top of our few bags filled with clothes and books, enough for three days away. Our vacation weekend was my present to Jack in honor of his fiftieth birthday.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Nina Sankovitch has always been a reader. As a child, she discovered that a trip to the local bookmobile with her sisters was more exhilarating than a ride at the carnival. Books were the glue that held her immigrant family together. When Nina's eldest sister died at the age of forty-six, Nina turned to books for comfort, escape, and introspection. In her beloved purple chair, she rediscovered the magic of such writers as Toni Morrison, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, and, of course, Leo Tolstoy. Through the connections Nina made with books and authors (and even other readers), her life changed profoundly, and in unexpected ways. Reading, it turns out, can be the ultimate therapy. 
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair also tells the story of the Sankovitch family: Nina's father, who barely escaped death in Belarus during World War II; her four rambunctious children, who offer up their own book recommendations while helping out with the cooking and cleaning; and Anne-Marie, her oldest sister and idol, with whom Nina shared the pleasure of books, even in her last moments of life.
Comments: From books to blog and back again, Nina Sankovitch chronicles her “year of magical reading” in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. In describing it that way, Sankovitch intentionally references Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; this is a time of healing from loss, as she turns to books--reading one each day, every day for one year, and writing about it on her blog Read All Day--to help her make sense of life following the death of her beloved sister from an aggressive form of cancer.

If you didn’t know what was motivating Nina to undertake this project, it would be easy to envy this stay-at-home mother of four sons for having the luxury of spending the bulk of her days reading and blogging for an entire year. And once you do know her motivation for it...well, it’s still hard not to be just a little envious, but that’s greatly tempered by compassion. This isn’t a vacation--Nina is not taking a year off from her family or domestic responsibilities to bury herself in books. It’s not a vague, idealistic quest for “self-improvement” either--this is focused, or as she describes it, “intense.” This is reading as therapy--and it seems to have been pretty effective therapy, at that.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an engaging and inspiring read. While it’s a chronicle of an endeavor fueled by sad circumstances, it’s also a record of accomplishment. Nina actually manages to read 365 books in one year, at the rate of one per day, and write about them all, but that’s really all in service of a larger goal; books are her tools. At the end of that year, working with the tools she’s chosen, she’s gained insight and understanding about how to keep living and loving and moving forward. She discusses selected, personally significant books in some detail, but this isn’t so much a “book about books” as it is a book about one particular thoughtful, articulate reader’s personal journey through one transformative year, which has a narrative arc of its own.

While not exactly a book about books, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a book about reading, and it’s clearly a book for readers. The idea of using books to help process a significant life event--not strictly looking for information, but seeking emotional truth in stories both real and fictional--makes perfect sense to a reader. It’s something many of us probably have done, or would do under equally personally-challenging conditions, even if we couldn’t devote a full year exclusively to it. However, as readers, we can appreciate that Nina Sankovitch did, and chose to share her story; it’s evidence of the life-changing power of books...literally.

Rating: 3.75/5

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