Book Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

Title: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
Author: Nina Sankovitch
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0061999840
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 256 pages
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I would never be able to forget the day I lost my father. He died in his sleep, so I was thankful for that. That he did not feel pain, though I would never know. And after he died, I felt something snap in me. The loss of a parent is irreplaceable. No one can take the space. No one can fill the void. Not the surviving parent, even. It is something you need to deal with. Something you need to grieve about for the rest of your life and that doesn’t change anything. You know that he will not return. To fill the void, I read. I read and I read and I read. I ordered books, I bought, I borrowed and I read, till the gaping hole had narrowed a little.

The reason I am mentioning this on my review is as I am reviewing a book called “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: A Year of Magical Reading” by Nina Sankovitch. I picked up this book as it came heavily recommended through various online book clubs and mine as well. I settled in bed with the quilt draped over me and started reading.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, besides being a love letter to Books and Reading, is a personal account of the authors’ attempt to make sense of why she was alive and why she lost her sister to Cancer. She chose to find answers in books, in reading one book a day for 365 days and posting a review every single day. The book travels back and forth in time – full of memories – from Nina’s childhood to her teenage and adult years and to the bond she shared with her sisters. And with each memory and each time the healing is taking place, there is a book that Nina is reading – one every day. With four children and a life that was constantly lived amidst chaos and tasks, Nina worked for a year – a work of a different nature – she read.

When she began what she dubbed “The 365 Project” and launched its corresponding website (readallday.org), Sankovitch chose to read books that were an inch in width, assuring her that she would be reading no more than 250-300 pages total and could finish it in just a matter of a few hours (she can read 70 pages per hour), leaving her plenty of time to write a review of what she’d just read and attend to other matters (housework, children, etc.). She read many places but one of her favorite spots was an old chair in her living room that had been reupholstered over the years with a dark purple fabric, a chair that always carried the faint smell of cat urine from a beloved pet having repeatedly marked it as its own in years past.

Coincidentally, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” is a pat 222 pages, making it easy for someone who can match Sankovitch’s reading velocity to finish it in just over three hours’ time. Though I don’t read as expeditiously as she does, I was enraptured by her journey and found myself glued to her memoir all throughout the day, finishing it in two days time between meeting the demands of two small children and a house in constant need of cleaning. My “purple chair” ended up being my bed, my couch, a sofa at the library, and a park bench.

I was amazed at how deep in the heart the book reaches to one who is hurting. There are good, solid examples of ways to handle your grief, not be crushed forever by it. I am still thinking about the idea of actively remembering and keeping memories close at heart because allowing those memories to take you back also allows you to move forward. I liked using quotes from books as inspiration – “always within never” from “Elegance of the Hedgehog” is one of my favorites. “The weird world rolls on” is another. My favorite chapter includes author Bernhard Schlink’s quote, “I realized it was my decision whether I would interpret the ending as unjust and unsatisfactory and suffer because of it or decided that this, and only this, was the fitting ending.” The chapter includes mesmerizing stuff about mysteries, questions, answers, endings and some great things to think about (you can’t control what life throws at you, but you can control your response).

Sankovitch provides her reading list in its entirety in the back of her book (all 365 of them!), putting into action her stance on the importance of sharing books with others. She says: “My book-a-day project affected not only my life but those of everyone with whom I shared my reading. I spread the gratification of reading through discussing books, much as authors create bliss by writing them. What a gift, to share the joy and the comfort and the wisdom! Everything I shared, I found first through the simple act of sitting down in my purple chair and reading a book.” (pg. 211) As a result, I have now added several titles to my “to be read” list (which grows larger by the day – ack!) due to the loving and often moving explications she gives on the stories’ central themes (“The Assault” by Harry Mulisch is an example that immediately comes to mind).

Bottom line: Poignant and meditative, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” is an exquisite homage to a beloved woman, encouraging healing and cogitation through one’s passions. Sankovitch is bound to inspire many who read this work, whether it is the motivation to find their own bliss, or simply the recommendation and subsequent power and enjoyment of a great book. I am grateful to this book. I cried. I laughed. I cried some more. Most of it were tears for my father. To books and to the healing power of books.

Reading is an Anti-Dote to almost everything. Yes, everything. – The Hungry Reader.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

  1. Ceri

    I love your reviews, having just discovered your blog today. I lost my mother last year and she left a gaping hole in my life. Reading always seems to be what I needed to cope (along with my family) at times being a distraction, a way of forgetting myself for ten minutes or as you say above, a way of healing. Thanks.

    Reply

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