Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Hi, there. It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me. I am as aware and as frustrated by this as you are (probably more so). To be honest, I’ve had an excruciatingly hard time finishing a book for the past two weeks. I don’t know what it is, but I sent about six books back to the library unfinished- a couple unstarted, because I didn’t have the patience. Where I usually try to hang on to a book for 100 pages, I’ve recently only been able to read for 20 before I get fed up with an uninteresting book.

Finally I found one that I actually wanted to finish, but I didn’t have the time. Or energy. I’ve been working a lot recently, and actually doing a lot with people I don’t work with, and I’ve been able to read perhaps a chapter a day since last Wednesday. I’ve also been trying to see movies that people push at me, and I was inspired to be a bit crafty with a pair of jeans.

So this is the book that I was actually able to finish. The copy that I read from didn’t have a cover, so I’m breaking my usual rule about posting the exact copy that I read; mine was just a black hardcover. It’s a very recent publication, though, and I think this might actually be the only cover out there:

I was hoping to break out of my funk by returning to a genre which has, an overwhelming amount of time, served me well: memoir. I found a book which sounded kind of like a dream, and it reminded me of those fantastic, escapist memoirs I’ve been enamored with. It’s not a foodie book, but it does cater to my other favorite hobby: reading. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is about a mother of four boys who decides to read one book a day, for one year.

There’s a lot of backstory to this decision; her beloved older sister has recently perished to cancer. Nina hopes that be indulging heavily in their shared refuge of books, she will be able to accept her sister’s loss and her continued presence. Specifically, she looks for books that she could have shared with Anne-Marie.

Personally (perhaps because I have three of them, one being a twin), I am completely enamored with sisterhood. I love the idea of sisters, and the fact of them, and that even though they know you in and out they’ll still be seen in public with you. I’ve never been in love (and I don’t know if that would actually change anything, but), the most meaningful relationship in my life right now is the one between me and my sisters. So right at the beginning of the book, when Nina is describing life with Anne-Marie’s illness and eventual death, I felt her pain so sharply I couldn’t breathe. I very nearly cried. I don’t know how to explain it except that while I was reading, Anne-Marie was Emma. Or Julia. Or Sarah. I felt for Nina because I could imagine myself in her situation, with my own sister in pain. Dying.

Then there was the reading. Nina Sankovitch is the epitomal bookworm; raised from childhood with books in her life, and then repeating these lessons with her own boys. A woman who actually could read a book a day for a year without ever needing to throw it down and do something else, who could read an entire novel in one day and still have time for a life with her family (admittedly, she didn’t work during this year).

After a few chapters, though, something annoying became very apparent: she would turn every single book into some kind of metaphor for her life. In some way, it would teach her a lesson that would help her move along. To say this was ‘annoying’ is not entirely accurate, but after a while I would come across her, “My year of reading was traveling across the ocean with a tiger,” and I would just kind of roll my eyes. I’m impressed that she could find so much from her books, but it got a little tedious. However, there was quite enough substance in this to keep the reader going. The book was really more an analysis of love, life, and grief than it was a story with a plot.

The flashbacks were the most interesting part of the book. Every few pages, something would relate to something else; a lesson she read in a book would remind her of a lesson her father had learned in Poland during WWII. She would link kindness to kindness; pain to pain; adventure to adventure; this was the most story-like part of the book, since a flashback is a story. If that made any sense at all.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book. Oh, and I found this interesting: she started off her year of reading- the very first day- with The Elegance of the Hedgehog. And I was just like, “Hey, I read that!” I was pleased. She followed up shortly with a Dick Francis book (my mom’s favorite author), and Watership Down (my brother’s favorite book). Small world, I think.

Next, I’m flashing back to middle school. There’s this book I first tried to read- and couldn’t finish- in sixth grade. Then in seventh grade (age eleven, or thereabouts), I borrowed it again, read it through, and loved it. So I borrowed it last week from the library; I hope it’s as good now as it was then.

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