Book Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

tolstoy purple chairTolstoy and the Purple Chair
by Nina Sankovitch
Memoir
236 pages
Published 2011

So first off, can we talk about this cover? I want this chair so bad. Though the purple chair the author actually sits in to read is nowhere near this pretty, from her description of it. I haven’t got a good reading chair yet; I have one corner of a couch, next to a bookshelf, that is my current favored reading spot (reading lamp, blanket, and end table included). But eventually I will find myself the perfect reading chair and make myself a nook.

That aside. The premise of this book is the author trying to come to terms with the death of her older sister, who she idolized. Her sister died of cancer, so they knew it was happening, but it was still a shock when she passed. For a few years, Nina pushes her grief aside and throws herself into being busy, but she eventually decides to full process she’s going to dedicate a year to reading a book every single day. She reasons that at her reading speed, she can reasonably finish a 300 page-ish book each day, giving herself time before her sons get up, while they’re at school, and after everyone else goes to bed.

I saw one reviewer mention Nina’s unrecognized privilege, and it’s true. Nina is very privileged. She can afford not to work, and not to worry too much about chores, cooking, and the general running of a home. Her sons and husband all seem fairly self-sufficient, and her husband’s job keeps them quite well, it seems. (I don’t even want to think about how much the Christmas tree she describes actually cost, considering it reaches the chandelier hanging from the second-floor ceiling.)

But the book is about the books she reads, not how privileged she is. And in that respect I quite liked it. Her criteria for picking books are that she can’t have read them before, though they can be authors she’s read before, no author could be read more than once, and she had to review every book she read. There’s a list in the back of the book of every book she read during the year. I’ve only read three of the books she read in that year: Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. All fantasy, of course, and none of which she actually mentioned in the text of the book! (I’ve also read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which she mentions in the beginning of the book, but wasn’t part of her year of reading.)

I love the way she talks about the books she reads. She relates them to her life, or her father’s memories of World War II. She draws lessons from the stories, and does, in time, begin to heal from her sister’s death. The way she talks about reading, and her books, really struck a chord with me, and I think I’m going to buy myself a copy of this book. I want to refer back to it when I’m feeling uninspired with my reviews, and this might be a book I re-read often to encourage me to dive deeper into my books.

This is my pick for PopSugar’s 2018 prompt “favorite color in the title” and I think it’s also going on my personal Best of 2018 list. I just loved it that much. It’s not a “I have to tell everyone about this and encourage everyone to read it!” kind of book. It’s more a “this really touched on a deep passion of mine and has words I’ll carry with me going forward” kind of book. It was just lovely.

From the cover of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair:

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. In our lightning-paced culture that encourages us to seek more, bigger, and better things, Nina’s daring journey shows how we can deepen the quality of our everyday lives – if we only find the time.

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Book Review: My Ideal Bookshelf

bookshelfMy Ideal Bookshelf
Edited by Thessaly La Force
Art by Jane Mount
225 pages
Published 2012
Books/Libraries

So this is a bit of an odd, but fascinating, little book. In My Ideal Bookshelf, just over a hundred people were asked what was on their ideal bookshelf. I didn’t recognize a lot of the people interviewed, but I did see a few. James Patterson, David Sedaris, Alice Waters, Tony Hawk, James Franco, these were all people that I knew. Even the people that I didn’t know had interesting books and interesting things to say about them, though. Each person has a two page spread – one page is an illustration of their ideal bookshelf, and one page is an excerpt from their interview talking about why those books. There’s almost a voyeuristic pleasure in reading this book. (I can’t be the only one that always peruses my friends’ bookshelves when I go their houses, right?)

I find myself getting both inspired and depressed by books like this – books about good books. Depressed in that there’s so many things I haven’t read! I haven’t read Nobokov, or Lolita, or Austen’s Emma. The only Steinbeck I’ve read was The Grapes of Wrath in high school. I’ve never read Hemingway or Frankenstein (though the latter will be getting rectified shortly). I haven’t read Dickens, or Tolstoy, or Pride and Prejudice (I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, does that count?) or To Kill a Mockingbird (another one that I’ll be reading soon). But inspired, at the same time, for the same reason. There are books that appear again and again in this book, like A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, or Lolita, or Nobokov. Books that make me think I should find them at the library to see what everyone is so excited about. I consider myself fairly well read – I love Shakespeare, Jane Eyre, Dracula, The Comte de Monte Cristo. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Anne of Green Gables; Heinlein, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin. There’s still so much to read, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The very last page of the book is bookshelf with ten blank books on it. The book asks you to create your own ideal bookshelf and submit it to them via their website or Twitter with the hashtag #myidealbookshelf. They have an online template which I think I’ll be filling out, talking about here, and then submitting. So stay tuned for my Ideal Bookshelf!

From the inner cover of My Ideal Bookshelf:

The books that we choose to keep and display – let alone read – can say a lot about who we are and how we see ourselves. In My Ideal Bookshelf, more than one hundred leading cultural figures, including writers Chuck Klosterman, Mary Karr, Junot Dias, and Jonathan Lethem, musicians Patti Smith and Thurston Moore, chefs and food writers Alice Waters and Mark Bittman, Hollywood figures Judd Apatow and James Franco, and fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, share the books that matter to them most – books that define their dreams and ambitions and in many cases helped them find their way in the world. 

Jane Mount’s original paintings of the colorful and delightful book spines and occasional objets d’art from the contributors’ personal bookshelves showcase the selections. Each painting is accompanied by a short first-person essay drawn from interviews with Thessaly La Force that touch on everything from the choice of books to becoming a writer to surprising sources of inspiration.