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Love and Literature: A Review of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

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Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
Nina Sankovitch
Harpers, 2011; $23.99

Every day for one year, Nina Sankovitch read an entire book and posted a review on her website -- all while raising four boys. As a mother of just two children, a mother who struggled to find time to read this one book, I was curious to know how Sankovitch did it. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading tells her story.

As her forty-sixth birthday approaches, Sankovitch decides to embark on a journey to reconnect with her older sister, Anne-Marie, who had died of cancer three years earlier. At the time of her sister's death, Sankovitch handled grief by keeping herself frantically busy:

I was scared of living a life not worth living. Why did I deserve to live when my sister had died? I was responsible now for two lives, my sister's and my own, and, damn, I'd better live well. I had to live hard and live fully. I was going to live double if my sister couldn't live at all. I was going to live double because I had to die too, one day, and I didn't want to miss anything. I set myself to a faster and faster speed.

Sankovitch avoided her loss by entrenching herself in family and community, scheduling every minute so as not to miss an opportunity to live fully. But the sorrow remained. Reading for a year, she finally decides, would provide the healing process she needs:

Books. The more I thought about how to stop and get myself back together as one sane, whole person, the more I thought about books. I thought about escape. Not running to escape but reading to escape. Cyril Connolly, twentieth-century writer and critic, wrote that "words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living." That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life. I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again.

Throughout their lives the sisters shared a love of reading. When Anne-Marie was diagnosed and hospitalized, Sankovitch brought her books, those by their favorite authors that they hadn't yet read, and those they would enjoy talking about together. During her "year of magical reading," this tradition remains one of Sankovitch's guidelines for choosing books: Each selection has to be something she would have shared with Anne-Marie. She has other rules as well:

The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn't reread any books I'd already read; and I had to write about every book I read. I would read new books and new authors, and read old books from favorite writers.

Sankovitch begins Tolstoy and the Purple Chair with the story of her sister's death. She then recounts the first book she ever loved, Harriet the Spy. In these first pages, we learn of Sankovitch's relationship to her family and to books. Both have provided her with insight and support throughout her life. In the subsequent chapters, Sankovitch recounts her year of reading, at times returning to Anne-Marie's death with new perspective gained through books.

"I was trusting in books to answer the relentless question of why I deserved to live," Sankovitch writes. After reading her first book of the year, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Sankovitch concludes, "It is our ability to recognize and then hold on to the moments of good stuff that allows us to survive, even thrive."

After finishing José Eduardo Agualusa's The Book of Chameleons and Mia Couto's Under the Frangipani, Sankovitch realizes that remembrance is key to life. In Agualusa's book, a man replaces childhood memories; in Couto's book, a dead man inhabits the investigator of his murder to help his country remember its past. In both books, remembrance is necessary for both forgiveness and hope:

By now, in reading my books of escape, I had found another way to respond [to grief]. It was not a way to rid myself of sorrow but a way to absorb it. Through memory. While memory cannot take our sorrow away or bring back the dead, remembering ensures that we always have the past with us, the bad moments but also the very, very good moments of laughter shared and meals eaten together and books discussed.

While Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is about grief and the power of reading, it also chronicles the day-to-day logistics of trying to accomplish a monumental task. Sankovitch is the mother of four boys, and stepmother to one daughter. She's a stay-at-home mom who normally spends her days cooking, cleaning, shopping, doing laundry and chaperoning kids. Success in her new mission -- reading and reviewing a book a day -- comes down to two things, taking herself seriously and having a very supportive family:

Reading had always been a favorite thing to do, but now it would become a worthy endeavor. I could excuse myself from coffees, PTA meetings, and exercise by having work to do. Almost everyone thought my project was crazy, but that didn't matter, not too much anyway. It was what I needed.

Sankovitch organizes her household around her goal, and most importantly, lets go of things like the dust bunnies romping under the beds. At first, she believes she could read and review in the six hours the children were at school. She has the uncanny ability to read 70 pages per hour, a 300-page book in 4 hours, and a review takes her about 2 hours to write and post. But it doesn't work quite that way. There are errands to run, books to find, and vomiting children to care for. This is where her family pitches in: Her sons take on more chores; her husband gives her time to read. Still, she often accomplishes the majority of her work in her purple chair once everyone is in bed:

The plan had changed, and now my days ended with a book in my lap. The experience of just me and my book under the light of one lamp was like sitting before a spotlighted stage in a dark theater. The whole performance went on just for me. No intermission, no interruptions, and every word illuminated.

Sankovitch's selection of books is eclectic. She reads murder mysteries, literary novels, contemporary and classic fiction, non-fiction and humor by authors from around the globe -- Nicole Krauss, Harry Mulisch, William Trevor, J.M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro, and José Saramago to name a few. At the end of the book, she lists everything she read during the year (12 pages of titles). Sankovitch varies her reading, something heavy followed by something light for instance, but in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, she writes most about books on memory and loss, as those books help her face her grief.

I thought I'd finish Sankovitch's memoir with a list of must-read books. While I marked a couple, this was not really the case. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is not a collection of book reviews, but a personal journey that recounts the transformative power of literature, a memoir in which books are characters come to life. By devoting a year to reading, Sankovitch reconnects with her sister and moves past her grief to embrace her family and her life. "The only answer to sorrow is to live," she says. "To live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forward, with anticipation and excitement." Reading gives her faith that she will experience joy once again.

Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her blog Philly Word of Mouth covers local Philadelphia authors and literary events.

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