Mary Ronan Drew's Reviews > Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch
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Nov 07, 11

bookshelves: library-book
Read on July 04, 2011

Reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch today, I came across a reference to Deborah Crombie, an author of whom I’m fond and whose books I’ve been gobbling up recently. Sankovitch is in a hospital room with her 46-year-old sister, who is dying of cancer.

Piles of books were stacked along the windowsill of Anne-Marie’s hospital room, gifts from friends and from family. I was borrowing as many as I brought in. Anne-Marie had just introduced me to the writer Deborah Crombie and her sleuths, Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. She reread the series while I worked my way through, virgin and loving it. I was in the middle of All Shall Be Well. The title held out hope, and when I had seen the book there on the hospital sill, I’d asked to borrow it. Anne-Marie had said yes, but said she wanted it back. We were all still planning for more time.

But there is no more time. Her sister dies that day. The author does not adjust well to the loss of her beloved older sister. For three years she tries to forget by staying very busy, throwing herself into community activities and her childrens’ lives, but she still grieves.

Her father contracted tuberculosis when he was young and spent two years in a sanatorium. There he found peace after the horrors he had experienced during World War II. Sandovitch decides to seek similar solace in books. She makes a plan to read a book a day and write about it on her blog, ReadAllDay http://www.readallday.org/blog/ – a book a day for a whole year. The resulting book is a testimony of the wisdom and solace one acquires from books.

For me, much of the joy from this book came from her increasing understanding of the importance of books in her life and how much they offer besides just entertainment or escape.

The first book she reads is Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. A quote from that book: When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far; a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment, than in literature?

Another from Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart: Books loved anyone who opened them, they gave you security and friendship and didn’t ask anything in return; they never went away, never, not even when you treated them badly. Love, truth, beauty, wisdom and consolation against death. Who had said that? Someone else who loved books.

And from Elizabeth Maguire’s The Open Door: Have you ever been heartbroken to finish a book? Has a writer kept whispering in your ear long after the last page is turned?

As Sandovitch reads she records her responses to many of the books and how they lead her to reflect on her family history, her experiences with her sons and her husband, her adjustment to life with her step-daughter, love affairs from her youth. And of course time she had spent with her sister.

At a rate of a book a day, she has to choose books that are no more than 300 pages long. What is she to do, then, when her son brings her his favorite book, Watership Down, which is 476 pages long? She puts the book aside until she remembers an incident from years before when a friend gave her a copy of The Bridges of Madison County saying she loved the book and was sure Sankovitch would too. Sankovitch returned it saying she thought it was a silly book, wounding her friendship irreparably. She decides to make time to read her son’s book and to accept books from friends who know about her project. She writes as carefully as she can about these books, remembering the importance of the friendship that impelled people to lend her their favorite books.

After her year-long project, she writes: My whole life, I have read books. And when I needed to read the most, books gave me everything I asked for and more. My year of reading gave me the space I needed to figure out how to live again after losing my sister. My year in the sanatorium of books allowed me to redefine what is important for me and what can be left behind. Not all respites from life can be so all-consuming – I will never again read a book a day for one year – but any break taken from the frenetic pace of busy days can restore the balance of a life turned topsy-turvy. . . . We all need a space to just let things be, a place to remember who we are and what is important to us, an interval of time that allows the happiness and joy of living back into our consciousness.

The purple chair? As the author begins her project she sets up a room where she can read and write, can do her "work" as she calls her reading project. She puts in her room an old chair, upholstered in purple. This was the place where she sat and did her reading.

As is appropriate, I read the book in a single day.

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message 1: by Juanita (last edited Nov 08, 2011 08:20PM) (new)

Juanita Rice I have a new book-reading friend and recently I went to her home to return a book she had loaned me with great enthusiasm. The door of the house had side-panes of glass, and through them I saw her sitting with a reading lamp over her shoulder, cozy in a houserobe at 5 p.m. I took an enormous leap in my feeling of friendship toward her. I had not finished reading the book (Sebald's "The Almost Moon") and was not sure what I would say. After seeing her in her "reading chair," I was very tactful; although honest in saying that the book brought up too many of the difficult emotions I experience in caring for my own mother, I was also careful not to further comment on my feelings about Sebald in general. I enjoyed reading the observation in your review about ruining a friendship by "dissing" (youth lingo for disrespecting) someone's reading recommendation.


Mary Ronan Drew What a lovely glimpse of your friend reading, Juanita. I've learned over the years go be a little more tactful about how I go about saying I didn't enjoy a particular book. Some books will fail to satisfy two diffeerent people, even close friends, and being too overwhelmed by the strength of your emotions in reading a book is a kind of compliment to the person recommending it.

By the way, I answered your query about Nancy Pearl and the Rule of 50 and it was swallowed by the gnomes of the web. I'll post about her again soon.


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