Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch is another look at grief and loss, as the titular allusion to Joan Didion’s own memoir suggests.  When Nina’s beloved older sister dies, her initial response is to live life to the fullest which, for her means filling her life with as much activity as possible.  As she herself explains, she is trying to live the life of two people now that her sister is gone.  But one day she decides to stop and, with the loving support of her husband and children, she begins a year long journey of reading a book a day.

Throughout the book, Sankovitch shares her relationship with her family and with books, often connecting the ones she reads during her “year of magical reading” with her life, whether it is a connection made to her parents’ experiences before she was born or to her own immediate day-to-day experience while she continues reaching for the next day’s book.

Sometimes the connections she makes seem more contrived than genuine.  She does not bog the book down with full reviews because she already reviewed every book in her website.  Wisely, she also doesn’t try to share her thoughts on each and every book she read.  Rather, she hits the high notes and moves on.

Perhaps I’ve over-saturated myself with books on grief and loss because I didn’t find this memoir as compelling as others.  I don’t know that Sankovitch was hoping to write a deeply personal memoir about death and bereavement.  Instead, her purpose seems to mostly be her desire to share a deep love and appreciation of and for books.  In this she succeeds and I found myself adding a few of her choices to my own “neverending-to-be-read-reading-list” in spite of the fact that she seemed to enjoy a book or two that I know I disliked.

I suppose that this ultimately proves to be a summer reading memoir, not despairing enough to really share the rawness of grief.  Then again, it is about a sister’s loss so there are probably some people who would prefer something far more escapist than real.  This is a nice enough book and I didn’t dislike it.  I simply didn’t fall in love with it.  But I do love books and might have considered giving this 4 stars on that basis alone had the author bothered to cite the many quotes she weaves throughout and uses as epitaphs to the chapters.  Unfortunately, she chooses not to do this and I continue to find this a frustration in so many books.  So, since I am on the fence between 3 or 4 stars, I’m falling onto 3 stars.

I recently finished a book with many quotes and every single one was cited.  I know these things are possible.  What I don’t know is why writers are no longer making the effort to do it in their own writing.  I hope this is just a momentary trend that will fade into disrespect and disuse where it belongs.


  1. I make attributions for all quotations used in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, whether the quotations are in the text or used as epigraphs. In both this review, and in the review you posted on Amazon, you mistakenly write that I do not provide attributions: this is simply not true. I want everyone to read the books I enjoyed in my year of reading, and so provide the information necessary to allow people to find the books I found, and to find in them all that I found.

  2. While you do cite the book from which you quote, you do not give paginations, which is what I said in both reviews. Proper citations include page numbers and, where appropriate, verse and line numbers.

    I realize that this is typical of writers but I don't have to like it and I don't. This is a peeve of mine and regular readers of my book reviews are aware that I dislike this practice. If you look at my regular blog you will see that I do a weekly quotes section and every quote has a page number, not just a book title.


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