Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Nina Sankovitch via
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2011

It's about: After the death of her sister, Nina Sankovitch decides to read one book a day for a year. She hopes that daily reading will bring a new organization to a life scattered by grief. Each morning, Sankovitch writes a review on her blog of the book she finished the day before. Jumping between memories of her sister, themes that stand out to her in the books she reads, and specific passages that touch her, Sankovitch works through her grief by throwing herself into the alternate worlds and new lives in her books.

I thought: One of the first things I noticed about this book is that its subtitle is a play on the phrase "magical thinking," probably a reference to Joan Didion's famous memoir about mourning the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking. Some people were surprised that there was so much about Sankovitch's sister in this book, but I think it may have been the best part of the book - it held together the narrative and gave purpose to Sankovitch's reading. I think one of the best things about reading is how subtly literature can weave itself into our lives, opening our eyes to new intellectual and emotional understanding. Sankovitch definitely captured this.

I thought this book was a beautiful monument to the author's sister, and the writing was authentic and deeply felt. Some parts were great. But I just couldn't get behind the formula of it. I'm not a huge fan of this whole "I did ___ for a year a found myself" memoir thing going on. Ultimately I'm just not going to love anything that's formulated to sell. I know, I suck. I'm one of those art for art's sake kind of people. Another problem with this formula is that it immediately alienates anyone who doesn't have the resources to go about the same project. Sankovitch obviously needed to have the money to be able to sacrifice eight or so hours a day to reading and writing. She also needed someone (in her case, her husband) to take care of her four children while she read. She is obviously privileged in comparison to many, if not most Americans who can't sacrifice that kind of time. This is the most common criticism I've heard of these one-year memoirs, and I think it's legitimate. Sankovitch recognizes this, but I think it still gets in the way of her point. I would have appreciated a more organic, authentic memoir about a working mother who still found time to have the same experience with books in her spare time - even if (especially if) she didn't have time to finish a whole book in one day. It would have felt more real.

I also suspect that Sankovitch had her conclusion in mind when she started the project (otherwise why would she do it?) Maybe it's just memoirs in general that are difficult for me to love. I recognize though that writing about one's own experience is much more difficult than writing fiction. The memoirist doesn't control over the events of the story, only the way those events are framed and interpreted. I imagine it is difficult to make a memoir feel completely authentic and still have an acceptable beginning, middle, and end. I don't think I've found that perfect ("perfect"?) memoir yet. If you have, please direct it my way.

Alright, so while I didn't love this book, it was still a fun and worthwhile read. I took it to the beach with me while I was in California and we had a nice time together. It brought some great reading memories. But ultimately, it's the reading that's the thing - not the reading about the reading. You can't truly appreciate it until you experience it. So I say, read this book - but also read Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Louise Erdrich. Maybe take a few recommendations from the great list at the back of the book.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. I couldn't bring myself to put this one in-between. So put it on your shelf, but put it amongst a bunch of other really great books. This is a good time-out from all your other reading. ;)

Reading Recommendations: This book feels like it was written with book bloggers in mind. It appeals to all those things we love: reading for long periods of time and writing about the books we love. If you love reading, you'll like this book.

Warnings: None.

Favorite excerpts: Sankovitch on reading Kevin Canty's story "Burning Bridges, Breaking Glass" -

"I finished reading that story with my own 'green fuse lit,' my own youth recovered. I remembered lying in bed at night with the windows opened to let in the warm summer air. From the bed, I could hear the traffic on Gold Road and the radio playing on the neighbor's porch. I smelled the dankness of freshly turned earth in our garden, the sweet scent of cut grass, and the smoky smell of barbecues. The smells and sounds were like an invitation to me, a summons to run out and join the universe. I was older then, beyond hide-and-seek games and waiting for the ice-cream truck, but I still believed my future was limitless. I knew that the breeze coming in from the window was full of promises of adventure and love and fun, promises just waiting to be fulfilled."

On memory -

"It is a gift we humans have, to hold on to beauty felt in a moment for a lifetime. Suddenly beauty comes to us, and gratefully we take it. We may not be able to recite time and place, but the memories can come flooding back, felt full force without warning or brought on purposefully by a triggering event. The smell of pinecones, the whiff of popcorn, the taste of a cold beer, or the bite of mint: a jumble of feelings, and then a sudden clarity of beauty or joy or sadness. Beauty is in the moments that endure, the moments that enliven us again and again. We stand on memory's sturdy pilings. We thrive on the nourishment provided by the past."

What I'm reading next: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

*I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.