Nina Sankovitch: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) A Memoir

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a memoir I’ve been eying for a while until I finally bought it. The subtitle – My Year Of Magical Reading – obviously an allusion to Joan Didion’s memoir – annoyed me a bit but I liked the idea behind the book.

After the early death of her beloved sister, Nina tries for several years to overcome her grief and feelings of guilt when she finally comes up with a cunning idea. Reading has always been important for her and her family. Reading instructs and entertains but it can console and give hope as well. That’s how she decided that she would read one novel per day for a whole year and write about it on her blog Read All Day.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair tells the story of that year, interweaving it with memories and stories of her family and herself. Not all the 365 books she has read in one year are described or mentioned but she writes in detail about a few which were especially meaningful. She summarizes them briefly and writes why they were important, what memories they triggered, how they helped her heal.

The list of all the 365 books can be found at the end of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair and on her blog. They don’t follow any specific order. One book led to the next and many were recommendations from family and friends and later from readers of the blog.

While I expected slightly more, I still liked reading the book. I liked her infectious enthusiasm. Each book is a world to discover and she tackles the ambitious goal with a lot of energy and passion.

Some of the books are so important because they help her explore her story or the story of her family. Harry Mulisch’s The Assault is one of them and so is Schlink’s Self’s Deception. But there are many more.

Crime novels are among her and her family’s favourite books, each member loves another writer. Nina thinks that what she loves best about them is the fact that they re-establish order. Things make sense in crime novels.

The parts in the book I enjoyed the most weren’t only those about books but those in which she describes the many little joys life has to offer. A meal with friends, a sunset, a newly planted tree, a lilac bush and the many cherished memories of her sister that make it easier to let go of her grief.

As was to be expected with a book like this I ended up with a list of books I’d like to read now.

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog - L’élégance du hérisson

Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter

Harry Mulisch’s The Assault

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s On Kindness

Kevin Canty Where the Money Goes

Chris Cleave Little Bee

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Thing Around Your Neck

While I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute must-read, it’s a nice way to spend a few hours. I liked her voice and her stories. Just be prepared, if you don’t have as much time at hand, you might end up being a bit envious.

I have a fondness for this type of project. It doesn’t even have to be reading a book per day. There are some other 365 and similar projects like that I enjoyed reading about. Many are based on blogs or turn into blogs like the famous Julie and Julia.

Have you read about any interesting projects or self-experiments like this? And what about the books on my list, have you read any of them?

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47 thoughts on “Nina Sankovitch: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) A Memoir

  1. I had a similar reaction to this book. I loved the idea behind it more than the execution, but it inspired me nonetheless. I, too, added a number of books to my TBR. As for your list, I am a huge fan of Little Bee.

    • Exactly, that’s how it was. All in all I’m very glad I read it.
      The way she wrote about Little Bee made me think I’ll like it a lot. Good to know you think it’s great. I’ve already ordered it.

  2. There are a few books out written in a similiar vein. I remember one about not buying anything for a year and just reading what you have etc.

    I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I liked the parts told by the housekeeper a lot more than the parts told by the child, but well worth reading and it’s been made into a film.

    • I didn’t know about the blog, I read about it in the book but I understand why it was a success. The book is to a large extenet about the story of her family, WWII and the early death of her sister.
      I would certainly like to have more time as well but I’m not sure I could read a book per day. You’d have to stick to shorter books and rush quite a bit.

  3. I’m a bit put off by that kind of forced reading.

    Plus one book per day means you can’t read Proust or Dumas or Trollope, well, you know what I mean, no chunkster.

    How can you keep such a pace and be still an attentive reader? Aren’t some books sacrificed because they weren’t read at the right moment?

    • I had the very same reservations and thoughts, just wasn’t feeling like writing a very long post on this book.
      It would be worth another post, just to think about this. You know that I’m not a fan of chunksters but that is because I have not enough time, if I could spend my days reading, I’ll go for those long ones.
      She says she reads 70pages per hour. I consider myself to be a fast reader but unless there are only 26 lines on a page…. I don’t read 70pages. I could but, I most certainly, wouldn’t be very atentive.
      The choices, for such a project are too random for me as well. I would follow projects, once I love an author, I would read it all.
      When I look back when I had more time, I did that.
      Even now, when I happen to have afew days off and not much planned, I stop after many books for a while to process them.

  4. I looked at the list of books on her website. It looks like she choose mostly shorter novels. Still, I second what Emma wrote about attentive reading.

    • Exactly, she has to stick to short books, under 300pages. The funny thing is that often novellas and short stories demand far more attention.
      You could choose to read a play per day but even that, I think would be demanding.

  5. I’ve heard a lot about the book and your balanced review has made me want to read it at once as I love books about books.

    I’ve read Burger’s Daughter from your list. Didn’t really enjoy it but then I find Gordimer, heavy-duty as it is, so…

    • Thanks for that. I read something about it by now and thought that’s not for me at the moment, Gordimer seems to be a bit on the unwieldy side.
      I hope you will enjoy the book. Maybe I expected slifhty more but it cheered me up a lot. And I liked her enthusiasm for reading.

  6. wow…one book in a day, I could never do such thing…not even a book a week :(
    Well, I think for me apart from working, it’s impossible to do because I also have another passion which is movie.

    Good luck with your own project…My project is only reading all SK books if possible

  7. Even if you have an awesome reading speed, could you actually absorb a whole novel in one day? maybe some really light and frothy books, but some of the titles you mentioned would just be slaughtered if someone tore through them at breakneck.

    • Slaughtered isn’t a bad word, I thought so to but she really didn’t do much else. She read far over 6hrs per day. The speed 70pages/hr is quite fast. I can only do that – and even more – when i start to read diagonally. I’m good at that but do not enjoy the books I read like this.

  8. I don’t know. Yes,I also love projects like this, even though I am bad at following through, but this one is especially ambitious. One novel a day? How can you keep that up? What novels? Only 120 pages ones? Doesn’t she have any other life? If I wanted to read one novel per day for a year I would have to give up any other activity including work and taking care of my family. It sounds just unrealistic to me. And unless the novels are complete fluff, how can you take them in? Don’t they just turn into a blur?
    So, with this specific project I am not too impressed.

    • I get you, it sounds crazy and I personally wouldn’t want to do it because I hate forcing myself. She had to put herself under some pressure. She still made it, the blog proves it. The books were all under 300pages. She has four little boys but she didn’t work. The books weren’t that fluffy.
      She was just constantly reading and staying awake long hours.
      The way she describes it, it was far better that staying stuck in grief and guilt, wondering why she lived while her sister died.

      • I had a look at her blog after I wrote my comment and saw her advice, like read while eating, while waiting, while vacuuming, instead of vacuuming. Talk about obsessed. Maybe I am too harsh, but that sort of self-absorbed dealing with grief (and she certainly was not the only one feeling that grief) makes me sort of angry. It is not that her project didn’t affect other people. After all she has a family with four kids (no idea how she managed that).

        • There is one episode in which she invites her step-daughter who is grieving over a lost love and they go to wathx some game. she was reading almost through the whole game and before it started… I don’t think I would have been as tolerant as others facing such behaviour.
          I really don’t know how she did it. The boys were not tiny anymore.
          I don’t think you are too harsh. I’m not a multi-tasker, I believe in doing one thing at a time. I couldn’t vacuum, not even eat while reading.

  9. I’ve been humming and haaing over this one since it came out. I feel sort of attracted to the premise, but I fear it’s too artificial, too much of a constructed project with an eye to a blog and a possible book beyond it. But as you say, better that than wallow in grief. Although I think grief is there for a reason and needs to be attended to, if there is to be any sort of proper recovery. So I go backwards and forwards on this one! I should look at it in a bookstore and read a little, to get a feel for the prose.

    • Litlove, it’s entertaining but it does lack a bit in substance as she put in a lot of different things. Focussing more one the one or the other would have worked better for me, still it’s so cheerful, I found it quite uplifting.

  10. Wonderful review, Caroline! I also loved reading the conversations in the comments. I liked what Emma said – that it is difficult to read Proust and Trollope and Dickens, if one tries to read a book a day. I also liked what litlove said – that it looked like a constructed project. But I also like the fact that inspite of the distractions of life, Nina Sankovitch. ploughed along and accomplished her project. Though she read mostly books under 300 pages, she seems to have read some wonderful books. I can’t believe that she read Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ in a day, though. It is a book which deserves better. I am glad to see that on your ‘TBR’ list :) It is one of my alltime favourite books and a book which I want to read again. Hope you enjoy reading it. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. The Harry Mulisch book also looks interesting. When I asked my Dutch friend sometime back to recommend a few Dutch authors and novels (because I haven’t read any Dutch authors), the first writer she recommended was Harry Mulisch. Hope you enjoy his book too.

    It is quite impressive that Nina Sankovitch read around 70 pages an hour, consistently. I can read like that for maybe a few hours (I think the peak reading speed I ever recorded of myself was around 100 pages an hour), but it is difficult to sustain day-after-day and week-after-week. I feel burnt out after reading like that for a few hours. These days I try to read more slowly and allow the words and the sentences to come to me rather than pushing myself hard and trying to reach them and move on to the next sentence and paragraph. I find that waiting for the words and sentence to come to me gives me more pleasure. Yesterday I was reading a comic and I read it slowly and gazed at the pictures in my own time and I could see a lot of subtle things which the writer and the illustrator have done to the story. One of the scenes made me laugh (it is a thriller and so that is quite a unique thing what the writer has done) and another scene gave me a lot of pleasure, because the illustrator has really focussed on the details and made them quite interesting. I think it won’t be possible to see these subtle details and take pleasure in them, if one reads even a comic at breakneck speed.

    Thanks for the wonderful review! I really enjoyed reading your review and the comments.

    • I forgot to say one more thing. I was wondering who this mysterious writer ‘SK’ was :) Then I went and checked Natalie’s blog and discovered his true identity. I think SK’s novels, though they are quite thick chunksters, are also page-turners and one is able to finish them quite fast. But yes, I don’t think it is possible to finish them in one day – definitely not the recent ones, which are all thousand-page-tomes.

      • There are few page-turners I know of which could be read very fast but more than 500pages in one day? I doubt it. I can read 400 relatively easily when it’s very gripping but waht Nina Sankovitch did wasn’t only doing it in one day, she had to keep on doing this for a year. I could do it one day, but the next I’d like to do something very different.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I’m glad you liked it. It’s one of those books that may be dubious for some reasons or not a 100% what I was hoping for stil it was worth reading it as it’s interesting to think about it and discuss it.
      She mentiones that she had a hard time understanding the first 50 pages of babery as it was complex… After your comment I’m even more astonished hse read it in a day.
      I don’t want to do that at all. Not even novellas or shorter books. I had to speed read at university, where I frequently read 400 pages in a day but it is exhausting. If you don’t work at all it may be feasible to speed up.
      Still. IT’s aproject and it’s amazing she did it and I’m glad she wrote about it too.
      I think the grief angle didn’t come out properly in my reveiw. It is very important. She wants to be able to read her sister’s books and the authors she loved, something she wasn’t capable of doing anymore.
      Mulisch must be an outstanding author. Iris will do another Dutch Literature Month this year. Maybe June. last year she hosted a Mulisch readalong. I’m keeping some Dutch authors for then.
      Comics are generally underestimated. It’s not only about reading the dialogue bubble. There is a lot in the picturesas well and it’s great to look at them carefully. I haven’t read a comic for a long while but I got Neil Gaiman’s Sandman here…

  11. That’s quite a lot to read in one year and having to go through a book a day would feel too much like homework for me.
    I want to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Never heard of On Kindness but the title makes me want to read this one, too.
    I strongly recommend Little Bee, it’s a truly amazing book, it has humour and sadness well balanced and I found it incredibly emotional.

    • It does feel like homework, doesn’t it? It did make sense for her in the end it helped her overcome her grief as she seemed stuck and helped her understand and explore her family history.
      Thanks for the comment on Little Bee. I was always in two minds about it. The reviews were good but before reading Tolstoy and the Purple Chiar I had no clue what it was about. I will make sure to read it.
      I ordered “On Kindness”. I like many of the books Sigrun reads and recommends, so I’m sure it is safe to say I’ll like it.

  12. Sounds a bit fake to me. I’m not keen on people who decide to do something then publish a book about it. Fine, you read a book a day for a year. Now go and do something else…

    • I get you but I think she must have been asked to do it as her blog – reading Stu’s – comment must have been a success and someone saw it and liked it.
      This is the back story to the blog and the reading year.

  13. Pingback: Ein paar Gedanken zu Nina Sankovitchs Tolstoi und der lila Sessel | Schönheit ist eine schlafende Katze

  14. I’m such a slow reader (even on books I am totally absorbed in and fly through my pace is still very slow) that I can’t imagine reading a book a day. Maybe a short story a day I could manage! :) I’d heard of this book but hadn’t gotten around to looking at it. It sounds like it’s worth a perusal at least–and I imagine you might well end up with some interesting books to look for later.

    • I have my slow and my fast days but I enjoy it much more when I can take my time.
      I really enjoyed reading it for several reasons, it’s a quick read and I’m glad for some of the book discoveries.
      I started to read her blog now and do like it.

  15. Pingback: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch | Iris on Books

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