Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

One of the most buzzed-about books about books to come along in a good while is Nina Sankovitch's memoir, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading. Three years after the death of her sister, Anne-Marie, Sankovitch decides to read one book every single day in order to slow down her life and deal with her grief instead of running from it.

Grief is a complicated thing. When I picked up Tolstoy and the Purple Chair it was for the pure rush of excitement of picking up a book about books. However, the grief component in this book came into focus for me when I found out that a good friend of mine from my undergraduate days passed away. While we hadn't been in close contact in a good while, I still enjoyed keeping up with him on Facebook, the occasional exchange of a funny comment or a "How's life?" Even though we were removed from each other by miles and hectic lives, some little part of me was crushed to lose such a wonderful and influential friend. On top of that, he died a good while back, and I'm just finding out. How the hell did I not KNOW?! For that, I am regretful.

When I was 18 and a freshman in college, I moved out of my mom's house and lived on the campus of Baylor University in a dorm with 600 freshman girls (ack!).  I grew up in a small town of 1,200 in northeast Texas. I graduated with a class of 52. Baylor is made up of roughly 15,000 students and was slightly overwhelming.

On the whole, Baylor is a "privileged" environment. Lots of rich kids and upper-class families (celebs' kids, a prince even). I was one of the students who came from a single-parent home and depended on scholarships and work-study to get through. I started my on-campus job as a Student Technology Specialist on my third day there, and Mike was the first person I met. The group of students with whom I shared the campus computer labs would become like a family to me for my two years at Baylor. Mike was one of my favorite people. At a Baptist college, and having led a small town existence to that point, I was not expecting the first friend I made to be an openly gay atheist with 10 piercings.

But my God, he was so special. He was outgoing, more than a little hyper, funny, and one of the smartest people I've ever met to this very day. He never met a stranger, he could learn a new language in six weeks flat, and he was always a character. He accompanied me to my freshman formal dance where we scandalized the crowd with our dancing, and when I got my first apartment he showed up to christen the place with a box of wine. I woke up in tears in the middle of the night because I can't believe he's gone and I can't believe I didn't know.

Reading this book, I had the grief part covered. Of all the things Nina Sankovitch writes in her book -- and there are a great many wonderful things -- what I relate to most is the multi-faceted need she feels for books. She's looking for inspiration, insight, comfort, motivation, empathy. She's looking for authors she can relate to, who feel the same things, express them in ways she cannot.

That, friends, is a laundry list of the reasons why I read. Books allow me comfort and heightened insight, heightened experience. While I hadn't expected my own grief to sneak into my reading of this book, it most certainly did. While Mike and I did not have a bookish connection, we had a beautiful, fun, spirited friendship and this book allowed me to share some of the insight and solace Sankovitch experienced during her year of reading. Throughout my life, in the throes of personal tragedies and losses, I too turned to books with a deep need for some enlightenment. It was not at all painful to read Tolstoy and the Purple Chair but quite cathartic.

A few favorite passages:
When I was in high school, I began keeping a journal of favorite quotations from books. The purpose of the journal was to act as a vault. I wanted to save the words whispered in my ears by beloved authors, and store them up for the day when I would need to hear them again. As much as they had inspired me when I first read them, I could turn to them when needed and rekindle the inspiration. I hoped back then that by following the words, I would become stronger, wiser, braver, and kinder. The quotes I saved in my journal were the proof of, as well as guidance for, how I would meet any challenge and overcome difficulties. (111)
I received an e-mail from a man in New York City who had been doing research for a book club meeting and happened upon my review of The Sin Eater by Alice Thomas Ellis. Over the next few months he would become a regular correspondent, recommending books like The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy and Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. He and I, complete strangers, made a connection through our love of books. A reader reached out from Germany, the sister of a friend wrote from Brazil with recommendations of Brazilian writers, a woman wrote from Singapore, and I had a whole slew of British book lovers writing in with recommendations. There was a world of voracious readers out there, and they all had "must read" and "loved this" books for me. (105)
 I was right there with Bolsover on his search for understanding, rooting alongside him for a why and wherefore for death, and hoping that he might find relief from his agonizing pain of responsibility and, in finding this relief, show me a way to ease my own. Bolsover felt guilt as a clawing into his shoulder. I felt it closer inside me, a sharpness scratching hard against my heart. My still beating heart. Beating only by chance. The chance that felled my sister but kept me alive. (89)
Now, as much as I liked this book and as much as it landed in my life at the exact right time, it was not perfect. In a book all about coping with death and grief, things can get a little repetitive. I found it very easy to get lost in Sankovitch's rich turn of phrase, but it felt a little like she shoehorned some of her chapters to get them to fit with her overall theme. In some instances, I wished I was reading a book like Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris where the love of reading was allowed to exist on its own and not always circle back to death.

If you have an opportunity to try this book, I would wholeheartedly recommend it. For those who may be turned off by the subject of grief, I would still give it a go. There are a great many things to enjoy in this thoughtful examination of the reading life and the healing power therein.

Snuggle -- Skewer

Pub. Date: June 7, 2011
Publisher: Harper
Format: Hardcover
ISBN-10: 0061999849
Source: Library

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