Book Three in the 13 in ’13 Reading Challenge: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Good morning! As you can see from the title of today’s post, I did in fact manage to get some reading done over the weekend, when I wasn’t bemoaning my lost hour (although I’m still not happy about that!) Today we’re talking about Book #3 in my Reading Challenge, which was “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading” by Nina Sankovitch.

I have mixed feelings about this one, guys. I wanted to love it, I really did, but instead I only … liked it. Most of the time. More on that in a moment. But first, here’s your spoiler-free synopsis!

After her beloved older sister dies of cancer, Nina Sankovitch tries to maintain her usual role of “the entertainer” and keep her entire family too busy laughing to mourn their loss. She also tried to schedule grief away by keeping everyone’s calendars – and minds – full to the max. But after a couple of years of running at this frantic pace, Stankovitch is completely burnt out. On her 46th birthday, she decides to dedicate an entire year to reading one book a day … when she’s not dealing with a husband, 4 boys, and a cat, that is.

Ok. First of all, can we talk about how totally inadequate this book made me feel? Here I was, thinking that I was taking on a great challenge by committing to reading 13 books in one calendar year … and Nina Sankovitch is taking on 365?!

365 books in 365 days?!?

I was (sort of ) kidding about that inadequacy thing. Reading this book actually made me feel quite sane, because, let’s be honest – it might make a great hook when you’re pitching the idea to your literary agent, but reading 365 books in one year is totally nuts. Which is partly what drew me to this novel in the first place – I was curious to see how Sankovitch would come across as a “character” herself.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Book #3, done.

During the year, Sankovitch reviewed each book that she read on the website, and the focus and insight that she needed to accomplish that is on display here – she offers concise, well-polished glimpses into each of the novels she reads. And I think that was part of my problem with this book. For someone utterly consumed by grief, she’s a little too well put together. Now, I know that’s what editors and proofreaders are for, but she didn’t always come across as genuine, to me. An unreliable narrator can really spice things up if you’re dealing with a first-person limited perspective in fiction (English major alert!) but it can be problematic when you’re talking about a memoir. I think I would have enjoyed her company a lot more if she had just let herself go once in a while.

As I mentioned in an earlier post about selecting the next book for my Reading

Cute guy reading

Well, hello there. I would love to have coffee with you, believe me, but I don’t need to hear about what you’re reading.

Challenge, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” is essentially a book about … books. It’s about other things too, of course; it’s about love and family and loss and it’s about the way that language can grab ahold of our souls, and the ways that we can use it to make sense of the world … but more often than not, you’re just reading about somebody who is … reading.

Which is, ultimately, what puts this book in the “like” column and not the “love” column for me. I loved when the author talked about how books are inextricably bound up with her childhood, and how different stories and chapters and even single words could evoke vivid, sensory memories of growing up with her sisters. And she had some really wonderful things to say about coming to better understand yourself by being introduced to other characters. As someone who treats fictional characters like close, personal friends (Elizabeth Bennet and I would so be BFFs) that really resonated with me. But when she spent entire pages talking about scheduling her reading around carpool and school lunches and still finding time to make love to her husband, well …

… I just wanted to go hang out with Elizabeth Bennet.

So there you have it! 3 books down, and 10 more to go, in the next 9 1/2 months.

Have you guys read any memoirs? Were they biographies or more in the “Eat Pray Love” style of “personal journey stories”? Did you enjoy them? I think that I’d like to continue in this vein and read a work of non-fiction next – any suggestions, please share them in the Comments!

And while I’m on the hunt for my library card, we’ll have Wordful Wednesday here tomorrow. I hope you’ll stop by!

love amb

14 thoughts on “Book Three in the 13 in ’13 Reading Challenge: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

  1. you might want to try Loving Frank by Nancy Horan.
    It is a novel about a woman and her relationship with the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

    • Ooooh, that sounds like it could be really interesting! Thank you for the suggestion, I’m going to check if that one is available on my e-reader!

  2. have you read Gone Girl yet? you really should (gillian frye). or “lean in” – i just bought it by accident on kobo and have zero interest… i’ll lend it to you for $15 (that’s a steal looks like i paid $16.95!)

    • Ooh, thanks! I’ve heard good things about Gone Girl, and it would be good to have a thriller/suspense novel on my list, for variety.

      Is “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg? I just Googled it and have even less interest in it than you … so I think I’ll keep my $15, thank you very much! 😛 Although I still think you should email the Kobo people, if you complain that their “website is misleading” enough they might let you make an exchange …

  3. Nicely done on the book review–you, my dear amb, are a Triple Threat: movie synopsis, book reviews, and that cake-in-a-mug thingie 🙂

    Appreciate your thoughts on the book. Memoirs need to be extremely well-written (or about food) to excite me–most seem to be navel gazing. Though I guess they’re also chances to live vicariously.

    Curious, did you like Eat. Love. Pray. ? I was one of the few that did not (save the Eat section–great descriptions of pasta) as it just seemed to be the main character whining about her life. My take.

    Nonfiction can be fun if it’s on a subject you like. Would you read movie peep bios etc? Or tales of how certain movies or TV shows were made?

    • amb the triple threat … I like the sound of that! Thanks Liz 😀

      Totally agree with you that memoirs can easily slide into navel-gazing territory. That’s exactly why I was so unimpressed with “Eat Pray Love” – I didn’t like it either! You’re not alone! I mean, the descriptions of food and exotic locations were lovely, but I got very tired of Gilbert and her “problems” very quickly.

      I would ABSOLUTELY read movie or television show bios! Right up my alley, for sure.

  4. Great book review Amb…I especially love, which will not surprise you, that you made a distinction between like and love. I exhaled a big sigh and thought, oh thank goodness, Amb was honest and now I can freely let this one go! 🙂 [I am still trying to finish season 2 of Homeland on my DVR!]

    I do have a book suggestion for you, if you haven’t read it already. It’s called:

    The Madman and The Professor: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

    It’s non-fiction but reads like fiction. I read it a few summers ago and loved it!

    Gone Girl was great and a total page turner..a good choice too!


    • Oh, Homeland is definitely a better use of your free time, for sure! I’d say this book is worth skimming through if you’re looking for recommendations for a book club, but otherwise, spend your precious free time on other things! 🙂

      I haven’t read that one and I’m totally hooked already, just from hearing that title! How fabulous. It sounds like it might be just the type of non-fiction I’m looking for for my next read!

      Considering how much we both loved “My Name is Memory”, I’m thinking I will love this selection of yours as well! I will see if I can download it to my e-reader when I get home tonight, and will keep you posted, xo.

      • Let me know what you think of the Madman/Professor and if it something you think you might read! I am down to the last 2 episodes of Homeland from Season 2…hoping to watch the last 2 before the week/weekend is past.

        Oh gosh, loved “My Name is Memory”…I sure hope she writes a follow up to the story, it just can’t end there! xo

      • I will, for sure! I told my mom about it last night and she thinks it sounds like a great read as well, so there you go. Your suggestions are followed by the entire family! 😀

        Ooooh, only 2 episodes left! I always have mixed feelings when I get to that stage of a series. On one hand, I really want to know how it’s all going to come together at the end. On the other hand, I really don’t want it to be over! I’ve been waiting since the fall for my new Dr. Who episodes and I still have over a month to go. Ahh! #toomuchtv #toomanyimaginaryboyfriends

        Yes!! We definitely need a follow up story! There’s so much more there to explore! xo.

  5. I also loved “The Madman and the Professor,” but then again, “Eat, Pray, Love” worked for me too. (I read it just as my marriage ended so I was definitely receptive to its messages). I just finished a great book called, “How Georgia Became O’Keefe: Lessons on Living.” It’s fascinating and the author, whose name escapes me, is hilarious. An entertaining and illuminating read.

    • That Georgia O’ Keefe book sounds like it would be awesome – I don’t have any humourous books on my list yet and have been looking to add one or two. I should have known you’d come up with something, since you’ve had so many great recommendations already. (I haven’t forgotten … I’m still waiting for my copy of “The Mistress of Spices” to come in at the library!) Thanks as always for the comment Sally!!

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