Saturday, July 02, 2011

Healing Through the Pages of Literature: Review of "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair - My Year of Magical Reading" by Nina Sankovitch

Nina Sankovitch was almost paralyzed with grief after losing her 43-year old sister to cancer. Having tried to solider on with her "normal life" for several years without experiencing much relief from the wound in her soul, she determined to deal creatively with her besetting grief by devoting a year of her life to reading books. Not just any books, but works that she felt that she and her sister would have enjoyed sharing together had not death snatched her companion away. She determined, with the support of her family, to read a book a day for 365 days. She would not only devour all of these books, but would reflect upon what she had read and how the words were speaking to her. She has graciously chosen to share these insights with readers in the form of her book, "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair - My Year of Magical Thinking." Sankovitch was clearly inspired in her subtitle by the title of the book that Joan Didion penned in the wake of her husband's death.

My love for reading and my awe at the prospect of reading a book a day for a year is what initially drew me to this memoir. What kept me turning the pages was the author's transparency and vulnerability in opening up her heart and her thought processes as she dove into the sea of words from hundreds of authors. The final product of her year are reflections that are insightful, moving and mesmerizing.

"I was ready - ready to sit down in my purple chair and read. For years, books had offered me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotonies and frustrations. I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience. Books would give me all that, and more. After three years of carrying the truth of my sister's death around with me, I knew I would never be relieved of my sorrow. I was not hoping for relief. I was hoping for answers. I was trusting in books to answer the relentless question of why I deserved to live. And of how I should live. My year of reading would be my escape back into life." (Page 31)

During her year of reading, Sankovitch found familiar themes returning - literary and emotional themes. She was also finding literary soul mates.

"Reading my book a day this year was clearing my brain the way my hard work had cleared the mess in my backyard. I had been caught in a bramble patch of sorrow and fear. My reading, sometimes painful and often exhausting, was pulling me out of the shadows and into the light. And I am not the only one clearing out weeds and poison ivy, or planting beauty, perennial flowers of hope. The world is full of us, digging and scraping, working for the day when the flowers come back like they are supposed to, blooming year after year." (Page 147)

In reflecting upon her reading of "The Laws of Evening" by Mary Yukari Waters, the author makes the following pithy observation:

"One of Waters's characters quotes a haiku by Mizuta Masahide, a seventeenth-century samurai and renowned writer of haikus. I seriously considered having the verse painted over our kitchen doorway:

'Since my house burned down/ I now own a better view/ of the rising moon.'

A better view: that is what I wanted my kids to have. Not to see the worst of what circumstances rendered for them in their lives, but the best. Resilience in the face of disappointment." (Page 172.)

That statement sums is up beautifully. All my reading and experience tell me that those who manage to succeed - and to soar - do so because of abiding and indefatigable resilience in the face of challenges and failures and disappointments. This gem of a book fuels that kind of resilience, and for that we owe the author a hearty word of thanks.

Enjoy - and reflect.


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