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



Harper (June 2011)

ISBN:  978-0061999840

256 pp.


When Nina Sankovitch lost her oldest sister, Ann-Marie, to bile duct cancer at the age of forty-six it left a hole in her life so huge she thought nothing could ever fill it. Sankovitch, a wife and the mother of four boys, reacted to her loss by immersing herself in life, joining too many committees, being the perfect mom – active in her sons' school and other committments – generally keeping herself too exhausted to stop and grieve. Not an uncommon way to handle grief, not that there's a common way everyone chooses. Each person chooses his or her own way to deal with loss, whether it be death, divorce or anything one cares about deeply, then has taken away. For Nina Sankovitch, her choice was living a frantic existence.

After a time this way of living began to take its toll; she realized she had to make some changes to her life before she wore herself down completely. Being a life-long avid reader  – a trait she'd shared with her entire family, including Anne-Marie – she hit upon the idea of reading a book a day for a year, not just reading them, but reviewing them, as well. So she set up a blog,, posting her reviews, meeting other readers, and keeping a virtual diary of one year's worth of daily reading.

The books she read had to fit certain criteria: she couldn't repeat authors, the books had to be at least one inch thick, and they needed to be the sorts of books she'd have shared with Anne-Marie, were she still alive. Some of the books came from the library, some from her favorite independent bookstore, and there were some recommendations friends loaned her. And all of them, when possible, needed to be read while sitting  in her favorite purple reading chair, one that smelled like cat urine. Because this was where she loved to read, where she felt comfortable, and it just felt right.

All told, the list of the 365 books she read (listed at the back of her book) are richly varied, everything from collections of short stories to novels to works of nonfiction, from Toni Morrison to Nick Hornby to, naturally, Tolstoy, and so many more.

Within the space of her book she couldn't, of course, talk about every book she read between October 2008 to October 2009. She hits the highlights, weaving in stories about her parents and sisters, as well as her husband, sons, and the brother-in-law left behind when Ann-Marie died. We're taken along with her on a 365-day journey toward coming to terms with the acceptance of her loss, a realization it wasn't her fault her sister died and she lived on, that there was life after loss, and times of joy she should never feel guilty about.

The book is, though it may sound strange to say it, an absolute joy. We've all experienced some sort of loss, and dealt with it in ways positive and negative. Nina Sankovitch first dealt with her loss negatively, then turned her energy around to something positive she could feel good about and also share with other readers who came upon her website. Her book is an extension of her project, a way to reach out to more readers and those who grieve. And it is pure magic.

Anyone who loves books and reading cannot fail to love Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. Nor can you finish the book not wanting to read all the books she talks about, all the books on her list of 365. Her list is a gift to you, the reader, another kindness passed along through means of a loss, a way of finding redemption, of a sort, for a sister lost but not forgotten. Through this book Sankovitch shares a little of her sister, a singular way of expressing her love over and over again by reaching out to other readers. A must-read for all book lovers.

[Thank you to Amazon for my free review copy of this book.]



Visit her website to learn more about Nina.



6 thoughts on “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

  1. Tried commenting a few mins ago, and my computer freaked out, so let’s try this again.
    WOW! Just wow. What a beautiful gift to come out of such a sorrowful situation. Thanks so much for another great review (always). I must get my hands on this one.


  2. what a pretty cover — and I love the idea of this, but then realize I’d rather just read the books myself…..maybe someday I’ll read one of these memoirs.


  3. Rebecca, if I remember I’ll copy her reading list and give it to you at the MB discussion. It’s a pretty interesting list. Most of these I’ve never heard of.
    I love books about books, books about reading, books about librarians… Ah, sigh! So, so much to read.


  4. Nina Sankovitch here. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and lovely and wonderful review! I am so pleased that you understand how important it was for me to pass on to others the beauty that was my sister — and always is my sister — and the story of our family, bound together by our love for each other and for books. Read on!
    Nina Sankovitch


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