I’m a Reading Machine! Reviews of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair and Sarah’s Key

I apologize for my absence! I was overcome these last few weeks by a variety of New City Germs that like to follow me around for a year and make me sick every time I move. The good news about all of this ickyness is I got a boat load of reading finished! The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, and Roald Dahl’s The BFG in the first week, Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy, Madeleine L’Engle’s And Both Were Young, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, during the second, all knocked out of the park. That’s eight, count ’em, eight books. Take that, New City Germs! Also, it means I’m officially finished with my 52 books for the year! I will certainly hit the 60 book mark, probably more. I win, Marissa!

Other things that happened: Thanksgiving. It’s really hard to blog when your stretchy pants have failed you and you can’t get out of your chair. I suppose I could have had Tyler roll me to the computer, but he was similarly incapacitated, so we just wallowed in our over-stuffed bliss with our Bakersfield friends all around us and a smile on our gravy stained faces. Also, our internet is being lame, so I have limited use right now. I tried to blog on my phone, but typing more than twelve words on a touch screen at one time is probably the most annoying thing I’ve ever done. Ever. But here I am at last! And hopefully here I’ll stay. I hate to admit it, but I’ve missed you knuckle heads. 🙂

I picked up Tolstoy and the Purple Chair late this past summer. I read the Prologue and first chapter siting in the aisle of Barnes and Noble, and purchased it thinking I would devour it that weekend. Obviously, that didn’t happen. I’ve tried to read it several times, and each time I’d inch a little further through it, loving what I was reading but never getting very far. The timing was never right. Non-readers might think this sounds crazy, but reading a book is a lot like a relationship: you might be a perfect fit, but you’ve got to get the timing right. The right thing at the wrong time is still the wrong thing. So I put it back on the shelf, and I waited. And then, last week, the time came.

“The purpose of great literature is to reveal what is hidden and to illuminate what is in darkness.” Nina Sankovitch

Nina is a former lawyer, the mother of four boys, a life-long reader, and the creator of ReadAllDay.org. After the death of her eldest sister, Nina spent a few years trying to help her sons, parents, and younger sister navigate the waters of grief before finally tending to her own wounded soul. Her balm of choice? Books. She decided to read one book each day for a full year, and along the way she learned life-changing truths, and discovered that literature is not only great therapy, it is a medium that draws all people together.

I really enjoyed going on this journey with Nina. I did have to stop a few times because she does deal heavily with the passing of her sister, Anne-Marie, and there were moments where I just needed to give my mind (and my heart) a break. But overall I loved getting to know her family, to learn about her four young men, so full of life, and her father, who has endured well despite the death and destruction he witnessed in Belarus during WWII, and the admirable Anne-Marie, who even when she was staring her own mortality in the face was able to ask, “For who could end in despair when there is such beauty in the world?”

I love that Sankovitch places so much importance on reading. In a world that seems to increasingly think it’s just disposable entertainment, it’s sometimes hard to articulate why reading is just as vital to my inner life as love and family and friends and faith and prayer. But Nina articulates so well the way literature makes life clearer, how the experiences and feelings of other make your own feelings and experiences fall into place, and how looking back at history allows us to move forward. As Nina puts it,

“Books are experience, the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfillment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me when I read in my purple chair. I have never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.”

Through her year of reading she learns how to keep her sister’s memory alive, the true function of love as a sustaining force in our lives, how to begin letting go of her boys as they grow, the way memories-our own and those of others- gird up our spirits for the things to come, how to process her grief, and how to understand the different griefs of her family members. And as I read along with her, I learned too.

I too have lost loved ones. Thankfully not my dearly beloved only sibling, but I have lost three of my four grandparents as an adult. You expect to lose grandparents, but you never think of what kind of hole it will leave gaping in your heart. Grandparents are constantly on the periphery of your life from the first day, and then suddenly you look out of the side of your eye, and there is emptiness. You also never stop to consider the pain you will experience as you watch your parents, two of the people you love most in the world, struggle with the pain of their irrevocable loss. For the first time I considered that I too would someday feel the same searing pain, that someday my parents would die as well. Though I believe I will see them all, my parents and my grandparents, again, it is a sobering thought none the less.

Besides the comradery I felt over our shared griefs, this was the biggest thing I took away from this book: no matter what genre you’re reading, no matter the deference in gender, circumstances, nationality, profession, religion, or age between yourself and the author, the protagonist, or the friend who loaned you the book, all humans draw from the same well of emotions. There, at our community well, we can find commonality and discover that we are never truly alone. And you don’t have to be grieving or sad to find the truth here. Nina said it best when she said,

“I am connected to the rest of humanity, not through a giant shared karma, but through our diverse experiences and yet common emotions. By the size of our hearts.”

I have a heart swimming with pain and joy and desire and annoyance, a zest for experience and a longing for love and approval, and I alternately revel in those things and struggle against them. But it makes them all the sweeter, or more bearable, depending on the day, knowing that I can travel anywhere in the world and find those same things growing in the hearts of others.

It was with all this in mind that I read Tatiana de Rosnay’s best seller, Sarah’s Key. In a moving portrayal of the city of Paris and its costly connections to the Holocaust, de Rosnay parallels the lives of Sara Starzynsky, a Jewish girl whose family was rounded up by the French Police in the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, aka the Vel d’Hiv Roundup, and sent to a concentration camp, and Julia Jarmond, a modern-day journalist assigned to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv, who ends up uncovering more of Paris’ torrid past than she bargained for.

Aside from my total fascination with WWII, this book hit home as a proof of what Nina Sankovitch had been insisting all throughout Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: we are not merely products of a hazy, distant past, we interact with history, it affects who we are on a deep level whether we care to recognize it or not. There is so much for to learn from the past, so much we can take away from the stories of others that will help us lead better lives if we dare to absorb it. I realized while reading this book that I had read so many accounts of heinous acts committed during the Holocaust or the apartheid in South Africa and other similar times of terror that I am no longer deeply affected by them. I’ve become so used to the evil present in the world that I have put up a shield so the grief of others can’t get to me as easily, and that is wrong. The past is an excellent teacher, and, like Julia, I want to be the kind of person who stands face to the wind, even if it hurts, and learns all I can from it.

Aside from that, Sarah’s Key was a good, but not great, read. I loved the historical aspect of the story, and the way the two women’s lives interacted and wove together to form two end of the same thread. But there were parts of the story that didn’t deal with the main plot, such as Julia’s troubled marriage and moral dilemmas, that I was not such a fan of. I understand that love is not always Disney perfect, that sometimes Prince Charming rescues you in a sweepingly romantic gesture only for you to discover later on that he’s somewhat of a cad, you’re not the only princess in his castle, and he’s a mama’s boy who doesn’t pick up after him self. But this imperfect ending felt unnecessary, jarring, and  surprisingly cynical for an author who claims that the marriage in the book is not even remotely autobiographical. Maybe I just don’t understand the humanistic Parisian attitude on display here. Maybe I’m just tired of authors forgetting to mention that sometimes (at least half the time, if we’re getting statistical) marriage works out, and love, though not easy, does get to win, but I didn’t like the unsettling nature of this subplot at all. That being said, the story as a whole is good enough that it’s outweighs the bad. It is well written, fast paced, and is inexplicably captivating. In fact, I sat down to begin and read 238 pages before I realized that I was hopelessly cramped because I hadn’t moved in over three hours, so I give it four out of five stars despite my displeasures.

I still have six books to catch you up on, so I will most certainly be back tomorrow to with all that jazz. Also, I’ve decided to do a little experiment. My job hunt is currently on hold because of the holiday season, and I was intrigued by Nina’s challenge to read a book (and then review it on her blog) every day. She claimed to be able to read 70 pages per hour, which allows her to read an average length novel (250-300 pages) in approximately four hours.  This seemed fast to me, so I decided to time myself for a few hours and see how I fared. In the first hour I read 66 pages, the second 72, and the third 59 (there would have been more, but I ended up crying, so that took up some time). So maybe 70 pages isn’t such a speed-read after all. The point being that I decided to try it out, just for a week, to see what this life of reading is like. I don’t think it’s feasible for me to do it for a whole year, but if a mother of four teenage boys can do it for a year, surely I can do it for a week, right? So starting Monday, I will be reading a book a day for seven days, and I’ll also be reporting back on that alongside my catch-up reviews. Is anyone else out there jobless, or just bored, or just a crazy book lover who wants to join me? I’ll bake you cookies!…Maybe….If I know you and you live in the continental United States. I don’t want to be the creepy internt cookie lady.

6 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Books

6 responses to “I’m a Reading Machine! Reviews of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair and Sarah’s Key

  1. Ooh, I can’t wait!

    When I first arrived in Sicily, I was relying on reading as much as blogging to help me feel connected to the community well that you and Ms. Sankovitch describe so well. I was burning through about two books per week and I thought that was a good rate. 🙂 I believe I would really enjoy reading a book a day – so I look forward to hearing how you like/dislike it. Glad you’re feeling better.

  2. Now, I must get my hands on Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. Such a wonderful review!

  3. I have to read Tolstoy and The Purple Chair… what a fantastic review, am fascinated. I liked Sarah’s Key too, but didn’t love it. Enjoyed the historical part of it more, which is kind of my deal when I read books that go from Past to present.

  4. Sarah’s Key is on my wishlist, so I’m interested to see what I think once I get the book.

  5. Pingback: My 12 Favorite Books of 2011 | Lovely Little Things

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