Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Sankovitch, Nina. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my life (as I recently emailed Friend-Not-Husband Bob), decided to do one of its periodic imitations of hell. We received a call from Bob's brother Peter telling us he was in the intensive care unit of the Stamford Hospital in Connecticut. We knew he had been bitten by a couple of ticks two weeks prior; that, not feeling well, he had gone to the doctor on Tuesday to be checked for lyme disease; and that she had immediately sent him to the emergency room when she saw his condition, mostly because he was very short of breath. We are, basically, Peter's only next of kin. Bob has no other siblings; both his parents are dead; and Peter never married or had any children; and he lives alone, in what was his parents' house. It was important for us to be there for him.

To make a long story short, Bob found someone to cover for his Thanksgiving Eve church service, and we raced up from Pennsylvania to Connecticut (as much as anyone can race, packing up, for an indefinite amount of time, two humans, two cats, and a dog and traveling the New Jersey Parking Lot Turnpike the day before Thanksgiving). By the time we got to the hospital, Peter had been intubated. Soon, thereafter, he suffered acute renal failure. He did not have lyme disease. He had ehrlichiosis, which is another tick-borne infection that systematically attacks all the muscles and all the organs in the body. It's supposedly extremely rare, although we've subsequently discovered that Peter's neighbors' dog had it. Also, it isn't always so severe. Peter's case was complicated by the fact that he lost his spleen when he was in a car accident back in his twenties, so his immune system is compromised. Typically, the infection is treated on an outpatient basis with antibiotics.

We got back to Peter's home Wednesday night completely exhausted. All I wanted to do was eat the takeout food we'd bought and then crawl into bed with a good book. I'd brought a couple of books with me, but somehow, nothing appealed, so I went searching through boxes of books that Peter, who works for a company that displays books for publishers at trade shows and gets many books free, had in what his parents called "the pool room." Most of these are thrillers and mysteries, which seemed like good fare for the circumstances, but then I realized that he also, inexplicably, because I can't imagine his ever reading it, had a copy of Nina Sankovitch's Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. I grabbed it, and a couple of mysteries, and headed up to bed.

I have to admit that I started with a mystery (Michael Malone's First Lady -- top notch!). Sankovitch's book had caught my attention. I'd read about it in the blogosphere and Goodreads.com (mixed reviews) and had come across it at my favorite bookstore in Maine, but I wasn't overly eager to read it. I knew the premise: Sankovitch used books as therapy to help her deal with her sister's untimely death, spending a year reading a book a day. She wrote about each one on her blog, which I've skimmed, but I'm not a faithful reader. Her year was something that sounded both extremely exhausting and extremely fun to me. The exhausting part was what made me a little hesitant. A slow reader like I am could never take on such an enterprise. Also, we all know how good I am at writing daily blog posts.

Despite my hesitancy, I took it along the next day to the hospital and was hooked from the moment I read the first paragraph. Her Prologue is about the day she made the decision to read one book every day for a year. She was on a weekend getaway with her husband, and she read Dracula -- one of my favorite books -- in a day. Her description of doing so was a real page-turner (complete with such things as missed dinner reservations), and I realized this was going to be a great book -- funny, poignant, real -- to get my mind off the horror going on around me.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is supposed to be a roundup of that year (after all, she's already written reviews of all the books), but it's actually much more than that, and little did I know what therapy it would actually be for me while I sat for hours at the hospital, listening to doctors and nurses and hoping and praying that Peter would be okay. Sankovitch's rich writing captures the way reading is such a part of the lives of those of us who have been obsessed with books since before we could even read. The book is like a memoir told through the books she's read since she was a child, what they have meant to her, what they have taught her. She focuses specifically on this particular year (Oct. 2008 - Oct. 2009) but expands details to encapsulate her whole life. As our stay in Stamford began to drag on (I'm still here), I said to Bob at one point, "One of the things I miss most is our books," which would be a silly thing to say to a non-reader. I mean, I had plenty of books to read, but Bob understood. My statement marked me as a perfect audience for Sankovitch's story: a reader who thinks of books as friends, just like Sankovitch does, and who gets great comfort from being surrounded by those friends, even if she isn't necessarily engaged with them. The books around me right now are virtual strangers, many of which I have no desire to get to know.

Another plus for this book is that Sankovitch happens to live in Westport, CT. I worked in Westport for 11 years. When she described the Westport Public Library, one of my favorite lunch-time haunts, I could envision it. She even, in her Acknowledgments, thanks one of the librarians who served on a library advisory board for me. She takes the train into NYC. I know that commuter train well. She talks about walks along the river that I used to walk along. All of this familiar turf was comforting. Not only could I relate to her relationship with books, but I could also relate to her setting. Finally, I could relate to the fact that she's a third daughter.

Peter is now well on his way to making a full recovery. At this point, I am dying to go home. As much as I love Connecticut and all my friends here, it is no longer home. I don't have a routine here. I don't have my kitchen here or my aforementioned book friends. I'm hoping he'll be out of rehab this weekend and able to care for himself, by which point I will have been here for over two weeks. Meanwhile, I've been both comforted and inspired by Sankovitch. No, I don't plan to read a book and write a blog post a day, while running a household in which she and her husband have four boys. It helps that she reads about 70 pages an hour, which is almost twice the speed at which I read. I wouldn't want to have to limit the books I choose to read to a certain number of pages. But I've definitely been inspired to stick to a new reading and writing schedule I've set for myself (it was meant to be a New Year's Resolution, but I started it on Dec. 1 instead of Jan. Always a good idea to get a head start). I'm very sad for her that she lost her sister at such a young age, but we are fortunate that she took that sorrow, took on this project, and turned it into such a delightful, thought-provoking book. If that's not inspiring, I truly don't know what is.


Kailana said...

I have been curious about this book since it came out. I will have to give it a read at some point.

litlove said...

Oh Emily! I saw your message on facebook when Peter first fell ill. I am so sorry that your family has been put through this trauma and so relieved to know your brother-in-law will make a full recovery. I cope very badly indeed in these sorts of circumstances and would be absolutely yearning for my books and my home long before the fortnight mark was passed! I'm so glad you found a book that kept you firm, supportive company through these difficult weeks, and here's hoping you can come home very, very soon. Sending hugs.

Emily Barton said...

Kailana, you won't be disappointed.

Litlove, thanks so much for your good wishes and hugs. Peter is doing very, very well and is expected to be able to be by himself by this Friday, so I get to head home on Saturday. Yea! Meanwhile, I highly recommend getting a copy of this book for the next time you're going through a difficult period. It's really great solace for a reader.

Stefanie said...

So sorry to hear about Peter's illness. How scary! Glad he will be making a full recovery. I know what you mean about missing your books. They are such a comfort, aren't they? I was mixed about the Sankovitch book when I read it, but it seems that it found you at a perfect time. Amazing how books can do that.

Anonymous said...

Comfort books like that are a blessing. I'm so glad to hear that Peter's on the mend.

Danny said...

I'm so glad your brother-in-law is on the mend. And I have to get Nina's book. I took a bunch of classes with her fantastic mom, Tilde Sankovitch, who taught French literature at Northwestern when I was there. I loved her.

knitseashore said...

My jaw dropped when I read about Peter not having a spleen. The same thing happened to my friend Sue, the tick infection and then being hospitalized because she does not have her spleen either. But she is completely better, and I am so glad to hear that Peter will be too. Christmas will be extra special this year for all of you.

Books are essential to survival. I do not know what I would have done had I not had them during Hurricane Irene, or the loss of my cat, or any of the other stressful things that have happened lately. I always need a stack nearby, just in case, so I'm glad Peter had something handy for you when your own book-friends were not nearby.

Emily Barton said...

Lilian, yes, a real blessing, and Peter is very much on the mend, much to everyone's relief.

Danny, how cool that you had Nina's mom. You'll like the book, I'm quite sure (would have been a good thing for you and Kendall during your days in the NICU).

Ms. Knits, how weird that we both know someone who got this very rare disease and that neither of them has a spleen. Peter is doing much, much better, but I warned him, because of your FB comment that it might be a long recovery. Books are most definitely essential to survival, one tiny step below food and water, huh?

Susan said...

Emily, somehow I missed this post, and I'm sorry I'm so late in coming here to say something. By now you're home and your brother in law is recovered, which I am very happy to hear about.

I've been hearing about this book too, and your review has convinced me that I do want to read it, very much.

I perfectly understand what you mean by needing to have your books around you, and how comforting they are. I think of them as my security blanket. I really like how you describe how the writer of this book goes back and forth in her history of reading to see how she has drawn comfort throughout her life from reading. Reading does sustain us book-lovers, doesn't it?

Wonderful post, Emily.