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Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (Harper 2011) by Nina Sankovitch

Her Circle has been using the Goodreads.com feminist book list for inspiration for several years. At a recent meeting, we discussed developing our own feminist book list. Marina and I are working on this project. Since we want our list to be a living, growing thing and not be limited to the classics of the canon, we’re exploring recently published titles. As part of this effort, I just finished Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (Harper 2011).

The book is a memoir about a woman who immerses herself in family duties, volunteering and all sorts of activities to avoid the despair she feels when her sister, who was only forty-six at the time, dies from cancer. Nina, who describes a love of books and a family history of reading, has toyed with the idea of reading a book a day for a year. Within a few years of her sister dying, she realizes she is running from her grief and determines she will turn to books to find solace, meaning and in an effort to make some kind of peace with the seeming unfairness of her sister’s early death.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair contains a few “ouch” paragraphs where current feminist thought is concerned. At one point, the author describes her planning process to accomplish reading a book a day for a year, which includes ways to consolidate, enlist help for and shorten chores such as making dinner, helping with homework and keeping “clean underwear in every drawer.” I cringed reading that particular passage. “Why can’t her husband do all this stuff while she reads?” I asked the book. Then, “Her kids are teenagers, a few of them, right? Why can’t they cook?” All of this ends up happening as Sankovitch’s husband and children step in and handle household chores when necessary so that she can stick to her goal and meet it over the year. (Note: the author has not set out to write a feminist book, nor one that addresses poverty or privilege. She wants to share the story of how reading lessened her grief, how books brought her healing and how the words of others brought her peace. With this goal in mind, the book is for anyone who enjoys memoir, books about books or who faces the loss of a loved one.)

Ever aware of class issues as an undercurrent (and sometimes the elephant in the room) in feminism, I wasn’t sure what to make of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, at first. The author is clearly well-off enough to not have to work for pay, and in light of our current economic situation throughout the world, I admit I was a bit appalled when I considered the idea of someone taking hours out of her day to read books for an entire year. As I continued to read, I re-considered the nature of work for women and what I (and others) deem “valuable” or a “contribution.” As an exercise in challenging assumptions, the book would be a great one for a feminist discussion group!

On a related note, I heard a segment by Bill Littlefield on my local National Public Radio (NPR) station, WBUR. He spoke about the life of Myra Kraft, who was known mostly as the wife of a famous (American) football team owner. Littlefield met Mrs. Kraft at a charity event once, and his remembrance of that evening is eloquently recounted in his tribute to her. Her presence at this, and many other charity events, is what Mr. Littlefield stressed in his piece. He quoted a New York Times article about the extent of Mrs. Kraft’s active engagement with non-profit organizations, crediting her with changing the way philanthropic organizations and philanthropists interact.

Sankovitch’s book and the news about Mrs. Kraft forces me to ask questions for feminism to answer. Are all women “working” women? What is work? Is it merely what is done for pay? Is housework and childcare for our own homes and children work? Why do we value certain kinds of work over others? It is not just housework and childcare that seems under-valued, but also the work of women such as Mrs. Kraft? Is volunteering a “useful” and “valuable” way to spend one’s life? The author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair shares her reading by writing reviews of every book she reads in her book-a-day-for-a-year project. Is this work? Lastly, the underlying question is: who is qualified to answer these questions?


Kate Robinson
Kate Robinson, M.A. adult learning and development, is a Master's in Social Work candidate at Bridgewater State University. She lives south of Boston with her family. Kate enjoys writing, reading, collage and felting. She also works in medical education and as a counselor at a women's health clinic.
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  • Kate Robinson

    Jennifer: You are welcome! You are exactly right that caretakers, stay at home moms or dads, are never “thanked.” I have often lamented the dual nature of this. When our kids are magnificent, for example, everyone from teachers to grandparents praises the child and his or her brilliance. The parents are never credited as a good portion of the foundation of a child’s “greatness.” The opposite is also true. When children have behavioral issues, parents often hear the blame. Our society needs to value the role of parents and then the respect follows naturally. The media regularly pits men and women against one another and women against women, as well. Thus divided, we will never conquer what should be a universal respect for the raising of children.

  • Jennifer O. (@litendeavors)

    Thanks for this post. You got me to write a post on sahms, the validation we seek from those whose opinions we cherish, and the regrets we end up having at the end of the day.

    I, too, was more than a little horrified when I thought about reading a book a day and posting a review. I tried to do this and couldn’t string together more than a couple days of this. I had to worry about getting meals cooked, washing clothes, paying the bills, and making sure these kids didn’t tear each other to shreds. It is time consuming and leaves no room for anything else.

    Being a SAHM is hard work, is emotionally and physically draining, and I think one of the worst parts of it is that most times you aren’t even thanked for it. Your time is somehow worth less than the next door neighbor, who “has a job.” Even your daughters tend to look at you with something less than the respect that you think you deserve.

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