Nina Sankovitch reached the end of her strength when her sister, Anne-Marie, died at age 46 of a rare, unexpected and ruthless bile duct cancer.
Anne-Marie and Nina hadn't shared some things in life. Children, for instance: Nina had given birth to four, while Anne-Marie, a successful art expert, had chosen to focus on her career instead.
But the Sankovitch sisters (Natasha completed the trio) always had bonded over reading, a facet of life -- don't call it a pastime, or a mere hobby, around this author -- that meant everything to them growing up in Illinois. Traditions, foods and manners in their immigrant family, channeled through their Belarus-descended parents, typically differed from those of mainstream America. Sankovitch's rich descriptions of such a home surely will resonate in many Buffalo-area families, where windows into ethnic cultures, provided by grandparents, if not parents, were both blessings and burdens.
"We had plenty of friends, but my sisters and I felt like aliens most of the time," Sankovitch writes. "Our family was different from other families. Our house had more books, more art and more dust than anyone else's. We had no relatives living close by, no grandparents for the holidays, no aunts for baby-sitting, no cousins to play with. We were the only kids in the whole entire Midwest who had sliced green peppers and hard red pears packed alongside the more ordinary white-bread sandwiches and Twinkies."
In this atmosphere, books became everything to the Sankovitch sisters -- more important than school, sports, socializing, boyfriends, jobs. Books were air and water to the circle of young women from their earliest years, into adulthood. "Books were a part of my family's life, present in every room and read every night by both parents, to themselves and to us," Sankovitch writes.
So when Anne-Marie suddenly sickened with a tumor in her intestines, Nina found herself carting bags of books -- not flowers or greeting cards or balloons -- to her sister's bedside.
And, after Anne-Marie's death, her younger sister found herself burying herself in mountains of books to ease her pain.
This debut memoir, "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair," is Nina Sankovitch's account of one year in the aftermath of her sister's death. In 2008, as both task and hearts ease, the author set herself the goal of reading one full book every day for an entire year. She also would write about the books in an online blog. The "purple chair" part of the title comes from the place where Sankovitch did most of her reading: a worn, faded purple armchair in a little-used room on the first floor of her Connecticut home. (The subtitle of the book is an homage to an earlier memoir of grief, Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking.") As Sankovitch writes, books were her escape during this terrible time and her way to attach meaning to her loss of a beloved sibling:
"My book reading would be a discipline," she writes. "I knew there would be pleasure in my reading, but I needed to hold myself to a schedule as well. I couldn't have my escape if I didn't make books my priority."
Sankovitch's account -- and yes, she does provide the full list of her year's worth of volumes as an appendix to the text -- works well because she uses her reading list to jump off into topics that are tangential, yet intriguing and often important. Such as: why we bring certain books to people in sickbeds, but not others; why we read mysteries and thrillers, especially when we are going through stressful times; and why books shared with siblings in particular are so very meaningful to us.
"The giving of books between sisters offers much less risk of exposure or rejection than between friends," the author writes. "There is both less to hide and less to lose."
Sankovitch's book falls short in certain places, as is to be expected in most fledgling efforts at memoir. She edges out into parsing questions of God, immortality and eternity, but then falls back on simple conclusions about how the dead live on in our memories alone, which may be enough for those who have loved them. And some parts of the book are repetitive, as though a final round of trimming and streamlining was needed for the manuscript but not completed.
Overall, though, "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair" rises above its conceit and makes us think, and grieve, with its author. Not bad for a first effort -- and a fitting tribute to a dear sister gone too soon.
Charity Vogel is a Buffalo News reporter.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading
By Nina Sankovitch
Harper236 pages, $24