Category Archives: Memoirs and Histories

Forgotten Books, Recovered Treasure

Pacing through the website of Forgotten Books, an online library with hundreds of thousands of titles, is like walking through the aisles of a favorite bookstore. I “open” one book, skim through, and alight upon certain lines that make my decision for me (yes, I want to read this book!) and that decision leads me to another turn down another aisle, and then another, and another, choosing and perusing books all along the way. Just like in a real and wonderful bookstore, Forgotten Books provides the adventure of opening doors (books! books!) that lead to greater and greater adventure, and more discoveries – and more books. If ever there were a source for fulfilling a bibliophile’s wildest desires, short of actually having feet planted in the world’s largest bookstore and hands reaching for volume after volume, Forgotten Books is it. It is the largest online library in the world, and offers free access to much of its website (and access to all of it at reasonable prices).

I went online to Forgotten Books in search of interesting letters – I am addicted to letters, as well as books – and a one-word search for “letters” led me within seconds to such interesting books as Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott, first published in 1830, and then onto Letters to My Son, written by William Gibson and published in 1917, and then, leaving letters behind I plunged into The Rosicrucians, Their Rites and Mysteries, by Hargrave Jennings, first published in 1907 and finally, to Travels in the Old World, by the Reverend J.M. Rowl, a marvel published in 1922.

Are you kidding me? Am I in heaven? Book heaven? I had sat down to my computer and my searching with a headache, head cold, and a fever. I rose up light as air and floating on sunshine. Okay, by bedtime I was back in a feverish state, shivering under blankets and hot water bottles, but at least I had plenty of reading material to keep me company. I had my downloaded forgotten but now recovere books, all of them found during my online treasure hunt. Was I looking for the Reverend Rowl? No, of course not. But how lucky I was to find him.

Not only can out of print and hard to find books be found on Forgotten Books, but images taken from many such books can also be viewed in their original state, with some 4 million images extracted from old books and available for viewing on the site. I searched for images of Wilkie Collins, and was thrilled to find his sweet old face, over and over, along with the designs imprinted on many of his first books. Searching doesn’t stop there, with images, but goes even further. There is the ability to chart the usage of every English language word throughout publishing history or to search for words or terms in the entire online selection. I could find 500,000 books related to a search term, 500,000 books – and each and every one of them available to me!

I am a stalwart fan of the printed page and I’d rather be in a bricks and mortar bookstore than just about any place on earth but this adventure – of reading books long out of print and difficult, if not impossible, to find – provides at-home access for finding books I never even knew existed. Online resources have their place – a wonderful, happy place – for fixing the addictions of book lovers everywhere. No matter where I am, or what time it is, or what state I am in (pajamas and slippers, Kleenex blotting my nose), Forgotten Books and its brethren provide a constant and beautiful feed to my need for books, all kinds and sorts of books. Addicted to books? Forgotten Books, and other online treasuries of long-gone books, will expand your universe and fulfill at least some of your desires.


Justified Paranoia

In Paranoia, Victor Martinovich has crafted a novel so real that the government of Belarus banned it two days after it was published in that country. It tells the story of two lovers, Anatoly and Elisaveta, who try to hide their affair in a state where nothing can be hidden; as paranoia sets in – are we or are we not being watched? – the fate of the lovers becomes sealed. We Americans have been given a light dose of surveillance paranoia over the past few months and some of the incidents in this book might sound scarily familiar (as well as the justifications: “the vigilance of one of the listeners made it possible to prevent a terrorist act…I am calm, for I know the right people are watching me”). Yet what we know of surveillance here at home is nothing compared to what is happening in Belarus. Shall we take Martinovich’s book as a warning?

There is paranoia, a clinical diagnosis of fearing the government is watching you, and then there is justified paranoia, when the government is watching your every move and you know it. Even worse, there is little you can do about it. And worst of all, the fear of being watched all the time just might drive you crazy. For those living in Belarus today, justified paranoia is a way of life. It can be dealt with by ignoring it (the government provides entertainments to preoccupy the body and mind), drinking it away (the government makes sure vodka is cheap and easily available), or by writing about it.

Martinovich has chosen writing. His book is an encompassing and moving exploration of how an unchecked political leader like Alexander Lukashenko, the permanently elected President of Belarus, can use weapons of surveillance and punishment, and yes, paranoia, to maintain power over a quavering populace. For how better to induce fear than to induce the fear of going crazy and being watched while doing so?

Not all of Belarus quavers however. There are artists, writers, and every day activists exercising their gifts of writing, performing, and demonstrating in order to expose the horrors of life under Lukashenko. Anyone who has seen the productions put on by the Belarus Free Theater will find many aspects of Paranoia reflected in the theater works of that brave (and banned) theater troupe.

Martinovich’s book is a true story mixed into a novel; it is an expose of a horrible regime presented through a love story and a mystery and an incisive, sometimes homely, sometimes funny portrait of a nation (picnics with “cut piles of cucumbers and tomatoes” – as the daughter of a Belarusian refugee, I was raised on such picnics). Martinovich uses the story of the two lovers – their intimate moments and special nicknames and secret meeting places and inside jokes – to show just what a terrifying violation it is when the government watches, listens, and documents every one of those intimate and special moments. The novel made me feel as if I were there; the reality exposed made me glad I am not.

“We’re shaking because they – oh what a terrible pronoun! – because they know everything. Because they can deprive us of our very selves. Because just by narrowing their lips during an interrogation, they can crush us. Because they see right through us and know what we’ll say next…”

The all-powerful dictator Muraviov (aka, Lukashenko) is the ultimate watcher, outdoing any Orwellian nightmare, and ultimate paranoia is the only outcome possible. Martinovich illustrates how subtly the paranoia begins (“the sight of your own reflection in glass behind which you were attempting to find something rational to explain your gut fears”) and then maneuvers into a deeper experience of it, as when the two lovers debate whether a chair was moved or a spoon replaced.

Does the fact that a gadget has gone inexplicably missing mean that someone is watching them? Guess what? It does. Welcome to justified paranoia. The bad news is that the next step is full-fledged insanity: “For everyone of my arguments [that I am not KGB], your paranoia will obligingly find ten counterarguments.” The lovers face off, with paranoia turning them from loyal to suspicious, and the rest is tragedy.

The English translation of Paranoia (with thanks due to Northwestern University Press and translator Diane Nemec Ignashev) includes an excellent introduction into the history of Belarus and the current regime of Lukashenko, making it easier for all readers to understand the story of Anatoly and Elisaveta. I trembled and shook while reading this novel, for I encountered the truth of a regime, and truth is stranger, and even more horrible, than fiction.

Time for Summer Reading

Time to read. Summer means many things — long days, hot weather, kids freed from homework, swimming pools and cool lakes and days at the seashore. Crickets (no locusts for us), fireflies, a rabbit in our front yard. Dinners cooked on the grill, lunches eaten in the yard, making homemade ice cream for dessert. Bike rides and kayak trips and maybe a baseball game.

And time to read. I have good work to do this summer (preparing my book on Letters, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, for its publication next spring and finishing up my book on poets) and housework (it never goes away, does it?) and I want to enjoy every moment I have with my kids. But I also want to read every day this summer for at least an hour a day. I spent a wonderful year reading hours a day, the year I read a book a day, but this summer, setting aside a full hour for reading is the commitment I can make. Days when I can read more, great! But every day I will make the space and find the place to read an hour a day.

I plan on reading some new books – Transatlantic, the new novel by Colum McCann, for sure — and I plan on rereading Brideshead Revisited, The Leopard, and a number of novels by Graham Greene. I will certainly read some mysteries and I know that my monthly book chats at Westport Public Library will inspire me with recommended books to read.

SO wish me luck, fellow book lovers, and I send the wishes back to you. May you find the time and discover all the joys of summer reading! I’ll be reporting back on great stuff I’ve read, and please let me know what’s been good for you. Read on!

Letters Between Father and Son

I have read many, many collections of letters but Dear Lupin, Letters To A Wayward Son, is extraordinary.  Roger Mortimer was a racing correspondent for years, and in retirement kept himself busy writing, going to the races, and having drinks and dinners and lunches with all and sundry, high and low.  His son Charlie was a bit of a puzzle to him, but Roger loved his son full heartedly, and was always willing to lend a hand when Charlie found himself, again and again, up to his neck in manure (a dependable English country expression, apparently). Their story, successful father and wandering son, may not be so extraordinary, but their bond, cemented and celebrated through these letters, is. 

Roger Mortimer manages to be funny, instructive, confiding, caring, diffident, and loving, while never losing the thread of what mattered: staying in touch with his son. His letters built the connection between them, a kind of arc of caring that, in the best of times would keep the son safe and the father informed.  And in the worst of times?  It seems to me that it was the connection between father and son that kept Charlie alive, and Roger living — Charlie would of course want to be around to hear the next round of news from Dad, and Dad needed to keep going to ensure having the great tidbits to write about!

Roger’s letters are a joy to read, veering from topic to topic, sometimes hilariously so, and mood to mood, and there is not a word I would miss, not a sentence I would not reread.  I am sure these letters have been well-edited, and perhaps the originals were not quite so perfect but the gems were always there.  And now, luckily for us, the gems have been polished up and presented for our reading pleasure.  Roger Mortimer died in 1991, but his wit and wisdom survive, in these marvelous letters.  I will soon be turning to another volume, entitle Dear Lumpy, which are a collection of letters written by Roger to his daughter Louise.

By the way, Dear Lupin refers to the son of poor Mr. Pooter, father to lumpen son Lupin,  in The Diary of a Nobody series, written by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith, and published first in Punch magazine.  Where does Lumpy come from? I have an idea…but let me read the letters first.



Foreign Correspondence

Geraldine Brooks wrote nonfiction before she moved over to fiction, writing her Pulitzer prize winning novel March, along with Year of Wonder, People of the Book, and Caleb’s Crossing.  I love the writing of Brooks and when a Facebook friend recommended I read Foreign Correspondence, Brooks’ book about the penpals she had through childhood, I  jumped.  A book about letters?  By one of my favorite writers?  What could be better? 

Foreign Correspondence fulfilled all my expectations.  It is a wonderful book, not only for its introspective exploration of letters but for Brooks’ marvelous personality which flows from every page.  Brooks both in person (I had the great fortune of meeting Brooks at a book luncheon hosted by the End of the Sidewalk bookstore in the summer of 2011) and on the page is lively and warm,  thoughtful and exacting, kind and gentle.  Reading Foreign Correspondence it was as if she were right there beside me, having a conversation while we shared a pot of tea or a bottle of wine.

At times very funny, and at other times quite sad, Brooks tells the story of how she discovered her long lost penpal letters while at home in Australia, tending to her father during his last illness. She mixes in the story of her childhood in a lower middle class neighborhood with the story of her parents, explaining how both she and her father used letters to make connections across country, political, and social lines.  While her father used his letter writing to voice enthusiasm or criticism (and to keep up a very important connection which Brooks only discovered later in life), the young Brooks used her letters to fly away in search of any place more interesting than what she saw as her tiny and boring corner of Australia.

We follow Brooks, first a young girl writing to penpals and then a grown woman, tracking down her correspondents to see how life has turned out for them.  All along the way, from child to grown-up, Brooks makes discoveries about herself, Australia, her parents, and her faraway friends that will prove formative to the woman she has become, not only as one of the best writers around but as an open-minded, open-hearted participant in the world.  Brooks has been around the world and back again, through letters and through experience, and she shares all she has learned with us, the lucky reader.

2012 Books and Thanksgiving

Thank you to the authors who make my year of reading — whether it is a book a day or a book a week — a core pleasure of my life.

Pure by Andrew Miller: Set in 1785 France, Baratte, an ambitious provincial engineer, is commissioned to clear out the oldest cemetery in Paris, disposing of the bones, destroying the attendant church and filling in the holes left behind any way he can. Miller is a marvelous writer, weaving his amazing story around the framework of his characters, each one so full of heart and muscle that they seem to come alive on the page. Or maybe it is the other way round, that his amazing characters weave and dance around the framework of his plot, a plot full of wild machinations and lofty dreams and sober realities.

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton: I just could not put the book down (and this has been true of every Bolton book I’ve ever read) because of its twisting plot (offering surprises at every turn), compelling characters (including reappearances of some of my favorites from past books), fascinating setting (the colleges of Cambridge, England) and the constantly increasing undercurrent of dread and fear. The building of tension and suspense only crested in the very last paragraph, sending me into spasms of relief and then back into the book to reread the last hundred pages all over again.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: This book is a marvel and a gem. It is hilarious and heartbreaking, and it has a message: “Be brave in love and in life.” Jess Walter, himself, is brave, flinging his characters (whom he clearly loves) out in the world, through time and across continents, in and out of crazy and not-so-crazy situations, and allowing them (and us) to come to some very profound realizations about dreaming big, wanting more and taking on the world.

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood: This book tells the story of a man who journeys to Africa to find again the groups of nomads with whom he traveled years ago. As an anthropologist, he was always looking for the names of things as a way to define their meaning in the culture he studied and how such meaning connected to his own way of life. As a man now trying to deal with overwhelming sorrow, he finds that the name of a thing is only the place to start understanding the substance of experience, and that in the end, it is the substance that might sustain him, while the names twist away.

A Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: Penny’s mysteries are wonderful, one after the other. In the latest, the heroic and kind Inspector Gamache finds himself behind the stonewalls of a monastery, soaking up the beauty of Gregorian chants and the ugliness of murder (along with rich stews, cheeses and wild blueberries dipped in dark chocolate — good food is always present in a Penny novel). Despite the abundance of gourmet treats, Penny doesn’t write feel-good, frothy novels with everything falling neatly into place by the finish; instead she creates real scenarios that expose the tolls exacted by real living, where good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished, where lives are overtaken by the tolls of abuse — and lives are lost.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found striking parallels in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!), but found what he needed: solace in the wild. Strayed was looking for solace, but even more, for restoration: After the death of her mother, Strayed hit rock bottom and decided the only way back to her true and good self was to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. (Some of us read tons of books to find solace and answers, some of us take long hikes.) In making that hike, she filled the hole in her heart and restored herself to sanity and strength.

And what a déjà-vu I experienced in reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a book I absolutely loved. Like Kerouac and Strayed, poor Harold has the wrong shoes on for his trek across England, but he doesn’t let pain and blisters stop him. And like Strayed, fictional Harold has a hole in his heart that needs patching up. This surprising man and his lovely story took me by the hand, and then gave my soul a good thumping (I cried buckets!) — thank you for the hike, Ms. Joyce, and I look forward to your next novel.

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam: We can all use gentle and funny reminders of how to be a good friend — and why. Klam serves up her signature wit and big heart, and inspires us all.

And for good e-books, I give thanks for: The Fulcrum Files by Mark Chisnell: Set in England just before World War II, sailor Ben Clayton, committed pacifist, finds himself involved in an international spy game involving gambling, intimidation, weapons build-up and murder. This book satisfies sailing buffs, history fans, espionage addicts, and anyone else yearning for a good, satisfying yarn; and…

No One Knows You’re Here by Rachel Howzell: Syeeda, the reporter at the heart of the novel, is a modern-day heroine, complicated and smart and tough, who discovers that a serial killer is on the loose in the back alleys of Los Angeles. Based on the Grim Sleeper killings that occurred in L.A. in the 1980s, No One Knows You’re Here is about crimes that go unnoticed (committed against the underclass) and heroes that go unsung (journalists and writers), providing not only a great book but a sharp jab in the shoulder: Are you paying attention yet? After reading this book, you most certainly will be.

Friendkeeping: a Primer

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam is the book you will want to give all your bestest friends, not as a nudge-nudge, hint-hint reminder of what it takes to be a good friend, but rather as a celebration of just how great friends can be. And if they (or you) pick up a few hints on how to be a better friend, so much the better for everyone. We all need reminding once in awhile that connection takes more than just showing up for drinks or a walk — and Klam offers the reminders with her usual big heart, goofy humor, and open admissions.

Klam tackles the big issues of friendship in Friendkeeping, including jealousy within the relationship (likening it to Kuato from the movie Total Recall – an ugly little creature that lives in her belly and rears his schadenfreude head from time to time); what happens when you love a friend but hate his/her partner (we have all been there); sharing (despite being a memoirist Klam admits that for years she couldn’t talk about her troubles with friends, either in her own life or with them. Now she understands the two-way street of sharing is vital to a good friendship — but even then, she also understand there are situations when you are there just to listen); and how to let go of friends that just are not right for you (for Julie, the deal breaker was taking a dog out for a walk without a leash — IN NYC!).

Klam also takes on, with wit and grace, the even bigger ordeals of illness, depression, and distance: those moments (or years) in friendship when more effort, understanding, and love is required. You can do it, Klam urges us all, and with her coaching, she is right: we can.

Wild Joy and Tenacious Peace

I finally read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and I really liked it.  Strayed is a warm, honest, and brave woman, who in telling her story of recovery — 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail!! — won my heart. Devastated by the death of her mother, Strayed spent the first few years after the death spiraling away from her husband and siblings, and into the arms of the wrong people, with the wrong drugs and wrong answers.  Hitting rock bottom, Strayed becomes convinced that the only way back to her true and good self — the daughter her mother loved so much — is to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. There is a hole in her heart, as Strayed explains it, and she wants to repair that hole the best she can.  

Walking by herself for days on end, and for miles and miles seems to her to be the way to go. She knows what she needs” to go back to the wild, and back to her own true self:”…how it felt to be wild … what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunries and sunsets.  The experience was powerful and fundamental … a human in the wild.”

As a woman who turned to her own unique journey, after losing my sister to cancer, I understand why Strayed took her journey and I thank her for sharing it so beautifully and so vividly in Wild.

I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found so many delightful similarities in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac fictionalizes a journey he took one weekend with Gary Snyder to the top of Matterhorn in California.  Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes, and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!).  And like Strayed, Kerouac craved communion with the wild, following up his trip to Matterhorn with a summer spent fire watching on Desolation Peak in Washington State.

In so many ways, the experiences of Strayed and Kerouac parallel and complement each other, and reading the two books together enriched the adventures of both for me. When Kerouac writes, “Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and fluteboys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak…just like life,” I know that Strayed would agree — and due to both of their works, I can understand. I may not be ready just yet to take off on my own up a mountain but I do understand why a person would want to — and what wonders could be found there.

But Kerouac is more joyful in his recounting of experiences in the wild, and provides much more in the way of pure ecstasty of the senses: “Here now the earth was a splendorous thing – snow on the ground, in melting patches in the grass, and gurgling creeks, and the huge silent rock mountains on both sides, and a wind blowing, and the smell of heather. We forded a lovely little creek, shallow as your hand, pearl pure lucid water…”

I underlined paragraph after paragraph in The Dharma Bums, as I am a person, like Kerouac, deeply wedded to joy.  As he says in The Dharma Bums, “I realized I had no guts anyway, which I’ve long known. But I have joy…”

Another contrast between Kerouac and Strayed, a funny one, is their reaction to the word “hobo”: Kerouac wears the label with pride while Strayed chafes at the assumption of a man she meets on the road that she is a hobo; he reasons that if you look like one, smell like one, and are hungry like one, you are one.  Strayed denied she is a hobo, despite how she smells or looks, but she is grateful for the package of food and supplies the man leaves her with.

After finishing these two wonderful books, I returned to an old favorite of mine, The Solace of Open Spaces, written by Gretel Ehrlich.  Like Strayed, Ehrlich turns to the wild world of the west in an effort to recover and regroup after losing a loved one to cancer.  Having been in Wyoming with her dying lover, who tells her “All this space reminds me of possibility, of the life you and I could have had together…”, Ehrlich returns to find again the promise of possibility in her life. Unlike Strayed or Kerouac, who go to the mountains to find answers, Ehrlich’s wild lands are the ranch lands, the open spaces, of Wyoming.  There she learns the secret of endurance, and of love: “The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.”

The Solace of Open Spaces is a beautiful, beautiful meditation on resilience, place, and identity, and I recommend it to anyone seeking a western atmosphere, deep reflection, and quiet satisfaction.


Indies Like Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair
My Year of Magical Reading

Selected by Indie Booksellers for the June 2011 Indie Next List, and Chosen This Summer for Paperback Next List

“This graceful memoir describes a true love affair with books. After losing her 46-year-old sister to cancer, Sankovitch embarks on a year of reading: one book every day for a full year. Her project, complete with daily book reviews, becomes an ongoing conversation with her sister and provides insight into her own past and contact with bibliophiles across the world. This is the best description of the power of books that I have ever encountered!”
Caitlin Doggart, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA

With grace and deep insight, Sankovitch weaves together poignant family memories with the unforgettable lives of the characters she reads about. She finds a lesson in each book, ultimately realizing the ability of a good story to console, inspire, and open our lives to new places and experiences. A moving story of recovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is also a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading.


Conversation Starters from
One of Nina’s favorite books from childhood, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, can still bring tears to her eyes when she reads it today. What books did you love as a child that can still elicit strong emotions in you today?
Read more…

Praise For Tolstoy and the Purple Chair…
“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an absolutely lovely account of the healing power of literature.”
-Devourer of Books

“What Sankovitch has accomplished in her first book is not only to celebrate the transformational, even healing, powers of reading, but to give the reader a feeling of reading those books as well, through the eyes of an astute reader.”
-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Nina Sankovitch has crafted a dazzling memoir that reminds us of the most primal function of literature—to heal, to nurture and to connect us to our truest selves.”
-Thrity Umrigar, author of The Space Between Us

“[A] brilliant and heartwarming book.”
-Ventura County Star

“An original and touching…account of one woman’s lifelong affinity for books and her attempt to channel that affinity to deal with her grief after her sister dies. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an understated but moving story about the effects of a ‘year of magical reading.’”
-The Dartmouth

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair will transport you to a time before texts and tweets. Through the stories of her own family, Nina Sankovitch shows how books have the power to refresh, renew, and even heal us. I loved this memoir.”
-Julie Klam, author of You Had Me at Woof

“A beautifully paced look at how mindfulness can affect the psyche.”
-Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“Sankovitch’s account works well because she uses her reading list to jump off into topics that are tangential, yet intriguing and often important.”
-Buffalo News

“Sankovitch’s memoir stands as a tribute to the power of books to enrich our daily lives.”
-Christian Science Monitor

“A beautifully fluid, reflective, and astute memoir that gracefully combines affecting family history with expert testimony about how books open our minds to ‘the complexity and entirety of the human experience.’ Sankovitch’s reading list in all its dazzling variety is top-notch.”

“[An] entertaining bibliophile’s dream…Sankovitch’s memoir speaks to the power that books can have over our daily lives. Sankovitch champions the act of reading not as an indulgence but as a necessity, and will make the perfect gift from one bookworm to another.”
-Publishers Weekly

“[Tolstoy and the Purple Chair] offers timeless wisdom, is uplifting and has a powerful message.”

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is original, uplifting and very moving: a unique celebration of life, love and literature.”
-S. J. Bolton, author of Now You See Me

“In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, her affectionate and inspiring paean to the power of books and reading, Sankovitch gracefully acknowledges that her year of reading was an escape into the healing sanctuary of books, where she learned how to move beyond recuperation to living.”

“[Tolstoy and the Purple Chair] digs deep into that near-mystical connection between a reader and an author—that startling feeling that you are channeling someone you have never met…A gripping and inspiring book.”
-Connecticut Post

“The beauty of her project lies in seeing how books intertwine with daily life, how very much they affect our moods, interactions, and, especially important for Sankovitch, how we recover and process our memories….She makes reading seem accessible, relaxing, inspiring, fun.”
-Los Angeles Times

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair masterfully weaves beloved and sometimes surprising books into central events in the writer’s life. There is much to learn from this moving book. Sankovitch writes with intelligence and honesty, leading us to respond in a similar manner.”
-Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of One Amazing Thing

“This graceful memoir describes a true love affair with books.”
-Boston Globe

“Her deeply moving memoir artfully intertwines her immigrant family’s history with the universal themes of hope, resilience, and memory. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair celebrates not only the healing power of literature but its ability to connect us to the best of ourselves — and each other.”
-American Way

“Anyone who has ever sought refuge in literature will identify with Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.”
-O, The Oprah Magazine

“Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a must-read for anyone who adores books. It is also a primer on the healing power of taking time off to grieve by immersing oneself in a revered activity.”
-The Book Bully

Buy the book at an Independent Bookstore by clicking on one of the links below.

Independent Bookstores


Powell’s Books

Rainy Day Books

Tattered Cover Bookstore


If you buy Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, be sure to let me know at Include your address and I will be happy to send you out a personalized bookplate, from me to you, (as long as supplies last).

The Prime of Mrs. Delany

Can you imagine at what time in your life the “work” of your life might begin? For most of us, and those of us of a certain age, we might think that point in our lives has passed us by. But we are wrong in that assumption. “I never quit resting on hope,” wrote Mary Delany in 1776, at the age of 76, “which often opens a pleasant view. Rigid wisdom says ‘Don’t hope, and then you will not be disappointed’ but [such] philosophers are rare talkers and sad comforters….”

Read The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock and you will find so much hope via the story of Mary Delany that you might be tempted to turn down a new road, commence a new chapter, or restart a stalled dream. And I say: Go for it.

Mary Delany was an artist who created paper collages of stunning visceral and potent impact, and only began her work as an artist at the age of 72. Delany lived in England in the eighteenth century, at a time when to live to one’s seventies was to be very old indeed — but as Mary Delany proved, again and again, one is never too late to hit the prime in life. Amiable with Handel, suspicious of Rousseau, and a favorite of George III, Mary Delany is a heroine, a friend, and an inspiration. And she is not the only friend you’ll be making in reading The Paper Garden. The author, Molly Peacock, who shares freely and beautifully, will become another treasured compatriot in the roll and sway of life.

Peacock, a poet of a certain age, became enamored of Mary Delany when first discovering her paper collages of flowers in the British Museum. Almost 1000 of these collages were made, between the years of 1772 and 1782, and Peacock, poet turned historian turned writer (but who keeps her lovely poet soul with her every step of the way), gives her readers the full story, not only of Delany’s ten years of incredible artistic productivity (while she was in her seventies and eighties, may I remind you) but also of the lifetime leading up to the flourishing of her artistry: “Can such a great talent behave like a seed? How can it lie dormant for so long? We all know the truism: people who seem to spring into artistic action were, in fact, quietly preparing for years.”

Molly Peacock herself has a story of dormancy and flourishing, and frost and light, and she weaves her own story in beside the story of Delany seamlessly and beautifully. But Delany and Peacock aren’t the only mature women flourishing and blooming in The Paper Garden: the histories of other women, some connected to Delany and some to Peacock, are integrated into this inspirational and buoyant and wholly unsentimental book, each and everyone memorable and unique and substantial.

Told in chapters that parallel the collages created by Delany — hound’s tongue, nodding thistle, passion flower, magnolia, and winter cherry, to name just a few — The Paper Garden is like an enchanted garden, one in which I passed with slow tread, measured reading, and long spaces of thought and reflection. This is not a book to be read in a day, and in fact would make a lovely book for a year’s worth of seasons, alternating between discussion and deliberation.

There is much to be absorbed, learned, and acted upon, in reading The Paper Garden. To say nothing of how much there is to see in The Paper Garden, for Peacock treats us with lovely reprints of the collages and adds in close-ups of petals, stems, and buds that left me catching my breath.

How deeply I felt the connection Peacock made between herself and Delany — and so many others — when she underscored the role of pain and sorrow in artistic endeavor: “[A]rt is a poultice for a burn. It is a privilege to have, somewhere within you, a capacity for making something speak from your own seared experience.”

And I would add that it is a privilege not only for the one speaking, but for all the ones listening — and for all of us who through that speaking and listening can find community in our pain, and resolution in our endeavors to create something good out of that hole of sorrow and loss.

For that is what Peacock teaches us in The Paper Garden: that we have the muscle and heart to make a substantial gift of creativity or compassion or companionship — and age has nothing to do with it. The prime of our lives is always just waiting for us, a hope and a heartbeat away.