I’m doing Read Harder 2017. I would have read both of these books anyway, but it just so happens that they both work for Task 3 (read a book about books).
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch
Publisher/Year: Harper, 2011
What it is: After the sudden death of her older sister, a reeling Nina Sankovitch turns to books for solace. She and her sister frequently traded and discussed books, and on her forty-sixth birthday, Nina begins a literary journey and healing process: she’ll read one book a day for a year and write about every single one. This book is a memoir of that year.
Why I read it: Confession: I got this as an advance copy…6 years ago. I’d always been meaning to read it — when it came out, it was very popular in the book blogosphere — but I just never got around to it until this year.
What I thought: I read anywhere from 75-100 books a year depending on how hectic life gets. I think the most I ever read was 134. So I’m thoroughly impressed with anyone who can read more than that, and being able to read a book a day — and actually sticking with it — is just mind-blowing to me. The complete list at the end of the book is impressive. As for the book itself? It was just okay. She writes a lot about her family history, then ties in the books she read according to the theme of the chapter. It’s occasionally repetitive, and I would have liked more about the books themselves. She’s a lovely writer with beautiful sentences, but insight-wise, I wished she’d pushed it further. It all felt too tidy.
Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World by Nell Stevens
Publisher/Year: Doubleday, 2017
Length: 256 pages
What it is: Part travel memoir, part writing memoir, part random fiction. Graduates of the MFA program that Nell Stevens was enrolled in had the opportunity to apply for a fellowship that would fund a three-month stay anywhere in the world to research and write a book. Stevens chose Bleaker Island in the Falklands to work on a Dickens-inspired novel. Her stay took place in winter, in the tourist off-season, so she was literally the only person on the cold, windy island. She was woefully ill-prepared — the food stash she brought with her amounted to 1,085 calories a day — so while she’d envisioned herself creating a masterpiece in her distraction-free surroundings, the reality was a shock.
Why I read it: Traveling alone to random foreign locations is soooo me.
What I thought: I liked the idea of this book, but the execution was uneven. Parts of the book are entertaining, even the parts describing the monotony of being the only person on a freezing island. There are chapters devoted to the research, planning, and execution of her novel. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But where it starts to go off the rails is when she writes about her life back home — her history and relationships that don’t have much to do with Bleaker Island. And where it really, really, really goes off for me is when random pieces of fiction are thrown in. I understand the decision to add parts of the book she was working on (kind of), but there are also short stories that just do not go with the book. Were they written on the island? Were they written later and just added as filler? I don’t know, but it really breaks up the flow of the memoir. It’s a fairly short book but there are too many components, and ultimately, it feels like it’s trying to be too many things at once.