A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a book so brilliant and well-crafted that it borders on tedious. Over the course of its 512 pages, Towles stuffs in a textbook's worth of history lessons, examining the many changes that Russia underwent during the 1920s through the 1950s. Simultaneously, he refocuses the lens away from major power players into the lives of the everyday citizens who populate Stalin's era. Our guide through this historical drama is Count Alexander Rostov, a nobleman sentenced to "house arrest" in the (formerly) glamorous Metropol hotel. Like a rich man living in quarantine, Rostov must find a sense of meaning in his now monotonous life - a Herculean endeavor for a gentleman so accustomed to luxurious travel and uninhibited activity. Through the Count's eyes, we see history unfurling through one dramatic event after another. Even more effectively, Moscow's readers are also privy to the psychological, emotional, and spiritual development of a fallen aristocrat.
First and foremost, this novel is a love letter to Russian literature. Taking his cues from Tolstoy and other Russian writers, Towles crafts a sweeping epic that vacillates between the personal and the global, the micro and the macro. Incorporating politics, history, literature, music, and culinary arts, Towles establishes himself as a veritable encyclopedia; the author has no difficulty oscillating from the world of wine and fine dining to the realm of political persecution. It's a testament to the author's encyclopedic knowledge that none of it feels forced or orchestrated; rather, the Count is a truly believable benefactor and tour guide through the novel's multitudinous pages.
A Gentleman in Moscow encapsulates a very specific era in world history: the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the national transition into communism. Like George Orwell before him, Towles casts a suspicious eye on the Russian leaders who heralded a new age in international politics. But this is no Animal Farm . Whereas Orwell focuses almost exclusively on the political headlines and transitions of power that rocked the world, Towles is more concerned with the effects of the Russian Revolution on its citizens. That psychological insight is a powerful tool in the author's arsenal that translates the political into the personal and the global into the local.
It's clear that Towles has a deep, abiding love of Russian literature and its complicated tropes. He draws upon his literary predecessors throughout A Gentleman in Moscow, even going so far as to quote whole sections of Dostoevsky's personal letters. In one passage, Towles gently jests about the tendency of Russian authors to use several different names/nicknames for the same character... and then proceeds to do the same with his own characters. It's a clever sleight of hand that reminds the reader just how well-versed, knowledgeable, and insightful Towles can be. The author has clearly done his homework, delving deeply into Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gogol (amongst others) - and sprinkling frequent allusions to these writers throughout the many, many pages of his novel.
As the Count finds love, laughter, and life within the claustrophobic walls of the Metropol, the reader gets swept up in the daily doldrums and monthly meanderings of our protagonist. Along the way we encounter some unique, singular characters: a once-and-future movie star who rides the precarious waves of fame, a precocious young girl with a penchant for asking questions, a maître d’ who once juggled knives in the circus, a military officer obsessed with Humphrey Bogart films, and a meddling hotel manager with a vitriolic vendetta. These figures (and more) who populate the halls of the Metropol are cleverly crafted, thoughtfully imagined, and brilliantly realized.
At times, though, A Gentleman in Moscow drags and sputters with self-involved sections that fail to keep the reader engaged. Perhaps that is the author's intent: we read through chapter after chapter of drudgery and daily minutiae... until the story ultimately coalesces into a meditation on aging and adulthood. All the while, Towles drops breadcrumbs for his reader, circling back to metaphors, symbols, and motifs until the novel's thrilling conclusion. So, while reading A Gentleman in Moscow might feel like being trapped inside a stunning literary hotel, you can't ask for better company during the long haul through the decades of the story.
With Russia once again making international headlines, A Gentleman in Moscow has become even more relevant than when it was published in 2019. One can only hope that the 21st-century counterparts of Count Alexander Rostov are able to escape their claustrophobic confines and find freedom in their hearts - like the protagonist of Towles' enchanting tale.
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Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark by Cassandra Peterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
SPOILER ALERT (*but not really*): Elvira, that voluptuous Vampira-influenced vixen... doesn't actually exist. The raven-clad horror hostess that we know and love is a fictional character created by Cassandra Peterson and her collaborators. If you're expecting zombies, vampires, or werewolves in Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark , you might want to look elsewhere. If, however, you're in the mood for something less supernatural (although there are some real-life monsters and haunted houses in the book), this might be the macabre memoir for you.
Peterson's autobiography begins with a brief summation of the day Cassandra - or "Sanni," as she's nicknamed - applied for the "horror hostess" position that made her (in)famous. Immediately afterwards, the self-proclaimed "Mistress of the Dark" flashes back in time with reflections on her humble origins. Born in Kansas to working-class parents, her life started unassumingly: her father was a salesman and her mother was a homemaker. However, when Cassandra was a toddler, she accidentally spilled boiling water on herself, resulting in third-degree burns covering 1/3 of her body. Poor little Cassandra wasn't expected to live, but - like some petite superhero - she miraculously recovered. It seems uncanny that such a physically scarred young girl would later become a horror icon, as if her affinity for monstrous outcasts stemmed from her own feelings of post-traumatic insecurity and isolation. Ironically, a girl who felt so disfigured and scarred from this trauma eventually develops into a successful rock groupie before ultimately becoming a modern-day sex symbol.
Though Peterson's burned body could, by itself, be seen as a the defining trauma of her young life, this wasn't the last excruciating experience that she would encounter: Yours Cruelly addresses issues of child abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, addiction, and spousal abuse (among other topics) in its pages. As Peterson details in the early sections of the memoir, her mother was an abusive narcissist who left her daughters psychologically scarred and troubled. Even as her body healed from the burns that scarred her skin, Cassandra spent decades unraveling the psychological torture she endured in her youth. It's a heartbreakingly realistic twist from an actress best known for lighthearted fantasy.
It's impossible to discuss Yours Cruelly without mentioning the many, many celebrity sightings in the book. At times, Yours Cruelly comes across as a never-ending cavalcade of crushes, namedropping encounters, and/or make-out sessions. And, of course, there's sex.
Lots of sex. And I mean *LOTS* of sex.
In Peterson's memoir, the only things that go "bump" in the night are promiscuous paramours. A small, incomplete list of romantic encounters includes the following famous folks: Jimmy Page, Eric Burden, Tom Jones, Jon Voight, Robert DeNiro, and (*wait for it*) Elvis Presley. Ms. Peterson has crossed paths with some fascinating historical figures in her seventy years, but her tongue-tied experiences with her idols come across as refreshingly earnest and endearing. When the scarred little girl who once obsessed over Vincent Price eventually becomes friends with the raspy-voiced horror icon, the reader shares Cassandra's wide-eyed wonder. In many ways, Peterson is just as star-struck by celebrities as her legion of fans are awed by her. Those moments serve as sweet reminders that the author, despite her own decades-long fame, has more in common with the general public than one might otherwise assume.
What's arguably the most fascinating aspect of Cassandra's romantic sojourns, however, is that this boy-crazy vixen eventually finds true love... with a woman. Reading about Peterson's struggles as she comes to grips with her sexuality is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. Although she initially balks at this chance for true love because of her heteronormative history, Cassandra ultimately finds lasting happiness with her life partner, "T," after accepting that their love breaks the binary shackles of heterosexuality. If a woman in the later half of her life can finally find her "happily ever after," then there is hope for the rest of us ghouls and goblins.
Despite her inauspicious origins, Cassandra Peterson ultimately finds peace and happiness through a lifetime of healing and reflection. In the same way that Peterson left behind her *literally* haunted home, Briarcliff, the actress also leaves behind the ghosts of trauma that have haunted her entire life. Like a horror movie "final girl," Peterson overcomes her horrific experiences and lives to see another day. That alone makes this an inspiring affirmation of the human spirit.
Yours Cruelly isn't for everyone, and the divisive responses to the book's release are testament to that. With memoirs, it can be difficult to distinguish the artistry of the storytelling from the larger-than-life exploits of the famous storyteller. But, while Peterson lacks the poetry of Frank McCourt, her many Hollywood adventures (not to mention harrowing hardships) make this memoir a fascinating read - and a delightful excursion from the horrors of the real world. While it's sometimes challenging for the general public to distinguish the character "Elvira" from the actress who portrays her, this memoir of irreverent, mischievous exploits and observations (coupled with Peterson's signature wry sense of humor) establishes the author as a figure much more complicated - and worthy of love - than her raven-clad alter-ego. As the book closes, the Mistress of the Dark reminds us that, as much as the character of Elvira loves the shadows, there is a light of hope still to be found in even the darkest of days.
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.