“Night Film” book response

Night Film cover

WARNING- This response contains numerous SPOILERS for the book. 

This book, “Night Film” by Marisha Pessl, was basically two mysteries in one. The first one was the investigation into the activities of Ashley Cordova in the weeks prior to her supposed suicide. The second mystery tied into the first and concerned the history and activities of her father, famed reclusive film maker Stanislas Cordova. The narrator, Scott McGrath is an investigative reporter who attempted to write a story on Stanislas some years prior, but ended up being professionally disgraced. He becomes drawn into the web of Ashley and is aided by a friend of Ashley’s, Hopper and Nora, who was one of the last persons to see Ashley alive. They all have their own reasons to want to know more about what happened to Ashley and this very unlikely crime investigation trio is formed.

The mystery around Ashley deepens, concerning her breakout from a psychiatric facility a couple weeks prior to her suicide in an abandoned building and her activities up to her suicide. The mystery is an entertaining one and grows darker the more the trio discover about Ashley. Scott takes the opportunity to restart his investigation into Stanislas with the belief that something dark happened in Ashley’s childhood tied to Stanislas’s dark personality and films that ultimately lead to her suicide.

Stanislas is a famed, but reclusive and secretive, horror film maker. He hadn’t been seen in public since 1977 and he seemingly confined himself and his family to his large estate in the Adirondacks, called The Peak. He constructed movie sets on his property and filmed all his movies there in secret, and no one who worked with him would really talk about it. For reasons that are never fully explained, Stanislas’s last several films were never released to the wider public, but only through secret red band screenings among his devoted followers. The book intimates that Stanislas’s work is so horrifying that it can never be released to the public, and even inspired copycat murders. Scott believes that Stanislas has engaged in all sorts of violent, nefarious activities, many of which involve children, but he has no proof, and hopes that his investigation into Ashley will lead to further knowledge of Stanislas.

About halfway through the book, the mystery around Ashley suddenly progresses from rational to supernatural and points to very dark, occult activities around Stanislas and Ashley. This is when the book takes a turn for the odd. I enjoy paranormal and supernatural stories, though it is a bit jarring to see those elements included in a story that was a more straight forward, if creepy, murder mystery. Scott, Hooper and Nora decide to break into The Peak to see what they can find, but frankly, not much of consequence is found. Many words are expended on this part of the book, but little payoff. Just when the author wants to have you convinced that the devil really possessed Ashley and claimed her, she has Scott meet Stanislas’s lifelong assistant, Inez Gallo, and she tells him that Ashley was not claimed by the devil at all, but rather she was dying from leukemia and she was desperate to keep that information hidden from anyone not in her family. The book takes pains to present both the rational and supernatural explanations of Ashley to be plausible and not necessarily mutually exclusive. The mystery is never fully resolved, but I feel is left up to the reader to make their own assessment of what really happened to Ashley.

Where the book does fall short in my opinion is the mystery surrounding Stanislas. The author raises so many intriguing questions around Stanislas, and she really ratches up the tension and the fear in her writing. Did Stanislas worship the devil along with his neighbors? Did he kill children in the hopes of exchanging the devil’s curse from Ashley to them? What was going on with his movies? What was going on with him? Ultimately this book raises so many questions, but fails to really answer any of them. We never actually know anything for sure. The author leaves enough doubt about the devil worship that you don’t know what to believe. There are intriguing suggestions that the horror in Stanislas’s last several films was actually real and not fake. All of his movies are supposed to be deeply disturbing to the psyche and leave one shaken and horrified. While there are some descriptions of the movie plots, none of them sound so terrifying that a studio would not release them. There just isn’t much explanation as to WHY his movies are underground. Were they actually snuff films? What sort of hold did Stanislas have over people, because he certainly was painted as deeply sinister.

I felt the ending was particularly flat. There were suggestions that Scott was really in a Stanislas Cordova movie, that he was being manipulated by Stanislas, and he was looking for clues and fakeouts. But if that was really the case, you would expect some serious twist at the end that shocked you and turned everything you believed upside down. I was prepared to find out that Ashley didn’t commit suicide, but rather was murdered (that apparently wasn’t the case). I thought maybe we would find out that Ashley faked her suicide and she ran away to South America with Hopper (nope). I thought we would find out what REALLY happened to Scott, Hopper and Nora when they went to The Peak and why Hopper and Nora wanted to end the investigation right after returning (not a chance). I was deeply hoping to find out the truth about Stanislas (if only). In that respect, I think the author failed in the ending. Scott was letting the case go and getting on with his life. Then after his talk with Inez, he had an inspiration about mermaids that connected The Peak to a small island in southern Chile. Scott ends his journey on an isolated side of this island and he enters a house where a man is waiting for him, presumably Stanislas, and Stanislas is willing to talk to him. What they actually talked about we never know, but Scott basically said he would listen to Stanislas’s truth, and that was that. We never actually knew what his truth was. I suppose the author’s entire point is that one can never fully know the truth about anything or anyone (or at least that is what I think she was trying to say). But if you write hundreds of pages of story and expect readers to commit hours to read your book, I feel you should actually deliver and answer some of the questions you raise.

Overall the writing was tense and frightening (I mean that in a good way). The case was interesting and the potential implications spooky, both the natural and supernatural possibilities. I liked the multimedia approach to this book of incorporating blog posts and articles and it increased the knowledge of the characters. I wanted to know more about Stanislas and what he was really about. I wanted to know about his secret world and his movie making. Unfortunately I don’t think there was enough resolution in the story to make the payoff worth reading the entire book. I don’t think the author fully developed all the story strands and would raise plot points only to leave them hanging. While the plot was interesting, there were also numerous plot holes. Great idea, and good initial execution, but poor ending.

“The Bookman’s Tale” Response

The Bookman's Tale

I can’t remember how exactly I stumbled upon this book. I believe I saw it as I was browsing through the Barnes and Noble website (since it was one of their recommend books). The title drew me in,and the overview also got me interested enough to buy it. This book has many of the elements I like in books: mystery, historical fiction, murder, art, love, tragic love, intrigue. I thought it was well written and displayed a true love of books and book readers. I’ve been a big reader all my life, though I’ve been trying to read more books these days. I enjoy taking a whole weekend or a day to curl up with a book (preferably with the rain pouring down outside) and read it cover to cover. That is the effect this book had on me. It sort of just sucked me in on Sunday afternoon and I didn’t want to stop until I read the entire thing.

The book has three story strands, presented in alternating chapters, that all come together in the end. The first part was set in 1995 (the book’s present day). That storyline finds American Peter Byerly, a young widower trying to work through the pain of losing his wife Amanda nine months earlier. He tried to do that by running off to his cottage in England to get away. He is a book antiquarian by profession, and specializes in acquiring rare books and restoring rare books for customers. While going through books at an antique bookshop, he stumbles upon a watercolor, painted in the Victorian age, of a woman who looks exactly like his dead wife. This storyline is his investigation into the origin of this painting and identity of the woman. In the process, he gets drawn into a mystery involving an Elizabethan playbook, Pandosto, written by Robert Greene, that supposedly Shakespeare used as inspiration for A Winter’s Tale, and included written marginalia in the play that conclusively proved that William Shakespeare was the author of all Shakespeare’s plays, and not another, such as Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford.

Peter’s modern day quest is supported by the second storyline, which is the journey of the Pandosto from 16th century England to present day that traces the origin of the Pandosto playbook and follows it through its numerous owners, and how this important treasure became lost to the world, only to re-emerge in 1995 England.

The third storyline starts in 1983 at Ridgefield University in North Carolina, and traces the love story of Peter and Amanda from how they first met at university, the deepening of their relationship, their subsequent marriage to each other, and all the way up to her tragic, untimely death. This story is not merely a mystery or a historical fiction, but also a love story. This love story helps underpin the rest of the book, because it is through the telling of Peter and Amanda that you come to understand them both and the love they shared. After all, it was the mystery of the woman’s identity in the watercolor that started Peter’s investigation. Peter’s quest originates from his need to find out who the woman in the painting is, and part of him hopes this new obsession will help him come to terms with Amanda’s death, who died suddenly at the age of 29 from complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor. I personally felt their love story was very compelling and very relatable. Peter is extremely introverted and suffers from social anxiety and really only feels comfortable in the world of books. He sees Amanda in the library and he becomes entranced by her, but she is the one who eventually  pursues him and gets him to open up. These two people bond through their shared passions and the comfort each brings the other. I personally related to this storyline, not because of how it mirrors any personal experience I’ve had, but the fantasies I’ve had about relationships. It was a relationship I could see myself in, and the characters I could see myself in. It also played to my fears that if I ever do find myself in a mutual love relationship, that one of us would die an untimely death and leave the other to grieve and carry on with life alone.

The three storylines all come together in the end, and I felt the author, tied it all together well in an engaging and believeable way. The ending sort of reminded me like the National Treasure movie or The DaVinci Code, only in the sense that a long held historical mystery is revealed, and not that there was any big chase scenes more appropriate for an action movie. This is definitely a book for book lovers, for those of us who take pleasure and refuge in books, and only wish there was more time in the day to read more books. The mystery at the heart of the book is engaging, and the ultimately tragic love story between Peter and Amanda tugged at my heartstrings, even though at the end, Peter finds himself on the road to recovery by fully integrating Amanda’s death and moving forward with life.

“The Interestings” Response

The Interestings book cover

I enjoy reading and have always enjoyed reading since I was a kid. Nowadays I go in cycles of reading a lot of books and not reading a lot of books. Sometimes I like to read books that are supposed to be “good for you”, and books that are just enjoyable for me, like crime thrillers and art world conspiracy thrillers (think “The Da Vinci Code”, but better written).

On occasion though, I read a book that touches something deep inside me, and I had that reaction when I read “The Interestings” this past weekend. Much of the book and what happens to the characters over the space of 35+ years struck a chord and I recognized some of the thoughts and experiences as similar to my own.

The author, Meg Wolitzer, just sucked me into her world through the talent of her writing and skill at weaving a non linear time throughout the book. It’s not just a matter of starting at Point A (which would have been when the characters all meet at art camp in 1974) and finishing at Point B (their lives set around present day). To me, the quality of story was like a bunch of memories. You start thinking of an experience at one time and then just start connecting that experience to other memories and how they are related. I’m probably not explaining that properly, but the storytelling felt natural to me and easy to follow. At no time did I feel that I didn’t understand what was going on or what the author was trying to convey. This story appealed to me on a deeper level, because it tells you what happens to these characters, even the fates of minor characters. I always want to know what happens to a character outside the timeline of the book. Where do they end up? What becomes of them? I have these thoughts about real people as well, even ones I don’t keep up contact. I still want to know what they did with their lives, even if it is a quick synopsis. This curiosity probably underpins most persons’ Facebook stalking and Google searches of people they used to know in real life.

The story is centered around a core group of four characters: Jules Jacobson (later Jacobson-Boyd), Ash Wolf, Ethan Figman and Jonah Bay. Also playing strong supporting roles are the characters of Goodman Wolf (Ash’s older brother) and Cathy Kiplinger. Ostensibly the book is centered around the life and experience of Jules, though at times, it cuts away to show the life and experiences of the other four characters at key moments in their lives and how they became who they are, and what happened to them over the course of their lives. These six characters meet at an art camp, Spirit-In-The-Woods, in 1974 and become friends, and the four main characters becoming lifelong friends. These kids bond over a shared love of creativity and a belief that they are inherently interesting, and deem themselves (somewhat self-deprecatingly) The Interestings.

The book follows these characters through key, formative moments in their lives, cutting back and forth from the 1970s to the 1980s, 1990s and present day. The story proceeds in a more or less timeline fashion, but it’s not purely linear, but I think that just deepens the storytelling.

While these characters share a love of art and creativity and have high hopes for their futures, that is not how it turned out for most of them. The life trajectories of Goodman and Cathy take a sharp turn on New Years Eve 1976 when Goodman is accused of raping Cathy. The courses of their lives are forever changed, and even though their experiences are not central to the group after that night (though the repercussions of that night echo through the rest of the lives of all the characters), you still check in with them periodically and see what happened to them during their lives, how it affected them, and how they managed to go on with life.

Jules dreamed of becoming a comedic actress and creating a career for herself as a character actress in theater. She studied theater in college and moved to New York City afterwards to try and build her career. Ash went to Yale and while she enjoyed acting, she yearned to be a theater director. Jonah, who was the son of a folk singer and was a gifted musician himself, gave that all up and pursued a career in mechanical engineering and robotics at MIT.

Ethan was the breakout talent from this group. At a young age, he showed a tremendous gift for drawing and animation and that gift was nurtured every summer at Spirit-In-The-Woods by his animation instructor, who was among the group of original animators for Walt Disney. He was the one who was destined to have the most commercial success in the field he most loved. Shortly after college, he did a brief stint as an animator on an adult cartoon show, before finding his own success in his own animated show inspired by his drawings and his creative inner world from when he was a child. He goes on to make millions and millions of dollars and become rather powerful in his industry. Because of the combination of his talent and his material success, he was allowed the freedom to pursue his life’s passion. He loved his work. It energized him. It made him feel alive. In many ways throughout most of the story, Ethan had the life that everyone would dream of. He fell in love with Ash and that love was returned. They enjoyed a mostly happy marriage (until the end). He got to do what he loved most in the world and he made millions of dollars doing it. But ironically (though probably not really ironically, because I imagine that the author chose this story ending for him, just to show that everybody suffers in life), his trajectory was the most tragic.

Ash is the second half of that power duo. She was beautiful, intelligent, talented and privileged throughout most of her life (though, like everybody, she too suffered her share of tragedies). After a fashion, Ash also built herself a nice career and reputation as a theater director, though she was conscious that she was able to do that, because she had her parents’ money and later, Ethan’s money to allow her the space to create her career. She never had to compromise and take a career in a field she wasn’t interested in. She was talented enough to be a director and she had the financial cushion to pursue that passion without worrying about the day to day, mundane concerns of life, like how to pay the rent, the bills or put food on the table.

Jules’ and Jonah’s stories were the most compelling to me (even though Jonah’s story isn’t the main focus of this book), just because I could relate to them so much on a personal level. Jules dreamed of being a comedic actress, but came to the realization that she was just not talented enough to build a lasting career as an actress. She worked as hard as she could. She went to acting classes. She went to open casting calls. But in the end, that wasn’t enough. There is a difference between a dream and a talent (a line from one of my favorite TV shows that stuck with me), and just because you want something so much, that doesn’t mean that you are good enough or lucky enough to ever achieve it. Sometimes, it is just the hand that life deals you. In the case of Cathy, she was a supremely talented dancer, and she loved to do it so much. But she simply did not have a dancer’s body that would allow her to dance professionally. In the case of Jules, she just simply wasn’t talented enough to build a career as an actress. So she had to figure out where her skills actually laid, and pursue  that career. In her case, she became a therapist. She may not have been the best therapist out there, but she parlayed her “funny” nature into building a rapport with her clients (patients).

Jonah was a different story. He possessed raw, natural talent for music and he loved to create music when he was a child. However, he shut that part of his life down after an unfortunate encounter with an unscrupulous folk musician who drugged him as a child and stole his musical creations and made money from them. Jonah pursued a career in robotics and technology instead. It was a career he was good at, and a career that had meaning (he built devices that allowed disabled persons to lead more independent and fulfilling lives), but he still wasn’t purely satisfied. In the end, he had to come to terms with the fact that he really did want to create music. He might never have a career pursuing music, but he could make music for himself on his own terms, and that could be enough to satisfy him.

So much of what happened to the characters hit home for me. When I was a kid, like many others, I dreamed of being an actress. I took drama throughout high school and dreamed of doing it in college or professionally. I ultimately veered away from that career track by my choice early on. On a personal level, I knew I was just not talented enough to make any sort of lasting career, and I wasn’t willing to put up with years of waiting tables or working odd jobs in the hope that one day I could build a sustainable career. I made compromises early on in life, since I chose not to pursue acting in college. My fear of being poor outweighed my love of acting. You have to really, really want it to pursue acting as a career field, and I wasn’t good enough, or hungry enough to do that.

But like Jonah, I work in a career field that I am reasonably good at, and it does have meaning, but I don’t always feel fulfilled. I feel I SHOULD be fulfilled, and maybe if I worked in a different job within my career field I would. Unlike Jules, I don’t have to worry about money in the sense of living paycheck to paycheck. I certainly don’t make Ethan money, but my career field allows me to enjoy the lifestyle I want for the most part in my off time. I live in a good apartment. I am able to live in foreign countries and travel around the world. I make enough to pursue my hobbies of painting and glass art in my personal time. So yeah, I feel like I don’t have the right to complain or not like my job, when so many other people struggle out there. But like Jonah, there is a yearning inside me to create art or do work I am truly passionate about, a job that makes me eager to get up in the morning and go to work. I doubt I could ever make a comfortable living making art, because I don’t know if I am talented enough for that, so I make art for myself.

What got me about this book is that life rarely turns out the way you hoped. Even for people who are materially successful, that doesn’t mean they necessarily have easy lives. They still experience career frustration. They might have special needs children. They may die an untimely death of cancer. Nobody gets through life unscathed, no matter what we may think of those in positions of privilege. And likewise, just because you dream of something in life, it doesn’t mean it will work out for you. You might have to make compromises when it comes to careers. You might have to make compromises when it comes to love, or you might not find love at all. Not everybody is special. Not everybody is talented, or not everybody is talented enough to pursue their life’s passion. You might not love your job, even if you should. We all wish that we are special, but the sad reality, is that so many of us aren’t special ENOUGH. Or at least not as special as we want to be.

This book had so many quotes and key passages that stuck with me enough to highlight them so I could go back to them later.

The opening quote (not from the author herself):

“…to own only a little talent…was an awful, plaguing thing…being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time.” -Mary Robison, “Yours”

This quote was from one of Jules’ therapy clients (page 42)

“Janice said that she had no idea how people went on year after year, not being touched or spoken to intimately. “How do they do it, Jules?” she asked. “How do I do it?”

This passage was from Ethan’s thoughts when his father in law gives him some of his own personal drawings and wants Ethan’s feedback. (page 214)

“So what’s the verdict?” Gil asked, his voice husky with vulnerability. “Should I keep giving it a whirl?”

“The moment extended into infinity. If the point of drawing was to bring your work into the world so that other people could see it and sense what you’d meant to convey, then, no, Gil should not keep giving it a whirl: he should never draw again. No whirls. It should be illegal for Gil Wolf to possess charcoal sticks. But if the point was something else, expression or release, or a way to give private meaning to the loss of your son, your child, your boy, then yes, he should draw and draw.”

Jonah expresses this thought about his own work. (page 259)

“I’d just like to enjoy what I do for a living more. To actually look forward to going in each day. I keep waiting for that to happen, but it doesn’t.”

Jonah explaining why he ran off and joined a cult (though I have ZERO desire to do that). (page 288)

“I needed something, okay?” he said. “I didn’t even know I did, but I did. Ash, you and Ethan have each other. Me, I”m totally on my own.” He was almost in tears as he spoke, confessing his isolation to his oldest friends. “Maybe I needed a deep love  that was more powerful than any other kind. Didn’t any of you ever feel you needed that?”

(page 324)

“Jules’s clients apparently loved her; they were always bringing her gifts, and they wrote her moving letter after they no longer came to see her. But still Jules was disappointed in how she had ended up. Even now, Ethan wanted another outcome for her, and maybe it could still happen. Talent could go in so many directions, depending on the forces that were applied to it, and depending on economics and disposition, and on the most daunting and most determining force of all, luck.”

Now this particular passage is my fear of what I’ll be thinking some decades down the road about myself and my personal life. (page 401).

“Jules thought of her mother, alone in the bed in the house in Underhill. Spending her forties alone, and her fifties, and her sixties, and then her seventies! All of those decades, alone and aching, just like the teenagers across the road, but without the reassurance that all of it would probably end in a blissful sexual fusillade. Why hadn’t her mother ever gone out on a date? How had she lived without sex or love? Sex could be love, or else, like now, it could be a very good distraction.”

And finally, realization and acceptance in the end. (page 455)

“But, she knew, you didn’t have to marry your soulmate, and you didn’t even have to marry an Interesting. You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation. You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting. Anyway, she knew, the definition could change; it had changed, for her.”

This book struck such a personal chord with me that at times it felt like it was tapping into my psyche. I’m not married or in a relationship like Jules is. I don’t have to make any compromises to have another person in my life at the moment. But I can’t help but feel a restlessness about my path in life. I wonder if I had chosen- not a different career field, because I really do like my overall career field-but rather different courses within my career field. I look back and wonder if I had chosen something different, or at least tried for something different, if I wouldn’t feel differently now. The endless thoughts of the path not taken. When I first entered my career field, I had a dream of where I wanted to go, and the first several years were geared toward achieving that dream. I was fairly confident I would achieve it, because I had always achieved what I wanted to in the past and it wasn’t all THAT difficult for me. So I didn’t pursue other avenues when they opened to me at the time. But then, I didn’t get my dream job, because for whatever reason, in the end, I wasn’t good enough or what they were looking for. So I’ve spent the last several years doing different jobs in my career field, and enjoying the opportunities presented to me, but I lacked the drive and the passion that I used to have, because I didn’t have a firm goal in mind. There are still some options, but it feels like the doors are closing on me, because I’ve been in this career field so long. So I struggle with continuing in this line of work. I mean, I enjoy the overall career field, but not necessarily my particular path in this career field. Should I go out and pursue something else, something that does fill me with passion? Am I good enough to pursue what I really love? Are there opportunities out there in this rough job market? Is it too late for me, and has life passed me by (which is a weird and sad thing to think when you are still young and only in your late 30s, but the thoughts are still there)? All of these thoughts and experiences in my head meshed so well with “The Interestings” and why this book resonated so deeply into my psyche and my soul.