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From the Hardcover edition.
“Elegant, strange, funny, and insightful, The Telling Room is a marvelous tale and a joyful read, a trip into a world peopled by some of the most remarkable characters—and, yes, cheese—in memory.”—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
“By the time you hit the tenth page of The Telling Room, you realize you’re in the hands of a storyteller so masterful, emotionally subtle, and smooth that you’re willing to follow him anywhere, even into a cave. And you will.”—The Daily Beast
“Rich and shaggy, full of Castilian-size detours . . . one hugely likable book.”—The Boston Globe
“Exquisite . . . [a] gripping tale. [Grade:] A”—Entertainment Weekly
“Breathtakingly cinematic . . . reads like Bill Buford’s Heat, conveying the passions of both author and subject, but with David Foster Wallace’s gift for digression.”—The Tampa Bay Times
“Paterniti dives deeply into Spain’s political history, the pleasures of craft, and the motives and methods of storytelling itself.”—Harper’s
“Few writers can write about the taste of food with Paterniti’s vibrancy and precision. . . . [He] is a master of finding and telling great stories (the finding, for most writers, often being as difficult as the telling) that appear to be about something small, such as cheese, but are actually about something far larger—in this case, the whole of human existence. . . . As much as The Telling Room is about a Spaniard’s quest to create a cheese that embodies all the love and pain and joy he’s ever known, it’s also the story of a writer’s quest to channel that obsession into the perfect story.”—Esquire
“For my money, Paterniti is one of the most expansive and joyful writers around—big-hearted and humane and funny. This book is a wild and amazing ride.”—George Saunders, author of Tenth of December
“The list of writers I would read even if they were to write about a piece of cheese has always been short, but it includes Michael Paterniti. He has proved here that if you love something enough and pay a passionate enough attention to it, the whole world can become present in it. That’s true of both the cheese and the book.”—John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
“An amazing achievement, The Telling Room is an inspired, masterly epic that expands and refigures the parameters of the storyteller’s art.”—Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
“Michael Paterniti is one of the best living practitioners of the art of literary journalism, able to fully elucidate and humanize the everyday and the epic. In his hands, every subject, every moment of personal or global upheaval, is treated with the same curiosity, respect, empathy, and clear-eyed wisdom.”—Dave Eggers, author of A Hologram for the King
One night a man — a salt-of-the-earth man, an Old (though young) Castilian, a dreamer, and an artisan — decides he is going to start making his family's cheese again, which they had forsaken in the 1950s, a time of urban migration in Spain, less land being worked, and fewer farmhand mouths to feed. His mother gives him the basics, but he tinkers and fusses, he experiments, he makes the perfection of the recipe into a quest; it will be an offering, to his father — who taught him all the rituals and codes that gave life meaning — to the world. He arrives at something angelic, a perfection of terroir, balancing bouquet, texture, and flavor: piquant, earthy, tangy, nutty, robust. He turns it into a cottage industry, involving the whole family. It becomes a force and storms the cheese world. His name, fittingly, is Ambrosio.
Meanwhile — this is some twenty years ago — in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Michael Paterniti has finished his fine arts graduate degree and is earning a few nickels proofreading the (still-terrific) newsletter published by Zingerman's, the renowned deli. In one issue is an article by Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman's globe-trotting food adventurer, about this cheese: Páramo de Guzmán. In Weinzweig's estimation, it is the world's best cheese, and wickedly expensive. At twenty-two bucks a pound, Paterniti can only gaze at it on Zingerman's cheese board.
Years later, now a globe-trotting journalist himself, Paterniti is going through his files and comes across the Guzmán piece. It kindles something in him, an urge to know more about the cheese, its maker, and the village. He places a call to the one telephone in Guzmán and learns the cheese maker no longer makes the cheese. Like Bjorn Borg, Marco Pierre White, and Jim Brown, a man at the peak of his prowess walks away; he makes a world-famous delicacy from an ancient family recipe, then just stops. Journalist Paterniti's hackles rise: Here must be a story. And, in life, so little is better than a good story.
The Telling Room is that story, and it is a good one, an odd, gratifying piece of work, naked in its emotions, powerfully focused one moment, then eccentrically digressive the next. He actually writes at one point (in a footnote) that he is "not a fan of annotations and footnotes," yet the book is flooded with them: entertaining, meaty asides; fancy improvisations; ornaments — very much like the storytelling in Castile. It will take him a long time, a very long time, to tell the story — long enough for his British publisher to ask him to return his advance — or anyway to get it right. But he does — bogging down only when in fits of navel-gazing — offering diamond-sharp portraits of Ambrosio, Guzmán, the cheese, and the crazily contradictory tale of how it all went south.
Ambrosio is larger than life, all garrulous conviviality, elemental, tuned to the music of the spheres. He's the kind of man who speaks to his sheep and his cheese, and the sheep and the cheese speak back. Though larger than life, his scale is still very human, as is his speed, which raises in Paterniti a yearning for "a life in which there seemed to be more time for family and conversation, for stories and food, a life I was desperate to lead now as an antidote to my own." He will find, at heart, that he is not a Castilian, but for the time being, he ecstatically falls for Ambrosio and what he represents.
There is, however, a snake in Ambrosio's garden. With no head for law or practical business matters, he tells Paterniti, he leaves those matters in the hands of his best friend, Julián, a lawyer, only to find that he has blithely signed contracts that give control of the company to a couple of connivers, with Julián in cahoots.
Debts mount, and it is Ambrosio who is responsible to pay them. He leaves, bankrupt, when he learns that the cheese will be made with inferior ingredients, and worst of all, without love. He considers revenge, of murdering Julián, torturing him to death. He winds up driving a truck to pay off his debts.
When Paterniti finally pulls himself out of Ambrosio's orbit, he gets a very different earful from Julián: that it wasn't only love and patrimony that drove Ambrosio but profit; that he dodged responsibility and was an expert at self-justification; that he cooked up Julián the bamboozler to save his dignity. Yet this humanity makes Ambrosio an even more commanding character, someone who has taken "the rocky path to the sublime": complex and guileless, visionary and fresh, ingenious and gullible.
And so generous, inviting Paterniti into his life and his village, where the land is a living, breathing creation, the wind howls, the earth groans, where if it's not drought, then it's hail, and if the hail fails, then the locusts will surely come. He welcomes him into the cave where he stored his divine cheese, and best of all into the anteroom to the cave, the contador, once a counting room for the foodstuffs stored in the cave. The contador — the term is derived from contar, which means "to count" but also means "to tell" — is now an intimate social gathering place, where meals are shared, the flagon of wine is handed back and forth, time passes, and stories are told: war stories, histories, secrets, revelations — the telling room, that wormhole into the Castilian time-space magic of El Cid and Goya and Páramo de Guzmán.
Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.
Reviewed by Peter Lewis
“Though I’ve saved this one for last,” wrote Ari, “don’t let me mislead you. This is really an outstanding piece of cheese . . . so anon- ymous I discovered it by chance in London. It’s also the most expen- sive cheese we’ve ever sold. Makes me a little nervous just putting it on the counter.”
The item went on to describe how this piece of “sublime” cheese was made in Castile, in the north-central part of the country, and how, when Ari had visited the cheesemaker himself, the Spaniard had shared vivid memories of his grandmother making the very same cheese and imploring him to keep the tradition alive. When asked by Ari how he justified making such an expensive cheese, the man had said, “Because it’s made with love.”
But there was more: Each day this cheesemaker collected fresh milk from “his flock of one hundred Churra sheep.” The milk was poured into vats, stirred, and after it had coagulated, the curd was hand-cut into tiny pieces “in order to expel as much liquid as possi- ble.” Each wheel of the cheese was then pressed to rid it of any re- maining moisture and transported to a nearby cave. After the first aging, the cheese was submerged in extra-virgin olive oil and aged again, for at least a year. The stuff of his job—the minutiae, the care, the importance of time—happened to sound a lot like the job of a writer.
“It’s rich, dense, intense,” sang Ari, “a bit like Manchego, but with its own distinct set of flavors and character.”
There was something about all of it, not just the perfection of Ari’s prose, but the story he told—the village cheesemaker, the an- cient family recipe, the old-fashioned process by which the cheese was born, the idiosyncratic tin in which it was packaged—that I couldn’t stop thinking about, even as I went on to contend with misplaced modifiers in a passage about marzipan. It occurred to me that there we were, living through cursed 1991, in a crushing recession—when the national dialogue centered around whether Clarence Thomas had uttered the question “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”—and along came this outrageous, overpriced, presumptuous little cheese, almost angelic in its naïveté, fabulist in character, seemingly made by an incorruptible artiste who, with an apparent straight face, had stated that its high price tag came because it was “made with love.”
Was this for real?
I went to the deli. At $22* a pound for the cheese, I had no inten- tion of buying any. I’d come, however odd it sounds, to gaze upon it. Thus I timed my visit for in-between rushes. I picked up the finished newsletter at the door and stood for a while, reading as if the words were not only brand-new to me but the most fascinating thing I’d ever had occasion to trip over. I watched a few other nicely dressed people—quilted jackets, colorful scarves—reading it, taking pleasure in their pleasure. Then I dove in, jostling through holes in the line, moving across the black-and-white-checked floor until I found myself face-to-face with the cheeses behind the nursery glass: There were the Manchego and Cabrales, Mahón and Garrotxa . . . and there was my cheese. It seemed to hover there, apart in its own mystical world. It came in its white tin with black etching that read páramo de guzmán. The package, which was almost oval in shape, bore the emblem of a gold medal for supreme excellence above all other cheeses, an honor from some agricultural fair, it appeared. And perched there in the display, before a pyramid of the tins, was a piece cut into three wedges. Unlike its paler Manchego and Mahón brethren, it possessed an over- all caramel hue. It may sound strange to call a cheese soulful, but that’s what this cheese seemed to be, just by sight. It had traveled so far to be here, and from so long ago. I let myself fantasize about what it might taste like, as I could only fantasize about a gourmandizing, dandy’s life in which I might pen the words “. . . discovered it by chance in London.”
* Twenty-two dollars equaling eight chili dogs, or seven falafels, or five bibimbaps, i.e., a week’s worth of dinners.
And this is when an odd shift occurred inside: That little hand- made cheese in the tin, and its brash lack of cynicism in a rotten year, gave me a strange kind of hope. I sensed the presence of purity and transcendence. I felt I knew this cheese somehow, or would. It sat si- lently, hoarding its secrets. How long would it wait to speak?
A long time, as it turned out. But when it did, the cheese had a lot to say. Unlike that day in 1991, when I felt so pressed to leave the deli in order to put the finishing touches on another one of my overheated homing pigeons of prose, it became nearly impossible for me to walk away.
THE TELLING ROOM reading guide questions
1) When Paterniti first meets Ambrosio, Ambrosio expounds on the importance of taking time to cultivate food, to prepare it, to enjoy it, and -- finally -- to pass that food from our bodies as waste. How much do you agree with Ambrosio’s way of living? Do you believe that what we consume and the way we consume it has such a pronounced effect on our lives?
2) The back-to-the-earth style of living that Ambrosio describes proves seductive to the author, as it does to many Americans who subscribe to a more slow food, sustainable lifestyle. To what extent do you think it’s feasible to live life in this manner? Do you believe that a more agrarian, farm-to-table way of living is better than the more convenience-oriented lifestyle of the average American?
3) On page 71, Paterniti includes the following footnote: “I would soon find out that digression was a national pastime in Castile, that to get to the crux of any matter you had to listen for hours, weeks, months, years.” What do you think is his intention by including this note to the story? How did it affect the way that you read the footnotes that followed?
4) Ambrosio has a phrase, “the disability of memory,” which he defines by saying, “Everything is rushing forward, so I must go back.” In what ways is Ambrosio’s story emblematic of this idea? Why do you think this idea captured Paterniti’s imagination so completely?
5) When Paterniti first returns to Guzman, he writes that “[I didn’t] care to hold myself to the normal journalistic standard, for I wasn’t entirely playing a journalist here. I was playing myself for once.” Do you think that, by entering the story simply as himself, different opportunities were open to Paterniti than if he had investigated strictly as a journalist? What issues might have been avoided had he been more of an objective observer? How might a more objective book about Ambrosio feel different than the one Paterniti ultimately wrote?
6) In THE TELLING ROOM the idea of memory takes many forms, such as Luis’s keys, or the cheese itself. Why do you think memory becomes such an important theme as the book goes on?
7) When Ambrosio gives Paterniti a key to the telling room, he says that it’s where Paterniti will write “their” book. Who do you think the book ultimately belongs to? In what ways is the story more Ambrosio’s, and in what ways Paterniti’s? What does it mean to own a story?
8) At the outset, Ambrosio is portrayed as a mythic figure, and is later revealed to be, simply, a man. How does this shift occur? What parts of Ambrosio the man have to be cloaked so that we can believe in Ambrosio the myth?
9) The idea of fatherhood is another recurring theme, and particularly the ways that children carry on the traditions, ideas, and lives of their parents. On page 195, Paterniti writes, “This was one form of enlace, too, the attachment of the child to the father, and with the passing of time the father to the child, so that even in death one lived on, carrying the ghost of the other like a baby inside.” How are Ambrosio and Paterniti each defined by their roles as fathers? As sons?
10) The whole of Castile shares a fascination with the legend of El Cid, a story that likely glosses over some harsher truths. How does the story of El Cid relate to Paterniti’s relationship to Castile? How does it relate to his relationship with Ambrosio?
11) On page 204, Paterniti describes a scene in which the mistranslation of a word – barber for sheep shearer – leads him to “float away with the myth,” imagining a barbershop for animals. What are some other instances of “floating away with the myth” in this book?
12) Sara, Mike’s wife, describes the idea that some people see the world as being clearly delineated (1 + 1 = 2), while other see it as a web of possible connections. Do either of these outlooks match up with your own worldview?
13) Towards the end of the book, Paterniti describes the act of telling stories to his children as one that unites them as a family, and as “some way of saying, ‘History repeats.’ And: ‘You’re going to be alright.’” Do the stories you remember hearing as a child and the stories you tell now have a similar impact on you? What other ways do stories – and the act of storytelling itself – affect us?
14) Ultimately, what do you think of Ambrosio, the myth and the man?
This is a remarkable book that goes deep into the secrets of a small Spanish village. It swings from memoir to travelog to history. It details love, friendship, betrayal. It is a darn good book!
16 out of 17 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
This is a very interesting book about a small village and the truths, lies, and myths that unfold in the Telling Room.
10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I found this to be a very interesting book. The author brings to life far more than the story of a fine cheese. He goes in depth about a special "Telling Room" in a small village in Spain where villagers go to confess and share stories. From this Telling Room research the author manufactures a vivid look into the village.
4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 28, 2013
I love the premise of this story; it's got geat bones. But I am really struggling to read the whole thing because of the incessant superfluous footnotes. It's like the author had a bad break up with his editor and chose everything s/he edited out over their partnership and shoved it back in the story as footnotes. It's a rare four uninterrupted paragraphs you can get through before being directed to some tangent that pulls you out of the story at hand for, every time, no worthwhile reason. None of this "bonus" info is making me feel the story any more fulky, nor do they help build the characters. Which feel underdeveloped: the main character is a sanctimonious blowhard I'm having a hard time feeling sympathetic for and the narrator is about as interesting as untoasted wonderbread. Story feels like it could really go somewhere but the language is just not taking me there.
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 17, 2013
I thought that this book, this story was enthralling. I was just as caught up in the story telling of Ambosio and was a little disappointed (and intrigued) that there were other sides of the story.
The author painted a vivid picture of this little Spanish town and its environs, I felt like I was there - I could smell the sheep, see the surnsets, hear the wine being poured into the porron and yes! even taste the cheese.
The story didn't progress as I expected, but it was very much like life itself.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 13, 2014
Posted February 4, 2014
Posted January 10, 2014
Michael Paterniti leaves no detail uncovered. While at times his footnotes within footnotes can be a bit daunting, his story is heartwarming, amusing, interesting and brings the reader into the experience of rural Spanish life. I highly recommend it for readers who enjoy traveling outside the big cities and getting to know the region and its people.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 24, 2014
Posted February 25, 2014
Posted October 29, 2013
The story of Ambrosio, Guzman and the cheese is quite fun. But the author throws in so much other seemingly irrelevant information not to mention the footnotes (which i can understand a bit since it is meant to be a true story, plus you can totally skip them if you want) that it is hard to read and stay engaged in the story. This would have gotten 4.5 stars had it been about 150+ pages shorter.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 16, 2013
This book is wonderful. It does read like a novel, yet it's a memoir or a non-fiction history/story. I love Spain, and the history and peoples of Spain as it evolved and the places and foods and wines, etc., are wonderful. The story of the cheese, the wonderful/best in the world cheese, from a small town in Castile, is a great story. The writer becomes a character in the story as he meets the cheese maker and his family and townsmen and builds the narrative. I loved learning so much about Spain, cheese, and this wonderful group of miscreants who made it. The writer and his family are just great as they bring us this story by living it. There are many footnotes in the book and they are valuable. Be sure to read the footnotes as you go and you will learn much about the history of this great country and this special region and this town and the making of cheese. The footnotes are as much "literature" as the rest of this fascinating book. You may need to be a bit intellectual to love this book. So be it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 6, 2013
The Telling Room is a very good read. I would recommend it for book clubs. It combines history, mystery, and food with great precision and gusto. The Telling Room is a non fiction book that reads like a novel. There are a bit too many footnotes; otherwise, this is a fanstatic find and a book that I will be telling people about for a long time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 30, 2013
I did not care for this book at all. Archaic word choice as well as writing style lead me to believe Paternini wrote this for an elite academic audience in mind with the sole purpose of showing off. It didn't engage me enough to finish it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 20, 2013
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Posted November 24, 2013
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Posted August 7, 2013
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