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The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese [Hardcover]

Michael Paterniti
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

30 July 2013

NPR • Entertainment Weekly • Kirkus Reviews • The Christian Science Monitor

In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, an ancient door leads to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the telling room.” Containing nothing but a wooden table and two benches, this is where villagers have gathered for centuries to share their stories and secrets—usually accompanied by copious amounts of wine.
It was here, in the summer of 2000, that Michael Paterniti found himself listening to a larger-than-life Spanish cheesemaker named Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras as he spun an odd and compelling tale about a piece of cheese. An unusual piece of cheese. Made from an old family recipe, Ambrosio’s cheese was reputed to be among the finest in the world, and was said to hold mystical qualities. Eating it, some claimed, conjured long-lost memories. But then, Ambrosio said, things had gone horribly wrong. . . .
By the time the two men exited the telling room that evening, Paterniti was hooked. Soon he was fully embroiled in village life, relocating his young family to Guzmán in order to chase the truth about this cheese and explore the fairy tale–like place where the villagers conversed with farm animals, lived by an ancient Castilian code of honor, and made their wine and food by hand, from the grapes growing on a nearby hill and the flocks of sheep floating over the Meseta.
What Paterniti ultimately discovers there in the highlands of Castile is nothing like the idyllic slow-food fable he first imagined. Instead, he’s sucked into the heart of an unfolding mystery, a blood feud that includes accusations of betrayal and theft, death threats, and a murder plot. As the village begins to spill its long-held secrets, Paterniti finds himself implicated in the very story he is writing.
Equal parts mystery and memoir, travelogue and history, The Telling Room is an astonishing work of literary nonfiction by one of our most accomplished storytellers. A moving exploration of happiness, friendship, and betrayal, The Telling Room introduces us to Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, an unforgettable real-life literary hero, while also holding a mirror up to the world, fully alive to the power of stories that define and sustain us.

Praise for The Telling Room
“Captivating . . . Paterniti’s writing sings, whether he’s talking about how food activates memory, or the joys of watching his children grow.”—NPR
“A gorgeous and impassioned monument to the art and mystery of storytelling, The Telling Room is rich, funny, humane, devastating, and beautiful. It made me want to applaud, it made me want to cry, it made me want to move to Spain. Michael Paterniti is a genius.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“Unforgettable . . . a must-read for all who think of Spain as magical, who consider cheese as the ultimate gift of love, who love stories of betrayal, despair, revenge and redemption.”—The Wall Street Journal
The Telling Room embodies the spirit of slow food and life.”—Michael Pollan
“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

Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press (30 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385337000
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385337007
  • Product Dimensions: 24.1 x 16.3 x 2.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 603,809 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Snap out of it already! 31 July 2013
"... I soon found that our version of village life organized itself around the ascendancy and final daily importance of doing nothing." - Author Michael Paterniti, on living in Guzmán

"It was a privilege to walk this land, to live in this place, to watch the grain grow." - Author Michael Paterniti, on living in Guzmán

"... I'm writing the epic history of the ingenious Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, visionary cheesemaker and witch doctor of human truths, towering human and storyteller extraordinaire." - Author Michael Paterniti, on his reason for living in Guzmán

As a starving grad student in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, author-to-be Michael Paterniti made sandwiches at Zingerman's Deli on the weekends. It was at this eatery that he became acquainted with a very expensive cheese imported from Spain, Páramo de Guzmán. It wasn't that Michael could actually afford to buy any to eat. No, he became acquainted with it by editing the owner's monthly newsletter, in which said owner rapturously raved about the stuff.

Years later, married and with offspring, Paterniti ran across the old newsletter that contained mention of the cheese. While endeavoring to learn more information about the delicacy, he discovered it was no longer being made. So, he set out with his family to live for several months in the small, Castilian Spanish village of Guzmán (116 miles north of Madrid) to write the story of the cheese and its former maker, Ambrosio Molinos. Oh, and by the way, he went armed with a publication deal for a book on the subject, which was to ultimately become this volume, THE TELLING ROOM.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  243 reviews
87 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Writing at its Finest 27 May 2013
By Evelyn Uyemura - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
A couple of chapters into this book, I was asking myself, "How have I never heard of this writer before?" And before even finishing the book, I was ordering is previous work (Driving Mr. Albert) simply because I didn't want this book to end. This is a masterpiece, on a level with Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air or Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, in which it doesn't matter that you had no previous interest in Mount Everest or biological warfare, or in this case, Spanish cheese.

Paterniti takes a more or less simple story of a farmer in Spain who creates a fantastic cheese and then, through mismanagement, loses the company he has built, and turns it into a reflection on how life is to be lived, how it feels to be a young father, what is worth living for, how time changes, and yet doesn't change, everything. He has a huge man-crush on this guy whose language he doesn't even speak at first, and he manages to spend so much time with him that he falls completely under his spell, bringing his wife and kids not once but twice, to spend weeks in a dessicated village in Spain.

Life in the village of Guzman is everything that life in modern America is not. People spend their time in rooms that Paterniti calls Telling Rooms, caves, actually out on the hillside, where wine flows freely (wine they themselves have made) and food is shared lovingly with friend and stranger alike. No "stranger danger" here, no hours spent before screens "chatting" electronically with disembodied strangers. This is life as it has been for centuries. And yet, it is also real, not a stage-setting put on for the benefit of lost americanos who always go home to their clothes driers and air conditioners and ipads. And yet, beneath this hypnotic surface, there are also ancient (or not so ancient) hatreds that can never be explained, much less resolved. It is village life at its most comforting and also its most claustrophobic. And somehow, Paterniti allows us to experience it.

It took him over a decade to write the book, and a fair amount of the story is about writing the book, or more accurately, being unable to write the book. Although a journalist, and a very successful one, writing long-form journalism for magazines, Paterniti can't find an ending, can't bring himself to commit the story to paper in only one way. In the end, there are ironic footnotes at length and much self-referential spinning of wheels. And yet, it is a book of great sincerity and honesty.

I loved it. Your book club will love it. I hope it will be a best-seller. Both author and publisher deserve it, as do the people of Guzman.
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A really intriguing story about cheese! 28 May 2013
By feemeister - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The first 40 pages of this book did me in. I almost just tossed it. But it finally started picking up and getting to the actual story.

There are two things I don't like about this book. The first is, the author uses way too many adjectives and similes, etc., for my taste. The unusual part though, is that sometimes he uses them, and other times he doesn't have any at all. (Once he gets into the actual story, there aren't nearly as many.)

The second is, he has far too much information that doesn't apply to the story. He includes things about his personal life and family, and lots of other side items that aren't pertinent to the story. I WILL say though that many of the things he does puts in footnotes, so it's easy to skip over them. Some of them are actually good stories and worth the read. But I really think this book could have been shorter and more on point, and I would have enjoyed it more (I would have given it a 5 then.)

Now for the story. The story was WONDERFUL. It pulled me right in (when he got to it) and kept me going. Ambrosio was larger than life, and the small Castilian town he lived in sounded like a really nice, old-world place. The story of the cheese was just spectacular. The author was really drawn into this, and I can understand why.

Ambrosio was definitely bigger than life (I picture him as looking just like Eli Wallach) and he didn't do anything by halves. I want to say more about him, but I don't want to ruin it for those who haven't read it yet.

This book is definitely worth a read, and seems very heartfelt by both the author and the participants in the story.

[For those who have already read the book---I LOVED the author's story of his special trip to Mon Virgo. But I couldn't figure out if he actually finished his business there or not. I also wondered if he told Ambrosio what happened there. I laughed really hard, mainly because that's what would have happened to me! I don't think us city dwellers are cut out for that kind of thing!]
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Even Teenagers Like It!!!! 30 July 2013
By PossumLover - Published on
I am a 14 year old girl, and I am writing this review to say that even teenagers can love and treasure this book the way I have. Normally avoiding nonfiction of any kind I was apprehensive to say the least. But as I started this heartfelt story I was pleasantly surprised to find that in fact it rated just as well as the beloved fantasy I avidly read. The writing is optimistic and endearing and I was thoroughly enraptured in this fabulous tale of cheese (who knew cheese could be exciting!?) I loved the shifting narrative between Paterniti's life and his hero's, Ambrosio. A strong ending, interesting footnotes, and Paterniti's voice make this truly a wonderful read for all ages.
110 of 137 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars There's a Book in Here Somewhere 29 May 2013
By takingadayoff - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The book is described as part travel narrative, part food essay, part family drama. So far, so good. Then there's the "magical cheese." A little odd, but there are definite possibilities, story-wise. Once I started reading the book, I found it was also the author's story, the tale of a young MFA student struggling to be the best darned Writer ever.

The overwrought prose kept getting in the way of the story. A few times, the author even mocked himself about this -- "...put the finishing touches on another one of my overheated homing pigeons of prose..." Page after page went by and still, there was no story. I skipped ahead. Now it was about the author's contract with his publisher and his failure to meet deadlines. Year after year passed. I skipped ahead. He finally made it to the tiny village in Spain, home of the possibly mythical magical cheese. No detail was too small to include in this slowly evolving story. Often, Paterniti recognized that the details were slowing the story to a crawl, and relegated them to footnotes. There are many footnotes.

A book ten years in the making, The Telling Room is a letdown, and I could not find the patience to keep at it. It was so many things that in the end, it was none of them. Instead of chipping away at the block of marble cheese to find the perfect form hiding inside, Paterniti slapped more and more plaster, paint, and spare parts onto it until it became a hideous hybrid. Now how's THAT for overheated prose?
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enter the Room 30 July 2013
By Anja Hanson - Published on
I read this book having neither been to Spain nor claimed the title of gourmand, but I am a greedy reader, and the immersive, joyful spirit of The Telling Room won me. What I loved was Paterniti's ability to expose all the overt and covert pleasures of storytelling with nuance and humor. I also loved the chance to see what it might be like to follow a passionate interest from the easy, early love to a hard-won, deeper affinity and understanding. Take a chance to discover many things "ribald and holy" in The Telling Room.
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