03 October 2013

Review: The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

The Telling Room by Michael PaternitiWhen Michael Paterniti graduated from the University of Michigan, he stuck around Ann Arbor to work part-time on the newsletter put out by the now-famous Zingerman's Deli. One of the more esoteric items sold in the store was the world's most expensive cheese: Paramo de Guzman, made by a family in Castile. Although he was too poor to taste it then, Paterniti never forgot the cheese. A decade later, looking for a good freelance story, he decided to go to Spain, hoping to track down Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras, the man behind the cheese.

Traveling with a Spanish-speaking friend, Paterniti figured he'd get an interview, taste the cheese, and take some photos. What he didn't expect was to fall in love with the village of Guzman and to get caught up in the stranger-than-fiction tale told by Ambrosio. In The Telling Room Paterniti introduces us to a corner of Castile that seems isolated from the twenty-first century. It's a place where men still spend the evenings in their family caves (known as telling rooms), sharing food, wine, and gossip.

Although the cheese, which proved to be elusive, is at the center of the story, The Telling Room is really about Ambrosio, miracles, family bonds, fortunes won and lost, friendships, chirizo and wine, and the beauty of Castile. In fact, the history of this artisan cheese and its maker is the stuff of classic novels, complete with (as the subtitle of the book proclaims) love, betrayal, and revenge.

Paterniti was profoundly affected by the years he spent traveling to Spain and by his friendship with Ambrosio. He shares his naivete and slow awakening to the truths of Ambrosio, his obsession with the cheese, and his struggles to turn his experiences into a book.

As other reviewers have noted, The Telling Room is a mix of memoir, travelogue, food writing, biography, adventure, and even mystery. It has won wide-ranging praise from a number of food writers and from major newspapers and review sites; it was also an Indie Next pick for August 2013.

I too enjoyed hearing about Paterniti's adventures, but The Telling Room was not an A+ read for me. I had three principal problems with the memoir. My biggest issue was the repetition; some parts of the story were told several times, not to add details but, perhaps, to remind the reader of important or key events. Second, Ambrosio's personal drama (mostly involving the cheese) eventually became tedious; I understood his personality early on and didn't need it be drummed into me. Finally, although I sympathize with Paterniti's problems with finding a way to shape this story into a coherent package, I felt the ending was a bit of a letdown; however, I suppose it was for him as well.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Audible, Inc.; 13 hr, 29 min) read by L. J. Ganser. I had mixed feelings about his performance, which was entertaining but toed the line of over the top. My complete audiobook review is available from AudioFile Magazine.

Random House / The Dial Press, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780385337007
Source: Review (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


rhapsodyinbooks 10/3/13, 7:00 AM  

Too bad, because I'm a huge Zingerman's fan! (I've only been there online however)

Molly 10/3/13, 7:07 AM  

Not sure I will listen to the audiobook, but I am most definitely interested in reading the story as it has all the components that I enjoy: food, travel and memoir.

Vasilly 10/3/13, 9:21 AM  

You brought up some good points about what was problematic for you. I may give this book a go. Or maybe not.

Andi 10/3/13, 9:54 AM  

I had a digital ARC of this one that is probably long-expired now. This is a book I want to get back to, though. it sounds just perfect for my interests in food and travel writing. :) Great review!

Carol N Wong 10/3/13, 12:14 PM  

I read the book. The author requested that I review his ARC of it. I sent an e-mail of my review and he never responded. There were some great parts to it but I think editing out the repetition would have helped.

Heather 10/3/13, 1:14 PM  

Thank you. You just helped me put my finger on what my problem with this book was! I've read about half of it and one day, I just put it down to never pick it up again. It's the repetition! And yes, while Ambrosio is a fascinating person, he's also so larger than life that at some point, I found it hard to take seriously. I do want to get back to it though, if only to find out what happened in the end. Great review!

Daryl 10/3/13, 2:21 PM  

doesnt sound like my slice of cheese

bermudaonion 10/3/13, 4:45 PM  

The book sounds right up my alley. Maybe I need to look for the print version of it.

Shannon @ River City Reading 10/3/13, 5:42 PM  

Your review wraps up many of the same issues I had with The Telling Room. I really loved the beginning of the book, but as it went on I grew less engaged and really struggled to finish it - even though I wanted to enjoy it.

(Diane) bookchickdi 10/5/13, 8:17 AM  

It sounds like an interesting story, but one thing I find annoying is repetition in a book. Say it and move on.

jama 10/5/13, 10:46 AM  

Wonderful, balanced review. It's an intriguing story, and I'd love to learn more about Castile and the cheese, but I'm much less patient these days with books that are longer than they have to be, especially with unnecessary repetition. Part of the fault probably lies with the editor.

Tea 10/5/13, 11:00 AM  

I could very easily become obsessed with cheese.

Vicki 10/5/13, 1:52 PM  

Your review was drawing me in, until you said you biggest issue was the repetition. I can't handle anything that's repetitive.

JoAnn 10/5/13, 5:53 PM  

It's hard to go wrong with " a mix of memoir, travelogue, food writing, biography, adventure, and even mystery", but the repetition would really bother me, too.

Jackie McGuinness 10/5/13, 6:54 PM  

I'll give this a miss based on your review!

Marg 10/6/13, 1:31 AM  

What a shame this didn't work as well as it could have done because it sounds like a fascinating story on several levels!

Heather 10/6/13, 12:33 PM  

Sounds interesting, but I don't picture myself travelling the world to follow up on an amazing chocolate bar no matter how praised it is. Fortunately we do have people who will do those things and share their adventures. Thanks for sharing your review.

Cecelia 10/6/13, 11:33 PM  

Hmmm... interesting mix of elements in this one. I recently read a cheese travelogue/disquisition (THE WHOLE FROMAGE), and while I enjoyed parts, I was not wholly engaged. I think I may not be obsessed enough with the food to try another book on it. Now... fried chicken! If there's a good fried chicken memoir out there, I am ready to go. *grin*

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