Here’s the column. I reviewed The Telling Room: a Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti and Paris Was the Place by Susan Conley. You can also read it at the Concord Monitor‘s website.
By DEB BAKER
For the Monitor
(Published in print: Sunday, August 11, 2013)
In 1991, Michael Paterniti learned about a famous Spanish cheese, Paramo de Guzman, while proofreading a newsletter for Ann Arbor, Mich.’s Zingerman’s deli. Years later he came across that newsletter as he was planning a reporting trip to Spain. He tracked down cheesemaker Ambrosio Molinos and made plans to travel to his village, Guzman. When Paterniti met Ambrosio, “the great storyteller, who held the real secrets of the world as well as the key to its happiness,” he heard what he summarizes in The Telling Room’s subtitle: “A tale of love, betrayal, revenge, and the world’s greatest piece of cheese.”
Paterniti’s book is also the tale of a writer torn between “American life . . . messy and maddening . . . but . . . deeply comforting, too” and Ambrosio’s old way, “in which there seemed to be more time for family and conversation, for stories and food.” In pursuing the story of the cheese in which he “sensed the presence of purity and transcendence,” Paterniti traveled to Guzman many times over a decade, and even moved his family there for several months. He spent hours with Ambrosio, most memorably in his bodega, a “handmade cave dating back to the time before refrigeration.”
In the contador, or telling room, above the cave, they ate, drank and talked. And even shared the last Paramo de Guzman. Paterniti says, “Oh, it was a strong cheese, a Herculean cheese . . . tangy and tart. . . . With the first crumble it spread slowly, in lava flow, across the palatal landscape, tasting of minerals and luscious buttercream, of chamomile and thyme. It tasted of flower and dirt, manure and nectar – and perhaps love and hate, too.”
But Paterniti fell not just for the cheese, or even the cheesemaker, but for the endless stories, which make the book sing. Several times, he set aside The Telling Room to write the award-winning journalism he’s known for. But he kept returning to Ambrosio’s stories of friendship, family and grudges; of food and wine, farming and truck driving; of Old Castile, El Cid, Guzman and the Spanish Civil War. Lengthy footnotes on all kinds of topics trace Paterniti’s digressions.
Collecting conflicting stories about Ambrosio’s lost cheese business, he recognized that every story has “an alternative narrative.” As he spoke with Ambrosio’s childhood friend Julian, Paterniti “wondered whether time is the only truth-teller, the trickle that over aeons formed the honest canyon.” But he saw that even family stories include “certain inaccuracies inadvertently passed on to us.” Flawed or not, they become “explanations about who we were and what we believed.”
As he struggled to finish the book, Paterniti realized, “I was telling myself a story, too.” What The Telling Roomcelebrates is the human impulse for storytelling, and the way our stories, whether strictly true or metaphysically so, bind us together. This book may very well put you in the mood to hang out in a telling room of your own (ours is the screened porch) with family and friends, sharing stories.
Entranced with ‘Paris’
Paterniti, his wife, writer Sara Corbett, and Susan Conley co-founded a nonprofit also called The Telling Room, where children in Portland, Maine, learn to write and share their stories. Many immigrant and refugee kids participate, which may be why Conley’s novel, Paris Was the Place, features young asylum seekers. Conley’s detailed rendering of 1980s Paris swept me up, as did her protagonist, Willie Pears, an American poetry professor who volunteers at a detention center for teenage asylum applicants, preparing girls to speak at their hearings. Sophie, the center’s administrator, tells Willie, “Make their stories so sad that there’s not a dry eye in the house and even God’s eyes are crying, yes.”
Willie falls in love with Macon, a lawyer representing asylum seekers. But this book is not a simple girl-meets-boy story. Willie comes alive through her relationships, especially with her brother, Luke, who contracts a seemingly unexplainable illness, and his Norwegian partner, Gaird; Macon and his young son Pablo; and Gita, an Indian girl from the asylum center who Willie offers guardianship. Readers are immersed in Willie’s life in Paris, but also in her unusual upbringing in California, her maverick parents, and her work tracking down and analyzing the original manuscripts of the feminist Indian poet Sarojini Nadu.
Rarely have I come across a fictional character portrayed so thoroughly. Through Willie’s friends and family and work, Conley explores love’s capacity to overpower life’s many imperfections, and she does so without making the complications in the novel unrealistic or gratuitous. The characters’ emotions ring true, even if the dialogue sounds slightly strange at times, perhaps because the characters are meant to sound foreign. But this beautiful book, woven from so many stories, entranced me anyway.