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Writing at its Finest
on May 27, 2013
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.