I’m reading a book (sort of) about one of my favorite places to have visited— Spain. I was inspired to pick up The Telling Room because some of my favorite books have been suspenseful stories with a strong emphasis on place. I was looking for a word that encapsulates it better, but travelogue is not quite right. Travelogue is apt for the book I’m reading, but the category in which I’m thinking of it is slightly different. Maybe you can help me figure out a less clunky way to describe it, if I tell you what I mean.
Three of the books that fit into this category are Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt, and The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson. Each tells the true tale of a tragedy that happened in a place and time, and you get the idea that it would not have happened that way anywhere else or at any other time. Midnight is about a murder in Savannah, Georgia, and the way you come to understand the part the place played in the crime— in its culture, in its environment, in that point of history— it makes that book the resounding success it was at publication. Berendt’s second major book of this type wasn’t as strong, but he weaves a spell that really puts you in Venice. You feel the importance of the buildings, of this moment in the city’s history, in what went so terribly wrong.
In a similar, though not exactly parallel way, Eric Larson weaves together the stories of a notorious Chicago serial killer and the World’s Fair in a way that is compellingly readable. I was disappointed with the ending, but the stories of innovation and celebration juxtaposed against the tale of this serial killer, and indeed, the ways that he was able to exploit the city’s preparations for and celebrations of the World’s Fair— they’re great reads. Nonfiction as compelling as any novel, historical, which appeals to me, and inspiring of travel, which I also like. Very few books give you as strong a sense of having been somewhere, as these have for me, and because I love travel, these books are a great way to get away when I can’t actually manage a trip.
When I think back on these stories, I can tell you where I was when I was reading them. When I think of a trip to Glenwood Springs, I always think of laying by the mineral springs, reading Midnight. I remember being in the airport reading Devil in hungry gulps as I watched for my bag at baggage claim. (Maybe I traveled more reading these books than I remembered…) The Venice book was a commuting book, though— maybe that has something to do with my secondary fondness for it?
The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese promised to be slightly more whimsical than the serial killer tale, the story of a Castillian farmer-turned world-renowned cheesemaker, through a commitment to the history of his land and people, who is betrayed by his best friend and abandons the cheesemaking enterprise altogether. I’m about 70 percent through the audiobook, and I’m starting to get frustrated, because, at this point, the author is just dragging it out. At about the 40 percent point, it would have made sense to tell the story of the cheesemaker’s Judas, and give that side of the story. At 70 percent, he hasn’t done it, yet. I’m hearing the story of the cultural importance of El Cid, and I’m promised stories of one of my favorite artists, Goya, before it’s done, but (a) our storyteller, who has waxed lyrical about this cheese for a good long while has not yet, himself, tasted the protagonist’s world-renowned cheese (though he’s dreamed of it for a decade and made four trips to Spain to hang out with the cheesemaker and just moved his American family there on the strength of the story), and (b) the betrayer has not told his side of the story. Fortunately, I like side trails about the culture of these people and the back-to-the-old-ways philosophy, and I don’t mind rabbit trails and loopy, meandering storytelling, to a point. Which I’m basically past, now. No more stories of the author’s toddler’s love of baseball— start moving toward either a climax or a denouement in the primary story, now. Time to go interview Judas and reveal what you’ve been hiding about our protagonist.
My frustration with this one notwithstanding, do you have other books like this that you’re aware of— things I should be reading? Please share your recommendations!