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The Book of Saltby Monique Truong
2004 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award
2003 Bard First Fiction Prize
I enjoyed this book for its quirky story line — a young Vietnamese cook, who is also gay, comes to live in Paris with his brother who is an aspiring chef. After a brief stint working alongside his sibling he loses the job and comes to inquire for a position as a live-in cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. What ensues is the combination of pressures he must balance in order to explore his individuality and to come to terms with the very exacting demands of the famous couple he now works for.
Synopses & Reviews
Critics nationwide have raved about The Bock of Salt, "a debut novel of pungent sensuousness and intricate, inspired imagination" (Elle), which serves up a wholly original take on Paris in the 1930s through the eyes of Binh, the gay Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Viewing his famous mesdames and their entourage from his unique vantage point in the kitchen, Binh invents both fragrant repasts and rueful observations on their domestic entanglements while seeking his own place in the world. Binh's journey from Saigon to Paris is a mesmerizing story that ebbs and flows over five years and weaves memory and history. He takes us back to his youthful servitude in Vietnam under colonial rule, to his life as a galley hand at sea, to his fateful encounters in Paris not only with Stein and Toklas but with Paul Robeson and the young Ho Chi Minh. It is a tale of yearning and betrayal, France and Asia, salted with tears and sweat.
"Evocative and complex," says the San Francisco Chronicle. "Readers are in for much pleasure from this new novelist. The Book of Salt is a lovely book."
"Truong weaves a sumptuous tale of gastronomy, language, cravings, and cruelty....The Book of Salt doesn't lay its secrets bare but coils itself around them." Joy Press, Village Voice
"A debut novel of pungent sensousness and intricate, inspired imagination." Elle
"A mesmerizing narrative voice, an insider's view of a fabled literary household and the slow revelation of heartbreaking secrets contribute to the visceral impact of this first novel....If Truong sometimes stretches the range of Bonh's understanding and powers of observation...the narrative rings with emotional authenticity." Publishers Weekly
"[A] dazzling if sometimes daunting debut....Truong caresses each image and each shifting sensation, forming whole scenes around a taste, color, or touch, language being her other second theme....A tour de force. Truong should take literate America by storm." Kirkus Reviews
"A fascinating, original, and sharply written story with vivid insight into the world of cooking." Jacques Pepin
"Elegant, witty, intricate, and richly imagined, Monique Truong's Book of Salt is — dare I say it? — a delicious and deeply satisfying novel." Jessica Hagedorn, author of Dogeaters
The Book of Salt serves up a wholly original take on Paris in the 1930s through the eyes of Binh, the Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Viewing his famous mesdames and their entourage from the kitchen of their rue de Fleurus home, Binh observes their domestic entanglements while seeking his own place in the world. In a mesmerizing tale of yearning and betrayal, Monique Truong explores Paris from the salons of its artists to the dark nightlife of its outsiders and exiles. She takes us back to Binh's youthful servitude in Saigon under colonial rule, to his life as a galley hand at sea, to his brief, fateful encounters in Paris with Paul Robeson and the young Ho Chi Minh.
"[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: 'Two American ladies wish to hire . . .' " It was these lines in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book that inspired The Book of Salt, a brilliant first novel by an acclaimed Vietnamese American writer.
In Paris, 1934, Binh has accompanied his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, to the train station for their departure to America. His own destination is unclear: will he go with "the Steins," stay in France, or return to his native Vietnam? Binh has fled his homeland in disgrace, leaving behind his malevolent charlatan of a father and his self-sacrificing mother. For five years, he has been the live-in cook at the famous apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus.
Before Binh's decision is revealed, his mesmerizing narrative catapults us back to his youth in French-colonized Vietnam, his years as a galley hand at sea, and his days turning out fragrant repasts for the doyennes of the Lost Generation. Binh knows far more than the contents of the Steins' pantry: he knows their routines and intimacies, their manipulations and follies. With wry insight, he views Stein and Toklas ensconced in rueful domesticity.
But is Binh's account reliable? A lost soul, he is a late-night habitue of the Paris demimonde, an exile and an alien, a man of musings and memories, and, possibly, lies. Love is the prize that has eluded him, from his family to the men he has sought out in his far-flung journeys, often at his peril.
Intricate, compelling, and witty, the novel weaves in historical characters, from Stein and Toklas to Paul Robeson and Ho Chi Minh, with remarkable originality. Flavors, seas, sweat, tears — The Book of Salt is an inspired feast of storytelling riches.
About the Author
Monique Truong was born in Saigon in 1968 and moved to the United States at age six. She graduated from Yale University and the Columbia University School of Law, going on to specialize in intellectual property. Truong coedited the anthology Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose. Her first novel,The Book of Salt, a national bestseller, has been awarded the 2003 Bard Fiction Prize, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the Young Lions Fiction Award, among other honors. Granting Truong an Award of Excellence, the Vietnamese American Studies Center at San Francisco State University called her "a pioneer in the field, as an academic, an advocate, and an artist." Truong now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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